Between his time at the College of Charleston and now Clemson, Monte Lee has been a head baseball coach at the collegiate level for 14 years. He can’t recall witnessing a turnaround quite as drastic as the one Max Wagner has pulled off this season.
“I think the biggest jump you make as an athlete is from your freshman to your sophomore year,” Lee said. “But to say I have seen a guy do what he did? I don’t think I have.”
What a difference that year has made for the Tigers’ third baseman.
After hitting .214 in 35 games last season as a true freshman, Wagner has morphed into one of the ACC’s most complete hitters as a sophomore. He’s tied with Georgia Tech’s Kevin Parada for the league lead with 26 home runs, just one off the single-season record at Clemson set by former All-American Khalil Greene two decades ago. Wagner also leads the conference in slugging percentage (.867) and on-base percentage (.506) while ranking second in RBIs (74) and fourth in average (.379).
Wagner on Monday earned the league’s highest honor when he was named the ACC Player of the Year, becoming the 14th Tiger to be awarded that distinction. He’s the first since Seth Beer took the honor in 2016.
So how did Wagner, who wasn’t even in Clemson’s opening-day lineup this year, go from a relative afterthought in the ACC to arguably the best player in it?
Wagner said the experience he got during his freshman season, which included 22 starts, helped. But at the plate, the first change he had to make was improving his bat speed after playing his high school ball in Wisconsin as a standout at Preble High.
“You’re going from Wisconsin high school baseball where guys are throwing around 80 miles per hour to ACC play where guys are throwing well over 90,” Wagner said.
Wagner said he worked on that even as a freshman and continued to show signs of getting caught up to speed heading into this season. But there were two other weaknesses, Lee said, that Clemson’s coaching staff targeted for Wagner to improve going into Year 2: Pitches on the outside part of the plate and breaking balls from right-handed pitchers.
Lee said Wagner spent all summer and fall trying to break his pull-happy habits and use the entire field, something Wagner has applied during his at-bats this season. Lee credited Wagner for being disciplined enough to make the necessary adjustments at the plate.
“A lot of his home runs have been hit to right field, and he’s done so much of a better job of being able to use the whole field and not being a dead-pull hitter,” Lee said. “We didn’t change his swing a whole lot. We made a couple of small, small adjustments with him, but ultimately it was up to him to put in the work and work on his weaknesses. And sometimes that’s tough for baseball players as much as they fail.”
It”s helped Wagner get closer to realizing the potential both he and his coaches knew he had, even if it’s happened much quicker than anyone anticipated.
“You could see it coming. You could see the type of talent and the type of ability in a player that you think this guy has got a chance to be one of the best players in the league,” Lee said. “We thought he was going to be one of the best players in the league quite honestly from the time we recruited him.”