Everybody hits ... or walks.
Penn baseball seems to have flipped this long standing dugout cliche on its head this year, riding a new offensive approach to the best offensive season the team has had in years. As the team prepares for Ivy League play to enter full swing, they do so with one of the best offenses in the country.
“Everybody has a plan and everyone throughout the lineup has stuck with it game after game, and it's really producing consistent runs, which is a big difference compared to last year,” senior first baseman Sean Phelan said.
The plan Phelan alluded to must be a good one, as through just 18 games this season the Quakers have scored 169 runs, good for a clip of 9.4 runs per game. These numbers are in stark contrast to last year, when the team managed to score just 210 times in 42 games — a five run per game clip.
This success at the plate is not just impressive compared to last year's performance, it is impressive nationally, with the Quakers ranking in the top five in runs per game, slugging percentage, on base percentage, batting average, and doubles per game.
What has sparked this dramatic turnaround for the Quakers? While there are certainly a number of contributing factors, one of the most noticeable has been their increased plate discipline.
“They take pride in not giving away any at bats,” coach John Yurkow said. “They understand the importance of walking and taking free bases.”
The Red and Blue have certainly taken this philosophy to heart, more than doubling their walks per game over the last year from about three to just over six.
“On base percentage is a much more relevant stat than [batting] average just in terms of scoring runs,” Phelan said. “If you can get on with a hit by pitch or a walk — any way possible — to give the next guy an RBI opportunity it's going to make everybody better.”
The Quakers don’t just enter this season with a much more patient lineup, they also enter the season with a deeper one, so making sure there are runners on base has helped to increase the number of scoring chances.
“[In our lineup] there’s good hitters one through nine. If you mix in a few walks, and then you get a double or a triple ... that’s why we've had so many big innings this year,” Yurkow said.
Most of the reason for this deeper lineup has been the outstanding play from a trio of freshmen: Tommy Courtney, Craig Larsen, and Josh Hood. The three are among Penn’s most reliable hitters this season, with Larsen leading the Ivy League in RBIs and Hood recently taking home the D1 Baseball Golden Spikes Performance of the Week after his two home run day against Harvard.
“They had good falls but until you get to the spring you really don’t know how freshmen are going to perform,” Yurkow said. “Nothing really seems to bother them, they play with a great demeanor and are very even keeled.”
“As an upperclassman, their consistency and ability to help us win games has really helped us relax and get going. It makes our lineup deep from top to bottom,” Phelan said.
The success of the freshman should not take anything away from the impressive performances of some of Penn’s returning stars. Phelan leads the team in batting average, hits and home runs, while senior catcher Matt O'Neill has improved his batting average by nearly 100 points to .323 and has also boosted his slugging percentage to .538, a number that would have led the Quakers last season, but is good for only fourth on the team this year.
“The returning guys have done a much better job in their work, starting back in the fall, they've done a great job buying in to our offensive approach and philosophy,” Yurkow said. “They all sat down as a group with coach [Mike] Santello and coach [Will] Kaufman and really came up with it on their own.”
Furthering their development at the plate, the Quakers haven’t just increased the number of runners they put on base, but also their power production. The team's home run total of 19 is just five short of last season's 24, and their slugging percentage of .513 is nearly 150 points better then last season's mark.
“All of these thing start to stack on each other; if you start taking more walks and you chase less balls out of the strike zone, you are going to get yourself in better counts to hit. When that happens, you start to get more extra base hits,” Yurkow said.
While the Red and Blue’s newfound offensive approach might start with patience at the plate, this strategy is only just the tip of the iceberg from which the rest of their success grows. Yet, as conference play begins to ramp up with a series against Brown this weekend, the Quakers need to make sure they continue to stick to the plan that got them where they are.
“Stick to the plan, under adversity, up down whatever the situation we are going to stick to it and we are going to score runs if we do that, guys are pretty confident,” Phelan said. “I don’t see anything changing.”