Even His Friends Don't Realize He's a Hit
Saturday, May 10, 2008
Michael Sheridan had played baseball all of his life -- from catch with his father on Northampton Street to Washington youth leagues to high school games at Gonzaga to college ball at William & Mary -- but he never experienced anything on a diamond like what has happened the past two months.
He'll crouch into his batting stance in the on-deck circle, and four scouts holding cameras gather around him, filming every twirl of his bat, each flick of his wrists. Once his turn up concludes, 10 or so more scouts, sitting in the stands behind home plate, scribble in their notebooks and exchange glances and brief chatter.
They all come to watch the refined batting mechanics that suddenly made Sheridan one of the most prolific college baseball hitters in the country this season. Sheridan, a junior first baseman, leads Division I in hits, runs and RBI while batting .443 (seventh in the country) and slugging .781 (13th) entering a weekend series against Northeastern that began last night. He has become one of 50 finalists for the Dick Howser Trophy -- baseball's Heisman -- and a fast-rising prospect for June's MLB amateur draft.
His emergence has brought Sheridan, humble by nature, attention he would prefer to ignore. ("This is the first year he and I have been able to have a conversation with more than four sentences," William & Mary Coach Frank Leoni said.) But it also brought him to the verge of the dream he has had since he first learned to hold a bat.
"As much as you try to block it out, you can't really block it out," Sheridan said. "I have a lot of people tell me, 'I don't know how you deal with the pressure.' I kind of thrive off it. I know there are a lot of people who would want to be in my shoes."
Sheridan had been offered a scholarship only from William & Mary out of Gonzaga, but he immediately delivered on the promise Leoni saw, hitting .339 as a freshman and .340 as a sophomore. Still, despite being statistically the most difficult batter to strike out in the country, his sophomore season left Sheridan dissatisfied. He characterized himself as "just a doubles guy," and he knew he would be counted on as a power hitter this season.
He made it his goal this offseason to do something every day to improve. He played soft toss with teammate Tim Park, focusing on hitting the bottom half of the ball to create backspin, which allows hits to carry further. He strengthened his forearms and wrists by holding a 45-pound weight for a minute. He did a drill called "finger explosions," balling his fists then quickly extending his fingers. He upgraded to a 34-ounce bat from a 33-ounce model.
"He could never get enough swings in," Gonzaga Coach Joe Schourek said.
All of that, though, paled to how he altered his batting stance. At Gonzaga, Sheridan began in an open stance, nearly facing the pitcher, and then balanced himself with a pronounced stride of his front foot. He had closed his stance somewhat at William & Mary, but he made a drastic change this offseason.
Sheridan now spreads his feet in the batter's box -- "I'm almost as wide as you could possibly be," he said -- and he replaced the large stride with merely picking up his front foot and setting it back down. His legs and midsection create more torque, and his hands fire quickly enough to allow an extra split second to track pitches.
The first time Sheridan's father, Matthew, drove to William & Mary and watched Sheridan dig into the batter's box with his feet stretched, Matthew blurted, "What the heck did Mike do?" A few pitches later, Sheridan launched the ball over the center field fence.
"It clicked right away," Sheridan said. Balls that had landed in outfield gaps were now flying over the fence, but his power didn't mean sacrificing contact. Sheridan still strikes out only once every 22.9 at-bats, among the best in the country.