Reasons why No. 1 Florida is more productive at plate than last year’s champs
It was February of last year and Kevin O’Sullivan was talking up his baseball team. He was quick to tell everyone that his 2017 team would hit. He knew the Gators would have pitching and defense, staples of his teams at UF, but this one would really knock the cover off the ball.
A year later, the Florida baseball coach was more concerned with putting the right players in the right positions defensively entering the season. He didn’t talk much about the bats.
“I was a little disappointed (after 2017),” he said. “After all the injuries we had, I didn’t want to open my mouth about hitting.”
Of course, Florida hit enough in 2017, enough to win a national championship. The Gators got key hits in the postseason and pitching carried them to and through Omaha.
That team hit .259 (thanks to a late surge) to finish 11th in the SEC in batting average.
This year has been a different story.
It’s basically the same guys at the plate minus players such as Dalton Guthrie and Ryan Larson, who are gone, but these Gators are known for their bats as much as their pitching. Florida is fifth in the powerful SEC with a .289 average.
And a 30-point jump from a College World Series champ is pretty significant.
In fact, O’Sullivan is still toying with his starting rotation with three weeks remaining in the SEC season.
So what happened?
1. They’re older
Florida’s lineup for most games includes two seniors and four juniors. Most importantly, it includes only one freshman — first baseman Brady Smith.
“You look at the history of our offense and, because we recruit such a high end of high school players, we’ve always had some young players in the lineup,” O’Sullivan said. “This year, we have a ton of experience. You can’t recruit experience.
“You either figure it out or you don’t. We’re very fortunate that our older guys have been consistent.”
Last year’s struggles have been this year’s lumber. Check out the changes from one year to the next with these five holdovers from 2017:
• Jonathan India — .274 in 2017 and .401 this season, a jump of 127 points.
• JJ Schwarz — From .259 to .310.
• Nick Horvath — From .186 to .291.
• Deacon Liput — From .227 to .279.
• Austin Langworthy — From .238 to .318.
2. They’re healthy
In 2017, we discovered the existence of the hamate bone, as Florida lost three players to the injury, including Langworthy and catcher Mike Rivera.
There were other injuries such as Dalton Guthrie’s ankle and Nelson Maldonado’s shoulder.
While there have been bumps and bruises — such as India getting hit by a pitch Saturday — Florida has escaped serious injuries that would take anyone away from the lineup for a significant time.
(India, O’Sullivan said, is good to go for Texas A&M Friday).
“It was one thing after another,” O’Sullivan said about last year.
3. Wil Dalton
Florida recruited Dalton out of junior college when few major schools were interested. Assistant Craig Bell saw something in Dalton and it has paid off.
Dalton’s presence has given the Gators a middle of the lineup that is a nightmare for SEC pitching.
Dalton leads Florida in homers with 16 and RBI with 47. The Gators have already blown by last year’s total of 53 homers with 68 this year and have a chance to rank as one of the top five home-run hitting teams in Florida history without the benefit of the nuclear bats of the late 1990s.
“He has changed the whole complexion of the lineup,” O’Sullivan said. “Pitchers have to pick their poison with India and then Dalton and then JJ, plus what Langworthy is doing.
“The middle of our order is really good and the hitting is also there at the end of it.”
4. Plate discipline
This was a team that was frustrating last year at the plate because too many batters were trying to hit 10-run homers with nobody on base.
“That’s the biggest difference in this team,” said Jeff Cardozo, the former UF pitcher who has seen every game as Florida’s main play-by-play man on radio. “They’re making adjustments that they weren’t making last year. More guys are willing to go to right field.
“The ability to not pull off the ball and go to right field is something we didn’t see as much last year. Look at JJ. He’s learned to take the outside pitch and hit it to right. Langworthy, I bet half his hits are to the opposite field.”
Indeed, Florida has not only shown the willingness to go with pitches, but to deliver those hits with power.
“The biggest one is India,” Cardozo said. “Last year, he was swinging at a lot of balls out of the zone. This year, he doesn’t swing at bad pitches.”
Who: No. 1 Florida (36-10, 16-5 SEC) at No. 21 Texas A&M (33-12, 11-10)
When: 7:30 p.m.
Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM
Online: SEC Network+
Pitching matchup: UF RHP Brady Singer (9-1, 2.62 ERA) vs. A&M RHP Mitchell Kilkenny (8-1, 2.12)
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.