NOTE: The seventh of a 16-part series of individual feature stories, leading up for No. 25 Kentucky’s 2016 season opener at Wofford on Feb. 19. On Friday, learn about Kentucky junior Connor Heady.
Connor Heady a more polished competitor in third year
Brent Ingram, UK media relations | ONLINE: bit.ly/Cheady7
A decorated in-state athlete from Oldham County High School, Connor Heady joined the Kentucky baseball team as a star member of the 2014 recruiting class.
As a key member of USA Baseball’s U-18 National Team in 2012, Heady brought strong qualifications into his freshman season in 2014.
A six-foot, 180-pound right-handed hitting shortstop, Heady also brought a toolsy package to UK, featuring elite athleticism, a strong defensive skill set and a line-drive approach at the plate. He was rated as the 38th best freshman in college baseball in the preseason by Baseball America.
There is no substitute for experiencing the Southeastern Conference however, especially for a middle-infield talent in Heady.
Heady made 19 starts and played in 30 games as a freshman, making 11 starts and second base and eight at shortstop. He was limited to a .133 average (8-for-60) with three doubles and 10 RBI, fielding .940 defensively.
After the graduation of three-year starting shortstop Matt Reida from the 2014 club, Heady took over the majority of the shortstop duties for the Wildcats in 2015.
He played in 51 of UK’s 55 games, making 50 starts at shortstop. Heady finished with a .211 average (32-for-152) with 27 runs, two doubles, two homers and 11 RBI. He sported a 21-25 walk-strikeout ratio and an admirable .355 on-base percentage.
A highlight for Heady came in four games – three in March and one midweek tilt in May – when he squared off against his brother, Quint’s Northern Kentucky squad. Connor had hits in each game against NKU, leading UK to a 4-0 mark against his older sibling.
“That was cool,” Heady remembered. “That was the first time we’ve actually ever played against each other because we have always been on the same team. It was really fun, I enjoyed that experience and it was something neither of us with ever forget.”
Defensively up the middle, Heady struggled early in 2015 in replacing the hard-nosed Reida. He made 16 errors in his first 28 games of the year, with the team fielding .961.
“I struggled early in the spring and put too much pressure on myself,” Heady said. “Pressure is a good thing, it keeps you dialed in and focused. I let it get the best of me. I had some talks with my dad, the staff, and stepped back and looked at it from a man’s perspective. I needed to go harder and I needed to push myself harder on these specific things, physically and mentally. I finally got to the point where I was comfortable at shortstop, was consistent and felt like nothing was going to get through. I got to that point towards the end of the year, cleaned everything up, my feet and hands were working better.”
Heady fought through the adversity and finished strong in the field, committing just four errors over his last 23 games, with UK sporting a .979 fielding percentage during the stretch.
At the plate, Heady had a strong April, belting a key homer in a win at No. 5 Florida and collecting a 3-for-3 game vs. No. 6 Vanderbilt behind a Dustin Beggs pitching win.
He spent 34 games in the Northwoods League following UK’s 2015 season and entered UK’s fall with a renewed approach on focusing on his fundamentals.
“I’ve made some mechanical changes with my swing, lowering my hands, pushing them back a little more,” Heady said. “I’ve been able to get to some more strength with my feet and legs. That has helped with the confidence part. Conquering that part of the game when you are fundamentally sound, it has allowed me to be able to work with Coach (Rick) Eckstein to refine what I need to do for this team. Really trying to drive the ball more, thinking right, left center, thinking through the middle and elevating the ball more. As a freshman and sophomore I was just focused on doing whatever I could do to get on base, had a lot of singles and have shown glimpses of power. I have become a much more consistent player in driving and squaring up baseballs.”
Heady, who has always been blessed with an ability to dazzle with a jaw-dropping defensive play, is in a better mental position to succeed consistently as a junior, after the experience of the ups and downs of his first two seasons.
“Coming in as a freshman, you have a perspective of your abilities, and that is great you need to know where you stand, but you haven’t gone through the SEC,” Heady said. “You haven’t played a full 56 games, plus postseason, and you don’t have that perspective. No matter how much the coaches and team try to bring you along, you have to go through it. For me, I’ve had to go through it twice now to really feel comfortable and learn how to prepare myself in the offseason, fall and winter, all to get me to a position where I am now where I am prepared with my skills offensively and defensively. I do feel like I can relax, not from a working hard perspective, but just to take a little pressure off, be comfortable in my position in the box and what I need to do to set myself up to be successful.”
During the fall, Heady worked diligently with Eckstein, the former hitting coach for the Washington Nationals, who has helped refine his approach and tap into his offensive ability.
“Eckstein has made a big difference in my game and has made a big difference in a lot of players at Kentucky,” Heady said. “He has really allowed me to focus on the mental side of the game. He gives each player the freedom to define what we want with our career and how we want to go about our business. It allows me to go to work, define who I want to be as a player and as a person. He has taught me a lot of life lessons through the game of baseball, through failures, success. He has made a big difference in my career. Glad he is here and came to us from the big leagues.”
Heady has spent the preseason battling for a spot in UK’s middle infield, along with sophomores Riley Mahan and Trey Miller, and newcomers Luke Becker and Zeke Lewis. With preseason All-America slugger JaVon Shelby switching to third base, there has been no shortage of competition for the vacant roles.
“We have a lot of guys that can play all over the diamond, which is unique to have a team that has so many guys that can play anywhere,” Heady said. “We’ve done a good job this fall of trying out new positions, new places to play so that when it comes to game time and someone’s number gets called, it is not going to be a surprise, or have anyone caught off guard. We are going to be very versatile this spring and you might see some difference lineups out there. It will be a fun year and we are excited to go out and compete to the best of our abilities each and every day.”
Now as a seasoned junior, who has seen the highs and lows in the nation’s best league, is prepared to help lead Kentucky back to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus. A big boost in that goal came in July, when right-handed weekend starters Dustin Beggs and Kyle Cody elected to postponed their professional careers to return to Kentucky for their senior years.
“On the weekend, in the SEC, when you have those three guys on the mound (Zack Brown on Friday), we have a lot of confidence,” Heady said. “They each have a great mound presence and you can count on them to go out and compete. It has been awesome playing behind those guys, especially last year. It is unusual that you get to play behind the same three guys on the weekend for another year. It is just a joy to be able to play with those guys and we are going to have a lot of success behind them this year.”