Redhawks in command as Southeast Missouri State baseball leads nation with least free passes
Pitching coach Curt Dixon admits he doesn't weigh statistics too heavily, but there's one in particular he takes a lot of pride in.
The Southeast Missouri State baseball team is currently No. 1 in the nation in walks allowed per nine innings, giving up just 1.33 on average in 10 games. Through a total of 88 innings, Redhawk pitchers have dealt out only 13 walks.
Southeast issued only two walks during a three-game home series last weekend against Purdue, and Dixon doesn't expect the trend to slow down anytime soon.
"We want everybody to earn everything they get, so with that, we're going to be aggressive in the zone," said Dixon, who's in his first season as an assistant coach with the Redhawks. "We started preaching that in the fall, and the guys have really bought into it. We play catch with a purpose. We throw bullpens with a purpose. We throw flat grounds with a purpose.
"It's all so these guys can just go out and react."
Despite a pitching staff that graduated the Ohio Valley Conference's only two-time Pitcher of the Year in Joey Lucchesi, Southeast (6-4) is getting the job done with more of a committee approach this season.
Senior Clay Chandler leads SEMO's pitching staff in the category, allowing only two free passes in 19 2/3 innings of work. Chandler is 2-1 on the season with a 3.66 ERA, which leads the Redhawks' trio of weekend starters.
"He's just aggressive. He attacks," head coach Andy Sawyers said about Chandler. "Joey might have attacked with a 94 mph fastball. Clay's not doing that, but when you see him, it's just strike one, strike two. Next batter, strike one, strike two. He is coming at hitters. He works fast. He's aggressive with what he's trying to do.
"We have a little mnemonic with our pitchers. We talk about tempo. We want our pitchers to pitch with great tempo, and tempo means, 'Timing efficiency makes pitchers offensive.' We want them to attack -- just pitch, pitch, pitch. That's kind of a little bit of our mantra. It's just that we want the pitcher to be the aggressor."
The Redhawks' three weekend starters -- Chandler, Robert Beltran and Justin Murphy -- have issued a combined seven walks in 50 2/3 innings.
Chandler said the approach is predicated upon staying ahead in the count, something each pitcher recognizes as a high priority.
"We're big on getting that first-pitch strike," Chandler said. "We're going to work off our fastball. We're not going to just go up there and throw junk the whole game. We have pitchers that have off-speed, but I think establishing that fastball early in the game and making them respect that is going to help us out. Later on in the game, we can throw that off-speed, and they don't know what we're coming with anymore because they've been pounding fastball in, fastball away."
Southeast pitchers have combined for 63 strikeouts on the season, putting the Redhawks at No. 2 in the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.85).
And Southeast is in good company among the top 10 teams, a list that includes programs like Oregon (fourth, 4.50), Cal State Fullerton (fifth, 4.33), Florida State (eighth, 4.26) and Ole Miss (ninth, 4.17).
Sawyers credits his pitching staff for being disciplined on the mound, but there's also an equation to how he wants his team to simplify the process.
Before each game, Sawyers tells his players not to worry about the scoreboard but rather to focus on how the game is played. The result, he believes, creates itself.
"It starts on the mound. We're going to suffocate them with strikes," Sawyers said. "We're going to dominate the routine play. We're going to have a great approach offensively. We're going to run the bases aggressively. If we do those things, the scoreboard takes care of itself, and it starts with trying to suffocate them with strikes."
But even that's not the only perk.
"Every game that we don't have a walk, I let the pitchers take [batting practice] the next day in practice, so they are really excited when they don't walk anyone," Sawyers said. "They get to take BP."
Dixon considers himself fortunate to have inherited such an experienced group of pitchers in his first year at Southeast.
It's helped allow for an easy transition, and he trusts his starting pitchers to possess their own self-awareness.
"I trust those guys so much. They're very good at what they do," Dixon said. "They have so much conviction out there on the mound. ... I want them throwing with conviction. They've got free range to shake, but I've got all the confidence in the world that I can call any pitch in any count with those guys."
Not a single relief pitcher on the Redhawks' roster has issued more than one walk, as 11 relievers have combined for only five base on balls.
While the starters provide the bulk of the innings, Dixon doesn't expect anything less from his bullpen.
"We have a stat every Monday that we put up on the board," Dixon said. "We don't talk about strikeouts or the ERA. We look at the first-pitch strikes. We look at the even-count percentages. We look at how many pitches it takes us per inning. We look at our WHIP, and we take pride in those.
"If we're good on those and our percentages are where we're shooting for our goals, I think the results take care of themselves and you really see the guys aggressive in the zone."
Preparation in routine has helped establish consistency for a pitching staff that recognizes its role.
The Redhawks will lean heavily on their offense this season, but controlling the game on the defensive side starts on the mound.
"I think it's just consistency of message, too," Sawyers said. "It's like, 'This is what we're going to be. We are not going to walk you. We're going to force you to swing the bats to beat us, and we're going to force contact.'"