Some baseball players catch you by surprise with skills you wouldn't expect to them to have at first glance. Derek Bangert is not one of those players.
Whether his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame is standing next to home plate with a bat in his hands or walking around the ballpark in street clothes, the Kenosha Kingfish first baseman gives off the appearance of a prototypical power hitter – a player who swings hard, no matter the pitch and no matter the count, and aims for the grass behind the outfield wall.
That's exactly what Bangert has done in three years of college ball, racking up 37 home runs in his career while also posting one of the highest strikeout rates on his teams. This summer, however, he's begun to show that there can be much more to him as a player than just a hit-it-far-or-don't-hit-it-at-all approach.
It's resulted in a 43-game on-base streak that remains active going into the All-Star break, and several spots in the Kingfish record books that could soon show his name.
"You know, I was hoping to get drafted this year," Bangert said. "I had a pretty decent year, but I just struck out too much. And they said that’s the biggest thing scouts said about me: Being a power hitter, you need to walk more. They’ll take strikeouts with a power hitting-type guy, but I was doing it too much with not enough walks."
Bangert's college career began at Heartland Community College, where he got to be part of a fearsome lineup that won 89 games in his two years with the team. He hit 17 home runs his freshman year while batting .364 with an on-base clip of .448 and an out-of-this-world slugging percentage of .734. Injuries hampered his sophomore campaign, but still didn't restrict him from putting up a still-great .357/.471/.729 slash line in 23 games.
His numbers earned him a transfer to Division I Middle Tennessee State, but he was never able to play a single game for them because of a shoulder surgery he underwent in January 2016. He then transferred to Bradley, where his adjustment to his first live pitching in more than a year was a slow one. He still finished with solid numbers – .270/.333/.572 with 14 homers – but struck out 66 times while drawing just nine walks, scaring away prospective pro opportunities.
"It was just a little bit different game," Bangert said. "The pitching was faster. I just had to make some adjustments. I was feeling better toward the end of the year. To begin with, I was just striking out a lot. This summer, the big thing was just focusing on my approach, try not to swing at bad pitches and get in good counts."
That adjustment to his approach has resulted in the Kingfish getting a much more complete hitter than they expected to get when the summer began. In 44 games, Bangert's slash line rests at .312/.432/.539 with eight homers and 11 doubles. Just as important to him, however: 41 strikeouts and 24 walks. His strikeout rate has dropped from 27% to 22%, while his walk rate has risen from 5% to 13%.
In a short summer schedule, a hot week or so at the plate can inflate someone's numbers beyond what they've rested at for most of the summer. That isn't the case here for Bangert, however, who has seemed to improve each week of the year. His on-base percentage hasn't fallen below the .400 mark since he first eclipsed it on July 3rd, and his batting average hasn't fallen below .300 since he first reached that mark on July 9th.
"Whenever you’re with a new team, it’s nice to have some initial success," Bangert said. "When you don’t start off on the right foot, it’s easy for some guys to put pressure on themselves to get it going and prove what they can do. After the first week or so, I felt pretty comfortable and started having good games, and I’ve been able to stay pretty consistent like that all summer."
His performance this summer hasn't just made him one of the most-feared hitters in the Northwoods League – for which he was rewarded with one of four All-Star selections handed to the Kingfish, alongside catcher Nick Zouras (Illinois State) and right-handed pitchers Quinn Snarskis (St. Joseph's) and Logan Wiley (Missouri State) – they put him in elite company in the team's four-year history. His eight home runs are already on the verge of the Kingfish record of 10 for a summer, while his .539 slugging percentage and OPS of .971 put him in the neighborhood of the team records of .543 and .961 set by Pat Porter in 2014.
Those records won't be at the forefront of Bangert's mind as the summer wears on, as the first baseman continues to work to impress scouts enough to earn more looks as a potential draft pick in 2018. They do, however, provide some fine context for how rare Bangert's production is for the Kingfish organization and the Northwoods League alike.
And if he continues to improve down the stretch the way he hopes to, he shouldn't have any problem shining in both Kenosha record books and scouts' notebooks.
"I would like being even more consistent," Bangert said. "It’s been mostly mental where, prior to this spring season, I was just going up there looking to hit. But now … It’s knowing how they’re pitching you and learning as a hitter more and more each day. The little things you pick up from playing every day, I’ve really learned a lot and I hope I can keep that going after the summer."