Power Surge: Home Runs Are Back Throughout College Baseball
With top-ranked Arkansas trailing Georgia by a run in the sixth inning of the rubber game of their early May series, DH Matt Goodheart stepped to the plate to face lefthander Ryan Webb. Goodheart, a lefthanded hitter, got ahead in the count 2-0 before Webb threw him a 91 mph fastball low and on the outer half of the plate.
Goodheart didn’t try to do too much with the pitch. He got his bat extended and rocketed the ball to center field, taking aim at the light pole just to the left of the batter’s eye at Baum-Walker Stadium. By some estimates, the ball hit three-quarters of the way up the stanchion, higher than the batter’s eye. TrackMan measured the home run to have traveled 460 feet with an exit velocity of 107 mph.
It was, by any definition, a nuke.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” Arkansas hitting coach Nate Thompson said. “It was ridiculous. The wind didn’t hurt it, I know that, but I was blown away.”
Thompson said it was the farthest ball he’s ever seen hit at Baum-Walker Stadium. While he hasn’t coached at Arkansas as long as Dave Van Horn, who is in his 19th season as head coach, Thompson has worked with some impressive power hitters in his time, including Heston Kjerstad, the No. 2 overall pick in 2020.
Home runs of epic proportions and otherwise have been flying at Arkansas and across the country all season long. The Division I home run rate has jumped from 0.75 per game in 2019, the last full college season, to 0.85 per game in 2021.
Florida State catcher Mat Nelson surged to the top of the home run leaderboard in April. By May 2 he had hit his 20th home run of the season. Nevada third baseman Tyler Bosetti homered in an NCAA record nine straight games starting in late April. Texas Tech second baseman Jace Jung slugged three home runs in a game twice this season.
The data and the anecdotes make it clear: the home run is a fact of life in college baseball in 2021.
“I feel like you notice any given player at any given time can hit one,” Arizona State hitting coach Michael Earley said. “Keeping them to solo shots is the key, because they’re going to happen.”
An increase in home run rate can be found at other levels of college baseball as well and, for once, equipment is not believed to be the root cause. Previous significant changes to the home run rate in college baseball have been brought on by a change to the bat standards or, most recently, a change to a flat-seam baseball.
Subtle equipment changes probably can’t be entirely ruled out.
Bat manufacturers, for instance, have had a decade to adjust to the BBCOR standard and could be producing bats with bigger sweet spots or that hold up better—though the introduction of in-season bat testing should rule out the possibility of anything nefarious being at the root of the increase.
But the answer for why home runs have increased by an average of 12.5% per game likely lies elsewhere.
Theories abound around the game. Some note that college baseball rosters this season are older than they ever have been. That is a result of the NCAA’s decision to extend eligibility relief to all players on 2020 rosters because the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the season. That enabled seniors to return to school for a fifth year.
Also a factor is Major League Baseball’s decision to cut the 2020 draft to just five rounds, keeping more players in school. With older, more experienced, more physically developed hitters in college, it follows that more home runs would result.
Another common refrain was the increase of velocity in the game, which could lead to a power surge in two ways.
The first is the old adage that the pitcher supplies the power for a hitter, and the faster a pitch comes in, the faster it will go out.
The second way leads to an explanation that has commonly been used to explain an uptick in home runs in the major leagues: if pitchers are throwing harder and with better stuff, hits and walks become increasingly difficult to string together.
Therefore, the best way to score is to drive the ball, especially for home runs. That leads to a change in approach, which leads to more home runs.
Increasing launch angle and adding lift to a swing is something that’s been a hot topic in the major leagues for several years. As it has become more prevalent at that level, it has filtered down to lower levels of baseball and to younger players. When college coaches go out to recruit, they are more often encountering players with uppercut swings, emulating big league stars.
Thompson doesn’t take a cookie-cutter approach with the Razorbacks’ hitters and isn’t teaching severe uppercut swings. But he wants all of his hitters to learn how to drive the ball consistently.
“It’s hard to win in the (Southeastern Conference) if you don’t drive the ball and hit a lot of doubles, extra-base hits and hit the ball out of the park,” Thompson said. “Pitchers don’t walk people that much because they’re good. They’ve got strikeout stuff, and because they’re so good, it’s hard to string multiple hits in a row. Get a few guys on and someone needs to drive a baseball.”
Thompson has long been a proponent of that philosophy. Before coming to Arkansas in 2018, he was the hitting coach at Missouri State and helped Jake Burger develop into one of the country’s premier power threats.
Thompson has been a full-time Division I coach for the last seven years. In the last six seasons, his teams have never ranked worse than 13th nationally in home runs.
This year’s Arkansas team has been even better. In mid-May, it was averaging 1.72 home runs per game, making it one of four teams this season averaging more home runs per game than all but one team—Tennessee Tech in 2018—since the BBCOR bats were introduced a decade ago.
Arkansas was doing that despite Kjerstad moving on to professional baseball a year ago and, through the first 80% of the regular season, without a hitter who ranked in the top 20 individually in home runs.
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Goodheart, a fourth-year junior listed at a wiry 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, led Arkansas with 12 home runs in 38 games. What Arkansas lacks in a true star slugger, it more than makes up for in depth.
Goodheart was one of five players in the lineup with 10 or more home runs, a group that also includes second baseman Robert Moore, a second-year freshman listed at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, and center fielder Christian Franklin, a third-year sophomore listed at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds.
As deep and as powerful as the Arkansas lineup is, it was not the most physically imposing in the country. But it was slugging homers at a rate few teams can match. That’s just fine with Thompson. He’s not trying to create a lineup of mashers—he wants good, all-around hitters who can drive the baseball.
“We recruit guys with the ability to hit and strength in the bat and just go to work developing it,” he said. “We’re not trying to turn every guy into a power hitter. We’re not trying to make Robert Moore into a big-time power slugger.
“But I don’t believe the proper swing doesn’t create power. I think the proper swing does create power. You’re going to get that along with hitting for average, being a better player in general.
“When you’ve got a guy with strength in the bat, who knows how to leverage the baseball, you don’t have to be big.”
The contemporary approach to baseball seen on a nightly basis in MLB has come to the college game. It’s not the high-octane gorilla ball of the 1990s, but the home run is back in college baseball.