Despite a nine-game winning streak to start the season, head coach David Pierce still had some unanswered questions about the offense of this Texas baseball squad before last weekend’s games against LSU, Arkansas and Missouri.
“I think we’re a long way,” Pierce said. “To be honest, we’re still trying to create an identity. There’s some guys that can run. There’s guys that will get plenty of opportunity … But I think we’ve got a lot of work to do, mainly on two-strike hitting.”
And in their weekend series against those three SEC teams, Longhorn fans learned just how important two-strike hitting is for Texas.
In their two losses against LSU and Missouri, the Longhorns were 4-36 in two-strike counts, hitting .111/.255/.222 with one home run, seven walks and 24 strikeouts.
In their win against Arkansas, they hit 6-20 in the same two-strike situations (.300/.391/.450), batting in four RBIs with one home run, three walks and eight strikeouts.
The difference between the team that struck out 16 times against LSU and the team that had arguably their best offensive game of the season against Arkansas came mostly in two-strike hitting.
And according to Pierce, improvement in those two-strike hitting situations just comes down to swinging at the right pitches.
“The first thing I ask (the hitters) all the time is, ‘Are you swinging at the right pitches?’” Pierce said. “If you’re swinging at the right pitches, and you’re missing them, then maybe it’s a vision thing or a timing thing or a mechanical thing. But we don’t want to go straight to mechanics.”
Nowhere is the importance of two-strike hitting more clear than in senior right fielder Austin Todd. Pierce said Todd is the team’s best hitter, and he has reached base safely in all 12 games thus far.
He credits much of his success to working with assistant coach Troy Tulowitzki, the former big-leaguer and All-Star that Pierce brought onto his staff this season.
“The best thing (Tulowitzki) has told me is probably just slow the game down,” Todd said. “So that’s really what I’ve been trying to do. There’s times where I get myself out. I’ll swing at bad pitches that look fat but they’re probably balls, and I get myself out. I just need to narrow it down and swing at pitches I know I can handle.”
Another positive sign for the Longhorns is the improvement of another outfielder in those two-strike counts. Freshman Douglas Hodo III saw a rash of poor two-strike hitting catapult him to the team leader in strikeouts in the first six games.
“It’s that fine line you got to expand in the strike zone,” Pierce said. “But then you don’t want to go so far as long as you have a chance.”
But over the last six games, Hodo flipped the script and found that fine line. In his last twelve at-bats with two strikes, he’s drawn six walks, many in 1-2 or 0-2 counts, and is now the team leader in walks.
If Texas wants to replicate its offensive success against Arkansas, the team will need to follow in the footsteps of Hodo and Todd. Two-strike hitting could end up being the difference between success and failure for this offense’s season.