Mark Payton does not have the body type of a traditional cleanup hitter.
At 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, he is the smallest player on the roster. That being said, nobody in the Texas lineup has made a bigger impact this season than the junior right fielder.
“Mark Payton has always been a very positive impact on the team because he plays the game and practices the game with a passion for it and respect for it,” head coach Augie Garrido said. “He’s very talented and very consistent in his focus on being the best. He leads in his own way; he’s not a very verbal guy but he leads by his performance and he’s probably the most consistent offense performer we have.”
Payton has thrived since moving to the four-hole at the start of the season, as he leads the team with a .406 batting average (only seven players in UT history have hit over .400 in a season), eight extra base hits and 15 RBIs through 20 games. This comes after serving as the Longhorns’ primary leadoff hitter in 2012, when be batted .322 with five home runs and 29 RBIs.
Despite moving down to a power spot in the lineup, Payton utilizes his speed and ability to manufacture runs as if he were still at the top of the lineup. The junior leads the team with four sacrifice hits this season and has converted on both of his stolen base attempts.
“No matter where you place in the lineup, it’s all about what type of player you are,” Payton said. “Most coaches are going to want the big, powerful guy in the four hole, but [Garrido] told me to just go up there and bat like I’m a leadoff man and just do my job. [He said] work counts like you’re a leadoff guy and just be yourself and don’t try to be a cleanup guy.”
Texas players have been impressed by Payton’s torrid start to the season, and they believe that he is one of the cornerstones of the Longhorns’ offense.
“He’s been awesome,” junior third baseman Erich Weiss said. “He’s the leader in average and RBIs. He’s just been the guy to get on base when you need someone to get on base, and it’s just been awesome how he’s started off the season so far.”
In addition to his offensive production, Payton has been a key component of the Texas defense in 2013. Playing alongside left fielder Taylor Stell and center fielder Weston Hall, the junior has helped develop arguably the fastest outfield in the Big 12 Conference, and he has sported a .978 fielding percentage thus far.
Payton received interest from a number of schools as a standout outfielder at St. Rita High School in Chicago and originally committed to Arizona State before signing with Texas after word spread spread ASU might have committed numerous program violations.
“They had some violations, broke a couple of rules. I didn’t decommit because the coach was leaving; there were just too many unknowns,” Payton told The Daily Texan in 2011, when he was a freshman. “It hurt. But we thought Texas would be a better option.”
Three years with the Longhorns, Payton is still thankful for his choice.
“This is a place that was built on tradition,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m so fortunate to get a chance to come down here being from up North and getting a chance to play here.”