Carolina Forest baseball fans won't remember Derek Rogers’ relatively unspectacular final three at-bats against Socastee last week.
Joey Worley will.
After the game, in the midst of ranting about the junior shortstop’s exploits, Worley broke off from his semi-prepared sales pitch. Rogers’ ability to communicate with fellow middle infielder Nolan Edwards helped form a fantastic combination there; Rogers committed only eight errors in his first 213 innings in a Panther uniform; and he has led the team in sacrifice bunts since he became a starter at the beginning of his sophomore season.
All great stuff.
But then came Worley’s swerve into what really stood out.
“He’s going to…” the third-year coach started before changing gears. “You know, he knows he’s not swinging the best bat in the world. He came to me and said ‘Coach, I’m going righty; lefty doesn’t feel comfortable.’”
In the first inning against the Braves, Rogers mustered only a feeble groundout to second. Then, in the fourth, again batting from the left side against Socastee hurler Bryson Reeder, he struck out.
It was time to go back to his natural side.
What followed wasn’t some heroic effort that will find itself in local baseball lore for years to come. Rogers flew out to right in the fifth, tied the game with a would-be sacrifice bunt (that he beat out for an infield single) in the seventh and reached base in the ninth with a harmless single. Altogether, not a massive effect on a scorebook that eventually showed the Braves won in 10 innings.
What Rogers’ self-awareness signaled to Worley, though, was the junior had something inside him that will prove beneficial to the team. Rogers was concentrating on the here and now.
This spring has all the looks of a convoluted Region VI-5A race toward the playoffs. There will be plenty of late-game situations that will determine wins and losses, along with expected spans of struggles and adjustment.
If Carolina Forest is going to keep its five-year streak of postseason appearances going or win a playoff game for the first time since 2016, chances are Rogers is going to be a big reason why. So a few at-bats here or there over the long stretch of the baseball calendar may not seem like such a big deal when you look at the big picture.
But here was Rogers, focused on the little one.
“For the team, for myself, I wasn’t feeling it lefty,” he said. “Sometimes, you just have those days.”
The lefty vs. righty conundrum may seem downright silly. If you get on base or drive in runs, whatever helps you do that more makes perfect sense. Now take into account that Rogers is a natural right-handed player who only developed his left-handed swing a little over two years ago, and obviously he’s just going to go back to what he knows.
Then why don’t players in similar situations do it more?
THE RIGHT (OR LEFT) STEP
Youth baseball players who start their rec careers hitting righty are starting to dabble more and more with the left-handed batters box, especially early. The few who declare as switch hitters in high school frequently choose to go lefty barring the most obvious situations or when they are told they should. Others abandon the right side of the plate altogether, some during their middle-school days before they’ve been seen by the high school coaches.
It’s not hard to figure out why.
Of the 11 NCAA Division-I programs in the Palmetto State - Charleston Southern, Clemson, Coastal Carolina, College of Charleston Furman, Presbyterian, South Carolina, The Citadel, USC Upstate, Winthrop and Wofford - only one has more left-handed-batting position players than those from the right side.
Players in Horry County can guess which school doesn’t.
It’s the one that brought a 2016 National Championship to Conway.
CCU entered last weekend among the top 10 in the country in batting average, hits, doubles, runs and slugging percentage. Over the course of the last four seasons, they’ve frequently fallen inside the top 25 nationally in many of those same categories.
They’ve done it behind a recruiting theory that has produced more of a left-handed heavy lineup than most of their in-state brethren.
Coastal’s ambition is not blind; it isn’t going after left-handed hitters because its just sexier.
According to Chanticleers recruiting coordinator Kevin Schnall, the college pitchers big-time offenses face more - and as such need to bust up more in order to win the most influential games - aren’t the starters, but those in relief roles.
“Our goal is to have a quality balance of right-handed and left-handed hitters, which makes a lineup much more difficult to match up against,” Schnall said. “That being said, the majority of top-level college bullpens comprise of right-handed pitchers who have power breaking pitches. The best way to help neutralize those types of pitching staffs is to have left-handed hitters.”
And while Coastal may be the only roster with more lefties in the state, some of the others are swaying that way more and more (partially based upon Coastal’s blueprint). It has filtered down to the high school ranks, indirectly. Simply, there are fewer natural left-handed hitters, and only so many kids who train that way will succeed in it.
Of the last 10 Horry County position players who signed with in-state Division I programs, seven are left-handed or switch-hitting batters. Charleston Southern, which is one of the three such programs currently evaluating Rogers in a proactive role according to Worley, has ended up with two of the last big hitters out of the area with left-handed bats, Christian Maggio (Carolina Forest) and Reid Hardwick (Conway).
This isn’t some lefty phenomenon, or even a new trend. At most, it is one illuminated by social media and recruiting/performance web sites that let players and their parents know just about any detail they want..
Ultimately, they are reading the same thing players were a decade ago; they are just reading it at an earlier stage of the developmental spectrum. Consistent left-handed high-school hitters could mean more to a college program, and that means a good left-handed bat may mean a player stands out more to a college recruiter.
Connecting those dots successfully, though, isn’t easy.
Hardwick, who initially signed with Winthrop before transferring and ending up as a starter at Charleston Southern this year, was a player who primarily hit from the right side of the plate during his first two seasons at Conway.
“He worked at being a switch hitter. It wasn’t easy for him,” Tigers coach Anthony Carroll said. “He stayed after every day and got to be pretty good at it. To me, you don’t see as many people switch-hitting as you used to. It takes away from your primary side. At our level, you need to get as many swings as you can [to produce from either side].”
So far this spring with CSU, Hardwick is hitting .288, with approximately two-thirds of his 66 at-bats through this weekend’s games coming from the left side.
Quality switch hitters are a rare find the higher the level. To illustrate the point, Coastal does not list a single dual batter on its roster. It’s not that none of its players did so in high school.
Rather, the Chanticleers staff tends to encourage guys toward concentrating on one side or the other. And most of the time, guys who are proficient at both are steered toward the left.
FORGETTING THE KNOWLEDGE
Worley replaced longtime Carolina Forest coach Jack Jolly in midsummer of 2016 after coaching not only at West Johnson (N.C.), but also with the prominent EvoShield Canes 16/17U program. That offseason club has become a behemoth, and it often lands its players at the best college rosters in the Southeast.
Worley understands what those big boys are looking for when it comes to hitters.
He also knows that Rogers knows.
“He’s just one step ahead,” Worley said. “That’s what I try to tell the college guys; he is above and beyond a lot of guys his age. The bat’s gonna come around. I know that’s what they want to see.”
Schnall said that high school statistics don’t matter much when it comes to recruiting. The eye test of a few at bats will tell college coaches more than a season-long scorebook will.
So laying down a few more bunts - instead of getting in-game swings from either side of the plate - isn’t going to kill Rogers’ long-term goals. It’s also worthy of note that the shortstop has the rest of this season, his summer program and all of his senior year to get more reps.
It has made it easier to find that healthy medium between the present and future, balancing what will help Carolina Forest now and Rogers later. When he’s struggling with the stick, he’s told to rely on his defense. There will always be a college spot for a lock-down defensive shortstop, even if it is at the lower levels.
It has helped the Carolina Forest player keep a positive mindset while he works on the newest addition to his bag of tricks. He has no intention of scrapping the lefty experiment, although he will shelf it temporarily when it makes sense.
“I’ll think it after one day,” he said. “But I can’t let that one day bother me. I’ll come back and work out the kinks.
“When you start thinking about it too much, that’s when you start making mistakes trying to be perfect. I try to go out there and do everything right, but also have fun with it - not forget it’s still a game.”