Improvement at the plate key to success

Nathan Han

At this time a year ago, Texas was riding high off a College World Series berth and a 42–23 final record after a sluggish 9–9 start.

Now, the Longhorns look to restore that feeling after they started the 2019 season 12–3 but ended right at .500 after finishing conference play in a 7-16 skid and missing the Big 12 Tournament.

It’s a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change in college baseball.

But the Longhorns’ fortune could switch again just as quickly, and head coach David Pierce has reason to believe that Texas can flip the narrative and get back to the winning ways that led to Pierce’s College Coach of the Year Award in 2018.

The path back to those winning ways starts with improvement at the plate, where the Longhorns were dead last in the Big 12 in batting average, OPS, home runs and hits in 2019.

One reason for hope is the return of all three starting outfielders. Sophomore Eric Kennedy, who was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman team, led the Longhorns in 2019 with a .310 batting average and a .800 OPS. Senior Austin Todd led the team with 38 RBIs, while senior Duke Ellis was a walk machine, drawing 45 walks en route to a .411 on-base percentage. 

The group of outfielders has taken on the identity of the team.

“I hope that we’re known for being just absolute grinders,” Todd said. 

But just as they reflect on the team’s strengths, the three returning outfielders also mirror the team’s weaknesses. Texas didn’t have a single hitter with a slugging percentage at or above the 50th percentile of all qualifying Big 12 batters last year. 

For reference, Texas Tech, the No. 1-ranked team in the Big 12 in the Preseason Coaches Poll, hit 72 home runs and had a team slugging percentage of .471 compared to Texas’ .350.

So how do the Longhorns go about regaining the power that lifted them to a College World Series berth? One answer could be the return of catcher DJ Petrinsky, who missed the majority of 2019 with a shoulder injury. The redshirt senior hit nine home runs and batted in 29 runs in 2018.

Pierce lauded Petrinsky’s effecr on a young pitching staff, but the catcher could also be crucial to bolstering a Texas lineup sorely needing power. 

“Guys are trusting him and throwing more pitches with conviction and not worrying about a negative result,” Pierce said. “Having a guy like DJ back there gives you that security.”

Freshman infielders Brenden Dixon and Trey Faltine along with junior infielder Murphy Stehly could potentially provide some pop in the middle of the infield and at third base. 

“Especially with those young guys, (we’re working on) just slowing them down at home plate and getting them comfortable seeing those baseballs,” Pierce said.

The offseason addition of five-time MLB All-Star Troy Tulowitzki as an assistant coach could serve to bolster this Longhorn lineup as well.

“With (Tulowitzki) making a few adjustments and little tweaks, I think it helped me go in the right direction,” Todd said.

First baseman Zach Zubia is a prime candidate for improvement in the power department. Redshirt junior Zubia led the team with five home runs and had a high flyout rate, which is a positive indicator for power, but he will also have to manage the transition to first base from designated hitter.

But no matter where it comes from, the Longhorns will need someone to step up and provide that spark to the offense that they were lacking last season. Otherwise, they may face another May sitting at home watching the rest of the Big 12 compete.