NC State recruiting coordinator Chris Hart remembers seeing Brett Kinneman terrorize opposing pitching during a tournament in Charlottesville, Va., when he was a high school underclassmen. A week later, Kinneman did the same thing at a tournament in Atlanta, and Hart's mind was made up. The Wolfpack offered Kinneman a scholarship quickly and beat out plenty of other interested schools for his commitment.
Kinneman never really put up gaudy numbers in high school up in York, Pa., hitting .316 as a junior and .278 with three homers as a senior - but Hart knew he was getting a good player. He just didn't know how good. How could anyone know Kinneman would grow into one of college baseball's premier power hitters - and well, premier all-around players, gauging by the season's first three weeks - by the time he was a junior?
"You know how it works, you never really know until they step on campus, but I felt good about him," Hart said. "We gave him a pretty good scholarship and felt really good about him as a player."
As a freshman in the fall of 2015, it took no time at all for Kinneman to work his way into NC State head coach Elliott Avent's good graces.
"When he walked on campus, I told Chris Hart - who recruited him - 'I love that kid.' He's just a throwback to everything the game used to be when we all fell in love with it," Avent said. "I grew up loving Mickey Mantle, and I call him Mickey Mantle because he reminds me of Mickey Mantle. That guy's playing hurt. He banged into the wall his freshman year and dislocated his shoulder that he had dislocated on a swing. He does so many things. He reminds me a little bit of (former Wolfpack baseball/football player) Russell Wilson too - Russell used to play hurt all the time, and nobody would ever know he was hurt because he'd run off the field, and everybody thought he was fine.
"Kinneman's got that same makeup. And it's probably from his parents or grandparents or somebody, who knows where he got it from - he's just got that toughness that makes him a special player. He runs the bases well, he makes great turns. He plays the game like Pete Rose played it. He plays the game like you'd picture maybe Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, who had great respect for the game, Willie Mays - he'd always make great turns. They didn't play the game according to the score, they played the game the way it's supposed to be played. He reminds me of that since his freshman year."
It's a testament to Kinneman's authentic throwback style that Avent can go on and on about his turns around first base and his toughness and his genuine love for the game, before the coach ever gets around to the fact that Kinneman is hitting .462 and leading the nation in home runs (eight) and total bases (55), ranking second in RBIs (25) and fourth in slugging (1.058). Avent can't help but compare him to Mantle, Rose, Cobb, Musial, DiMaggio and Mays - for his hustle and his intensity and his joy on the diamond.
But OK, it's also nice that Kinneman has hit like those guys over the season's first three weeks.
Kinneman has always had a pretty lefthanded swing, and he has been a productive hitter his entire career at NC State. He posted a .931 OPS with six homers in 135 at-bats as a freshman in 2016, then put up an .874 OPS with 10 homers in 209 at-bats as a sophomore.
Those are rock-solid numbers, but they pale in comparison to Kinneman's 1.575 OPS so far this spring. He already has eight home runs in just 52 at-bats, not to mention three doubles and two triples.
Kinneman tantalized scouts with his bat speed and all-around tools package last summer in the Cape Cod League, but he also struck out an eyebrow-raising 47 times in 121 at-bats, following a sophomore spring in which he whiffed 64 times and drew 29 walks. So he's always seen a lot of pitches, and he's always shown the bat speed to catch up to good fastballs, but he needed to do a better job recognizing spin and picking the right pitches to swing at.
Hart said plate discipline has been a point of emphasis for the whole team this year, but nobody has made more progress in that area than Kinneman, who has seven walks and eight strikeouts, and is excelling at doing damage when he gets his pitch in the zone.
"It's like everybody does through time, their plate discipline becomes better," Avent said. "He's still gonna strike out, so did Mickey Mantle. All the guys who the ball jumps off their bat, they have some swing and miss in them, probably the only one who didn't was Barry Bonds. So he's still got some swing and miss in him, but his plate discipline has become so much better through the last couple years. And I think that's what's starting to make a big difference too."
Obviously Kinneman has been a wrecking ball at the plate, but there's a lot more to his game than just the bat - he's a very good all-around player. The 6-foot, 197-pounder is an above-average runner who can run the 60-yard dash in 6.7 seconds, and he has an above-average arm from left field, where he's become a very good defender.
"He is an underrated runner, and an underrated defender, and an underrated thrower," Avent said. "He just does every part of the game really well. So he's had a lot of success since he's been here, but it's because he's worked so hard. Coach Hart and I were talking the other day, and he said, 'What round do you think Kinny is?' I said, 'Well, I don't know, but if they see the way he runs the bases every day, if they see the way he plays defense and makes throws to bases every day, then you would appreciate his game a lot more than if you just see him hitting home runs and doubles, the ball just jumps off his bat.' If they can watch everything that kid does, then he's a high-round draft pick, because his makeup is off the charts."
The combination of tools and performance give Kinneman a chance to keep on climbing draft boards - maybe he'll follow in the footsteps of Virginia's Adam Haseley as a well-rounded college oufielder with advanced baseball instincts who plays his way right into the first round. That will depend on whether he can keep performing at a high level against stronger competition once ACC play begins this weekend. But the way he's playing now, it seems like there's nothing he can't do.
"There's nothing missing with that kid, I'm telling you," Avent said. "Plus he's got a great smile. And he wears his hat kind of tilted on the back of his head like Mickey Mantle. And when he hits a home run, I remember Mickey Mantle said this one time - 'When I hit a home run, I figure the pitcher's embarrassed enough so I don't want to add to it by looking at him,' so he ran around the bases with his head down. I always remember that about Mickey Mantle. Kinneman did that, and the first time I saw it, that's when I started calling him Mickey Mantle. He probably thought I was telling him he was as great as Mickey Mantle - he ain't that good. He ain't that good."
Nobody is, except Mike Trout. But Kinneman's first three weeks have been downright Mantle-esque.
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