HOUSTON -- Few college baseball hitters can create fear in opposing pitchers. Central Florida first baseman D.J. Hicks is one of them who can.
Off the field and out of the batter's box, Hicks is anything but a fearful sight. Though the redshirt junior stands at a massive 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, he always seems to put on a smile when answering questions about the Knights, and an even bigger one when asked about his overall game.
Hicks has been through a lot in his UCF career, but as the 2012 campaign marches on, he's once again establishing himself as one of college baseball's elite hitters, and in some observers' eyes, the game's elite hitter. But more important, to Hicks at least, he's putting together a season that's helping the Knights get closer to their dream of reaching the College World Series, one that's not too far away with UCF sitting well with a 24-6 overall record.
"I don't know, I'm not real sure. I'm just trying to make the best of my opportunities," Hicks said when asked if he enjoyed having a big-time presence. "I think you have to give a lot of credit to other guys in the lineup for helping me see good pitches."
What Hicks is doing so far this spring is mighty impressive. He leads the Knights in hitting with a .352 batting average and has smacked eight home runs, knocking in 43 in the process. He also has a .629 slugging percentage with a fabulous .486 on-base percentage.
"He's definitely a presence out there," UCF coach Terry Rooney said. "He's a guy that everyone marked well before the season, but he's still getting hits and a lot of them. That's the most impressive part about his [Hicks] game."
What's most impressive about Hicks as a player and person is what he has gone through and overcome to even get to this point.
Out of high school, it was thought that Hicks might make it big as a pitcher. He was a right-handed pitcher with an obviously big frame. He caught plenty of attention at the 2007 PG WWBA World Championships when he was clocked at 91 while playing for the Chet Lemon's Juice squad during the summer.
Then, as a freshman for the Knights, he starred as a two-way player. He began the season in the UCF starting rotation, while also serving as a consistent offensive contributor. He finished his freshman campaign with a .301 average, 17 extra-base hits and 32 RBIs, setting the stage for what is now a fruitful career.
But after his freshman season, Hicks was confronted with a very trying situation. While playing summer ball with the Luray Wranglers in the Valley League, he suffered a collapsed lung, a diagnosis that didn't come until he was back home in Florida a couple of weeks after the injury was sustained. He spent 16 days in the hospital because of the injury.
Determined not to let his lung get in the way of baseball, Hicks played six games in 2010, before it was obvious his body simply wasn't going to let baseball happen.
"He had that great freshman year and it was just too tough of an injury to come back from," he said. "But I'll also say this, he got a lot stronger after missing the season because of the setback."
Hicks was a man on a mission as a redshirt sophomore in 2011. He was one of Conference USA's elite hitters, and teamed up with Jonathan Griffin to form an elite offensive duo, the two finishing the '11 season with a combined 33 home runs. Hicks ended the year hitting .351 with 11 doubles, 14 home runs and 66 RBIs. He also had a .585 slugging percentage and .428 OBP.
"The big key to coming back from that injury was just gaining strength," Hicks said. "Coming off that long injury, it was tough to get my strength back. But I was able to accomplish that goal."
Hicks went to the Cape Cod League last summer hoping to make a strong impression on the many scouts in attendance. However, he didn't leave a lasting impression outside of his power. With the Bourne Braves, he batted .232 with seven home runs and 19 RBIs. He also walked 17 times and struck out on 31 occasions.
"Consistency is huge in baseball, and that's something I vowed to work on from the Cape," Hicks said. "I took lots of swings and just continued to build my strength between last summer and this spring."
What Hicks did at the Cape to get ready for the 2012 season certainly worked. He's having an outstanding year and put his power on display in a Saturday game against Houston, taking a fastball deep over the right-field wall. It was obvious at that point, Hicks' raw power is off the charts.
While people will look at Hicks' basic statistics such as batting average and home runs, and be impressed, the most important improvements are farther down the line. For instance, Hicks has much improved pitch recognition this spring. As a redshirt sophomore last season, he struck out 49 times and walked on just 35 occasions, and that was with a guy like Griffin around him in the batting order.
This season, Hicks has completely flipped the script in that regard. He has struck out just 24 times thus far, and has induced an impressive 31 walks.
"The biggest difference from last year is that D.J. recognizes the pitches he can or can't hit well," Rooney said. "He's definitely got the plate discipline down now."
Moving forward, it'll be interesting to see how Hicks finishes his redshirt junior campaign, and how he stacks up in June's MLB draft. Some scouts like Hicks' bat, while others feel like there's much to be desired, and that he's perhaps not refined as a defensive first baseman. Either way, he should get drafted higher than the 49th round, where he was drafted at by the San Francisco Giants out of high school.
Rooney compares Hicks to former LSU hard-hitting first baseman Matt Clark, who was a clutch player and hit for big-time power. He was a 12th-round pick to the San Diego Padres.
Meanwhile, Houston coach Todd Whitting, who previously was an assistant at TCU, had his own observation about Hicks. He compared the UCF big bopper to former Utah first baseman C.J. Cron, a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last summer.
"He's really similar to C.J. Cron. I saw C.J. play a lot and Hicks is a lot like him. He gets in the box, and there's fear out there. You know something will be hit hard, you're just hoping it goes to someone. You make a pitch to him, and you're saying "whew" afterwards," he said. "He's a big-bodied guy like Cron and I actually think he's a little cleaner at home plate. The fact is, something good usually happens when he makes contact.
High praise indeed for UCF's rising star ... and fear factor.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org