If Jon Griffin wanted to compare himself to Thomas Edison, few people who knew him would argue.
There are not many baseball players who have done a better job of reinventing themselves several times over.
Since his senior year at Lakewood Ranch when a shoulder injury ended what figured to be a promising pitching career, Griffin has performed Houdini-like magic with his baseball skills.
After high school, he spent two years at State College of Florida playing first base while hoping his shoulder would heal. Griffin never regained the velocity that made him a highly touted pitching prospect, but turned himself into a powerful hitter and gained national notoriety for hitting 22 homers to lead Florida JUCO players in 2008.
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Griffin was selected several times in the Major League Baseball draft but opted to continue his education and went to play for the University of Central Florida in 2010.
The 22 year-old is reaping the rewards of his work this week with the Knights, who are playing in the NCAA Tournament’s Tallahassee Region hoping to earn a spot in the College World Series. UCF dropped its first game of the double-elimination tournament, 5-3, to Alabama. They play again at noon today.
Griffin might be unrecognizable to those who haven’t seen him in a few years. At 6-foot-7, he has always been tall, but he has gained 30-plus pounds and now tips the scales at about 250.
His coaches note he added pure muscle, and it has done wonders for him. The first baseman was a first-team Conference USA selection, tied for eighth in the country with 18 homers and finished the regular season with a .332 batting average, 34 points higher than last season. He also led the Knights in slugging percentage (.634) and was second with 53 RBIs.
The added strength has had a significant effect on Griffin, enough to make him open the eyes of major league scouts, according to UCF associate head coach and hitting instructor Cliff Godwin.
“Jon has more raw power than anyone I’ve ever coached. There are very few guys in the country who have the power that Jonny does,” said Godwin, who has had 35 of his players drafted during a college coaching career that began in 2005.
The added muscle has helped Griffin in numerous ways and is a reason he has improved his batting average and become a more consistent hitter.
“Now I don’t have to swing as hard. I don’t have to put that much effort into it, and that has helped me see the ball better and hit more consistently,” Griffin said from Tallahassee. “In junior college, I was a swinger and now I am a consistent power hitter.”
Griffin’s homers are even more impressive because of the new aluminum bats that were mandated this year for college baseball. They are made with a different composition that makes their “pop,” or propulsion, similar to what you get in a wooden bat. According to NCAA statistics released in April, home runs are down by nearly 50 percent in college baseball.
However, Griffin’s standing among major league scouts has improved because his homer production is significantly above last year, when he hit 13.
“Jon struck out more than he should have last season, but now with his added strength his swing is a little shorter and more compact, and he is hitting the ball more consistently with more impact,” Godwin said.
Griffin has heard scouts divide players into the aluminum bat-power guys and the others like himself, who are projected to consistently hit with power using the major league wood bats.
“The new bats have separated me from the other guys. What I’ve been able to do with them has really helped me stand out with the scouts,” Griffin said.
When Griffin looks back on his career, he never stops being astounded about how an injury opened up so many doors.
“I was never really a hitting prospect coming out of high school, and I feel blessed to do what I did in college,” Griffin said. “I was going through physical therapy for the shoulder, tried to play first base and ended up hitting a lot of homers. People starting telling me they like my bat and don’t worry about pitching anymore.”
Griffin is not sure how he will fare in this year’s draft, which begins Monday. Seniors usually don’t get picked in the early rounds, but he is not concerned and hopes he still will be playing college baseball next week at the super regionals.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” Griffin said. “I feel blessed to be healthy and am sure everything will work out. I haven’t heard of any projections along those lines, and I don’t have any guess about when I might get picked. I just want an opportunity to play.”
What people might tend to forget are Griffin’s defensive skills. He is an inviting target as a tall first baseman and finished the season with a .993 fielding percentage, making only four errors in 545 chances.