This week's mailbag question was submitted via Twitter last week:
Vandy is 11-1 with only 3 HRs this season. Is the lack of long ball reason for concern?
Since Matt tweeted his question, Vanderbilt has improved to 17-1 and hit two more home runs. That gives the Commodores a whopping five on the season. And when I say "whopping," I'm only half-joking.
Consider this: With five homers in 18 games, Vanderbilt has as many home runs as No. 6 Virginia, No. 13 Cal State Fullerton and No. 22 UCLA combined. The Cavaliers and Titans have hit just one long ball apiece, while the Bruins and No. 19 Connecticut have hit just three. Vanderbilt also has more homers than No. 5 Texas and No. 14 Baylor, which have four apiece.
Twelve other ranked teams have 10 or fewer homers through four weeks. Just College of Charleston (22), Oklahoma (19) and Florida State (16) have hit more than 15 long balls.
The trend holds up nationwide, according to our friends at collegesplits.com. Through four weeks, Division I teams have homered in 1.7 percent of batted balls. That's down dramatically from 2.9 percent at this point a year ago. Scoring is also down, from 7.7 runs per game (per team) to 6.2.
It's a major mental adjustment, but fans need to get used to college baseball's new reality in the era of the BBCOR bats: The home run is simply not a necessity to win in this climate. Vanderbilt and Virginia are a combined 33-2 right now, and neither has played a cupcake schedule.
"We're a team that's not going to try to sell out for the home run," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "We'll try to execute, try to be good consistent hitters, put the ball in play. If you look across the country, there's not many people hitting many home runs. I think it's individual per team. The last two years, we had the kind of hitters that you could stand up there and let them swing away. We broke our home run record two years in a row here. This team's a little bit different, and the game's a little bit different as a whole in all of college baseball."
Texas, like Virginia, set a school record for home runs in a season last year (81). Now it's back to Augie Ball—bunting constantly, manufacturing runs.
"It really goes back to old-school baseball, because of the bat," Texas coach Augie Garrido said after his team went homerless in a series win against Stanford. "You see the home runs (totals). How many balls were hit off the fence? How many balls were hit to the fence? How many balls one-bounced to the fence? None. We didn't even hit them out in batting practice. So, one thing, we don't use as many balls—saving money. Well, it's a recession."
It's more important than ever to throw strikes and play sound defense. Teams that have have reliable strike-throwers in the bullpen can protect leads more easily now.
"Particularly this year, if you walk people and make an error, you create a four- or five-run inning, it's going to be near impossible to catch up if the other team's throwing strikes," Kansas State coach Brad Hill said.
Another thing I keep hearing from coaches is that outfield speed really matters now.
"Balls that have been hit pretty hard in the gaps, the outfielders have a chance to run them down," Sam Houston State coach Mark Johnson said. "The old aluminum didn't expose the outfielders as much. The bunting game's become a little bit more important. But I'm enjoying it a lot—I like it. That game within the game got lost with the (old) bat sometimes, and you didn't get to see some of the other things that are going on. Now we're moving runners more, hitting behind runners becomes a little more important—the things that champions do."
As it happens, those are all things Vanderbilt does. The Commodores throw strikes, they have a shutdown bullpen, they can defend, they have good speed in the outfield, they can bunt and hit behind runners.
So the answer to Matt's question is no—a lack of home runs should be no concern at all.
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