By Blake Schuster
Take the Kansas baseball team for instance. When senior third baseman Zac Elgie, and senior catcher James Stanfield were asked about their lineup’s struggles with hitting breaking balls, their answers were identical. Both said the season was too young to believe that it was a problem — they’d come around.
Ask coach Ritch Price about the same issue, and it would become a weak spot that he’d rather not wait on to heal.
That’s why after repeatedly concentrating on becoming fastball-efficient, Price had shifted the focus of this week’s practices to making sure his batters were prepared to face off-speed pitches.
“Fastball-efficient means that if you’re sitting in that power count, 1-0, 2-0, or 3-1, and you know the pitcher is going to throw a fastball I don’t care if that guy is throwing 94 or 95 mph you should be on time,” Price said. “The second part of that progression is to identify the breaking ball that’s down in the zone and lay off it.”
So even while Elgie is batting .333 with two home runs and nine RBIs, and Stanfield is hitting .438 with six RBIs, they’ll both be leading the rest of the team to the batting cages to work on the second phase to become a stronger lineup from top to bottom.
But the off-speed pitching machines in the batting cages can only help when the batters know that a breaking ball is coming. It doesn’t help teach them how to identify it in live action. Nonetheless, learning how to hit the novelty tosses is integral to being able to smack one once the hitters see it coming.
“It’s just a timing thing,” Stanfield said of the off-speed machines. “It helps out, but when you’re in a live game and you don’t know what’s coming, it’s going to be different, of course.”
It might seem preposterous that Price is worried about his hitters considering the transformation from last season. By early March of the 2011 campaign, the Jayhawks were collectively hitting .198. Right now, they are hitting .268 with a .388 slugging percentage.
“This year, this club we all gel real well,” Stanfield said. “Were definitely off to a ten-times better start.”
But not even a 5-2 record, a .268 batting average, and Big 12 leading 1.37 ERA is going to satisfy Price yet, and for him, it goes back to beating the fastball and knocking the breaking ball.
“You have to be able to hit the fastball on every level,” Price said, “The next step is beating that breaking ball up in the zone.”
– Edited by C.J. Matson