FRONT ROYAL – When Christian Avant takes his aggressive hacks with the bat each time he steps into the batter’s box, the Front Royal Cardinals catcher is also swinging a metaphorical double-edged sword.
There’s a downside to Avant’s aggressiveness, primarily in that he’s sometimes too quick to let loose in certain situations – particularly in run-scoring opportunities – and occasionally squanders the chance to produce a quality at-bat. He admitted recently that his aggressiveness at the plate has “gotten me out a lot,” and it’s one of his attributes that he came to the Valley Baseball League to work on.
But at the same time, Avant’s quick trigger has made him who he is as a baseball player. It’s always been a part of his game, he said following the Cardinals’ 6-1 loss to Purcellville on Tuesday night, adding that “I don’t think I’ll ever change.”
“Whenever you go up there (the pitcher is) gonna try to get ahead, and they’re gonna throw you a fastball to get ahead unless it’s a really good pitcher who can spot up his off-speed. So I’m sitting fastball and if it’s a fastball over the plate I’m swinging, trying to drive it,” said Avant, explaining the reasoning behind his aggressive approach shortly after extending his hitting streak to nine games against the Cannons. “I’m not falling behind in counts because if I get two strikes on me I’m just gonna fight stuff off now. I’m trying to hit the ball hard in the gaps, instead of just trying to put it in play, move runners.”
That mentality has produced lofty first-half numbers for the rising sophomore from Georgia Southern University in his first VBL season. Entering Thursday’s game against New Market, Avant was batting .356 (16-for-45) with a homer, two doubles, a triple and 15 RBIs in 11 games with North Division-leading Cardinals this summer. He’d gone hitless just once in that span and tallied five multi-hit efforts during his hitting streak.
Through Wednesday’s games Avant had posted Front Royal’s highest batting average among qualified hitters with at least 40 plate appearances, and he led the team in RBIs, hits and steals (eight). A testament to his aggressive style, he’s also struck out just four times but drew only two walks in his first 51 plate appearances in the Valley League.
“Being aggressive but seeing good pitches, and putting the ball in play,” Avant said of his recent success at the plate. “And just letting it travel. I’m just working on taking more pitches. I mean it’s kind of hard for me, I’ve struggled with that this season. But getting good pitches over the plate and just driving them. Just doing my job and luckily hits have been falling for me.”
While he’s stuck primarily to his familiar aggressive style, Avant’s run production has been a new development. In his freshman season at Georgia Southern earlier this year, Avant had 17 RBIs in 162 at-bats. He was just two shy of that total in 45 Valley League at-bats with Front Royal entering Thursday.
Avant, who hit mostly in the bottom half of the lineup during school ball, batted cleanup for the Cardinals in Tuesday’s loss.
“That’d be big,” Avant said of becoming more productive in run-scoring situations. “It’s just seeing pitches. A lot of times with runners in scoring position they’re gonna spin you early, spin you early and then try to blow it by you late, so I’m trying to be more patient at the beginning of the at-bat and then hopefully see a fastball, something I can drive.”
Avant showed some patience against Purcellville, seeing 22 total pitches in four plate appearances. He went 1-for-3 with a single, a walk and a stolen base.
“He’s an aggressive hitter,” Cardinals manager Zeke Mitchem said on Tuesday, “so it kind of fits his personality to be in the middle (of the order), honestly. I mean he’s not really a top-of-the-order guy, he doesn’t like to see a lot of pitches but he got better at that today.”
Though part of his focus this summer has been on his performance at the plate, the top of Avant’s list for areas of improvement is his play behind the plate, where he’s preparing himself for what he hopes becomes a role as Georgia Southern’s everyday catcher.
Avant was a 2017 Rawlings-Perfect Game Preseason All-American honorable mention as a shortstop during his senior year at Tift County High School in Tifton, Georgia, and in his first collegiate season he started 34 games in the outfield and 13 at catcher.
Though he threw out five runners in nine steal attempts at Georgia Southern (a 55.6-percent caught-stealing rate), Avant said he needs to become sharper in his pitch receive and learn how to handle and react in certain situations behind the plate.
Avant had a pitch pop out of his glove on a few occasions against Purcellville on Tuesday night, and he committed two errors when he sailed throws to first base, once on a sacrifice bunt attempt in the sixth and again on a dropped third strike in the seventh. Neither error ended up hurting the Cardinals.
“Christian’s just another one of those guys, he’s young, he’s gotta learn how to handle failure and learn how to lead, learn how to adjust, and those are things that he’s gonna continue to improve on,” Mitchem said. “He’s an excellent athlete. He’s new to the position as a catcher. That’s not what he played in high school. Again, he’s got a lot of room for growth there but I think he’s a great athlete and he’ll do a good job.”
Front Royal entered Thursday’s contest against New Market with a 10-5 record and a two-game lead over the Rebels and Purcellville in the North.
“We clicked really well at the beginning, like everybody kind of fitted in with each other,” Avant said. “We’re all good friends on the team. That’s a big part of it. We don’t have some guys who think they’re better than other people. We’re all just hard-nosed baseball players. We all just like to come out and win. Nobody likes to lose, especially on this team.”