On March 8, after a 4-3 win against Texas Christian to wrap his team’s time in the Southern California College Baseball Classic in Los Angeles, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin was recounting some of the positives he took away from the weekend, a frustrating 1-2 showing for a Commodores team that still hadn’t quite found its footing.
One was that his team played some quality competition on the road on a natural grass surface, and if that last detail sounds trivial, consider that the Commodores play all of their home games on a very fast turf surface, and to that point, they had played all but three of their games at home.
“There’s so much value to going on the road,” Corbin said. “Getting out of your comfort zone, playing on grass and dirt . . . and playing good opponents. We need that.”
While grass is the default in pro ball, playing surfaces can vary widely from game to game in college. Over the course of a 56-game regular season, a team will likely play on not only turf and natural grass, but various versions of both.
There is fast turf and slower turf—to say nothing of turf that plays like a slip and slide after a good rain—natural grass that plays more like turf, natural grass more fitting of a high school facility, and on bad weather days, natural grass pocked with divots and puddles.
In a vacuum, playing infield defense on turf is easier. The bounces are predictable and true, so players don’t have to worry about gauging hops to determine when to attack the baseball, and at least in most cases, they can play deeper at their positions, giving them more time to react to a ball hit their way.
It also gives coaches flexibility in the types of players they can play at infield positions. If you are playing a majority of your games on turf, perhaps you can de-emphasize an infielder’s hands or footwork and put more of an emphasis on arm strength, which could serve to bail out the player who might be playing deeper than he would on grass.
“It changes a little bit, because you can play a little deeper on most turf,” South Alabama assistant coach Alan Luckie said. “Most turfs are a little faster than natural grass . . . So you can play a little deeper, and you can just be more athletic, because the hops and the bounces are more accurate and more true.”
Luckie serves as the Jaguars’ infield coach, and the proof of his work is in the results. His team has finished no worse than 41st in the country in fielding percentage the last five seasons, including a 10th-place finish in 2016 and an 11th-place finish in 2017. That doesn’t include the abbreviated 2020 season, but on the day the season was canceled, the Jaguars sat 12th in the country, with a .983 mark.
South Alabama plays its home games on natural grass, and as a result, Luckie is a proponent of fundamental play above all else, knowing that style of infield defense will only make his players better when they move to turf. There are little adjustments to be made here and there, like playing his infielders a bit deeper on turf, but for the most part, it’s business as usual.
“I guess my theory is that if we can teach them the right mechanics on a natural (surface) field, and if those things remain in place when there’s a turf field, then we’re going to be that much better,” he said.
That sentiment is echoed by Nebraska-Omaha coach Evan Porter, whose team led the country in fielding percentage in 2019 and finished second in 2020. He teaches his players to play defense aggressively and go get the hop they want rather than sitting back and being at the mercy of the grass.
“It would be the same on turf as it would be on a natural surface, where you see your hop, you run and go get it,” Porter said, “and that’s how, in the fall, we just, repetition after repetition, make guys uncomfortable (with waiting back on the ball).
“But once it clicks, it clicks, and it’s a lot easier to do that on turf, because you know what hop you’re getting every time, where on natural surface, if you can turn that into a short hop instead of waiting back and getting an in-between hop and relying on your arm, that’s when you get in trouble on natural surface.”
Next year, Porter will go from the theoretical situation of teaching these fundamentals the same way if his team played their games on an artificial surface to that being the case in actuality, as Nebraska-Omaha opens a new facility with turf in 2021.
Whether a team plays on turf or natural grass, what they all have in common is having to adapt back to the opposite surface when the situation arises.
Universally, coaches say that it’s important to give the players a chance to experience what it’s like to play on the new surface before you ask them to do so in game action, if it’s possible. And coaches are willing to go extra lengths to make it possible.
Sometimes it means making sure your team gets into town for road contests early enough to get some practice time the night before a game, as Luckie and South Alabama head coach Mark Calvi did when the Jaguars went up to play on Vanderbilt’s artificial turf this season.
Kansas coach Ritch Price, whose team has played its home games on turf since 2011, actually works his schedule around it.
“I literally try to schedule a midweek game on a dirt field before we play an opponent in conference that plays on a natural surface,” he said.
With the turf providing true hops, the excellent fundamental defender gets even better, and a defender who might be lacking on natural grass can get by. But when a team moves away from the kindness of the fake stuff and goes to play on grass, bad habits can more easily get exposed.
Southeast Missouri State coach Andy Sawyers has seen it with his own players when they’ve moved from the friendly turf confines of Capaha Field to grass on the road.
“Well, if you have consistent hops, you’re going to be taught to use your feet and attack the baseball, but you can get into bad habits,” he said. “If you have enough arm, you can let the ball come to you, and you go from a turf field to a clay field and you start sitting back on balls on the clay and letting the ball bounce two more times, you can get in trouble, and so that is something that we talk about with our guys, very much so.”
At this juncture in college baseball, turf has won the battle in the minds of coaches. More and more programs switch to turf with each passing year, and some of the benefits are obvious.
It doesn’t require the maintenance that grass does, both on game day and in the offseason. That saves the program time and money. It drains extremely well, so you won’t lose nearly as many games and practices to rain and poor field conditions. For the northernmost schools in the country, there is also heated turf that can melt snow and ice quicker.
It can also help coaches write a more efficient, more effective and more creative practice plan. Sawyers describes the benefit of being able to get his pitchers more bunt defense reps by being able to split the pitchers into two groups, one doing reps on the infield and the other doing so on a makeshift diamond in the outfield.
On grass, a coach might be afraid to have his players chewing up the outfield grass or have someone get hurt if the grass is wet, but on turf, that’s not an issue.
Price, who says he was pushed to move to turf early on by former Nevada coach Gary Powers, points to the sheer volume of practice time it provides.
“What it really does, it saves so many practice opportunities, it’s beyond belief,” he said. “It’s not just games that you’re able to save as a result of the turf, but the number of practice opportunities is just amazing.”
There are indirect benefits to be had as well. The fact that turf is more forgiving for defenders can help in recruiting.
“I really feel like the artificial turf allows the average guy to be good,” Sawyers said, “and it can allow us to take, maybe, a guy that you’re evaluating like, ‘You know, he’s not great, he’s an average defender, but I think he has a chance to hit.’
“It allows us to recruit him, because I feel like we can do a good enough job of teaching him, and the turf is going to allow him to end up being a good defender.”
In the aggregate, turf has helped the college game. It helps schools play and practice more, it helps programs allocate labor and budget dollars away from field maintenance and on to other things, and it helps coaches do a better job of accomplishing their ultimate goal of making their players better.
And yet, grass will always hold a special place in the hearts of college baseball coaches.
“I miss the smell of the grass after it’s freshly mowed, dragging the infield after practice, watering the dirt before the games, after the games,” Price said. “I’m a big fan of perfectly manicured infields.”