By Chris Derrett
Coach Steve Smith spoke at length Wednesday about his team’s upcoming baseball season. But by the end, it seemed the 17-year Baylor coach had more questions than answers.
“I think these are the type of players that the game will bring out the best in them, and so I am just curious to see if I’m right,” Smith said.
Unlike recent years, where the Bears had to find bats to replace lost power and consistency, Smith faces mysteries on the mound and in the field that will unfold as Baylor approaches conference play.
Expecting the unexpected could be the understatement of the year.
New swing, new ping
Wherever college baseball is played, nobody can avoid it. Batted balls that would soar over the fence in 2010 now fall short for routine popflys. Good hitters come away empty handed when they thought, for sure, they hit the sweet spot on their bats.
With increases to run production and safety concerns, the NCAA mandated a revolutionary change to bats effective this season. The new Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution standard was introduced to make metal collegiate bats perform more like wooden bats.
The result is less power across the board and fewer solid base hits.
Some coaches, like 2009 champion LSU’s Paul Mainieri, oppose the new bat.
“I don’t think we need to have wood-level bats in the college game,” he told Baseball America in a September 2010 article.
Smith embraces the change. He compared it to a hypothetical golf driver that would allow players to drill 450-yard shots.
“You don’t have to do anything anymore with your irons. You just eliminate them from the bag. That is what has happened in baseball,” Smith said. “We’ve basically, for all intents and purposes, eliminated iron play, and I think now we have got iron play back.”
Smith pointed to the positives at teaching fundamental baseball, like utilizing a better running game with baserunners, as a possible impact of the rule change.
One area in which the Bears have little or no concern lies in their returning position players. The Bears return seven, including seniors Jake Miller and Landis Ware, juniors Joey Hainsfurther and Brooks Pinckard, and sophomores Max Muncy, Cal Towey and Logan Vick,
Muncy, who blasted 11 home runs last year, is expected to take full-time duties at first, while Miller and third base and Ware at shortstop anchor an experienced infield. Sophomore Steve DalPorto will get the initial nod at second base after 18 at-bats in 2010.
Vick, Pinckard and Towey will roam the outfield.
Known for his blazing speed on the basepaths and on the radar gun, Pinckard will begin the season in the closer role once again. Fans have grown accustomed to watching Pinckard warm up in the outfield during timeouts, something Pinckard looks forward to again.
“They were trying to expand my innings a little bit, get my stamina up a little bit, so I can throw back-to-back days if I need to, compared to last year, when I needed to take a day off in between,” Pinckard said.
Pinckard later voiced his excitement about the potential emphasis teams put on small ball with the new bats. He was caught stealing just twice in 20 attempts last year.
Hainsfurther also accepted a new challenge in the offseason, moving from the infield to catcher.
“I’ve kind of kept up with it all my life, all my baseball career. I’ve always had it in my back pocket if I ever needed to use it,” Hainsfurther said.
Replacing the innings
Other than Hainsfurther learning the catching game, Smith’s biggest question mark comes on the mound, where Baylor will have to find a way to replace 45 percent of its 2010 innings.
“I have less concern about that, number one because the bat is going to mediate some of that and number two, I like our pitchers,” Smith said.
Junior Logan Verrett undoubtedly headlines the pitching rotation, bringing 97 strikeouts from 2010 and a Big 12 record low of 2.3 walks per nine innings against conference opponents.
Senior Jon Ringenberg will also join the rotation after a 5-0 season with a 3.69 ERA.
From there the list of candidates lengthens, with juniors Trent Blank and Tyler Bremer, sophomore Josh Turley and freshman Dillon Newman all having a chance.
Looming over every pitcher’s head this year will be runners looking to advance in any way possible. Although the lack of hitting brought by the new bats is expected to make pitchers’ jobs easier, the mental cat-and-mouse game between them and baserunners will be more important than in any recent years.
“Everybody is going to have to deal with defending the short game more, but we have always worked that. We have always done it,” Smith said.
Smith’s staff ace, Verrett, said there’s no option but to adapt.
“You’ve got to learn to pitch differently to the batters because of it,” Verrett said.
No matter their years of experience, each of the Bears still feels the same anticipation to get the ball rolling on another season.
“I’m already feeling it right now, still a couple of days away, maybe a little less than freshman year,” Ware said. “But as far as any other year, it’s still the same feeling. We’re all still excited to get out there.”
Awaiting the Bears is an Oral Roberts team Smith commends for its strong pitching and competitveness.
“I promise you their pitchers love the [new] bat, and [Oral Roberts coach Rob Walton] can really help them in terms of pitch selection and how they will work hitters. It will be a real big challenge for us offensively. We will have to be very good pitching,” Smith said.