Taylor Kaufman doesn't carry around a notebook in the outfield. But he's always paying attention.
Every detail is valuable to a sophomore pulling double duty for the Iowa baseball team.
Standing in left field at Werner Park last week in a game against UNO, Kaufman studied the tendencies of every UNO hitter, just in case. Sure enough, the Glenwood graduate was called upon to pitch with a runner on in the sixth inning.
Kaufman responded with four scoreless innings. And that came after his RBI single helped give the Hawkeyes a 3-0 lead they wouldn't surrender.
“All it amounts to is being focused the entire game,” Kaufman said. “I think that's something I've improved on a lot since my freshman year is staying focused pitch by pitch.”
Suddenly, Kaufman is Iowa's most versatile player. While often batting from the cleanup spot, he's the only lineup regular who also pitches.
He's doing both better than many expected in his second season.
“He could be one of our best starters if we use him in that role,” Iowa coach Jack Dahm said. “But we just like the way it works with him in that he can swing the bat for us and we can bring him in the game (to pitch).
“He's able to separate his pitching from his hitting, and not a lot of young kids can do that.”
Iowa originally tabbed Kaufman as a hitter before considering his mound talents later in the recruiting process. As a freshman reliever, he finished with a 3.38 ERA in 2623 innings but recorded just two at-bats while adjusting to the new level of competition.
A similar role might have awaited Kaufman this year if not for a breakthrough summer. With the Prospect League's Hannibal (Mo.) Cavemen, he cracked an injury-depleted lineup midway through the season. The success that followed — a .452 average in 19 games with a wooden bat — surprised even the former high school standout and 2010 Iowa state champion.
“Once I realized I could be more than I thought I could be, I got confidence,” Kaufman said. “Transferring that from the summer to the spring was big for me. I owe it a lot to just not giving up and going at it every day.”
The positive vibes have translated into impressive stat lines in Iowa City. In 35 innings, Kaufman ranks second on the team with a 3.60 ERA and two saves. He was tagged with his first loss Saturday when Penn State rallied for three runs in the ninth inning.
He's also started 30 games as a left fielder or designated hitter, boasts a .284 average and shares the team lead in RBIs with 17.
Games are slowing down in year two, Kaufman said. Instead of panicking in big moments, he relies on his fastball-change-up combination while mixing in a curveball he's turning into a slider. Instead of trying to overpower opponents with mid-80s “heat” — a more effective strategy in high school than college — he emphasizes pitch movement and location.
Kaufman's father, Curt, is proud of his son's maturation. The elder Kaufman, who graduated from Harlan before pitching for Iowa State and later the New York Yankees and California Angels in the early 1980s, never hit after high school. If anything, he said, college was toughest for him because there was so much more than baseball to worry about.
“I think you have to be very mentally tough to do it,” Curt Kaufman said. “In Taylor's case, he enjoys the complete game.”
The father's role has evolved since his son headed to college. Curt served as a Glenwood assistant coach for years before retiring last summer. He called pitches there for his son, whom he encouraged to think along with him. Being 100 percent committed to a pitch was a familiar refrain.
Now, Curt serves as more of a listener, leaving the technical advice to Iowa's coaching staff. He's a phone call away as Taylor Kaufman balances baseball with academics. This semester, he's learning that studying for Organic Chemistry II is just as tough on a team plane as in a dorm room.
“I think he's very much like I was,” Curt Kaufman said. “We're very similar in our competitiveness.”
Indeed, Taylor Kaufman's favorite outings this year have little to do with numbers. Instead, he recalls games against New Mexico and Northwestern in which he came through in tough spots despite not having his best stuff. At the plate, a three-hit day is meaningless unless it helps the team win.
“I was told at the beginning of the season that I'm not a freshman anymore and I need to be accountable as a two-way player and hold up both ends of the deal,” Kaufman said. “I took that as a challenge, and it's been a blast going about my business and trying to be successful each way.”