College Baseball is the Sport’s Innovative Laboratory

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All across the country, coaches are reimagining conventional baseball practices to reach the max physical potential out of their players and optimize efficiency from in-game strategy. Hitters are being pushed to hit a baseball to further distances and pitchers to throw harder through empirically tested, data-driven training. From the largest DI programs to burgeoning NAIA schools, coaches are learning and employing cutting-edge drills that would be balked at by baseball men of yesteryear. Even with budgets a fraction the size of MLB clubs, college programs are scavenging for the most data they can grab in order to put their players in the best position to win. The result is college prospects emerging as more pro-ready than ever before, along with many of these new coaching fundamentals reaching the highest levels of the sport.  

However, not every mind in the baseball universe is wholly accepting of such drastic change. Baseball, by nature, is a game very set in its ways. Of the four major North American sports, baseball was the last to add any form of instant replay to review plays at the level. Even as games now regularly draw out to more than three-hour affairs, professional baseball has proudly resisted any form of time constraints to disrupt its perennial purity.

The game has been dominated by the unyielding law of the “unwritten rules” of baseball. From in-game strategy to proper etiquette, baseball players have largely abided by these rules while on the field and have paid the unwritten consequences when an offense is committed. These rules aren’t governed by reason for the most part, but have largely been justified using the “that’s the way it’s always been” argument. In fact, many of the oldest drills used for teaching players of all ages are commonly explained with this point or with anecdotal and potentially apocryphal backing.

This obstinate disposition of baseball is certainly more closely associated with the professional levels of the game for a variety of reasons. One reason is that the coaches of the players of today were once professional players as well, so the “right” way for them to operate is the way they were taught by their former coaches, who were professional players, and so on. In most cases, the front offices are dominated by former players, so at every organizational level, the person who decides if you have a job or not believes in the more conventional and traditional form of the game. Moreover, pro teams in virtually any size market are under the microscope of passionate fans who will pressure the organization to perform to their liking, with most of these fans more accepting of the tried and tested practices of America’s pastime than any new and unproven tactics.

College baseball, however, allows more opportunity for its coaches and players to experiment with new strategies, tactics, and fundamentals of the sport. For a vast majority of college coaches and players, they are free to play and tweak their game without being subject to the scrutiny of a zealous fan base to nitpick their every move. While many collegiate sports like basketball and football receive constant attention from the media and millions of fans alike, college baseball is largely free of external voices that may influence the inner workings of its programs. As a result, many college coaches’ job security isn’t as dependent on success as it is in other college sports, with wildly successful managers like Mike Martin at FSU and sub .500 coaches like Larry Sudbrook at St. Bonaventure both with more than thirty years of tenure at their respective schools. Also, not every college coach has been through baseball’s professional ranks, so they’ve never been fully indoctrinated by the rigid nature of the upper levels of the sport.

Pairing these conditions with 18-to-22-year-old kids who are eager and open-minded allows for college baseball to drive the innovative engine to bring change to America’s most stubborn pastime. If you were to watch a different college team practice every day of the week, you would see seven different ways to practice, whereas pro practices will largely feature many of the same drills and fundamentals across the board. This leads to college coaches finding new and better ways to challenge baseball’s ancient traditions.

A prime example is the Driveline pitching program which has taken hold in many college programs and has seen tremendous results in places like Oregon State, North Carolina, and Vanderbilt. This particular program puts a pitcher’s velocity and intent to throw hard in the strike zone ahead of simply trying to throw locate around the edges of the strike zone, pushing aside conventional pitching philosophy. The success of these programs has led some big-league teams to take notice and implement some of the program’s drills for their pitchers, but many organizations have shied away due to radical differences it poses to conventional pitching.

Collegiate hitting philosophies are at the cutting edge of the sport, with many coaches experimenting with new drill regiments which go against most old-school hitting programs. While most Major League hitters are very sensitive to any changes to the swing that got them to the Show, college hitters are often more willing to try whatever new instruction they receive from the people who have helped their predecessors to the Majors.

With the players as their guinea pigs, college hitting coaches can have their players swing 40 inch, 40 oz. bats, swing opposite handed, or hit soccer balls (my college hitting coach had us do all of that and then some). Even if most of the drills end up doing nothing for the hitters, there may be one element to one of the drills that resonate to help the team’s success. This specific concept very well may lead to a new discovery about hitting which could make its way to pro ball and change the game.

All of these experiments and ways to rethink the game are a direct result of college baseball’s structure of a big laboratory for baseball as a whole. It’s simply a collision of fresh, moldable minds with coaches who are not bound by big contracts or unrelenting pressure for constant success. When these two combine, we can see a slew of great innovations which can spill over into all levels of the game.

Peter Sitaras

Staff Writer with CBBSN. Former St. Joseph's University Baseball Player.

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