Dantzler blooms as power hitter at South Carolina

file/ap LB Dantzler leads South Carolina with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs.

If you hung around the baseball field at Winter Haven (Fla.) High in the spring of 2008 and 2009, you would have seen the kid who wound up hitting more home runs in a year than any South Carolina player over the past four seasons.

Without otherworldly prescience, you probably never would have guessed that player was LB Dantzler. He was a fine high school hitter, but he hit for contact, not power. He had four home runs as a high school junior, four as a senior. As a junior college freshman in 2010, he hit one.

Now, Dantzler leads USC with 15 homers and 48 RBIs entering Friday’s NCAA tournament opener against Saint Louis. He has the team’s best batting average (.332), and slugging and on-base percentages (.648 and .445). The latter stems from his team-high 36 walks and the respect opposing pitchers show him by avoiding the strike zone, though he is a free swinger who leads USC with 46 strikeouts.

Even if Dantzler’s two-season USC career ends this weekend, it will have been unquestionably successful, and conclude with him being picked, for the first time, in next week’s major league baseball draft.

Last season, Dantzler’s batting average, slugging and on-base numbers were .262, .433 and .339. He showed flashes of power, as his 10 homers and 48 RBIs ranked second to Christian Walker’s 11 and 55.

Because Walker turned pro as a fourth-round pick, USC needed somebody to replace him at first base, which Dantzler did by moving from third. More importantly, Dantzler was also the most likely candidate to become USC’s next home run threat, even if he was a late-blooming slugger.

Dantzler floundered during his first junior college season in Bradenton, Fla., where he dealt with the changes of living away from home and slumping for the first time. He hit .286 with 21 RBIs.

“If I only struck out twice a game, I was happy,” he said. “I started the year like 2 or 3 for 20. So then I started pressing and it kind of compounded. Halfway through the year, I was hitting .200 and just hated life.”

He recharged himself with a new bat and a book.

In Dantzler’s first junior college season, college baseball still used powerful metal bats that were replaced by weaker ones the next year, 2011. Dantzler spent the summer of 2010 playing for a wood-bat team in Winter Park, Fla. It was a welcome change of scenery. His teammates had a relaxed vibe. He stopped pressing during slumps. Every at-bat didn’t feel so tense.

“In summer ball, you go 0 for 10, nobody cares,” he said. “It’s summer ball. Everybody on the team was just messing around.”

Back then, the bats were a drastic change too, from the old metal to wood. But during those free and easy summer days in Winter Park, Dantzler hit .375, had 29 RBIs in 27 games and was the Florida Collegiate Summer League’s most valuable player.

He carried the success into his second junior college season, when he hit .415 and had 13 homers and 50 RBIs — with the new, weaker metal bats.

“I could hit the ball just as far my freshman year as sophomore year, in (batting practice) and whatnot,” he said. “But in just the game, it didn’t really translate. That (sophomore) year, it just kind of happened. And then I got here (USC).”

The book that ushered him through his struggles is “The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance.” It was written in 1989 by Harvey Dorfman and Karl Kuehl. Dorfman was the Oakland Athletics’ mental skills coach when they won the 1989 World Series. Kuehl ran Oakland’s successful player development department from 1983-95. Dantzler has read the book twice, highlighting memorable passages. He keeps it in his apartment in Columbia.

When Dantzler arrived at USC last season, coach Ray Tanner wanted to optimize his power skills and encouraged him to pull the ball, furthering his transformation from high school contact hitter to college slugger.

Dantzler has added muscle in college, but does not look like a typical power hitter. He is 5-11 and 205 pounds — an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Walker, who hit 30 homers in three seasons at USC. But since Nick Ebert hit 23 homers in 2009, Dantzler’s 15 this year are two better than any other Gamecock.

Comparing Dantzler and Walker is difficult. Dantzler is a lefty hitter, Walker a righty. Dantzler’s strikeout-to-walk ratio the past two seasons is 83-to-66. Walker’s in his final two seasons was 54-to-87. Dantzler this year has four more homers than Walker had last year.

Dantzler’s batting average is 11 points higher. His on-base plus slugging percentage is 1.093, to Walker’s .975.

Hard as it might have been to envision three years ago, Dantzler is filling USC’s power-hitting needs just fine, in his own way.

“They’re two way different hitters,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat and be successful. You can look at LB and Christian and see that. Walker is very, very patient. He wouldn’t swing at pitches out of the strike zone. LB is very aggressive. He sees it, he’s going to swing at it. And that’s why he’s successful. Walker uses the whole field a little bit more than LB does. LB is more of a pull hitter than Christian was.”