The No. 5 Ole Miss Rebels (20-2, 2-1) will enter Thursday’s matchup against No. 12 Texas A&M (18-4, 1-2) leading the country with those 20 wins on the season. At the same time last year, the Rebs were 14-7, far off the pace the 2018 version has set. Plus, it didn’t take a scout to see the problems developing with the lineup last season. This year, however, something is different and it isn’t just the Rebels being ranked in the top five again for the first time since 2008.
Let’s compare last year’s numbers at year’s end with what we have seen thus far (not exactly apples to apples but go with me. I’ll even use national rank to help standardize.)
This year’s team has shown consistent power throughout the lineup that was lacking all of last season. The Rebels rank 14th nationally, slugging .527 as a team compared to .415 last season (171st nationally). Of course, these numbers should trend slightly downward as SEC play ramps up, but there’s little doubt the offense has taken a big step forward this season.
Last season, Ole Miss hitters slugged an extra base hit 6.89 percent of the time. This season, as the vaunted top class in the country from 2017 turns into sophomores, that number is up to 9.38 percent, or a little over one extra base-hit per game. Once you see the pitcher numbers, it’s easy to understand why an extra double per game or added home run every other game can change a season.
Ole Miss hitters also struggled with contact last season, striking out over 20 percent of their at bats (K-rate). This was “good” for 73rd nationally. This season, that number is down to 13.72 percent, which is the 8th lowest rate nationally through two-fifths of the season.
Perhaps the biggest difference in college baseball and the MLB is in the field. Professional fielders range and arm strength is unparalleled. In the big leagues, a ground ball to the shortstop is routinely an out. In college, teams boot the ball around a bit more and there are far fewer sure things if teams can get the ball in play. The dramatic decrease in strikeout rate has helped the Rebels put the ball in play more and in this league that makes a world of difference.
Pitching: Lights out
Rebel pitchers have taken a smaller step forward, but that’s mainly the result of how impressive the staff was during the 2017 season. Last season the pitching staff yielded a WHIP (walk plus hits per inning pitched) of 1.21. This year, that number is down to 1.06, 7th nationally.
Brady Feigl and Ryan Rolison are huge parts of that jump, but it’s the entire staff’s lack of free passes given out that sticks out. Last year Ole Miss pitchers gave up 2.9 walks per nine innings. This season that number is down to 2.47 which is behind on College of Charleston nationally.
While it may not seem like much, erasing baserunners is a key ingredient to maintaining an ERA that ranks fourth in the country. The staff has also cut down on extra base hits, going from 145th nationally last season to 62nd this year. That decrease equals about one fewer double, triple, or home run every two games.
Of course, the Rebels have only faced one weekend of SEC pitching, and the Volunteers may be toward the bottom of the conference. And the pitching they’ll face this weekend will be the toughest they may face all season. With that said, this weekend will tell us a lot about this time very early on.
And, yes, I know this years’ offensive numbers are going to go down at some point, but they are not going to reach the depths of last season. And with the staff Mike Bianco has put together, that should be good enough for some June baseball at Swayze.