Around the Horn: Minnesota

This fall, 10 Innings will supplement its fall updates with a question-and-answer series: Around the Horn. Around the Horn will present four questions to a coach, player or local media, getting an inside perspective on the team heading into the offseason.

Winning 36 games for a second consecutive season, Minnesota led the Big Ten in hitting for a second straight year, doing so with the fewest strikeouts in the conference. Overseeing Minnesota’s .306 team average since the start of the 2016 season is assistant coach Pat Casey. Casey was Minnesota’s volunteer assistant from 2014-2016 before being elevated to a full-time assistant position in September 2016. In addition to being the Minnesota’s primary hitting coach, Casey oversees Gopher catchers, a group which has produced the last two All-Big Ten first-team selections at that position, Austin Athmann and Cole McDevitt.

Here’s Casey on the team’s 2017 success, how they define success, the Gophers’ ability to excel with two strikes, touching home with what the Gophers are currently working on to get better.

10 Innings: The team batted .297 last year, with a .370 on-base percentage and .412 slugging mark, scoring 5.8 runs a game. How do you view last season’s offensive production in terms of it being a successful season or not at the plate for the Gophers?

2017 was a good year for us. I wouldn’t call it a ‘great year’ based on the way we performed in March and certain spots throughout the year, but our goal at the beginning of last season was to lead the Big Ten in hitting and that group of guys accomplished it and they deserve all the credit for their hard work, dedication and commitment they’ve put into being a strong offensive unit. We had our up’s and down’s, but ultimately whenever you finish atop of the Big Ten in hitting you’ve got to be pleased. I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that those hitters aren’t satisfied with the way things ended in the Big Ten Tournament (regardless of how well they hit), they feel like they have more to show and more to prove going forward into 2018.

Looking back at the season as a whole, you’ve got to be impressed with how they responded after March and losing Micah Coffey and Alex Boxwell to injury. That group put together a pretty incredible run in April and May while finishing first in the league in least amount of strikeouts and leading the league in average — you can’t not be impressed with the accomplishments of that group.

10 Innings: What benchmarks, or what are the standards established to determine a successful at-bat, a successful game at the plate and ultimately a strong offensive season?

The benchmark for success lies within the tradition of the program itself. Minnesota has always had very potent offensive lineups, going back to the 2000’s, 1990’s and 1980’s, John (Anderson) and Rob (Fornasiere) have always had teams that could hit and execute fundamentally. Our hitters today take a lot of pride in the players who came before them, wore the uniform before them and what those teams accomplished, we (all) have something to live up to in this program with the rich tradition and history of excellence that Golden Gopher Baseball has.

In terms of our own personal ‘benchmarks’ that we use for success — we do a lot of work with analytics, metrics and sabermetrics but our standards ultimately come down to quality at-bats, well-hits and execution in two-strike counts. There’s a lot that goes into our ‘offensive approach’ and gameday planning, but what it all really gets down to is focusing on “are you having quality at-bats and hitting the ball hard”. Baseball is the ultimate game of failure and the only certainty that you can count on is that your going to fail more times than not, especially as a hitter — so how can we go about managing that. You focus on the controllables.

Quality at-bats and hitting the ball hard aren’t failing in our eyes. We try to reward that and focus on the positives, when a hitter moves a runner, executes a pro play, battles in two-strike counts; those are not seen or taken as failures in our offense. We track everything and at the end of every week we go through it and look at ways we can improve and get better as a unit, the mindset is to never be satisfied, always try to grow, learn and develop. If we do those things and stay connected to our values, our approach and our philosophy we’ll have a good year.

10 Innings: Last season, every batter, one through nine, seemed to possess an uncanny ability to foul off pitches until there was a pitch that could be barreled up. What is the foundation of a good two-strike approach?

In my opinion there are three parts to a good two-strike approach: mentality, emotional state and physical adjustments.

Mentally you have to be prepared, and that comes from constant repetition in practice with our pitch recognition training, velocity sequencing, mechanical and video analysis while putting in the work to study your opponent and yourself (you’ve got to know how he’s trying to get you out and understand your own limitations as a hitter).

Emotionally you’ve got to change your thinking to “I don’t want to strikeout” to “I have one more pitch to accomplish my goal,” you’ve got to let go of the fear and welcome the challenge of hitting behind in the count.

And finally, physically, you must make physical adjustments with your body –move up or off on the plate, choke up, more upper-body spine bend to get your eyes closer to the plane of the pitch, restrict lower/upper body movement. Young hitters need to understand that with two strikes a lot is going against you and the numbers (at any level) in those counts are brutal.

I’ve long said that a strikeout isn’t just like any other out, it’s momentum changing, kills rallies and feeds the confidence of a pitcher — how can the best thing for a pitcher not be the worst thing for a hitter? Don’t get me wrong, we’re still trying to hit the ball hard with two strikes but we’ve got to make sure we fine tune that approach and be ready for the challenges.

10 Innings: With eight returning starters back, has there been an overall area of focus this fall with the hitters, where there may not be a lot to teach, but perhaps fine tune things so the team takes the next offensive step?

Stay healthy and look for ways to continually improve, they all need to have a ‘never be satisfied mindset’ and continue to hold each other accountable every single day, on and off the field.

It might sound cliche’ but Boxwell said it best a few days ago, “you never really figure it out” — your always constantly learning and growing as a hitter. Nobody has all the answers and there’s no one way to teach hitting, we all have to be open to learning and challenging our way of thinking. You look at the greatest hitters in Major League Baseball, they’re all still working and searching for ways to improve mentally, emotionally and physically on a daily basis, nobody says “I want to stay the same today.”

Our motto in Gopher Baseball is take every day to get 1% better, step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself. As far as the lineup goes, we don’t just need to be strong one-through-nine, we need to be strong one-through-17 (with how many hitters we have), we’re only as strong as our weakest link and that’s the expectation among every hitter in our program.

Last year we had a lot of players have great individual years, this year we need to expand on that and take the next step to improve as a unit. With that being said I’m very excited for this years group (both hitters and pitchers alike), we’ve got a lot of experience coming back and a very talented offensive team on hand for the 2018 season.

This is a special group of men capable of great things but rest assured it won’t come easy, the Big Ten is going to very, very good this year and our non-conference schedule will be even more challenging. I’m excited to watch these guys take the next step and accomplish special things as a team next spring.

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