In his four trips to the NCAA College World Series, Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor has managed on the moon, and he has managed on Jupiter.
Coaching, at its core, is about responding to changes in circumstance. Planning and preparation is important, but a strategy to pitch a hitter a certain way or sit on a certain pitch can go out the window in a second. It’s then that a coach’s mettle is tested: How he recognizes a change, how he adjusts, how effective his adjustment may be.
In-game changes are only a miniscule part of the situations requiring adjustment. Players get injured, players underperform, players stop responding to coaching, players’ off-the-field circumstances change. Planning is planning; Coaching is making the adjustments to assure that the plan is followed through as well as possible.
In some circumstances, however, coaches like O’Connor must respond not just to changes in personnel and opposition, but changes to the fabric of the game itself.
The past six years of college baseball have seen the offensive side of the game reshaped like putty. Before 2011, a dinger-heavy style of play, half-affectionately and half-derisively known as “gorilla ball”, ruled. Then the bats changed to BBCOR, a composite with less bounce and pop than the old bats, the College World Series moved from Rosenblatt Stadium to T.D. Ameritrade Park, and offense died.
Whether the move had anything to do with the death of the extra-base hit is debatable, as TDAPO has the exact same dimensions as Rosenblatt. The wind is more unfavorable in the new downtown location, some say.
What does not lie are the numbers: In the 2009 College World Series, the eight competing teams combined to hit .304 with a .482 slugging percentage and 45 home runs. In 2011, the first year BBCOR bats were mandated, teams hit .239, slugged .320, and hit nine home runs. To call that a precipitous drop would be giving precipices more credit than they deserve. That UCLA won the 2013 national championship with a team batting average of .250 showed that teams couldn’t just win without hitting for power; they could win without really hitting at all.
O’Connor has brought the Cavaliers to Omaha four times: 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2015. I’ll try to examine how changes in the composition of the game (and the bats) have changed O’Connor’s managing style. To do that, I’ll look through the lens of the sacrifice bunt, perhaps the strongest tool available for coaches to manipulate a team’s offense game plan while it is in progress.
Obviously, a huge variable in the variation between years is the overall offensive talent of a team. So let’s run that down real quick: In 2009, Virginia had 12 hitters—including big leaguers Phil Gosselin and Jarrett Parker—who would go on to play affiliated ball. In 2011, they had 12 again, including Mariners shortstop Chris Taylor. In 2014, a team that was hailed during the preseason as one of the strongest offensive college baseball teams in recent memory, 11 Cavaliers went on to affiliated ball or were drafted in 2015.
As we can see, there isn’t a gigantic amount of variation in offensive talent between those teams. But we can clearly see how the changing environment in college ball affected them by looking at some basic numbers from Omaha. In 2009, in three games, Virginia hit .328 with a .529 slugging percentage and three sacrifice bunts. In 2011, in four games, the Cavaliers hit .263 with a .321 slugging percentage, and they bunted nine times. In 2014, in six games, they hit .269 with a .336 slugging percentage and bunted 12 times. In 2009, they hit four home runs, and in the 10 games in 2011 and 2014, they hit one.
They’re clearly bunting more. How does that manifest in games? Well, the Cavs have played in a couple extra-inning marathons in Omaha. In 2009, Virginia lost to Arkansas, 4-3, in 12 innings. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the game tied 3-3, John Hicks led off with a single. The Cavs needed just a run to win, and were at the bottom of the order, so no. 8 hitter Franco Valdes bunted. Dallas Keuchel botched the throw to second, so everyone was safe.
Virginia responded with another bunt, but one must understand the context. The bunter was No. 9 hitter Keith Werman, a 5-foot-7-inch slap hitter who would have given Dave Stewart a grit-gasm. Werman’s bunt also came with two strikes; so, bunting was kind of his thing. He advanced both runners, and while Tyler Cannon walked to load the bases with one out, the Cavs couldn’t get the game-winner across.
But observe what happens when the meat of the order is up. In the 11th, batting in the three-hole, Shane Halley reaches on an error and advances to second. The situation is the same for Virginia: Bottom of the inning, game tied, all they need is a run. This time, however, cleanup hitter Dan Grovatt comes up. He swings away, and grounds out to third, keeping Halley at second. And while Steven Proscia followed that up with a single up the middle, Halley stuck at third, and two strikeouts ended the inning.
Then in the 12th, after Andrew Darr’s RBI double put the Cavs in a 4-3 deficit, Steven Proscia, the no. 5 hitter, doubled off Keuchel to lead off the inning. With Jarrett Parker up, Proscia would advance to third, but not via bunt — he stole third when Parker struck out. John Hicks struck out, and then Valdes struck out, and the Cavs were eliminated.
In 2011, Virginia was back to playing extra innings in an elimination game, this time against eventual national champion South Carolina. In the fifth inning, with the Cavs down 2-1, Kenny Swab walked, David Coleman struck out and Colin Harrington singled.
A note about one-out bunts in college baseball: They’re practically nonexistent, because pitchers don’t hit unless they’re solid two-way players. There are no hopelessly overmatched players just hoping to put a ball in play.
However, Werman is a different case. He followed Harrington’s single with a bunt, one that he beat out for a single. Whether the main contributor was the BBCOR environment or it was just Werman’s modus operandi is debatable; it was likely a bit of both.
But in the 12th inning, with the game tied 2-2, Barr and Hicks opened the frame with singles. That brought up Proscia, and while he had two more years of experience and had nearly matched his BBCOR average from 2009…he bunted. The bunt succeeded in moving up the runners, but Virginia was again unable to get a run home that inning.
Moving on to 2014: That Virginia squad was hailed as one of the most talented offensive teams in recent memory, led by early picks like Mike Papi and Derek Fisher. Injuries and underperformance squashed a bit of that excitement during the regular season, but all of the pieces had returned in Omaha.
That didn’t preclude small ball. As mentioned earlier, Virginia bunted 12 times in 2014, more than any of their other trips. So when Branden Cogswell walked to lead off the tournament for the Cavs, Daniel Pinero bunted him over.
Virginia had four more situations in that game where a leadoff hitter reached, and only in the final one did the Cavs bunt. With the game tied in the ninth inning, Nate Irving walked to lead off, and Cogswell bunted pinch runner Thomas Woodruff to second. Papi doubled, and Woodruff scored the winning run. In fact, another walk-off rally for the Cavs hinged on a bunt, when in the 15th inning against Texas Christian, Irving led off with a double, Cogswell bunted Woodruff to third, and Pinero hit a sacrifice that drove him home. Cogswell had a particularly creative tournament, squeezing runs home twice in the tournament.
For all those bunts that keyed game-winning rallies, there are some that just look silly in retrospect, whether due to over-cautiousness on O’Connor’s part or just an effect of the bizarro BBCOR world. In the seventh inning of the Cavs’ 4-1 win over Ole Miss in 2014, with Virginia leading 3-1, Pinero singled to lead off and Papi, who’d hit .388 the previous year and was drafted 38th overall, bunted. When Virginia was up 6-2 in the ninth against Vanderbilt, in the second game of the championship series, Papi walked and Joe McCarthy singled. That brought up Fisher, who was picked 37th in 2014 and recently hit three home runs in a minor league game (albeit in the California League), but all that acclaim didn’t prevent him from laying one down.
I suppose I should mention now that Virginia made it back to Omaha in 2015. This year’s squad was undoubtedly the least talented, most threadbare squad O’Connor has brought to the College World Series. At one point, they were so depleted that they had to dress players from the club team just to fill out the roster. To bring this team so far was one of the greatest coaching jobs in college baseball history.
And the game was different as well. College baseball changed its game ball to the one used in the minor leagues, with lower seams that reduce air resistance and increase ball flight. The change worked, as offense rose across the board, including in Omaha. Florida hit more home runs in one game — four, against Miami — than were hit in the entire 2013 College World Series.
This year, the Cavs seemed to have figured out that every College World Series in which they bunted a lot was also one they lost. Correlation equals causation, as the saying goes. (I think.) So in seven games, Virginia bunted just four times, and Pinero was responsible for every single one. In last night’s championship, three-hole hitter Matt Thaiss showed bunt after Adam Haseley and Pinero reached to lead off the game, but he never followed through with it, eventually working a 3-1 count and grounding out to advance the runners.
The current “happy medium” offensive environment in college baseball must be just right for O’Connor, because Virginia won the whole thing this year, dropping the opening game of the championship series rematch with Vanderbilt but holding the Commodores to just two runs in the next two games. The Cavs pitched well, with closer Josh Sborz taking home the Most Outstanding Player award and Brandon Waddell’s strong seven innings keying the decisive victory, but they also hit, with Kenny Towns racking up a trio of clutch doubles and Pavin Smith whacking a two-run homer in the championship game.
That might have been the key for O’Connor this year, that he didn’t have to manage through a flood of home runs, and he didn’t have to manage without letting the concept of an extra-base hit enter his mind.
All he had to do was manage a baseball game.
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