For a long time college baseball was scoffed at by many baseball purists due to its obscene offensive numbers. Often time games ended in 11-10 results as neither team could do much to stymie offenses. Consider Florida State all timer JD Drew finished his college career with 69 home runs and almost half of those (31) were in his junior season. Then, in 2008 an up start Fresno State team slugged their way to a College World Series Championship trophy winning 6 elimination games in the tournament after entering it as a #4 seed by winning the WAC tournament. In 18 post season games the Bulldogs scored less than 5 runs 4 times and more than 10 runs 4 times. While pitching is supposed to get tougher in the post season the Bulldogs just kept on keeping on.
It wasn’t Fresno State’s fault but they were the straw that broke the camel’s back and in 2011 the NCAA mandated that all bats be BBCOR bats. BBCOR bats drastically reduced the size of the “sweet spot” on aluminum bats forcing hitters to square up balls if they were going to hit them hard resulting in less hits and less offense. While some of the BBCOR restrictions have been removed the other major change to baseball made to reduce offensive numbers was the introduction of TD Ameritrade Park for the College World Series.
In 2011 the CWS moved from Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park and while the dimensions are not drastically different between the 2 parks the environmental factors, along with the BBCOR bats, make the park cavernous. The park has seen 50 collegiate home runs over it’s 6 year life span with only 4 being considered to center field. The park still allows for quite a few singles and doubles but power hitters can certainly suffer in TD Ameritrade.
All of this is said to point out the likelihood of FSU, and every other team, scoring far fewer runs than what fans may have seen during the season. Not only has the level of pitching increased but fly balls that may have bounced off Dick Howser’s right field screen for a double will now be lazy fly outs. The most successful teams will work the counts and try to connect on line drives with on base percentage being more important than Slugging %. Fans should also expect to see more small ball played as runs will come at a premium.
The ultimate problem is that many teams will be expected to play in a manner completely opposite to the one that got them to Omaha due to the park dimensions. Defense and base running become extra important (not FSU’s strong suite) while line drive hitters will provide more impact than long ball hitters (definitely FSU’s strong suite). Expect hitters like Cal Raleigh and Jackson Lueck to perform well in Omaha. While Raleigh has struggled mightily this year he has consistently hit line drives and grounders that have just happened to be right at people. About half way through the season Cal began to press and swung at more pitches outside of the zone resulting in a higher likelihood of strike outs. However, with all the extra space in TD Ameritrade the sophomore catcher could see a huge jump in his BABIP which has been criminally low all year. (Note: a low BABIP tends to be the result of bad luck.)
On the other hand a player like Taylor Walls could struggle. At time Walls tends to get power hungry and will over swing. Not only does this lower his OBP as Walls will expand the zone but he’s also more likely to pop the ball up. The home runs he hit in FSU’s last game against Sam Houston State would be fly outs in Omaha.
Batters need to stay patient at the plate throughout the tournament to maximize the likelihood they see a poor pitch they can drive or get a man aboard by way of the base on balls. The ‘Noles approach at the plate fits this park as they tend to be more selective than other teams and are less likely to beat themselves by swinging at a lot of pitches that would otherwise be called balls. Many fans tend to deride this approach falsely believing FSU hitters are not looking to hit until the first strike it called but what they are looking for is a certain pitch type and/or location, which allows the batter to react quicker to that pitch, resulting in the higher chance of a well struck ball on swings early in the count. As the pitcher racks up more strikes the batter will expand the area and pitch type they are looking for becoming more defensive in their approach. This means pitchers have to throw strikes early and often and can elevate their pitch count earlier in games meaning the pen will have to be relied on more. If the pitcher can fill the zone with strikes early either FSU will adjust and punish those “get me over” pitches or tip their hat and move on. After all, there’s almost nothing a hitter can do to a pitcher that has it all except be patient, see as many pitches as possible and hope to chase him later in the game as he tires.
There are not just negatives to be found for FSU while playing in TD Ameritrade. Seminole pitchers have consistently hung around the strike zone resulting in fewer walks, more strike outs and more weakly hit balls. FSU pitchers have been doing a masterful job of keeping runs to a minimum throughout the later part of the season and fans can expect more of that, assuming the defense cooperates. FSU pitchers tend to pitch towards contact more than strikeouts and with a bigger park, more of that contact can end with the ball in a fielder’s mitt. Unfortunately FSU has struggled at times this year with errors but they have mostly come from the corners of the infield as opposed to up the middle.
FSU’s defense up the middle can be quite good. Walls has a lot of talent at short stop and can cover a decent amount of ground but he can sometimes rush his throws to first. His counter part, Matt Henderson generally makes most plays and has done better as of late but he has struggled in the past with maintaining concentration on ground balls. Both players are going to have to be on their best behavior for FSU to advance as they are likely to get a lot of opportunities. Where FSU’s defense can show the most impact is in center fielder JC Flowers. The freshmen can cover a lot of ground, and there is a lot of ground to cover in TD Ameritrade, and has only made 1 error all year. In fact FSU’s likely starting outfield (Lueck, Flowers and Stephen Wells Jr) have only made 1 error all year while throwing out 9 runners.
Not only does TD Ameritrade make the game harder but the level of competition takes a huge leap with FSU drawing LSU, Cal State Fullerton and Oregon State University but the Noles have a shot. While FSU has beat themselves at times this season they’ve also shown to be a team ready to play in Omaha. If they continue to be as opportunistic as they have the last month they could hoist FSU’s first CWS trophy in 2017.