‘Noles 9: Strikeouts and situational hitting among major early-season issues
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - For years under Mike Martin Sr., Florida State was a program known for its advanced plate discipline and scrappy approach. Opponents knew that when Florida State lined up in the opposing dugout, outs that day would be difficult to earn.
Last year’s pandemic shortened season under first-year head coach Mike Martin Jr. represented a shift from tradition. When the Seminoles struck out in 37% of their at-bats, Martin Jr. focused the team’s entire offseason on producing more quality at-bats.
There was excellent power up and down the lineup, but he knew Florida State would need to put more balls in play to reach its maximum potential. The question was, how much could FSU realistically improve on its strikeout issues from 2020? Not to say that improvement is unattainable this season, but at a certain point, strikeouts are just a part of some hitters’ DNA.
If the Florida State’s first six games in 2021 are any indication, the answer might not be the one Martin Jr. was hoping for. The Seminoles were swept by Pitt over the weekend and struck out 47 times in three games.
Even after all of that though, Florida State is surprisingly on pace to improve its strikeout rate from last season. So far through six games in 2021, the Seminoles have struck out in 34.7% of its at-bats.
The improvement is scant, which again begs the question. How much improvement is realistic and how much, at a certain point, are Florida State’s hitters just are what they are?
Martin Jr. said after Saturday’s loss that there isn’t a common denominator among all of the strikeouts.
“Some guys are digging their own hole by taking something they should hit or getting behind because they swung at something they shouldn’t have,” Martin Jr. said. “We’re going to keep working at it…Unfortunately, it’s a whole bunch of them in a rut right now.”
On the bright side, FSU has been solid in terms of making contact in three of the six games it has played thus far. In its final two games against North Florida, the Seminoles were punched out only 13 times combined after striking out 13 times in their first game of the season.
Additionally, through eight innings against Pitt Sunday, FSU struck out only three times as a team. Ironically, that happened without Tyler Martin, FSU’s best contact hitter, in the starting lineup. The final five innings of that game though saw the Seminoles strike out nine times as a group before losing in 13 innings.
FSU team strikeouts in its six games
- vs. UNF: 13, 6, 7
- vs. Pitt: 19, 16, 12
Florida State may not ever become a team that can consistently hold its strikeout totals to six or seven per game. The key will be avoiding games that look like the first two contests against Pitt. Decreasing the strikeout ratio to the low 30s range is probably the most FSU can expect to realistically improve.
2. Situational hitting may be an even bigger issue
Strikeouts were arguably the biggest thing to watch coming into the season, and that will be a storyline all season. However, arguably an even more glaring problem over the first six games of the season has been FSU’s situational hitting.
Forget the fact that FSU hit just .175 in the series against Pitt (20-for-114). Here’s how they fared in the following situations over the weekend.
FSU situational hitting vs. Pitt
- Lead Off: 8-31 (.258)
- Advancement: 25-65 (.385)
- Two Outs: 3-36 (.083)
- Runners on Base: 10-56 (.178)
- Runners in Scoring Position: 2-30
- Runners on 3rd, less than two outs: 1-5 (.200)
- Bases Loaded: 0-6 (.000)
A .258 on-base percentage from the leadoff hitter is the first problem. The less a leadoff hitter gets on base, the less available scoring opportunities will be.
The advancement opportunities also correlate with a team’s strikeout percentage. The more a team can put the ball in play, the higher percentage of runners it will advance along the base paths.
Even with the high strikeout totals, FSU’s lineup is built to somewhat offset those concerns with its abundant power. However, the Seminoles have left a lot of runs on the board over the past couple of weekends.
The strikeout issue would be far less problematic if FSU were producing runs in key situations. The inability to convert on opportunities to drive in runs, along with the high strikeout numbers has yielded a messy offensive output over FSU’s first six games.
Part of the issue here could be that the Seminoles have taken a lot of strikes early in the count, which limits the number of quality swings they can make.
“I want big, balanced, aggressive swings early and ahead in the count,” Martin Jr. said after Sunday’s game. “I thought I saw some guys just trying not to strike out, which is not what you do. Of course, you don’t try to strike out, but if you’re ahead in the count, you’re not just feeling for it, trying to work the ball around.”
Through six games, Florida State is hitting just .220 (26-118) with runners on base and a putrid .183 (13-71) with runners in scoring position.
FSU probably isn’t going to become a low-strikeout team overnight, but the situational hitting must be addressed quickly if the Seminoles are going to be a viable offensive team.
3. Robby Martin swings and misses
It would not be fair to single out one player for Florida State’s offensive struggles. The Seminoles’ issues at the plate can be attributed to a number of key guys all slumping at the same time.
However, Robby Martin’s slump through the first six games of 2021 has been surprising. The good news is he’s getting on base at a near 47% clip, which would be a career-high.
He’s also walked eight times, compared to 11 strikeouts, which is a solid ratio. However, Martin is slugging just .273 right now, well below his .440 rate in his first two seasons combined. The preseason All-American has also yet to record an extra-base hit.
The 11 strikeouts are a high number for him. Right now, he is on pace to strike out over double the rate he did on his first two seasons. Take a look at the numbers below. (Note: they’ve been extrapolated to match his 63-game season in 2019, the last time there was a full non-conference schedule.)
Robby Martin strikeouts per 63 games
|Year||Ks||# of Games||K/63 games|
What’s more alarming is that in four of FSU’s six games, he’s struck out multiple times. In 17 games last season, he had only five multi-strikeout games. In 2019, that happened only 14 times in 63 games.
Robby Martin multi-strikeout games per 63 games
|Year||Multi-K games||# of Games||Multi-K games per 63 games|
In the series against Pitt, Martin had 13 swings and misses for a 50% whiff rate. For reference, the average whiff rate is considered 23.28%., according to FanGraphs.
Martin still has plenty of time to turn things around, but his performance at the plate to start 2021 has been vastly different from what he’s generally been over the last two seasons.
4. Mat Nelson heading towards a breakout season
One of the bright spots for Florida State to start the 2021 season has been the improvement of third-year catcher Mat Nelson.
Florida State coaches raved all offseason about how impressive he looked during fall camp and that has translated to the spring. After belting two home runs in the opening weekend against North Florida, he hit a two-run blast Sunday on a 2-0 fastball well-located on the low and outside corner.
Nelson worked extremely hard in the offseason to get in better shape and that seems to have improved his bat speed. His three home runs through six games is already two more than what he hit in 17 games last season and halfway to the number of bombs, he hit over 57 games in 2019.
Right now, he has an impressive slash line of .300/.462/.800 and leads the team with 16 total bases.
His defense has also been excellent. Nelson allowed just one passed ball in 23 innings behind the plate against Pitt. His blocking was sensational, as there were numerous times throughout the weekend he stopped a pitch in the dirt with runners on base.
That trait is especially important for a Florida State team that has two freshmen starting pitchers in Parker Messick and Carson Montgomery. Having a security blanket like Nelson is a major boost for a young pitcher.
Furthermore, Nelson nailed the lone runner who tried to steal on him over the weekend, and it wasn’t even close. He did make a throwing error Saturday as well, but the positives from his performance over the weekend far outweighed the negative.
The bad news: he was removed in the top of the sixth inning Sunday and Martin Jr. said it was due to injury. Nelson stayed in the dugout after being pulled and seemed to be walking around fine, which is good news.
The head coach did not elaborate any further as far as what the injury is or the timeframe for his return. Losing Nelson for an extended stretch would be a massive loss for Florida State.
5. The Elijah Cabell experience
Elijah Cabell missed the opening series against North Florida due to a lingering hamstring injury but played in all three games against Pitt. His return was quite eventful.
Let’s start with the negatives. His first game back in the lineup was a forgettable one. All three of his plate appearances were strikeouts. Nico Baldor was then called to pinch-hit for him with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning as FSU trailed 1-0. That was a rather puzzling decision by Martin Jr.
“I thought it was the better matchup,” Martin Jr. said after the game when asked about the decision. “(Cabell’s) been, you know, on the shelf kind of. He’s been seeing live pitching but it’s not like, you know, everybody else. There’s days he had to miss and I felt like that would give us a better shot.”
Obviously, Cabell was rusty, but still. A rusty Cabell seems like a better option than a fourth-year player who has a career slash line of .179/.275/.255. At the very least, Cabell’s presence forces pitchers to be a little more cautious attacking the zone because of his elite power.
Cabell’s three consecutive strikeouts in his first game back aren’t concerning. A game to shake off the rust should have been expected.
However, the baserunning error he made Saturday in the fifth inning was a huge momentum killer. With runners on first and second and nobody out, FSU had a chance to cut into a 3-0 deficit. Nander De Sedas then lined out to second, but Cabell left early anticipating a base hit, which forced a double play. FSU didn’t score in the inning.
There were also two instances defensively where Cabell unsuccessfully dove after a ball, which might have cost FSU a run in each case.
In the first inning of Sunday’s game, Pitt’s leadoff hitter blooped one into left field for a hit. Because Cabell missed on his diving attempt, Sky Duff had a much easier time stretching it into a double. Three batters later, Ron Washington drove Duff in with a single to center.
The other play came in the top of the seventh when Pitt had runners on first and second with two outs. David Yanni softly hit a ball out to left, and Cabell missed on his diving attempt, allowing two runs to score. Yanni was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple to end the inning. It is likely one run would have been saved if Cabell had just kept the ball in front of him. That play marked the start of a blown four-run lead with only seven more outs to get.
Neither was scored as an error, but erring on the side of caution might have been the smarter option.
Now the positives.
Cabell was much better at the plate over the final two games, collecting four hits, drawing three walks and striking out only three times total. He has a much better eye than people give him credit for. He’s going to walk a lot this season because teams will be so concerned about his power.
Cabell finished the weekend with four hits in 12 at-bats, none bigger than a mammoth home run in the bottom of the sixth inning Sunday. Enjoy the following clip.
If you’re wondering how far that ball went and how hard it was hit, the answer is 489 feet with a 114 mph exit velocity. In the MLB Statcast era, which began in 2015 only five players have hit a ball that distance with that exit velocity:
- Aaron Judge (twice)
- Joey Gallo (twice)
- Giancarlo Stanton
- Miguel Sanó
- Franchy Cordero
That will be just the first of many home runs this year for Cabell in 2021.
6. Bullpen better overall in second weekend
Florida State entered the season expecting its bullpen to be one of the best in college baseball. Last weekend against North Florida, of the nine bullpen arms that played, Chase Haney, Bryce Hubbart and Clay Kwiatkowski were the only three that delivered quality outings.
Overall, the bullpen was a lot better in the series against Pitt.
Bullpen in series vs. Pitt
In six games, FSU’s bullpen ERA is 4.94, which higher than expected, but that will drop with time.
Kwiatkowski and Hubbart (more on him below) have been the two most reliable options out of the pen to start the season. The lone truly disappointing moment was Haney blowing a save Sunday by allowing a game-tying two-run homer in the ninth inning. Haney has a career 2.93 ERA over 120 career innings though, so one blown save is no cause for concern.
Florida State’s bullpen is striking out 11.5 batters per nine innings, which shows how good their raw stuff can be. However, the 6.9 walks per nine innings need to improve, although that was much better this weekend too.
The walks have been an issue not just for the bullpen, but the entire pitching staff. As a whole, Florida State pitchers walked 22 batters in 31 innings against Pitt. Through six games, they’ve walked 48 batters in 58 innings.
Martin Jr. said the walks issue and overall pitching struggles are surprising because they are problems that have not been present in practice.
“We’re finding out who can do it when the lights come on,” Martin Jr. said Saturday, “and who needs to improve in that area.”
Crowell, Armstrong and Perdue (more on him below) all made their FSU debuts against Pitt and were impressive.
Hare was outstanding after a rough opening weekend. His splitter was unhittable. The only two baserunners he allowed in his lone outing were his last two batters of the game. His two earned runs came via a two-run double after he was removed.
It’s a very talented bullpen full of guys who have the stuff to be shutdown options on any given night. The group’s consistency hasn’t quite materialized yet, but they’re not too far off.
7. First taste of Hunter Perdue’s electric arm
Perdue made two appearances over the weekend, but his second cameo lasted just one pitch. His debut on Friday is what needs to be discussed.
Perdue showcased a powerful fastball, slider combination that could be lethal in the back of FSU’s bullpen.
He threw 15 pitches on Friday night and nine of them were fastballs. All of them were at least 95 mph.
Perdue fastball velocity by pitch
Martin Jr. has been saying for a while that he wants to start deploying more power arms at the back of his bullpen. On Sunday, he had the chance to do so with FSU leading 7-5 in the ninth. Both Perdue and Haney warmed up, but he opted with the more experienced Haney and it cost him.
Martin Jr. said last weekend Haney would likely get the majority of FSU’s high-leverage innings, but one has to wonder if that will change as some of the younger pitchers with more powerful arms garner more experience.
One outing is not enough to make any declarative statements about what Perdue’s role should be going forward, but he has the stuff to eventually become FSU’s regular closer.
8. Bryce Hubbart’s coming out party
Hubbart had some command issues in his rookie season with eight walks and a 6.41 ERA in 8.1 innings, but he’s clearly improved in that area since last year.
He was expected to start the season in Florida State’s rotation and it’s hard to argue he shouldn’t at least be considered to start a game next weekend against Virginia after his outing against Pitt Sunday.
After Haney allowed the game-tying home run, Hubbart entered the game and was dominant. His final line of 4.1 IP (career-high), 2 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 9 K (career-high) doesn’t tell the whole story.
Hubbart has added a swing-and-miss changeup to his arsenal that includes a plus curveball and a fastball that now touches 94. He overwhelmed Pitt hitters with all three pitches Sunday.
However, Martin Jr. probably left him in for too long. By the end of the 11th inning, his 2.2 innings pitched to that point were already a career-high.
In the 13th inning, Hubbart’s first pitch was a fastball that clocked in at only 90 mph, which was well below the 92-94 mph range he was living in up to that point. In other words, he was clearly getting a bit tired, having never thrown for that long in a game before.
It was not surprising to see him then allow a double and a hit batter before giving up the game-winning two-run double.
Carson Montgomery has immense potential, but perhaps he’s not ready to be FSU’s No. 2 starter quite yet after his start Saturday. It might be worth considering moving him to the bullpen, for now, to bring him along slowly and give Hubbart a shot in the rotation. He might have earned that chance after Sunday.
9. Two key injuries
The Nelson injury mentioned earlier is worth monitoring. If he misses any time, FSU will likely turn to Colton Vincent. He went 0-for-2 with a strikeout after replacing Nelson in the sixth inning Sunday.
Tyler Martin also exited Saturday’s game with a hip flexor injury and was not in the starting lineup Sunday. He pinch-hit for Dylan Simmons in the 12th inning, but Cooper Swanson was called in as a pinch-runner when Martin reached base.
If Martin misses time, FSU could start Simmons or Swanson at first base and use the other as the DH. Casey Asman was the DH Sunday, but he went 0-for-6 in the game.
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