Jimmy Maher had a message for Jacob Fanning at the end of the Nottingham High baseball season, and Fanning received it loud and clear.
“I told him he’s been with varsity for two years now, and he’s really got to start hitting a little better or he may not be starting next year,” Maher said while watching Fanning during a late-season North Hamilton American Legion game. “It looks like he listened.”
Asked if it made an impact, Fanning nodded and said simply, “Yeah, it did.”
“I did feel I had to prove myself,” he added. “It just motivated me.”
Maher’s son, Matt, who manages North Hamilton, agreed it made a difference.
“You would think so,” he said. “You would think nobody wants to come here and sit.”
After hitting .278 and .273 as a sophomore and junior with Nottingham, the outfielder blossomed for the Hibernians this summer. Fanning hit .362 with 12 RBI for North Hamilton after flirting with .400 for most of the year, and finished in the top 10 in batting in the Mercer County American Legion League.
“During the high school season, I kind of struggled, so I just cleared my mind this summer,” Fanning said. “I just went up there to swing, and it worked well.”
It was actually a little more technical than that, as Fanning learned to change his approach based on different situations at the plate.
“He’s always had the tools and the talent,” said Maher. “He’s finally put it all together. He cut down on the strikeouts, which was a huge key. The thing always holding him back was not having that two-strike approach. In the summer, he had it and he was able to get some hits instead of striking out; he was putting the ball in play. Early in the count he attacked the ball; and not striking out, battling with two strikes gave him the confidence he’s needed.”
Fanning also decided not to limit the defense’s work to strictly the left side of the field, as the right-handed batter stopped trying to constantly pull the ball.
“I went the other way more and waited back on the ball, not try to just bomb the ball because that’s what I did in high school,” he said. “I’ve been striking out less, putting the ball in play more and things happened.”
Fanning has been on the diamond since before kindergarten, starting in T-Ball and playing little league for HTRBA. He moved on to Hamilton Babe Ruth, where he played all stars, and made the Nottingham varsity as a freshman. His at-bats were limited in ninth grade but he showed flashes of what he could do by going 3-for-6 with a double and scoring 12 runs in a mostly courtesy running role.
During that time, Fanning was converted from an infielder to an outfielder by Maher.
“I had always been comfortable in the infield, but I was struggling,” Fanning said. “He realized I was a tall, athletic kid who could run in the outfield and I’ve been there ever since.”
Matt Maher praised his defense, saying, “He played a great centerfield this year. I think he had like, one error all year.”
In Fanning’s sophomore season, he was slowed by injuries.
“I was hurt a lot,” he said. “I had a herniated disc in my back and I had a fissure and was out for most of season.”
Fanning had five hits in 18 at-bats for the Northstars before moving on to play travel baseball in the summer. But it was not a good experience and he decided to play legion this year.
“I thought, ‘Why not play with kids I know every day?’” Fanning said. “I could play on my home field, keep working every day.”
The key there was the work.
“In the summer you’re working on things, and he finally bought in on things he struggled to do,” Maher said. “He choked up, cut down on strikeouts. He put the ball in play more and good things happened.”
As opposed to the high school season, where Fanning showed signs of brilliance with four doubles, two home runs and 14 RBI but too often scuffled as the season wore on.
“Junior year, I started off well and just started to struggle,” he said. “It got in my head. I was up there choking the bat and just didn’t do very well.”
Thus, Fanning underwent a procedure that has helped so many hitters throughout time: the brain drain.
“I began seeing pitches better by just relaxing and clearing my head,” he said. “I started to work the mechanics; not try to destroy the ball every time but still hit it hard.”
Maher felt that Fanning was “clearly our best player this summer,” and nominated him as North Hamilton’s candidate for Player of the Year.
“He kind of bought into not swinging out of his shoes with two strikes and he battled,” the skipper said. “He got those hits to right field, he cut down the strikeouts. He struck out six times in the first three or four games but only had eight or nine strikeouts for the year.
“He figured it out, and got some confidence. Confidence is key when you’re struggling a little bit because he’s probably the most talented kid we’ve got out here. He let loose and he had fun. He’s a great kid, he wants to be here, he wants to play. Some guys take longer to figure it out, but better late than never.”