The 2011 college baseball season will be remembered as one dominated by pitching, in large part because of the enormous effect the new metal bats had on offensive numbers nationwide.
But don’t tell that to Georgia Southern outfielder Victor Roache.
In a year when home runs per game dropped from 0.92 to 0.54, Roache defied statistics. The rising junior led Division I with 30 home runs—22 more than he hit in 2010 with the old, more potent bats. It was the nation’s biggest power jump.
“I wasn’t worried too much (about the new bats),” Roache said. “It was still a metal bat, so I knew that if guys are throwing 85-90 mph, it’s still going to jump off the bat and go out.”
Roache also finished second nationally in both RBIs (84) and total bases (179) and ranked in the top five in slugging percentage (.778) and OPS (1.216). He was one of three underclassmen named to the first team of Baseball America’s College All-America Team.
“To get the All-American honors is unreal,” he said. “It feels really great to get an award like that.”
Roache hasn’t taken the summer off. He was leading the Cape Cod League with a .397 average, was second in home runs with five and first in RBIs (24).
Roache was on the radar before this spring. BA’s scouting report on Roache coming out of high school in Ypsilanti, Mich., in 2009 described him as a player with power and plus speed, and the Tigers drafted him in the 25th round. But his rapid ascent to a potential top-round talent may have surprised some.
Roache was a typical northern hitter who lacked polish and had rarely faced quality arms, so most powerhouse programs passed on the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder.
“Georgia Southern and some schools like it were the only ones that really recruited me,” Roache said. “I got some looks from schools back in Michigan like Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, and the University of Michigan, but Georgia Southern was one of the only schools from down south to look at me.”
Eagles head coach Rodney Hennon, who has won 30-plus games in each of his 12 seasons at Georgia Southern, pounced at the opportunity to bring in a high-upside, physical player like Roache—regardless of his home state.
“When we first saw him in high school, we thought he could develop into that presence in the middle of your lineup that makes everyone better,” Hennon said. “We had seen him early in the summer after his junior year and built a relationship from there. We were fortunate to get him on campus.”
Roache immediately became a fixture in the Eagles lineup as a freshman, starting 43 games and accumulating 151 at-bats. But he was still learning how to hit good college pitching, as as shown by his .252 batting average and eight home runs.
“It was definitely an adjustment (playing in the south),” Roache said. “The quality of baseball in Michigan is not as great as it is in the South, so that was a shock at first, and I had to get acclimated to the game down here because it’s so much faster. Once I got used to it, though, the game slowed down and I got more confident.”
Roache seemed to turn a corner with 10 games to go in his rookie campaign, hitting .314 with three home runs and eight RBIs to close out the season—a sneak peek of his dominance to come.
He hoped to build on his momentum the following summer and fall, but a bad case of shin splints and a broken ankle kept him out of a lineup for about eight months. Even so, Roache prepared for this spring just like any other.
“They put eight screws and a metal plate in (my ankle), but it didn’t really affect me getting ready for the season too much,” Roache said. “I was still able to hit with my hitting instructor in the winter and went into the season with a lot of confidence. I was ready to go from day one.”
Roache opened the 2011 season in dramatic fashion, hitting a game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth in the Eagles’ season opener against George Washington. Through Georgia Southern’s first 25 games, however, he had managed just six home runs.
That would change quickly.
“He really got some confidence in March,” Hennon said. “He hit one in a midweek game against Jacksonville and then hit a few more that weekend against The Citadel and really got some confidence at that point in the year.”
In the series against The Citadel, Roache went 9-for-14 with five homers and 12 RBIs, bringing his season home run total to 12. Over the course of the next 33 games, Roache would jog the bases 18 more times.
“I knew I was going to come back and improve (from my freshman season),” Roache said. “I talked to my dad and made a goal to hit 10 to 15 home runs, but even I was surprised to hit that many.”
Perhaps what is most surprising about Roache’s improved power output is that it wasn’t the result of increased weightlifting. As one scout said, “He’s always been really, really strong.”
Instead, the added pop came from small adjustments to Roache’s swing, leading to more consistent contact.
“I didn’t change much of my offseason routine from last year,” he said. “I just worked really hard before and after practice, critiquing my swing. Last year, I was fouling a lot of pitches off, pitches I should have been hitting hard, and this year I got the barrel on those.”
Now Roache is proving his sophomore surge was no fluke, showcasing his power and solid all-around tools in the Cape Cod League with the Cotuit Kettleers. He was hitting for average while playing a steady right field. And just as important, he was walking as much as he was striking out.
His patience, not his home run total, is why some scouts believe he may be the top college power bat in next June’s draft.
“I think he just learned to lay off bad pitches and drive the ball on a more regular basis this year,” a scout said. “Any time you’ve got a guy with that sort of power, he’s going to be interesting. Power is not easy to find. It’s not a tool that’s just sitting there unnoticed, so he’s a guy people will focus on.”
Roache also participated in the annual college home run derby in Omaha in July, finishing second with 16 home runs in three rounds, leading one to wonder what he might have in store for 2012.