The Mass Effect: Recruiting – UCI Baseball Needs to Get up to Speed

The UC Irvine Anteaters are forced to say goodbye to senior starters Brian Hernandez, Sean Madigan and Drew Hillman, along with junior ace Matt Summers.

Summers has entered rookie ball with a bang. The right-handed hurler has let loose in the rookie leagues, striking out an astounding 17 batters in his first 8.1 relief innings. In seven games, the former Anteater’s earned run average is 0.00 and his walks and hits per inning pitched ratio is 0.36.

Hernandez, the defensive player of the year in the Big West, was sure-handed at third base. Despite failing to hit a single home run in his senior campaign, he held his own in the No. 3 spot, hitting a team-high .341 with 32 runs batted in. Drafted in the 27th round by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Hernandez’s chances as a professional are bleak due to inadequate speed and a bat that lacks power.

In the rookie leagues Hernandez has seen time at third base throughout the summer on the Arizona League Angels, hitting .255 with two runs batted in and a .359 on-base-percentage in his first 16 games. As a position player, he will cling to his ability to hit frozen ropes and suck up ground balls like a vacuum over at the hot corner, but as seen in the Super Regional against above average pitching, Hernandez can’t beat out a ground ball to save his life.

Drew Hillman was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 18th round. As an All-Big West first team outfielder, Hillman led the ’Eaters with six home runs, 51 RBIs and a .483 slugging percentage, while committing zero errors in left field as a senior.

In his first 16 games of his Minor League Baseball career, Hillman has hit .281 with two runs batted in as a third baseman, totaling a .349 on-base-percentage and five doubles.

Sean Madigan went undrafted. The fifth-year senior is as classy as they come. An unselfish player and a hardworking leader, Madigan’s departure from the ’Eaters will sting. As the No. 2 man in the order, Madigan saw a plethora of pitches at the plate, giving his teammates a closer look at the opposing pitchers’ arsenals. Although he led the team in strikeouts, it was a testament to his ability to work the count and when Coach Gillespie signaled for a hit and run, Madigan always flung the barrel at the ball.

A true team player who wasn’t afraid to get dirty, Madigan started all 61 games in his senior season. His .287 average and 35 RBIs helped put Irvine in position to qualify for the College World Series. Madigan’s work ethic and overall zeal for the game are intangibles that will be missed in the clubhouse.

UCI finished the season with a 43-18 record, before being ousted by the No. 1 team in the nation, Virginia. Throughout the series against Virginia in the Super Regional, Coach Gillespie’s body language told a story of his frustration with the team’s demise on the base paths. Too often the Anteaters were hitting into inning-ending or rally-killing double plays and running into outs. In fact, the ’Eaters’ go-ahead run in game three that was eventually trumped by a two-run single by the Cavaliers in the bottom of the ninth, came off of a double play that Hillman grounded into, putting the Anteaters ahead 2-1 before eventually falling 3-2.

In 2011, Irvine grounded into 54 double plays in 61 games, compared to their opponents’ 20. Time after time in the postseason Anteater hitters grounded into twin killings, ruining opportunities and halting momentum. This year UCI stole 47 bases; compare this to 59 in 2009 when UCI was ranked No. 1 in the nation throughout the regular season.

The most considerable dropoff was in power for the 2011 squad. This season the Anteaters only hit 14 home runs, which was a significant difference from 43 and 41 in their previous two seasons. In comparison, the University of Florida Gators hit 83 home runs in 64 games in 2010 and as of June 16 this year, they had hit 69 home runs in 72 games. The statistical difference was due to the changes in standards for bats throughout college baseball. Starting in 2011, college baseball players were no longer allowed to use composite bats, resulting in smaller sweet spots in alloy-barreled bats and a significant reduction in home run output.

Although the Anteaters were 24-4 at home in 2011, many of the wins were a testament to the pitching staff’s comfort at Cicerone Field and the friendly hops that come along with playing on a professional surface produced by a superb field maintenance crew. On the road, UCI was just 17-14.

Cicerone Field is a pitcher’s ballpark. A batter has to absolutely crush the ball to hit a home run over the 405-foot fence to dead center in Irvine. With the addition of the new bat standards, a ball that was hit 430 feet in 2010 may get caught at the warning track by the center fielder with an alloy-barreled bat.

For the Anteaters — a team that was carried by their pitching and defense in 2011 — now is the time to begin recruiting speed instead of power. A player like Brian Hernandez, who lacks speed, but had just enough power to get by with four home runs and 19 doubles in 2010, the new regulations resulted in just 12 doubles and zero home runs in 2011. Although Hernandez hit a team-high .341, 13 extra base hits was unacceptable for a No. 3 hitter.

The Anteaters have been successful at home, but they still need to make changes to their approach. Every roster should fit not only according to their manager’s style, but also according to the fields that they are expected to play at. UCI plays in numerous pitchers’ parks throughout the season; clinging to slow, power hitters is no longer the answer to winning a College World Series. With home runs turning into outs at the warning track, the need for speed is now crucial to the college game.

Of the eight runs that UCI knocked in during the 2011 Super Regional, just one of them came off of a home run, a solo shot from Hillman. The Eaters’ offense heated up when they strung singles together and aggressively took extra bases. But what killed them offensively was their lack of speed. Instead of relaying the straight steal sign, Coach Gillespie was forced to take the bat out of Hernandez, Jordan Leyland and Madigan’s hands by bunting or slapping the ball in play while a runner was in motion to stay out of double plays. Coach Gillespie already runs an aggressive ballclub, laying down bunts, calling hit-and-runs and sending runners from first to third on routine singles, so the addition of speed would make a club that currently features players who run at a snail’s pace more fit for the Anteater style of play.

If Brian Hernandez, Drew Hillman and Jordan Leyland had the ability to leg out an infield single, UCI would have advanced to Omaha. It’s time to acknowledge that home runs will be tough to come by without composite bats and it’s better to rely on line-drives, aggressive base-running and wearing down opposing pitchers by playing small ball until the game changes once again.