Taft, California —— You know you’ve been watching too much Major League Baseball when you show up at a junior college game and marvel how players here do the little things: bunts, hit-and-runs, situational hitting, moving runners over, even two strike approaches far different from their swings early in the count.
There are true, raw sluggers at this level—in the last week we’ve covered one such big hitter at Taft College specifically—but those guys are bracketed by situational swingers, scrappy slashers, and gritty hitters who use their at-bats far differently than the pros.
That’s to be expected, maybe, but it also highlights a different way of doing things that seems to work in this world largely free of big leg kicks and bigger strikeout totals. Nowhere is that more readily apparent than Taft College, and no one exemplifies that stark contrast among junior college prospects better than first baseman/outfielder Nick Kawano, the Cougars lead-off man and, by far, the team’s best hitter this spring.
A sophomore from Las Vegas, Kawano is easy to spot on the field; he’s 6’2”, 175 lbs., and you’ll know him because he looks an inch or two taller and about 20 pounds lighter. If you can’t spot him by body type alone, just look at the first base bag: he practically lives there.
Kawano has played 22 games for the Cougars this spring, and he’s reached base in every single one. He’s hit safely in 21 of those 22 games, with a .367 average that is pacing Taft’s lineup. In the only game he didn’t get a hit—a February 16 road contest at Antelope Valley College—he still managed to get on base three times and score three runs in a 4-3 Taft College win. Altogether this year he’s scored 22 times, giving head coach Vince Maiocco a true table-setter at the top of the lineup while providing power hitter Richard Ortiz an easy RBI opportunity when the Cougars’ offense gets going.
It wasn’t like Nick Kawano struggled last season, hitting .289 with five doubles as an everyday outfielder for Taft. But this spring, a move to first base to fill a needed role and a well-earned lead off gig has sent him to another level.
“I think the biggest difference for me this year is having confidence, knowing I can play this game at a high level after last season,” Kawano says before a recent Cougars game against Porterville College. “Coming in, I knew that being a sophomore this year, I had to lead some of the freshmen and show them how it’s done. I’ve made it a point to lead by example.”
It’s not just that he’s leading by example; it’s how he’s doing it that gives pause to a reporter used to seeing the big leg kicks and oversized swings of professional baseball for far too long.
Here’s our Nick Kawano scouting video from a March 9 Taft College game against the College of the Sequoias:
And here’s our second Nick Kawano scouting video, shot four days later against Porterville College and viewed from the other side of the field:
What jumps out about him?
No leg kick. No bat waggle. No over-size swinging out of his shoes. No complications.
He’s simple. Really simple.
Barrel, meet ball kind of simple.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been really simple,” Kawano says, shrugging that someone would marvel about his straightforward approach to hitting the ball. “I’ve never had a high leg kick or anything like that. I’ve been playing baseball since I could walk, and when I was little my dad always preached to hit line drives, go gap to gap, and use my speed. So far, that’s worked this season.”
There’s a beauty in this simplicity. Ask Maiocco about it and you barely get the question out before the comparison comes back: Ichiro Suzuki. Sure, it’s patently unfair to compare a junior college prospect to a future Hall of Famer, but the comp ought not come in outcomes as much as it does process.
“I would almost compare him to a Japanese-style hitter, almost like an Ichiro-type in some ways with his hand-eye coordination, but even that isn’t a perfect comparison,” Maiocco says. “But that’s the thing about Nick. He’s just ‘see ball, hit ball,’ and he doesn’t get caught up in anything else.”
The hand-eye coordination has always been there, the results are exceptional at this point in his career, and now, Nick Kawano will search for a four-year landing spot come fall. He ought to get some offers, if only because his approach is so much more mature—and so much simpler— than what you’d expect of a hitter at this age and level.
“I like to think fastball early in counts, and then I know I’ll have to adjust breaking ball, especially later in counts,” Kawano explains. “I think about hitting it right back up the middle. That’s where I like to start. But when he throws me away, I like to take it away, and if he throws me in, I know I can pull it. I just hit the ball where it’s pitched.”
Maiocco is quick to caution that there’s more to Kawano than just a contact-heavy slap hitter, though. After all, as a first baseman/outfielder, the Las Vegas native will be expected to show at least a little bit of power at the next level, too.
“His power will come. He needs to get a little stronger, and at the next level, I’m sure they are really going to emphasize a strength training program with him,” Maiocco says. “The thing about him though, and you don’t always see it in games, he can get the bat through the zone very quickly. We’ll have him in batting practice hitting balls out with no problem.”
“I go back to Ichiro Suzuki,” Maiocco continues, giving the Taft College star one hell of a player comp. No pressure, kid.
“One thing I’ve always read about Ichiro is that he had power back in his heyday. The thought was he could probably hit 30 home runs a year, but Ichiro felt it was better for his team if he were a line drive gap-to-gap guy. I think in a roundabout way, that’s the same philosophy Nick has about his approach at the plate.”
Kawano’s too simple for even that, though.
“If you barrel the ball up, it’s going to go,” he concludes in his now-patented simple, straightforward style. “It doesn’t matter where you hit it. If you barrel it up, it’ll go somewhere.”
It’ll go somewhere, indeed.
And so will Nick Kawano, if he keeps hitting like this.
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