One of the Nationals’ nine free agent signings last summer was Zach Cornell out of Southeastern University. The left-handed hitting outfielder was Baseball America’s Preseason NAIA Player of the Year entering the 2020 season. In 27 games at Southeastern prior to the coronavirus shutdown, he hit .519 (56-for-108) with 12 doubles, two triples, 10 home runs, 12 walks, 44 RBIs and 43 runs scored.
Cornell, 22, started his collegiate career at Middle Georgia State University for three seasons, where he was named the 2019 Southern States Athletic Conference Player and an National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Second-Team All-American in 2019.
Last summer, he gained valuable experience in the Coastal Plains League, a wooden-bat league that featured top collegiate talent from the southeast region.
“I was fortunate enough to play on the Macon Bacon - the best team name of all time,” Cornell said. “Coastal Plains was such a great experience. We played the Savannah Bananas, like, all the time. You are playing against some of the top arms that come from Division I: Tennessee, Georgia, and all those top places. That was the first experience I really had with wooden bats, and just in college in general. It was great. It’s definitely different from aluminum bats, less forgiving. It definitely helped me up my game. It helped me find holes that I didn’t know that I had playing in the NAIA.”
In high school and at the beginning of his college career, Cornell was a two-way player. He actually thought early on that pitching was going to be his ticket. But then an injury changed his path.
“I got hurt a decent amount, elbow issues and everything, so I had to sit out my junior and senior year of travel ball,” Cornell said. “So I didn’t have much exposure going into college, so that’s why I went the NAIA route. I got signed by Middle Georgia State as a two-way player, and even my freshman year, I struggled to throw strikes. So that summer, after I got benched, I said ‘I’m going to bust my tail trying to be a hitter, and if I make it, that’s great, and if I don’t, then I’m done with baseball.’ One thing led to another and I was able to completely refine myself into who I am today.”
But Cornell said the biggest help to improving his swing and his mechanics in the box came from watching video of former Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.
“It was more me looking up Bryce Harper videos on YouTube and trying to copy his swing,” Cornell said. “I’m not kidding. That’s literally how I did it. I literally watched his swing every single day from that entire year every single day. It was the same video. I was just, ‘OK, I need to get my hands here’. That’s how I did it, man. It wasn’t some expert gurus that I went to help me change. No, it was one coach at Middle Georgia State, Jerry Stuckey, and it was YouTube.”
Cornell changed his swing to a point where he was not always going for the home run, but instead was able to direct the ball toward the left-center field gap.
“When I went into college my freshman year, I technically was a two-way player, but I didn’t really hit,” he said. “If you imagine Josh Donaldson’s swing, but in a terrible mimicking, that was my swing freshman year. It was horrible. All I tried to do was hit home runs. That’s it. Sophomore year, I decided to change my swing more so to Bryce Harper’s swing. My mentality changed. I went from trying to hit bombs, essentially, every single time to try and just drive the ball to the opposite-field gap.”
In his sophomore year, Cornell hit over .400, but managed just six homers. During his junior season, he was able to double his power numbers while continuing to use a shortened swing. He carries this new confidence in his swing to the Nationals, and he hopes to finally get on the field for them in 2021. Cornell has been assigned to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Nationals.
“When I made that switch, that’s when my game changed,” Cornell said. “That’s when I really started to put backspin on the baseball, really having the best swing I could possibly have - the shortest, most compact swing.”
Photo courtesy Dan Sanger