Just about one year ago, things were going much differently for Christian Knapczyk than they are right now. It was still early in his Louisville career, but was having a hard time adjusting both offensively and defensively at shortstop. After he made errors in the first two games of a series against Boston College in mid-March, head coach Dan McDonnell pulled him aside.
“He had just won the shortstop job, maybe a week before. And he was really struggling this weekend, and he wasn’t playing great defense, and it was like his introduction to ACC baseball. Literally I put my arm around him and said, ‘Hey man, i can take you out of the game. I don’t want to make you play, you don’t look real comfortable right now,’” McDonnell recalled. “He was very respectful and very polite, but he was like, ‘No no, Coach, don’t take me out, I’m fine. I promise you, I’m fine.’ It wasn’t going good, and I’ll be darned, he hits a triple and we’re losing, I think it was the Sunday game, and we ended up coming from behind and winning. I remember thinking, that’s not easy to do for a lot of players when they’re struggling, much less a freshman. This kid’s a freshman in an ACC weekend, and he came up with maybe the biggest hit of the weekend. The game was on the line late, and I almost took him out. Because I had older infielders, and I just thought, this is not looking good. That’s when it said a lot, and he stuck and he’s played just about every game at short.”
Knapczyk had his ups and downs that freshman year, but he settled in and had a solid offensive campaign, hitting .297/.374/.385 with seven steals. McDonnell rarely sends even his highest profile hitters to play in the Cape Cod League after their freshman years because he doesn’t want them hitting below .200 and destroying their confidence — but Knapczyk’s confidence is one of his greatest assets, so the Cards sent him to play for the Bourne Braves last summer. “And that joker, he held his own up there,” McDonnell said.
More than holding his own, Knapczyk hit .321 with nearly as many walks (14) as strikeouts (17) in 109 regular-season at-bats, then hit .476 in 21 postseason at-bats. He returned to campus in the fall looking like an emerging superstar.
And in the fall, McDonnell wasn’t shy about predicting big things for Knapczyk and veteran third baseman Ben Metzinger, whom he called his “Rowdey Jordan/Tanner Allen” combination at the top of the order, referencing two of the top hitters for the 2021 national champion Mississippi State Bulldogs. So far, that prediction looks spot-on, as Knapczyk and Metzinger have gotten off to huge starts in the two two spots of the order, serving as the catalysts that make Louisville’s explosive offense go. Knapyczyk is hitting .405/.548/.646 with 16 walks against nine strikeouts, showing off his elite bat-to-ball skills and also his plate discipline, all of which makes him an ideal leadoff man. His good speed and superb baserunning acumen makes him an even more disruptive force atop the order, helping him swipe 11 bases in 12 tries.
“He’s a good basestealer, he gets good jumps, and he wants to run. There is no fear,” McDonnell said.
“He has that quality that the great basestealers have. You get thrown out and there’s no gun shy, he is very aggressive, very confident.”
Metziner behind him also has a knack for grinding out quality at-bats, with 23 walks against 17 strikeouts. He’s hitting .329 with a team-best nine homers — and home runs are not easy to come by at Jim Patterson Stadium, especially in the cold early weeks of the season.
But Knapczyk, despite his 5-foot-9, 165-pound stature, is also driving the ball with more authority this year. After hitting nine doubles, two triples and no homers in 148 at-bats as a freshman, he already has exceeded last year’s extra-base hit total in just 79 at-bats as a sophomore (seven doubles, three triples and two homers).
“I think you get rewarded the better swings you take and the ability to put the bat on the baseball, those guys get rewarded. He’s gotten stronger,” McDonnell said. “I’ve had a lot of questions about him as a leadoff, and I kind of laugh, because I’ve coached a lot of great leadoffs in my day, and that’s what I did as a player. He is way more offensive, I grew up in The Citadel generation there, a blue collar dirtbag hard-nosed type of kid that might not have been a great hitter, but he could get on base, he could steal. I made a living through walking and finding any way to get on.
“But I don’t tell Knapczyk anything, I don’t make him take. I’ve kind of told our people, ‘Look, I’m just letting him do his thing, and if something isn’t working out I’ll address it.’ But I’ve put no restrictions on him for literally the entire year. For a leadoff, you’re always like, ‘Make sure he’s throwing strikes and make sure you establish the strike zone.’ But with him, I’ve always respected the ability to hit, the hand-eye coordination, and the numbers back it up. And with him less coaching is more.”
Knapczyk’s defense at shortstop remains an area of emphasis, however. He is fielding just .904, with seven errors, and one thing that is helping him is practicing more on taking ground balls from unusual spots so that he’s more comfortable when Louisville shifts. He’s plenty athletic and has good actions, but his arm is better suited for second base than shortstop at the next level. Still, McDonnell feels good about him improving defensively at short as the season progresses — in part because he works so hard at it.
“It’s a high energy kid. It’s just a tough Chicago kid that I’m extremely pleased with. But he’s coachable and he knows there’s areas we’re still working on improvement,” McDonnell said. “He’s a fun kid to coach and a fun kid to watch, I just think he has to be a fan favorite. He has those similar qualities like a Devin Hairston had —when pro guys were here hitting early, Devin was always standing out there at shortstop. Knapczyk is really, when they say a ‘baseball rat’, i worried more because of the body his freshman year, but this year he lived at the facility. He’s always out there with the pro guys, always standing on the field, always in the cages. He doesn’t know the meaning of ‘off day’. He is always at the facility. And that’s not something you can teach, he just loves it.”
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