Robby Hefflinger can’t single out any one reason why he has so thoroughly dominated the Carolina League this season.
The former Gainesville High baseball standout and current Lynchburg Hillcats left fielder attributes some of his success to an offseason spent in Panama playing winter ball for the first time in his life. Another year of maturity and experience in the Atlanta Braves’ farm system has also helped him develop a more relaxed approach at the plate.
Then there’s all the useful advice Hefflinger has gotten from others, including a close friend and former teammate who knows a thing or two about rising through the minor leagues: Braves’ rookie sensation Evan Gattis.
“Gattis told me not to take off any pitch,” Hefflinger said. “(He said) just stay with every pitch and don’t waste any at-bats.’”
Hefflinger’s numbers suggest he’s wholeheartedly embraced that approach at the plate.
Coming into the Hillcats’ 55th game of the season on Monday, the 23-year-old right-hander led all of Single A Advanced in home runs (16) and total bases (124), and was second in the Carolina League in OPS (.959) and RBIs (39). He’s currently riding a 10-game hitting streak with five home runs over his last six games.
Hefflinger says he pays little attention to statistics; he’s only interested in where his numbers can eventually take him.
“I just have one goal: to get to the big leagues,” Hefflinger said. “I just try to keep my eye on the prize.”
If Hefflinger continues his torrid hitting, it will only be a matter of time before he receives an assignment to a higher minor league classification and takes another step toward that prize.
But, the former Red Elephant’s success in pro ball has not come overnight.
The Braves drafted Hefflinger out of Georgia Perimeter College in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, after he hit .324 with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs as a 19-year-old freshman and went 7-0 on the mound with 60 strikeouts and a 2.68 ERA.
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Hefflinger has always had a frame capable of producing big numbers, but his stats fluctuated during assignments at Danville, Rome and Lynchburg from 2009-12. He’s never played above Single A Advanced, and he struggled during two initial stints at Lynchburg in 2011 and 2012.
Now, for the first time since his school days, Hefflinger finally feels like everything is coming together for him.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience,” Hefflinger said. “I knew I could hit a lot better than I was playing; it just took a lot of off the field stuff (to make it happen). ... I just feel like I’ve had so many people help me out with my approach (at the plate) and the mental side of it. Combine that with my physical attributes, and it all started clicking.”
Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp was an assistant with the team during Hefflinger’s playing days and he still keeps up with his former player. Kemp believes much of the outfielder’s success can be attributed to a strong work ethic.
Hefflinger hit .476 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs in his senior year of high school, and was a Times All-Area first-team selection, All-Region and All-State selection.
Kemp and former Gainesville assistant coach Nathan O’Hanlon, now an assistant at Flowery Branch, experienced first-hand Hefflinger’s eagerness to work hard as they spent many early mornings with him on the baseball diamond.
“He works as hard as any kid I’ve ever coached and he’s just a great kid,” Kemp said. “We’ve never had anybody who’s worked as hard as he has.”
“He wore us out,” O’Hanlon said. “We were there at five in the morning throwing to that joker.”
Hefflinger has maintained the same strong work ethic since being drafted, but he’s developed much better patience at the plate and an increased understanding of who he is as a hitter.
He’s no longer going after the first pitch he sees each at-bat. These days Hefflinger works the count and waits for his moment. That approach was key in launching his 16th home run of the season Sunday in his 203rd at-bat.
By comparison, Hefflinger hit 16 home runs in 419 at-bats last season.
Hefflinger struck out in his first two at-bats Sunday before he came through with the big hit in his third plate appearance.
“After two strikeouts, your confidence is kind of shaky,” Hefflinger said. “He threw me a lot of fastballs, and I was fouling them off. It was like an eight-pitch at-bat, and I finally got my hands on a fastball.”
After a few tries, Hefflinger persevered. The former Hall County star appears to be getting pretty good at that.