TAMPA — Sometimes the truth hurts. And the honest fact is that King junior Keon Barnum knows he’s not going to see very many pitches to hit this season.
“A lot of low and away,” Barnum admits, smiling. “Soft and out of the zone. A lot of off-speed stuff.”
So far in this young baseball season, the strike zone of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Lions first baseman/designated hitter is where few pitchers have dared to venture.
By Barnum’s count, he has gotten three, maybe four fastballs in the first eight games. Two landed beyond the fence of Plant City’s field — one went over the trees beyond the rightfield wall — in the Lions’ season opener.
“I absolutely enjoy watching him swing the bat,” Plant City coach Mark Persails said. “He’s a first-rounder waiting to happen next year.”
While Barnum’s future appears very bright — he’s already being mentioned as one of the state’s top 2012 MLB draft prospects and owns offers from Florida and USF — for now he’s Hillsborough County’s most feared hitter.
Barnum’s power hitting stands out. He has played baseball since he was 4, and credits his father, Keith, for helping hone his skills.
“I had Derek Bell and Calvin Pickering and Ty Griffin,” King coach Jim Macaluso said. “I see comparisons in distance and velocity-wise how he hits balls. He’s hit a couple of balls the past two ball games that make everybody turn their heads.”
Heading into tonight’s Class 5A-9 district game with Chamberlain, Barnum is one of the county’s leading hitters, with a .545 (12-for-22) average, two home runs and 10 RBIs.
“We’ve got him in the No. 3 hole this year, and it just makes people in front of him and behind him better because they’re going to get better pitches,” Macaluso said. “I think this year, he helps them a lot, but they help him, too.”
So why should anyone pitch to Barnum?
Because he forces pitchers to pick their poison. His plate discipline makes him even more dangerous. While most power hitters who don’t get the pitches they want are tempted to swing at the off-speed pitch out of the zone, Barnum is happy to take a walk.
“I try not to let it frustrate me, because I know it’s going to happen. I don’t want to let that get me out of my game and make me unfocused,” Barnum said. “Last year, I let it frustrate me a bit, but this year it’s been my goal to not let it. I need to take my walks.
“I was always one of the big kids. I was always getting treated a little different. They used to walk me even when I was little, like 8 or 9. I’m actually already used to this.”
He has 10 walks this season — making for a .667 on-base percentage (20-for-30) — owns a team-high six stolen bases and has scored 10 of King’s 44 runs.
“He is one of the best, if not the best, I’ve had in terms of knowing the strike zone and working the strike zone,” Macaluso said. “He was like that as a freshman and sophomore. He takes a 2-2, 3-2 pitch with confidence. Sometimes I have to tell him to widen his zone a bit.”
It’s much better than the alternative, Macaluso said. But he said that Barnum is a dedicated to baseball. He’s one of the more polished hitters he has seen. “A throwback,” the coach calls him.
And now everyone is taking notice.
“He’s a special one,” Gaither coach Frank Permuy said. “I haven’t seen too many in all my years hit the ball with the power he does. He hit three rockets against us. There was one line drive right at short to end a rally, and I didn’t see it until it was caught.
“He reminds me a lot of (Fred) McGriff, with the extreme power he hits the ball.”