The game of baseball has widely stayed consistent throughout its long history, sticking to its tried-and-true formula while other sports such as football and basketball continue to modernize their rules and identities. While baseball has been stubbornly averse to change, the way success is measured statistically within the sport has grown exponentially in recent years.
University of Memphis men's baseball head coach Daron Schoenrock has taken notice of the statistical trends, and he is using them to help his players train, prepare and improve their skill sets.
"We have tinkered around with launch angles and record a lot of exit velocity in the offseason and throughout the fall," Schoenrock said. "We test every eight to ten days and we track the hitters' progression."
A camera-based analytics system called Statcast was introduced in 2015 by Major League Baseball. Statcast can capture player movements and batted ball data down to the most minute detail. Compiled data has shown that the "sweet spot" for hitting home runs is a launch angle (the angle at which the baseball leaves the bat) of 25-35 degrees combined with an exit velocity (the speed at which the baseball leaves the bat) of 95 mph or greater. Line drives have an increased chance of success when struck at a 10-11 degree angle.
In recent seasons, journeymen ballplayers such as Daniel Murphy of the Washington Nationals, Justin Turner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yonder Alonso of the Cleveland Indians, have all turned their careers around by adjusting their launch angles and selling out for more power.
Schoenrock works in conjunction with the strength coaches to tailor the hitters' offseason workout programs around launch angle and exit velocity. The staff adjusts swing volume and then measures the exit velocity afterwards. This allows the coaching staff to see how many swings accelerate and improve velocity while also determining what volume of swings becomes detrimental to the hitter by charting swing deceleration.
Senior outfielder Tyler Webb has seen an improvement in his overall production after an offseason with the coaching staff and trainers. His team leading .333 batting average and .907 OPS are improvements over the .305 and .863 he accumulated during his junior season.
"Coach Green has us hooked up with a six-week program where we are taking a certain amount of swings with a heavy bat, and then with a light bat," Webb said. "He records all of the exit velocities and we build up. It's not just about hitting home runs, it's about getting our exit velocities up so we can sneak that ball through the infield and hit that ball just a little bit harder so that better things will happen."
On the pitching side of things, Schoenrock wants his pitchers to take advantage of opposing hitters who have bought into launch angle and exit velocity.
"If you have velocity – 88-91 mph like some of our guys have, you attack up in the (hitting) zone, where you can beat launch angle some," Schoenrock said. "So, if you're facing a power guy that's really trying to loft balls and get them in the air, we will lift some fastballs where we go letter high which creates a routine fly ball."
Another popular trend that has surfaced in recent years is the advanced utilization of specialists on a pitching staff. Statistical data collected from fangraphs.com in 2015 shows that hitters begin to figure out a pitcher the third time through the batting order. Pitchers' OPS-against climbed from .706, to .731, to .771 during their first, second and third time through the order. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros are not afraid to pull their starters early, content with trotting out a cavalcade of relievers with varying arm angles and velocities – making it hard for batters to get comfortable.
Senior left-handed relief pitcher Hunter Smith is the Tigers stopper out of the bullpen. In nine appearances, he owns a 0.92 ERA, a miniscule .176 batting average against and a stellar 22:2 K/BB ratio in 19.2 innings. Smith is a huge believer in the coaching staff and their willingness to mix things up by utilizing the bullpen and pitch sequencing to confuse and baffle the opposing team.
"We really rely on key guys in our bullpen to come in with different velocities jumping up and down, but we're really looking at how we double up strikes," Smith said. "I don't know if a lot of other colleges do that, but one thing we're really focused on is getting secondary pitches over for strikes and then doubling them up again so that we're putting the hitter in a tough situation where he's either gotta swing or take a strikeout."
Schoenrock wants his pitchers to confuse the opposing hitter as well as make them uncomfortable at the plate. He has his players perform mental exercises to improve their thinking on the field in certain scenarios. This is where the doubling up strikes comes into play. Certain ball-strike counts such as 3-0, 2-0 and 3-1 are known as fastball counts. Instead of throwing the batter fastballs in fastball counts, he wants his guys to pitch backwards, throwing a curve or slider in that spot instead, and then following it with another curve or slider. Schoenrock has also looked at statistical data involving pace, so he wants his pitchers to pitch fast.
"I like quick pace between pitches, 8-10 seconds," Schoenrock said "The data shows that if you can keep pressure on that hitter – when every 8-10 seconds something is coming at him, you have an advantage over him."
At a school like Memphis that finds itself smack dab in the middle of Southeastern Conference baseball territory competing with the likes of Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Auburn, Schoenrock wants every advantage he can get.
"We have to build our program differently," Schoenrock said. "We are going to coach, scout and use the tools and data in front of us to keep our players progressing."
Connor Alexander gets set to pitch. The Bartlett native pitched in 19 games for the Tigers during his 2017 campaign
Riley Cabral throws a strike against the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The Oklahoma native posted a 1.72 era his senior season at Carl Albert High School.
Tyler Webb takes a swing. The Texas native is one of five seniors on the 2018 roster