Last season, Kansas University right fielder Brian Heere appeared in 21 games, made just two starts and was 1-for-3 with three runs scored while barely playing against Big 12 Conference baseball opponents.
This year, Heere, a third-year sophomore, hits in the heart of the Jayhawks’ batting order and has become one of the most productive offensive players in the conference.
It’s not by accident.
After spending the majority of his prep career getting by on raw talent, Heere, a Lawrence High product, has begun to craft his game by using his mind, spending offseasons perfecting his swing, working constantly to fine-tune his approach at the plate and continually improving his strength and speed.
The result? Heere currently leads the Big 12 in on-base percentage (.497), is second in batting average (.386), has become a legitimate No. 3 hitter in the Jayhawks’ lineup — and continues to amaze even himself.
“He’d be the first to tell you he never thought he’d hit this well in the 3-hole in the Big 12,” said Heere’s high school coach, Brad Stoll. “He’s just not a real physical kind of player. He’s a real graceful kid, he runs well, he has a real smooth swing. He’s just having a solid year, and we’re all incredibly proud of him over here.”
Although Heere’s eye-popping numbers — .386 average, nine doubles, three triples, three home runs, 26 RBIs — have come as a surprise to some, his production has not shocked his teammates.
These are the guys who saw him swing it so well this fall. These are the guys who know he spent last summer hitting just about every pitch he saw the opposite way in order to become a more complete hitter. These are the guys who love seeing No. 9 in the spot traditionally reserved for a team’s best hitter.
“He’s been huge,” starting pitcher T.J. Walz said. “He’s hitting like .390 now or something, but we knew he was going to be huge. He put up ridiculous numbers this fall.”
Added freshman infielder James Stanfield, who had the luxury of hitting in front of Heere last weekend against Nebraska: “It definitely helps. I think they wanted to pitch to me a little more because Heere was behind me, and they didn’t want to face him.”
Heere originally was expected to slide into the No. 2 spot in the order this season, but KU coach Ritch Price chose to hit Heere third partly out of necessity. After losing more than 20 homers from his 2008 lineup with the departure of Ryne Price (KU career leader with 35 home runs), Erik Morrison (31 career home runs) and John Allman (three-year leader in batting average), Price conceded the fact that his team would not have as much power this season as last.
“I was hoping that (Heere) would hit over .330 and put the ball in play and drive runs in as a result of base hits,” the KU coach said. “I didn’t expect him to be as physical with the bat as he’s been. He has quite a few doubles, he’s mixed in a few home runs and, when it’s all said and done, he’s been very, very productive.”
Heere’s success has not come from some magic potion. No live chickens have been sacrificed in the clubhouse before games, no other outlandish superstitions have been employed — just the same sound and steady approach to every game and each at-bat.
“I had a pretty good fall, so I’m just trying to redo those things, see what I was seeing, feel what I was feeling,” Heere said. “It’s just fun being patient and fun trying to find a pitch to hit. I’m feeling pretty good out there right now.”
At 29-15 overall and 10-8 in conference play, Heere and the Jayhawks are in fifth place in the Big 12. KU will play host to a doubleheader with Chicago State at 3 p.m. today at Hoglund Ballpark.