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May 1, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) - You look at things a little differently during your third year in a college baseball program.
For Richie Shaffer of Clemson, not only has this been a season of growing as a player, it has been one of maturing as a leader. He's the Tigers' best hitter, but his teammates look for him to be more than that as one of their four captains (along with Phil Pohl, Jason Stolz and Dominic Leone).
"I try to be a leader as much as I can on the field just through my actions," Shaffer said, "and then off the field I try to be accountable for everything I do and be responsible for my teammates as well.
"It's something that has helped me grow as a player a lot and as a person as well. Taking a leadership role is something that helps your game out as well individually. I have benefited tremendously."
Coach Jack Leggett likes what he has seen from Shaffer in this role.
"He's not afraid to step out of the box, as I call it, to talk to his teammates, help them and get on them, if you have to," Leggett said. "At the same time you've got to do it the right way. They respect him and see how hard he works and they see how he goes about his business every day and so it's really been satisfying to see him emerge as a leader and someone they look up to as well as being a good player."
Teammates seek Shaffer's insights about game situations, of course, but what else do they ask about?
"I think a lot of young guys talk to me when they have questions that they don't feel like going to the coaches about," he said. "It could be something as simple as `hey, have you taken this professor before, is he someone I should take?'
"It's a very typical setting with the young guys in the whole college scene and what the demands are like on and off the field. You can help them along their way as much as you can and that's a great asset to the team."
Shaffer's input means a lot because he has been around for a while and it carries even more weight because of the kind of player he is. He leads the Tigers in several offensive categories, including a .347 batting average, 14 doubles, 8 home runs, 45 walks, a .481 on base percentage and 100 total bases.
He has been a solid hitter since his career began, producing a .323 average with seven homers and 36 RBIs as a freshman and a .315 mark with 13 homers and 55 RBIs as a sophomore. In addition to getting stronger and developing his power, Shaffer has sharpened his eye and increased his walks from 18 to 44 to 45 so far this year.
"It's getting yourself in better counts to hit," he explained, "laying off early breaking balls that are not strikes or laying off pitches that are just off the black, those kinds of things. It's just a learning process, changing, growing, getting better as a player. The more reps you get, the more at-bats you get, the better you're going to be."
An excellent hitter at Providence Senior High School in Charlotte, Shaffer was drafted in the 25th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009 but passed up that opportunity to come to Clemson.
"It's obviously a good problem to have," he said, "but it's something that makes you grow up pretty quickly. You've got to make a pretty life-altering decision. I definitely made the right choice and I've loved every moment here at Clemson."
Always a third baseman, Shaffer found there were several veteran infielders on hand when he arrived. There was an opening at first base, though, and he wanted to get in the lineup as fast as possible so he made the switch and spent two seasons there. He developed into such a good fielder that he committed only three errors in his time at first base.
"He has really long arms and stretches well and played a really good first base for us for a couple years," Leggett said.
This season brought the chance for Shaffer to move back to his natural position at third.
"That's where I feel most comfortable, that's where I want to play," he said. "It's been a lot of work to make sure I'm 100 percent where I need to be and I feel comfortable there and I'm still working hard every day."
Leggett said Shaffer started working hard at third in fall practice and hasn't stopped since. He displays a strong, accurate arm.
"I think he's made everybody a believer he can play third base at this level and the next level," Leggett said.
Ultimately, it's his hitting skill that will determine how high Shaffer is drafted this June. Leggett says he has a good eye at the plate, great bat speed with great extension through the hitting zone and a little lift in his swing.
"He's just got some extension and some power, some snap in his hands, that you don't see with most kids," the coach said. "I saw it early on and it's getting more refined and more consistent with time. And he's gotten stronger as well.
"I'm convinced he's a bona fide top-flight prospect and I think a lot of other people feel the same way. You watch him take his swings compared to others and there's a little bit of a difference there. He's got a body that's going to get better and better so I'm excited about what he's going to do for us the rest of this season and what the future holds as well."
Shaffer said his hitting is the result of learning, growing and putting in the work to refine his swing and to take a good approach to the plate.
"I just try to make sure I have as consistent a swing as I can and work on my approach every day to make sure I have good at-bats every time I go up to the plate," he said. "At the end of the day, it's just trying to go up there and help your team win and the results will end up taking care of themselves."
The Tigers have had what Shaffer calls "an up-and-down season." They're 26-19 overall and 14-10 in the ACC, currently third in the Atlantic Division. A lot of young players are sprinkled through the lineup, so it's up to veterans like Shaffer, Pohl, Stolz and Spencer Kieboom to provide a steadying influence.
Clemson plays four nonconference games this week, then finishes the ACC schedule with a home series against Florida State and a road series at Wake Forest. Then it's on to the ACC Tournament in Greensboro May 23-27.
"We're battling and we're working hard and we're trying to get to a place where we can really get in the groove," Shaffer said. "We're a very young team and we're finally starting to get comfortable with everyone. We have a lot of freshmen playing big-time roles. Everyone is close to being settled in and hopefully we can start playing real consistent baseball."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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