If the Texas Longhorns are to get back to baseball’s national elite, then their bats must be louder.
That’s the approach the new head coach is taking.
Upon taking over for the legendary Augie Garrido, David Pierce brought with him a belief that this team must become more offensive in its thinking.
So he’s tweaked things a bit, starting with 42-year-old Disch-Falk Field.
As the Horns prepare for their 2017 season-opening series against Rice on Friday, the Disch has taken on a slightly new look in the outfield. The long-time pitcher’s paradise doesn’t figure to become a launching pad, but we figure to see more balls leaving the yard this season, and if that happens, the Horns hope to get back into the national title conversation.
Pierce is bringing some new energy into the program and he believes changing one of the country’s best pitcher’s ballparks will revive fortunes over on MLK and Comal.
While the left- and right-field lines remain at 340 feet and 325 feet, respectively, Pierce shortened the power alleys to promote more power. The left-center field alley has gone from 384 feet to 370 while the right-center field has gone from 384 feet to 365. The 20-foot monster wall in center field remains 400 feet away. Pierce added a unique feature, a short fence down the left field line that’s about five feet tall, similar to the one we see in right field at Boston’s Fenway Park.
That will add a bit of intrigue during home games and probably quite a few more homers and ground-rule doubles. When changes to the bats and balls brought scores down nationwide last decade, the powers that be in college baseball may have taken away some enjoyment from fans, many of whom still dug the long ball. Expect to see more under the new look.
Last season, only two teams in the Big 12 had fewer than Texas’ 34 homers, and the Horns hit only 15 of those at the Disch. Texas also ranked next-to-last in slugging percentage at .392. By comparison, Pierce’s final team at Tulane hit 66 homers and slugged .423 in Turchin Stadium, which is much more hitter-friendly than the Disch with dimensions of 370 feet in the power alleys and 325 down the lines.
“All we’re trying to do is have that creativity to get the game back to a good balance where the players enjoy it (and) the fans enjoy it,” Pierce said. “There’s some excitement or potential excitement that can happen even at the end of a game.”
I took that to mean that he wants more offense. Nothing wrong with that. The Horns haven’t been a great offensive team for a while. The 2011 team that finished 49-19 averaged 5.1 runs and only one since then has averaged as many — the 2016 team that failed to make the NCAA Tournament despite averaging 5.2 runs per game.
No Texas player finished with double-digit home runs last season, but Kacy Clemens (six homers), Patrick Mathis (six) and Zane Gurwitz (five) have the potential to get there under more favorable conditions. As far as calling pitches is concerned, catcher Michael Cantu doesn’t expect much to change. Texas has some experienced arms in Morgan Cooper, Kyle Johnston and others. The yard is smaller, but the focus is the same.
“We still need to stick with what we do best,” Cantu said. “We need to play to our strengths. (Cooper) is a big powerful guy who’s going to establish the fastball. The other guys are going to work backwards and do some things of that sort. We still need to make quality pitches and do what works for us best.”
Pierce says the Horns will be aggressive in their offensive thinking. He talked about running more on the basepaths and using the new FieldTurf as an advantage. Turf guru Casey Seaton told me the grounds crew coated the new stuff with a light cork — a process known as the CoolPlay system — which cuts down on the sweltering heat when the temperatures predictably creep into the 90s during late spring and early summern.
“Basically, when it gets hotter, it will cool off the field by like 40 degrees,” Seaton said. “It’s playing a little slow right now in the beginning, but we’ve been working hard to speed it up. We’re doing more grooming than normal. We’re using a roller out there.”
We’re entering a new era. Sure, Garrido could have altered the dimensions had he wanted, but Augie was more of a proponent of pitching and defense. His goal was to win those two areas and scratch across three or four runs, which were usually enough to get him wins back in the day when he had pitchers like J.P. Howell, Huston Street, J. Brent Cox and Justin Simmons at his disposal.
Pierce is approaching things from a different perspective. It’s a new way of doing business and the fans will be just fine, especially if the Horns get back to finishing up in Omaha, something that used to happen on the regular around these parts.