Brooks Lee was sitting in a two-hour freshman sociology class on a Monday morning. He wore a different expression on his face than the big smile he had a day earlier when he stood at second base following the first hit of his collegiate career, a pinch-hit two-run double for
Brooks Lee was sitting in a two-hour freshman sociology class on a Monday morning. He wore a different expression on his face than the big smile he had a day earlier when he stood at second base following the first hit of his collegiate career, a pinch-hit two-run double for Cal Poly against Baylor.
He was bored and antsy, so he texted his father, Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee. Brooks wasn’t looking for advice or asking dad for some extra spending money to be deposited in his account. Brooks was looking for a login and asking his father for the password to Larry’s Synergy Sports account where college baseball coaches can access video of prior games.
Ninety minutes later, Brooks arrived at Baggett Stadium, a place that has brightened his mood since he was in diapers coming to watch his father’s teams play. He stopped by his dad’s office before going to get some individual work. Larry asked about Brooks’ mid-lecture request. Was he watching his lone highlight, basking in the excitement of returning to the field? He couldn’t be blamed if so, after four and a half months of rehab following knee reconstruction surgery.
But Brooks wasn’t looking back. He was actually looking forward to the upcoming weekend’s four-game series against Oklahoma, when he was slated to move into the starting lineup for the first time.
“After class he comes in and he broke down all four starters for Oklahoma,” Larry said. “I just started laughing and he was spot on. That’s just what he does.”
Brooks’ personal scouting report on Sooners’ aces Cade Cavalli and Dane Acker is quickly rattled off when the story is separately brought up to him. He comments about the velocity he was expecting to face from Cavalli in his first college start and mentions Acker had thrown a no-hitter just a couple weeks prior. “Or was it a perfect game?” he questions himself as he’s quick to tag the game was played in Minute Maid Park. (Acker no-hit LSU, allowing a walk and two hit batsmen.)
Brooks has a baseball brain. Combined with his physical attributes, including the 20-25 pounds of muscle he’s added since arriving on campus and the razor whip wrist action he creates with each swing, it’s why he was named to the Golden Spikes midseason watch list on Wednesday.
His brain is wired to assess velocity, movement and spin rather than the study of social issues; launch angle and trajectory over social theories. (Though, Brooks points out he also did well in the class and that Larry has always been on him about grades, including a 12:30 a.m. text telling him to stay on top of his school work when Cal Poly arrived back on campus Sunday after splitting a four-game series at Long Beach State.) While a freshman 101 lecture is a bore, watching hours of opposing pitchers’ video or breaking down still images of swings has always been fun for Brooks. The walls of his childhood bedroom at the Lee household are remain smothered with photos of Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran and other major league hitters.
“Even when he was really young like 8 or 9 years old, he could break down video,” Larry said with a chuckle. “And there were some things that were said that just, I knew he was on the right track and had the ability to do that.”
Larry doesn’t take offense and the coaching staff doesn’t stop Brooks when he jumps in the pregame meeting with the Cal Poly hitters to give his thoughts and insights from what he’s seen on film from the opposing starting pitcher and relievers they may face. He’s only a (second-year) freshman, but his Mustangs’ teammates respect his opinion and value his perspective.
“He always joins in like he’s one of the coaches,” Larry said. “He says this is what he sees, this is probably how we should approach this pitcher. He really thinks the game and he wants to be prepared. He wants to have a very precise approach, but he also has the ability once the game starts to adjust that approach.”
Brooks was forced to make some big adjustments his first year on campus. A freak injury in the fall put his season in jeopardy. During the second week of practice, he slipped coming out of the box running to first base on a groundout. As he tried to get his feet underneath him, he hyperextended his knee. The lateral collateral ligament in his knee and his biceps femoris hamstring muscle both snapped. He also broke off a small piece of the fibular head where the fibula attaches to the knee. Doctors told Brooks there had only been 20 reported cases of a similar injury in the last 50 years. He had surgery on Halloween and was determined to work even harder to get back as soon as possible.
“As bad as it sounds, I feel like I actually got better because of it,” Brooks said. “I completely changed my body and I’m thankful for it now for sure.”
He was able to use the first month of the season as a preview for when he was cleared. He felt ready for the speed of the game, the repertoire of the pitchers and everything else that was going to be thrown at him despite returning more than two months earlier than the doctors anticipated. He got a pair of pinch-hit opportunities against Baylor and was preparing for his first start at shortstop against the Sooners.
The day the series was supposed to begin Brooks, like the rest of the college baseball world, was forced to adjust on the fly once more. The season was canceled due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. It was disappointing for the entire sport, but the timing was devastating for Brooks after all the work he had put in to return in 2020. He called it a “heartbreaker,” but ever the optimist, he also saw it as an opportunity to have more time to get himself ready for the 2021 season.
Lee was able to go play summer ball in Minnesota for the Willmar Stingers, where he answered any questions about his talent and the big high school numbers he had produced in a weak league (.437/.487/.630 with 78 R, 78 RBI and only 22 K in 328 plate appearances over three seasons). He was one of the top hitters in the Northwoods League, batting .345 with seven doubles, four homers and 35 RBIs in 36 games. He had a 19-game hitting streak and finished top 10 in several offensive categories.
His confidence grew even more, especially after the switch-hitter batted around .400 from the right side — where he had grown so frustrated during the early stages of quarantine he told his dad he didn’t want to swing righthanded any more.
“My dad just told me to stay with it and that’s what I did,” Brooks said. “It’s not fun when you’re not doing good on one side, but in the end, I think it’s more important to stick with it because it allows you to have more success.
“It’s way harder to hit right on right or left on left and I never want to do it ever. I just try and stick with it, and when someone wants me to stop hitting righthanded or lefthanded, I’m going to tell them no because my dad told me not to.”
One of the hardest parts of being a switch-hitter has been getting opportunities to swing righthanded. Lefthanded pitchers were rare in high school. That’s been the case with the starting pitchers Cal Poly has faced this season too. The Mustangs have faced only four southpaw starters in 26 games this season, including Long Beach State lefty Alfredo Ruiz on Saturday. Ruiz kept Lee in check, getting him to fly out three times, but Dirtbags head coach Eric Valenzuela never felt comfortable when Lee was sauntering to the plate.
“His numbers say he’s a better lefthand hitter than righthanded, but man, he was as dangerous righthanded as well. Tough AB. He really is,” said Valenzuela, who added they were able to get him to pull off the ball with an approach early in the series, but Lee soon made an adjustment. “Other than that, he hit everything.”
Lee went 6 for 15, reaching base two other times on a walk and a hit by pitch. He had a double in each game, pushing his doubles streak to six games while moving into double digits with his hit streak. He finished the weekend with a .400/.471/.667 slash line and drove in three runs.
For Valenzuela, the damage could have been worse: “There were a couple misses that he had that were like to the fence that we threw good pitches. He’s pretty damn special.”
The scarier part for opposing coaches and pitchers? Lee doesn’t even feel like he’s in the zone right now. The first four weeks of the season, he hit .440 with four home runs, including two off Pac-12 pitching as he notched multi-hit performances in five of six matchups with USC and UCLA.
“For whatever reason, I was just in a flow state from the start of the season till about the fourth week. The ball looks big. You can see spin and you feel like you’re never off balance. Sometimes you just feel like you know the pitch before it’s coming. I swear. It’s the weirdest feeling,” Lee said. “That’s kind of when I knew that I could do some more things in the game than what I’ve been able to do earlier in my career.”
Lee has flashed power in batting practice and in showcase events in high school, but that’s not something he ever focused on in games. Instead, he just sprayed rockets all over the yard from foul line to foul line from either side of the plate. He tried to hit low line drives and said occasionally he would get under one or out in front a little bit leading to a ball sailing over the fence.
But Lee now has more strength after spending his time in the weight room when he was unable to play his freshman year. A slender 6-foot-3, 180 pounds when he first really opened eyes and turned heads at the Area Code Games by collecting knock after knock — including lining the only base hit against Jack Leiter, who proceeded to strike out the next five batters he faced — Lee is now a thick 205 pounds. More than the strength element, Lee feels he’s tapped into additional power because his swing has become even more fluid. He is standing taller in the box and wielding the bat with even better command.
“I just feel like it’s a pure swing now, lefthanded especially,” Lee said. “Everything flows very fluidly. That’s kind of what led me to hitting offspeed pitches for power and then going to the opposite field.”
He’s hitting fewer singles than ever while still producing a high batting average. He’s got more extra-base hits than single-base hits. He is second in the Big West with six home runs. He is second in the nation with 15 doubles and he’s chipped in a pair of triples as well. Lee leads the Big West in RBIs, slugging percentage and total bases. He’s tied for the lead in sacrifice flies and he’s third in the conference in runs scored.
And yet what stands out most to those around him is what he does for everyone else.
“I can’t speak more highly of this kid,” Cal Poly pitching coach Jake Silverman said. “He’s really good. Everyone knows that, but he works so hard, and he’s so smart, and he makes everyone around him now much better.”
Silverman has been around first rounders Christian Colon, Gary Brown and Jeff Gelalich along with major leaguers Khris Davis, Pat Valaika and Kevin Kramer among others while coaching at Cal State Fullerton and UCLA. Still, he says Lee is top three, if not the best player he’s been around.
“Brooks just his presence and his communication and leadership ability, whether you’re a pitcher or a hitter, you’re better with him around you,” Silverman said.
“I just want to try and get everybody as best as they can and if something needs to be said, I’ll say it,” Lee said. “I just try and put all the knowledge I can that I’ve learned mostly from [Larry] to our players. It’s a different feeling when you have like a peer say something to you rather than a coach because a coach just says the same thing over and over. I try and put it into better words, as a captain, but it’s a real cool feeling just to give my knowledge to some of the other players.”
Not only is Lee studying film of opposing pitchers and relaying the information he takes away to the Cal Poly batters. He also will pass along information about the Mustangs’ pitchers to Silverman between innings during a game. Lee will let him know what he sees from his shortstop position, like when a pitcher’s slider may not be as sharp or a fastball has more late life than usual. He’s not dissecting mechanics in the middle of his defensive approach step as a pitch is being delivered, but his feedback gives Silverman more data points to then craft subtle in-game adjustments or go in a different direction with his pitch calling.
What makes Lee’s observations so reliable? The amount of college baseball he’s already witnessed at the age of 20 and all the countless hours of video he’s pored over dating back to when he was eight or nine years old. He’s been watching and facing college pitchers for years now. He started taking live batting practice and filling in defensively at his father’s practices when he was in seventh grade.
“I’ve just seen so much baseball from this level like as a young kid and over and over,” he said. “I just had a real long time to look at pitchers and then we used to use Dartfish, which is like an extremely old [motion-capture] computer program for pitching and stuff like that. We would go over that when we were in the old clubhouse when I was a kid.
“Video has basically been the thing for me all along because I feel like if I look at video long enough, it just gets cemented into my brain and people with the same repeatable delivery as another pitcher that I’ve already seen, you can think of what the aspects of their pitching repertoire is going to be like.”
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