John Denton's Knights Insider: From Flamethrower to Masher

May 9, 2011

="" alt="Knight Head" border="0" class="imported"> Read John Denton's Knights Insider | ="" alt="Twitter Logo" border="0" class="imported">Follow us on Twitter | ="" alt="Facebook Logo" border="0" class="imported">Get social with the Knights on Facebook

By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - A high school injury at seemingly the absolutely worst time - just months before the Major League Draft - seemed to ruin Jonathan Griffin's chances of ever playing baseball professionally.

But as fate would have it, the shoulder injury that necessitated a position switch from pitcher to power-hitting first baseman could ultimately result in Griffin being more appealing than ever to Major League teams after he's done mashing home runs at UCF.

The 6-foot-7 Griffin was once a coveted pitcher with a 92-to-94 mile-per-hour stuff, but a rotator cuff injury curtailed his velocity and hampered his chances of pitching professionally. Never much of a hitter before, Griffin ``just kind of picked up a bat,'' and tried to reinvent himself as a power hitter.

Now, the senior first baseman from Bradenton is one of UCF's most feared hitters. Following Saturday's grand slam to help the Knights defeat Florida State, Griffin has a team-leading 13 home runs. That equals the number that he hit last season following a slow start and a strong finish. And to think he used to never give a second thought about hitting and hit only two balls out of the park while in high school.

``In little league, I was a so-so hitter and in high school not at all because I was a pitcher and I was so focused on that,'' Griffin remembered. ``But once I was injured, I just kind of picked up a bat and my power kind of came out of nowhere.''

Did it ever? He was drafted in the 41st round out of high school by the Minnesota Twins as a pitcher even though he had an impingement in his rotator cuff. Then, after crushing 15 home runs in his freshman year at Manatee-Sarasota Junior College he was selected in the 45th round by the Boston Red Sox. He hit another 22 home runs as a sophomore at Manatee, leading him to UCF where he now has the 26 home runs in less than two full seasons.

``Since he's come in here, it's been a process with Griff. He's always had that power and he probably has the most raw power of any hitter that I've ever coached,'' UCF associate head coach Cliff Godwin said. ``When he first came here he was susceptible to good breaking balls and good velocity because he had a lot of stuff going on with his swing. We tried to simplify his swing, got him lined up and he understands now which pitches he handles well.''

Griffin's power is one of the reasons UCF feels it can make a strong push down the stretch to get into the Conference USA tournament and ultimately the NCAA Tournament. The Knights are 29-19 overall and 7-11 in C-USA play, and may need to win their two remaining series against UAB (May 13-15) and Marshall (May 19-21). The Knights have had an RPI in the upper 20s all season and own seven wins against ranked teams, including two versus Florida and one against Florida State.

Griffin is a big reason why the Knights are confident they can finish strong and do some damage in the tournament. Griffin has morphed into a complete hitter this season, ranking second on the team in batting average (.339), first in home runs (13), second in RBI (42), first in hits (64), third in runs (36) and fourth in doubles (11).

He has teamed with redshirt sophomore D.J. Hicks (.341, 12 home runs and 48 RBI) to give the Knights a lethal combination in the middle of the lineup. With Griffin standing at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds and Hicks at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, the lefty-righty duo give the Knights plenty of fearsome pop.

``They are one of the best right-left power-hitting combos in the entire country. I don't know if there's anybody in the country who have back-to-back power hitters the way that we do,'' UCF head coach Terry Rooney. ``Fortunately, one is left-handed and one is right-handed. Those two guys together, what they are doing statistically is amazing.''

Thinking how he got to this point is amazing to Griffin. When months of rehabilitation didn't help his ailing rotator cuff high school coach David Moates gave Griffin some advice that would change his life forever as it relates to baseball.

``I went to throw a bullpen session one day and I was throwing about 86-87 (miles per hour) and my coach told me that I needed to learn how to pick up a bat and swing it,'' Griffin remembered. ``I do occasionally wonder how things would be different (as a pitcher), but I wouldn't change anything if I could go back and do it again. It happened for a reason.''

But it certainly didn't happen overnight. While Griffin put up big power numbers at the JUCO level, he struggled last season when he first got to UCF. In his first 19 games with the Knights last season, Griffin hit just two home runs. But after hours of working in the batting cages and watching film with Godwin, Griffin figured out some of his flaws. He got better at stepping into pitches, began to hit the ball to all fields instead of just being a pull hitter and better recognized the balls he could hit hard. That was never more evident than last week at USF when Griffin hit a 0-2 pitch down the right-field line for a double that started a big inning for the Knights.

``This year he's such a better hitter - not just a power hitter, but a really good hitter,'' Godwin said. ``He got down 0-2 in a critical situation with a guy on third and less than two outs and he produced. Last year, he probably would have struck out, but this year he stayed on the ball late and doubled down the line. It's good to see that improvement.''

Added Griffin: ``(Hitting) didn't really come back to me, but I'd say I've developed over the last four years. I learned a lot from my freshman year to this year about the little things of hitting.''

He's learned so much after making the transition from pitcher to hitter that Godwin is confident that the 6-foot-7 Griffin will someday be taking his whacks as a power hitter in the Major Leagues.

``I tell professional scouts all of the time that Griff's a different guy than he was two years ago,'' Godwin gushed. ``He's a guy now who is going to be a very good professional player someday.''

John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.