THE NUMBERS ARE mind-boggling. Fifty-one consecutive scoreless innings early in the season, and a current streak that has stretched to 42 innings. Nine shutouts during top-ranked South Carolina’s 16-0 start. A sterling 1.12 earned run average.
The one statistic that drives all the rest, that serves as the indicator to why USC pitchers have found success thus far is the staff’s walks per nine innings. The Gamecocks are allowing two free passes each game, on average.
“We’ve been able to throw a number of different pitches for strikes in any count,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “We’re not wowing you with stuff. We’re not blowing people away.”
But, man, do they throw strikes.
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An outstanding rate for a college staff, according to USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers, would be three walks over nine innings. From 2005 through 2012, USC’s pitchers were around that rate. Then the staff took it to another level by walking 2.4 per nine innings a season ago and 2.1 this season.
By walking 34 batters in 144 innings, USC pitchers have forced opposing teams to alter their approach to hitting. Because the pitchers consistently throw the first pitch for a strike, opposing batters tend to be more aggressive early in the count. Once behind in the count, opposing teams often must swing at pitches outside the strike zone to protect the plate.
Granted, other than three games against Clemson, USC has faced less-than-stellar competition. The team ERA is likely to rise once USC begins SEC play this weekend. So, too, will the propensity for shutouts. But the one constant, no matter the competition, will be USC’s ability to throw strikes.
In his four seasons since returning to USC as its pitching coach, Meyers has imparted a simple mindset on his staff: Walks are not allowed. Meyers, his pitchers and his catchers talk often about the impermissible “Free 90s.”
In layman’s terms, that means not allowing a free trip of 90 feet to first base, or any base, for the opposing team. USC considers a wild pitch, passed ball or an opposing team stolen base as a “Free 90,” as well.
“There is a lot of competition on the staff, so they know they’ve got to throw strikes,” Meyers says. “Guys who hit bad spurts, where they struggle to throw strikes, if we continue to have some depth, there’ll be somebody else to go to. That encourages guys to make sure they are throwing strikes and staying ahead of hitters.”
One of Meyers’ principles to successful pitching involves attempting to locate two of the first three pitches to each batter exactly where you want those pitches thrown in the strike zone. That usually puts the pitcher ahead in the count.
It also means not going deep into counts. Not only do USC pitchers seldom issue walks, they also consistently avoid getting to three balls in a count. Of the 571 opposing batters USC has faced this season, 74 have seen a third ball during an at-bat, an astounding 13 percent of the time.
Meyers points to two other factors as reasons his staff is comfortable throwing any kind of pitch for a strike. He says Grayson Greiner is among the best catchers in the country at receiving pitches and also blocking pitches in the dirt to prevent opponents from advancing a base. Additionally, USC is an outstanding defensive team at nearly every position.
“He gives you confidence when you’re throwing to him. ... He’s going to make all your pitches look good,” Meyers says of Greiner. “ ... When (the pitches) are not where they need to be, he’s trying to help them instead of pointing out the negative or getting their minds going in the wrong direction.”
USC’s infield defense, with Marcus Mooney at shortstop and Kyle Martin at first base, is much improved over last season. Its outfield still has the fleet-footed Tanner English to run down balls in center field. The result is a sparkling .981 fielding percentage (.970 is considered excellent) that counts 11 errors in 16 games.
“You can pitch to contact,” Holbrook says by way of complimenting the defense. “They’re not trying to strike everybody out. That’s what our pitching staff has done. They’ve thrown strikes with different pitches in all different counts.”
USC fans enjoy seeing the results on the scoreboard. Greiner sees his pitchers work from behind the plate and gains the same kind of pleasure as the fans.
“It’s a lot of fun for me,” Greiner says. “Sitting back there and just putting my glove up and letting them throw to it.”
For strikes, more often than not.