By Joshua Iversen
Baseball is constantly changing and evolving, and its latest form is perhaps its most unique yet. Home runs and strikeouts are way up, while batting average and innings pitched by starting pitchers are down. But how do these MLB-level changes affect the way the game is played and coached at the collegiate level?
One of the predominant storylines of the past few years has been the so-called “launch angle revolution.” Star hitters like Josh Donaldson, Daniel Murphy, and Justin Turner have credited late-career breakouts to swing changes with a new emphasis on fly balls and line drives. University of Connecticut head coach James Penders believes the concept doesn’t exactly translate to the college game.
“Launch angle is the new pretty girl in homeroom,” Penders said. “So, of course, it is something with which we must contend.”
“MLB groundballs are outs,” Penders continued. “College ground balls, and bunts for that matter, are not necessarily outs. We don’t practice hitting groundballs, except when we drill hit and runs. We preach line drives in the middle of the field because they land on grass more often than leather.”
Coastal Carolina University head coach Gary Gilmore, on the other hand, credits his hitting coaches for helping his players get the most out of the concept.
“Our hitting coaches put time in to teach launch angle in the most modern and teachable ways to cater to each player,” Gilmore said. “It gets a bad name because everyone thinks it’s just about trying to hit more home runs but swinging on a better plane gives better chances for hard contact, which is usually a line drive or a fly ball.”
However, Stetson University head coach Steve Trimper has noticed a different change in college hitting – the bats. In 2011, the NCAA implemented its new BBCOR restrictions on bats, bringing offense way down. In an attempt to bring some offense back, flat-seamed baseballs were introduced in 2015. Trimper explains that these two changes had a huge impact on the game.
“In college it has been weird to see the shift in bats over the last ten years,” Trimper said. “Hitters used to go up there looking to rip it, but when the bats changed, we saw a lot more bunting and small ball. Then, when the seams were changed, the ball started to fly 15-20 more feet. I think as a response to all the shifts we’re going to see a lot more three and four hitters starting to bunt.”
Gilmore also noticed the relationship between the shift and hitters’ approaches.
“I think the shifts kind of forced the change in launch angle because there’s no more holes to hit a ground ball through,” Gilmore said.
Those shifts have also been controversial to many. As more data has become available to MLB teams, the shifts have only become more and more drastic. The 2017 World Champion Houston Astros played four men in the outfield against Joey Gallo this season, while as long ago as 2014 the Los Angeles Dodgers played four men on the right side of the infield. These days, it has almost become harder to find a defense playing straight-away.
Trimper is entering his 21st year as a collegiate head coach, and he had rarely seen shifts up until these last two years.
“When I was coaching with Vermont in the 90s, one weekend we faced future big leaguer Carlos Pena,” he said. “We put our shortstop on the other side of the bag and people thought we were crazy.”
Today, shifting is commonplace in the Majors, but can be difficult given the smaller sample that college teams work with.
“We shift as much as necessary,” Gilmore said. “It’s easy to shift on a guy with three, four, five hundred college at-bats, but with a new player straight from junior college or a freshman, it’s harder to commit, unless we’ve seen or played him a lot.”
Although they may never have as much information available to them as an MLB team would, there is now more data available to college teams than ever before. Data like spray charts and heat maps is more affordable than ever, especially through conference deals where the information is shared for a lower price.
“Obviously what happens in the Majors is at the forefront of what we all try to emulate,” Trimper said. “It’s easy to play copycat with the shifts because it’s proven that they’re working, and we’re able to follow trends like this more closely when we can see the data.”
Even with the amount of data available, shifting still has its difficulties.
“For me, shifts are more about synergy,” Trimper said. “We put our players into position but being able to execute pitches and locate them where hitters will hit into the shift is often more important than velocity.”
“What can be tough and time-consuming about shifts is practicing those special situations,” Gilmore said. “If there’s a runner on and he tries to steal or there’s a double play ball or a relay situation, everyone is out of position, so we have to spend a lot of time going over those plays to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing.”
One of the biggest stories of the 2018 Major League season was popularized by one of its most innovative teams, the Tampa Bay Rays. They made waves for using one-inning relievers to start some of their games, and then following with a traditional long man for the middle innings. This strategy, dubbed “the opener” proved highly effective; their staff posted a 3.75 ERA, good for sixth-best in baseball. But as innovative and outside-of-the-box as the opener may seem, it is really just an extension of strategies that already existed at the collegiate level.
“College baseball has been using something similar to the opener for a while,” Gilmore said. “Sometimes your closer will be your Sunday starter, and often your Tuesday and Wednesday games can turn into what we call ‘Johnny Wholestaff’ games, using different guys and playing the match-ups. The opener has been around, but it hasn’t necessarily been as structured as a team like the Tampa Bay Rays used it this season.”
Trimper relies on his pitching coach, Dave Therneau, to make decisions on who’s starting each game and what each pitcher’s role will be.
“It’s a trend in the MLB where you have set-up guys throwing 100-plus miles per hour in the beginning of a game and effectively shortening the game, making it only seven innings,” Trimper said. “We don’t necessarily have guys like that waiting in our bullpen every night.”
While the opener may not translate to the college game in the exact same way that teams like the Rays have used it, Gilmore still uses a similar strategy from time to time based on the handedness of the pitcher and the lineup.
“A lot of teams have two lineups, one that hits righties better and one that hits lefties,” Gilmore said. “Sometimes what we’ll do is start a right-handed pitcher against their predominantly left-handed lineup, and then after three innings we’ll put in a lefty to force them to make some changes.”
This new age of information has had a significant impact on the way the college game is played and coached. However, it might have an even bigger impact on the way colleges recruit young talent.
“Of course, it helps with recruiting,” Trimper said. “We have more data on younger guys – spin rate, launch angle, exit velocity, and so on. We can use spin rate to evaluate, say, a potential recruit’s offspeed pitches.”
Even an experienced, traditional coach like Gilmore can acknowledge the benefits that new information brings to the game.
“I am 100% receptive,” Gilmore said. “I’m old school, but I still want to win. Do I believe it’s how the game was intended to be played? No. But if it helps us win, I’m all about it. Things like spin rate and extension at release are wonderful to see and know and understand. They especially help with recruiting, you can know when you have a sleeper because sometimes eyes aren’t as good as TrackMan. But it can take a part of the game away. With the way teams shift today, if teams hit with the same approach they used to, nobody would ever score.”
“I pride myself and my staff in trying to stay a little bit ahead,” Gilmore continued. “Even though I’m old school, I have never not wanted to learn and get better.”
While nobody can know what’s next, it is safe to say that pace of play has been one of the game’s biggest issues in recent years. In 2011 the NCAA began to implement a form of pitch clock, and the clock has since made its way to the highest levels of the minors. It is likely only a matter of time before it hits the Majors. It goes the other way as well. The 2018 rule limiting MLB teams to six mound visits per game is set to be incorporated into NCAA rules in 2019 or 2020.
Another area that could see innovation in the near future is arm care for pitchers. As velocity has increased across all levels of the game, so has the number of arm injuries suffered by pitchers, most notably Tommy John Surgery.
“Hopefully, soon we’ll have better throwing and arm strength programs,” Gilmore said. “Through technology, hopefully we can continue to have velocity, but with the health of our players at the forefront.”
Regardless of what new change comes next, you can be confident that collegiate baseball coaches are keeping their eyes peeled, searching for ways to gain an advantage over their competition.
“We need to be conscious of all the MLB trends in order to combat or embrace,” Penders said. “For instance, our players know that the last two World Champions were also the toughest teams to strike out. I like that. Not sure if it is new-age, or old-age.”
“It can be hard to get a college team to buy in [to some of these changes],” Gilmore said. “But they’re here to stay. How we use it at the college level is individual to each program and what you’re willing to give up.”