Recruiting: UCI Baseball Needs to Get Up to Speed

As the dust settles from the most talked about finish of any game in the 2011 College World Series thus far, the UC Irvine Anteaters are forced to say goodbye to senior starters Brian Hernandez, Sean Madigan and Drew Hillman.

Hernandez, the defensive player of the year in the Big West, was sure handed at third base, performed admirably as the team’s closer when Head Coach Mike Gillespie had no one to turn to and despite failing to hit a single home run in his senior campaign, 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 will either get the opportunity as a relief pitcher or as a third baseman. On the mound, he lacks experience, having only pitched one season of college baseball, but his fearless mentality is necessary for a closer and with professionals teaching him how to pitch, Hernandez might just have a shot. 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, a spot familiar to the Anteaters, as first baseman Jeff Cusick was drafted in the 18th round by the Phillies in 2010. As an All-Big West first team outfielder, Hillman led the ’Eaters with six home runs, 51 RBI and a .483 slugging percentage, while committing zero errors in left field as a senior. A two time junior college All-American at Orange Coast College as a third baseman, Hillman’s professional career will depend on the Phillies’ needs. Versatile, Hillman could return to the hot corner, which was filled by Hernandez on the Anteaters, or he could remain in the outfield, where he recorded nine outfield assists this year. Hillman showed off his pop with a monstrous home run in game two against No. 1 Virginia in the Super Regional and should continue to develop his swing as a prospect.

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 RBI helped put Irvine in position to qualify for the College World Series. Madigan’s work ethic, love of competition and overall zeal for the game are intangibles that will be missed in the clubhouse.

Photo By: Sofia Panuelos

Throughout the series against Virginia in the Super Regional, viewers couldn’t help but notice Coach Gillespie’s 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 go-ahead run knocked in by the ’Eaters 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. UCI finished the season with a 43-18 record.

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 double plays, ruining opportunities and halting momentum. This year UCI stole 47 bases; compare this to 59 stolen bases in 2009 when the team finished 45-15, but was ousted out of the Irvine Regional.

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 67 home runs in 67 games. The changes in standards for college baseball prior to the 2011 season disallowed 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-basehits was unacceptable for a No. 3 hitter.

There’s a difference between Fenway Park and Petco Park. In Boston, the Red Sox can hit a 300 foot pop fly over the Green Monster for a home run. In San Diego, the Padres could hit the same fly ball and it would be caught 30 feet in front of the warning track.

Every team needs to build a roster according to the fields that they are expected to play at. UCI plays in numerous pitchers’ parks throughout the season, so clinging on 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 in the Super Regional last weekend, just one of them came off of a home run, a solo shot from Hillman. When the Anteaters got hot, it was because they strung singles together and aggressively took extra bases. But what killed the Anteaters 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.

Let’s face it, if Brian Hernandez, Drew Hillman and Jordan Leyland could leg out a single, UCI would likely be in the College World Series right now. It’s time to stay ahead of the curve and acknowledge that home runs will be tough to come by without composite bats and it’s better to rely on lined-drives, run aggressively and wear down opposing pitchers by playing small ball until the game changes once again.

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About Ian Massey

Ian Massey has serve as a sports editor for UCI's New University Newspaper for three years and been published in the Newport Beach Daily Pilot, as well as ridewithsilver.com, and lottimpacttrophy.org. Ian currently helps his clients quit their jobs for a living at Trilogy Financial Services, while blogging on the side. He can be reached at ianmassey21@gmail.com.
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