Winning the arms race
Southeastern Conference teams prove pitching is king
Now more than ever, the key to success in the Southeastern Conference is pitching.
The league has the lowest ERA in the country, and aces abound as postseason play approaches next month.
LSU's Aaron Nola (7-1, 0.88 ERA), Arkansas' Jalen Beeks (5-3, 1.49) and Mississippi's Chris Ellis (5-0, 1.72) are among those dominating almost every time they take the mound.
That's not necessarily surprising. The SEC has a long history of successful pitchers who go on to Major League Baseball prominence, including current stars like David Price, Lance Lynn, Cliff Lee, Tim Hudson and Mike Minor.
But the difference this season is depth. The league had a 2.72 ERA at the halfway point this season, down from 3.14 at the same time a year ago.
"Some guys throw hard. Some guys can work the corners. But they're all getting it done," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said.
Nola may be the league's best. The 6-foot-1 junior right-hander has given up just seven earned runs over 71 2-3 innings and struck out 91 batters. Opponents are hitting .159 against him.
He's expected to be a first-round draft pick in June.
"It's pretty much all focus for me," Nola said. "Every time I'm on the mound I have to get my mind right. I start making mistakes when I lose concentration. When runners get in scoring position, I try to slow things down."
Nola is part of a pitching staff for LSU (31-10-1, 10-7-1 SEC) that has a 2.31 ERA, which ranks fourth in the SEC behind South Carolina (2.05), Ole Miss (2.25) and Arkansas (2.29).
The Gamecocks threw their 12th shutout of the season in an 8-0 victory over Davidson on Tuesday.
The shift to pitching's dominance can be traced to four years ago when the NCAA mandated changes to the sport's metal bats, which made them much less powerful. The high-scoring slugfests that were once ubiquitous disappeared almost overnight, and coaches were forced to build rosters around pitching, speed and defense.
"Every change in the game over the past four or five years has favored pitching and defense," Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. "So you've got to adjust."
Hitters might finally get some help next season when the NCAA debuts a new baseball with lower seams that is similar to the one used in the pros. A raised-seam ball is now used in college games.
But at least for the rest of 2014, pitching is undeniably king.
Cohen's Bulldogs have thrived in the low-scoring era. They advanced to the College World Series championship series last season before losing to UCLA.
Mississippi State (27-15, 10-8 SEC) is right in the middle of the conference race again this year despite hitting just seven home runs over 42 games.
Cohen said he believes another reason the SEC's ERA continues to drop is because pitchers are throwing harder.
"When I played at Mississippi State, during my senior season in 1990 I bet I saw 10 guys all year who legitimately threw 90 miles per hour," Cohen said. "Today I probably have 10 guys just on my pitching staff who can touch 90. Every other team in the SEC is the same way."
Not everyone in the league has to throw hard to dominate. Mississippi State left-hander Ross Mitchell is 6-3 with a 2.13 ERA despite throwing in the mid-80s, thriving by mixing his pitches and living on the corners.
Mitchell made the transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation midway through the season and has helped the Bulldogs recover after a slow start.
"In a lot of ways it's an advantage not throwing as hard," Mitchell said. "It takes a while for hitters to adjust sometimes."