COLUMBIA — Missouri baseball still lacks an offense on-par with the major players in the Southeastern Conference.
It might be able to make up some ground with improved speed on the basepaths, though, and incoming players such as freshman center fielder Jake Ring could be catalysts for that change.
The Tigers finished last in a number of statistical categories in the team’s wholly forgettable first season in the SEC.
They were last out of 14 SEC teams in batting average at .245, 10 points behind No. 13 Kentucky. They were last in runs scored with 205, 53 fewer than Georgia.
The difference in stolen bases, though, was particularly stark. The Tigers had just 20, nine fewer than Georgia. They also attempted to steal 15 fewer times than the Bulldogs.
If Missouri is going to improve upon last year’s dismal offense, one place to start is on the basepaths. The Tigers hope that some select newcomers can provide the speed to help rev up their offense.
Differences in counting stats like steals can often be attributed to differences in games played, and Missouri did play 50 games, the lowest number in the conference.
But the Tigers’ lack of speed last year was impossible to ignore, especially in a national context. Their 20 steals tied them for 293rd nationally, two spots up from last-place Harvard.
“Thinking about it now, Brannon Champagne could run the bases well," Missouri catcher Dylan Kelly said. "Dane (Opel) stole a couple bases, but we didn't have a traditional base-stealer."
The shift to less-powerful Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution composite bats in college baseball has shifted emphasis away from power, which had reached its peak in the “gorilla-ball” era of the late 1990s.
But in more recent years, the game has swung to what seems like the opposite end of the continuum.
UCLA won the 2013 College World Series handily despite hitting just .252 and going without a home run in the postseason. There were only three home runs overall in Omaha, Neb., and pitchers like North Carolina’s Hobbs Johnson and UCLA’s Adam Plutko were able to thrive by feeding hitters a steady diet of elevated, low-90s fastballs.
Normally, those pitches are fodder for power hitters, but they ended up mostly resulting in flyouts.
Although a rule change coming next season will lower the regulation baseball’s seams and reduce drag, making hits travel farther, teams have been forced to rely more on baserunning and small-ball to succeed.
The Bruins, for example, tied for seventh in the country with 76 sacrifice bunts.
The Tigers aren’t bringing in anybody widely renowned for bunting prowess, but they do have Ring, a freshman, who can give them an immediate speed threat.
Ring, an Ingleside, Ill., native, broke both the single-season and career stolen base records at Grant Community High School. Bulldogs coach Dave Behm said Ring is the fastest player he has seen come through the school in his 11 years as a player and coach.
He complimented Ring’s aggressiveness and judgment on the basepaths.
“Jake kind of has the mentality that he’s in charge,” Behm said.
That mindset comes from Ring’s habit of studying pitchers and their patterns of getting the ball to the plate — how quick they are, their best pickoff move, their cadence.
“The catchers are definitely going to be a lot better than they were in high school," he said, "but I’m going to be stealing off the pitcher."
With the success of his record-breaking sophomore season, where Ring stole 40 bases, he basically had the green light to go whenever he wanted. His stolen-base totals regressed his junior and senior years, but that was largely because Ring hit for more power and had better hitters behind him. There was less of an onus on Ring to move the offense himself.
Although his strong commitment to Missouri kept him from going in the draft, Ring ranked 384th on Baseball America’s list of the top 500 MLB Draft Prospects in 2013.
Tigers assistant coach Kerrick Jackson, who has a background in scouting, was Ring’s primary recruiter. He rated Ring’s speed as a "solid 60" on the 20-80 scouting scale, meaning it projects as above average in relation to all players.
Jackson said it’s a “learning curve” for Ring to maintain his speed with extra weight he’s put on in college, but he's still fast enough in the outfield for the left fielders and right fielders to be able to shift over to the foul lines and let Ring cover more of the gaps at center, where his jumps and instincts have drawn praise.
“(His speed) doesn’t play on the bases as well as it did in high school, but we’ll see,” Jackson said. “We’ll see what happens when the game starts.”
Kelly mentioned Brett Peel, a first-year transfer from Jefferson College, as another player whose speed he thought could benefit the Tigers. Peel hit .336 and led the Vikings with 21 steals last year.
Although Missouri is returning the majority of is position players from last season, it doesn't have anyone projected to be a masher or a well-above average hitter; nobody in the mold of an Aaron Senne, who hit .400 and was named a third-team All-American in 2010.
One way to compensate for that lack of power is to maximize production on the bases.
Run fast, run smart. It’s pretty simple.
“It’s easier to score runs and it’s a lot easier … as a hitter, to drive in someone from second than first,” Kelly said.
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