Home runs and strikeouts. Perhaps nothing defines modern baseball more.
As pitchers throw harder than ever and hitters increasingly focus on power and launch angle, baseball has morphed into a game where the ball either goes over the fence — or nowhere at all.
Longtime Sports Illustrated baseball scribe Tom Verducci wrote in mid-March that Major League Baseball “faces an existential crisis” due to the lack of balls put in play and the pace of the game. Just this week, MLB laid down new restrictions on foreign substances on baseballs, cracking down on pitchers doctoring baseballs and, in turn, trying to curtail the game’s ever-increasing strikeout rate.
MLB isn’t alone. The trend has trickled down to college baseball, where strikeouts and home runs continue to climb. This season, the South Carolina baseball team experienced first-hand the highs and lows of that all-or-nothing style of play.
Head coach Mark Kingston, speaking with reporters Thursday, said his team’s offensive struggles down the stretch — particularity its high strikeout totals — surprised him more than anything else about his team. But he added that he was just as surprised to find out that fellow SEC teams Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Tennessee and Ole Miss all struck out more than the Gamecocks did.
The question now is: How does South Carolina adjust?
“We’re evaluating what we do, but we’re also evaluating what are the trends in the country,” Kingston said. “Strikeouts are higher than they’ve ever been at the major league level; average is lower than it’s ever been at the major league level. And so this is something that needs to be continued to look at.
“The big thing with me is that if you’re going to strike out ... what needed to come along with it for us was a little bit higher on-base percentage, and we had to walk that fine line of being aggressive, but are we swinging too much? And that’s something we kind of bounced back and forth throughout the year.”
While teams like Vandy and Tennessee struck out more, the Gamecocks ranked next-to-last in the SEC in both batting average (.243) and on-base percentage (.344).
Home runs weren’t an issue, as leading slugger Wes Clarke led the country with 23 homers, and three other Gamecocks reached double digits. But the team’s physical, powerful approach met a buzzsaw in the postseason, where the Gamecocks struck out 35 times in three games at the Columbia regional, finishing their season 34-23 (16-14 SEC).
Kingston said after that game that “we just strike out too much,” and he said Thursday that he and his coaching staff are in the process of evaluating what went wrong and what adjustments need to be made. There’s little doubt that the game of baseball has changed over the years, and those changes might require a different offensive approach.
“What does a modern offense look like? I think if you look at teams that are in Omaha right now, you’re seeing guys that have a pretty good level of athleticism, they can score in more than one way,” Kingston said. “Power is a great thing, but power can’t be the only thing. You got to have a lot of guys in the lineup that just give you good tough, grind-it-out at-bats. If you look at Vanderbilt, that’s what they do. Mississippi State, that’s what they do.”
The South Carolina lineup could look quite different next season, with Clarke and outfielders Brady Allen and Josiah Sightler expected to go in the MLB Draft. Kingston said Thursday that senior Andrew Eyster indicated he would return for another season, but that plan could change if he hears his name called in the draft, which has already happened twice in his amateur career.
More than likely, Kingston and the Gamecocks will need to re-tool their batting order. In this modern, high-strikeout era, Kingston said the blueprint is to find athletic position players and line-drive hitters and teach them how to drive the ball. Sophomore infielders Braylen Wimmer and Brennan Milone both fit that archetype, and both players are likely ticketed for big roles in 2022.
Wimmer provides speed and power with his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame and blossomed as a home run hitter with 11 this season, and Kingston raves about his potential and all-around skill set. Meanwhile, Milone didn’t post strong final numbers, hitting just .216 for the season, but he finished the year on a strong note, including a no-doubt home run in the team’s final game.
“Brennan Milone at the end of the year was one of our best hitters,” Kingston said. “Statistically, he was getting on base more than anybody else in our lineup, and I think he really started to find himself there towards the end.”
With the two-week College World Series only just beginning and July’s MLB Draft on the horizon, plenty can change between now and the start of next season, but Kingston said he and his staff are already hard at working at trying to piece together the right offensive formula for 2022.
“We’ve started to talk, but obviously we’re gonna let it breathe a little bit,” Kingston said. “We’re gonna take all summer to really put things together and understand what we think are the absolutes that need to continue and where we can make some adjustments. It doesn’t happen today.
“We are going to brainstorm. We already have started to brainstorm. And when all is said and done, whatever needs to be improved will be improved.”