When the South Carolina baseball team opens its 2013 season in February, don’t be surprised to see Tanner English leading off for the Gamecocks and — if the Liberty pitcher is a right-hander — standing in the left-handed batter’s box.
The sophomore outfielder, who had 248 at-bats as a right-handed hitter last season, has taken up switch-hitting this fall as team practice begins Friday. With Evan Marzilli gone to the professional ranks, the speedy English inherits the roles of center fielder and leadoff man.
New USC coach Chad Holbrook said English can be more of a force if he can make the adjustment to switch-hitting and use his speed to ignite the offense. Holbrook, who called English the fastest player he has coached, isn’t going to give up on the experiment.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care what you hit in the fall, you’re going to be in the starting lineup,’ ” Holbrook said. “From the first day, we thought it’s worth seeing this through to the end. It’ll work if he puts the time in. Instead of 100 swings in one day, you have to take 200, because when you’re a switch-hitter, you’re two different hitters.”
English said he is pumped about jumping from batting-practice work to the scrimmages against live pitching over the next six weeks.
“I want to be able to master it enough to be a true switch-hitter and place the ball around the field,” he said. “I want to be really proficient at hitting from both sides.”
His freshman season had its share of highs and lows. His .298 average ranked second on the team, as did his 12 stolen bases, while his 74 hits and 43 runs scored ranked third on the team. But he managed 14 walks, the lowest total for the regular players, and struck out a team-high 71 times.
Holbrook watched English get buried in too many two-strike counts and chase breaking balls out of the strike zone from right-handed pitchers. That’s one reason he wanted to turn the Murrells Inlet native around against righties.
“The one thing he needed to shore up was his strikeouts,” Holbrook said. “That’s unacceptable for a kid as fast as he is, and the logical thing to do was to give the switch-hitting thing a long, hard look.”
English said his frustration grew as his strikeouts piled up. He understands that he must find a way to cut down on them.
“Last year, it seemed like I was guessing a lot and putting a lot of pressure on myself to ... get the bat on the ball. But all I needed to do was go out there, take a deep breath, have fun and let my ability take over instead of try to do too much,” he said. “I’ve got to be a guy who’s getting on base. That’ll allow me to run and get in scoring position a lot more.”
If English reaches first base more, Holbrook promises a ramped-up running game. The Gamecocks have averaged 41 stolen bases the past seven seasons, and Holbrook hopes English can surpass that figure on his own next season. His goal is for English to attempt 60 steals.
“I don’t know if he can reach it or not, but if he does, he’s going to steal 50. People aren’t going to throw him out,” Holbrook said.
“He’s going to have the green light. He’s going to be able to run whenever he wants to run.”
That’s music to English’s ears. As someone who is never going to pound the baseball — he had just six doubles and no homers last season although he did leg out four triples — he realizes the speed game is what separates him.
“Every baseball team I’ve played on, that’s been my game — getting on base and running,” he said. “We’re going to put pressure on the other teams. You can really tell when the pitcher’s getting fidgety over there worrying about me, and then he throws one in the wheelhouse for our guy.”
English also will take his speed to center after primarily playing left field last season. He must find a way to live up to the high defensive standards set by Marzilli and Jackie Bradley the past three seasons.
“He can be as good as he wants to be. He is not as polished as far as his jumps and his reads as Jackie and Evan were. Not yet,” Holbrook said.
“But hopefully through the fall, he’ll get better in that regard. He’s going to have to work extremely hard out there. He has all the ability. He can run like crazy, he can throw, and his speed can make up for his jumps and his reads.”
He also must match the drive shown by Marzilli and Bradley, whose pride in playing the position propelled them to chase many fly balls in practice as possible every single day. English insists he is ready for that challenge, too.
“Jackie and Evan really know what they’re doing, and I’m honored to play behind them,” English said. “Hopefully, people will say the same thing about me in a couple of years.”
English turned down a significant bonus as a 13th round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011, and Holbrook said his stock only will go up if the St. James High standout shows he can hit from the left side.
“If he becomes a very viable switch-hitter,” Holbrook says, “He becomes an elite prospect.”