There is something appealing about high socks in baseball. There's no clear-cut reason other than it simply looks cooler. However, any player who accomplishes one of baseball's toughest feats already looks cool, but on Wednesday night at Duane Banks Field, Lorenzo Elion had a little extra style as he hit for the cycle in just six innings.
— Iowa Baseball (@UIBaseball) April 12, 2018
Thanks to making SportsCenter's Top 10 plays, the aforementioned cycle and tying Iowa's single-game hits record (5) in the past week, Elion has quickly become a household name. It's fitting since Elion recently won back the starting third base job. Hopefully Wednesday night was a sign of things to come, too.
Elion, a JUCO transfer sophomore from Kirkwood Community College who originally committed to Michigan, has put together one of the most efficient offensive seasons for Iowa this season. However, he's done so by being a singles-hitter. Prior to Wednesday when Elion had four extra-base hits, he only had one double compared to 20 singles on the season. Still, he is fourth on the team in batting average (.317) and third in slugging percentage (.439), though his slugging percentage rose exponentially because of his cycle.
Even though Wednesday night's outburst seems like a fluke, Elion has proven he can hit extra-base hits his entire career. He led Kirkwood in extra-base hits last season with 11 doubles, three triples and six home runs along with a .341/.383/.530 slash line, earning him All-Region First Team honors. He also hit a pair of doubles in five starts at the World University Games over the summer, while also maintaining the second-best batting average (.364) on the team. Speed is not an issue for Elion either, as he currently leads the team with four stolen bases and swiped 14 bases a year ago at Kirkwood. Part of being a good base stealer is instincts and picking up on a pitchers' pick-off move/wind-up, but speed is also a big part of the equation.
His struggles can partly be put on his youth and the increased competition at the D-I level. This is seen every year, though, including this season with Ben Norman, who is having a rough sophomore season after a promising freshman year in 2017, and Tyler Cropley, who is now one of Iowa's best hitters but struggled as an incoming JUCO transfer a season ago. The difference is Elion is still finding ways to help the team at the plate, making it hard to not start him at third. Given his track record, it's likely that he'll hit more extra-base hits in the final few months of the season. The bigger concern about his offensive game is his lack of walks.
Calling Elion a singles-hitter wasn't an exaggeration, as he has only walked twice this season. In fact, he's been hit by more pitches (3) than times he's drawn a walk. That gives him a minuscule 2.2 percent walk rate in 91 plate appearances and .344 on-base percentage -- only Norman, Mitchell Boe and Matt Hoeg have a lower OBP among Iowa players with at least 50 at-bats. Unfortunately, drawing more walks seems unlikely without Elion changing his approach at the plate. He had just 15 walks in 185 at-bats at Kirkwood in 2017 (7.1 percent).
Drawing more walks sounds nice, especially with the speed Elion owns, but his inability to draw walks hasn't hurt him that much. He has struck out 20 times (22.2 strikeout rate), which is around the average mark on the team (19.8 percent). That said, he makes contact more than most players and usually gets on base, owning a .375 BABIP. That contact has come in handy late in games. He has tied or given Iowa a lead in the fourth inning or later four times this season:
- UNLV - RBI-2B in 5th, giving Iowa a 2-1 lead
- Grand View - RBI-1B in 4th, tying the game 2-2
- Bradley (PH) - RBI-1B in 6th, tying the game 9-9
- Illinois - 2-RBI 1B in 6th with bases loaded, tying the game 2-2
The list would probably be longer if Hoeg didn't often replace him at third late in games as a defensive replacement. While his bat has kept him in the starting lineup, his defense was the reason he was replaced. He only started two of the next 10 games after committing three errors in the series finale against UNLV earlier in the year. Elion's defense has improved -- just one error in his last seven starts (18 chances) -- but he still leads the team with nine errors in 54 chances, giving him an .833 fielding percentage. No Hawkeye with at least 50 defensive chances has had a worse fielding percentage since Iowa baseball's archives started in 2004. In comparison to last season, Chris Whelan's .956 fielding percentage was the worst on the team.
Defense has been Elion's weakness his entire career, though, as he owned just a .869 fielding percentage at Kirkwood. Fortunately, JUCO transfer infielders have historically improved defensively when coming to Iowa under the defensive-minded Heller. We've already seen it this season, too, with Hoeg's fielding percentage improving from .962 to .987. Unlike many other JUCO transfers, Elion is only a sophomore and could have an extra year to develop on defense as well. No one is expecting him to become a great defender, but a serviceable one that isn't a liability late in games would add a huge boost to Iowa's lineup and for Elion, who has proven he plays better with consistent playing time:
Elion has given Iowa a lot to be excited about over the past week. But in reality the White Sox Ace Program and Simeon graduate, the same places former Hawkeye Blake Hickman graduated from, has only shown glimpses of his potential. Elion has all the tools to become one of the best infielders in the conference, so hopefully this past week is only the start of exciting things to come.