OMAHA, Neb. — If the College World Series is like the rest of the season, there will be lots of strikeouts when the final eight teams play for the national championship at TD Ameritrade Park.
Strikeout numbers are the highest on record in college baseball, and pitching staffs averaging nine or more Ks per nine innings have tripled the last two years.
What’s happening in the college game mirrors the major leagues, where strikeouts are on track to set a record for the 11th straight year.
“It’s called good pitching and pitching coaches,” said Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock, whose Red Raiders play defending national champion Florida in their CWS opener Sunday. “I think it’s a trickle-down effect a little bit. Guys are doing what they see.”
Tadlock is right that the level of pitching talent is high. Ten of the first 45 picks in the Major League Baseball draft were college pitchers, many of them routinely throwing fastballs over 95 mph. Also, more instruction is available for pitchers at younger ages, and pitching coaches in top college programs are paid handsomely.
There’s more to it, though.
Analytics and improved scouting have permeated the college game. There is a line of thinking that a strikeout is no different than any other out, so there’s no shame in whiffing. Coaches say fewer batters are adept at choking up and shortening their swings to put the ball in play on two-strike counts.
The current fascination with launch angles and exit velocities of batted balls also mean players are swinging for the fences like never before no matter the count, making them more prone to striking out.
Pitchers also tend to be bigger and stronger and, combined with greater instruction, throw with higher velocity than was common years ago.
“When I played college ball in the early ‘90s, if a team had two guys who threw 90 mph, you were, ‘Holy moly, this is a really good college pitching staff,’” said Duke coach Chris Pollard, whose team’s post-season ended in super regionals. “If a high school junior doesn’t throw 90, we probably don’t take a look at him. That’s how much the game has changed relative to how hard these guys throw nowadays.”
The 297 Division I teams have combined to average 7.88 strikeouts per nine innings this season, the highest figure in NCAA records dating to 1970 and a huge 21.6 per cent increase since 2014.
Pitching staffs from forty-one teams ‚Äî including CWS participants North Carolina, Mississippi State and Arkansas ‚Äî average at least nine strikeouts per nine innings. That’s up from 16 teams in 2016 and from just one in 2012. Six pitchers in the CWS average 10 or more strikeouts per nine innings, led by Oregon State’s Kevin Abel (12.68) and Luke Heimlich (11.29).
Duke’s Pollard said video and scouting services have allowed pitchers to figure out batters’ tendencies.
“Should he pitch top of zone, should he pitch bottom of zone, should he pitch in, should he pitch away, should he throw his breaking ball more and where should he throw his breaking ball in the zone?” Pollard said. “That’s part of the swing and misses.”
The high strikeout numbers are regrettable to longtime Minnesota coach John Anderson. He said more batters seem content to try for a three-run homer rather than join teammates in stringing together three or four good at-bats to score runs.
“For me, historically in the game, the least productive out you can have is a strikeout because the defence doesn’t have to do anything,” Anderson said. “Any time you can put the ball in play and put pressure on the defence, something can happen, you can get a guy on base. We’re still a proponent of teaching the (two-strike) approach, putting the ball in play and cutting down on our strikeouts.”
Anderson said he believes a good offence includes strikeouts 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the time. His Gophers struck out on 15.8 per cent of their at-bats this season, according to the University of Illinois Analytics Project statistics website. Only 16 of the 297 DI teams struck out on 15 per cent or less of their at-bats.
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said the home run has been the most popular play in baseball since the days of Babe Ruth, and he doesn’t see that changing.
The Division I average for home runs is 0.71 per team per game this season. That’s down slightly from last year but up 27 per cent from 2015.
“I just think now they’re probably teaching it as more of an emphasis,” McDonnell said, referring to finding the right balance of launch angle and exit velocity to create the long ball. “Everything trends, and it’s trending up right now.”
McDonnell said batting instruction needs to be tailored to the individual, and there needs to be renewed emphasis on batters’ two-strike approaches to counter the surge in strikeouts.
“The younger generation’s being taught this launch angle, and I’m not saying there’s not value to hitting the ball in the air, I just think there’s the right way to teach that with the right person,” he said. “You’ve got a 5-8, 160 (pound) infielder, I don’t know if it’s in his best interest to be hitting the ball in the air.”