bleedCrimson.net will be conducting weekly interviews with Aggie baseball head coach Rocky Ward throughout the 2008 season as the Aggies open their third season in the WAC. In this week's interview Coach Ward talks about the Joe Scaperotta, the Rio Grande Rivalry Series and gives fans an All-Access pass inside Aggie baseball practice.
bleedCrimson.net: Can you talk a little bit about Joe Scaperotta being named to the Preseason All-WAC Team?
Rocky Ward: Joe is a kid that has great talent that started to show signs of it a year ago. He had a real good quality year as a matter of fact. He was the team leader, triple crown winner, led the club in home runs, RBIs and batting average. As is typical of first year players in our program we ask them to do so much with the bat beyond just what their natural abilities are. Joseph was a line drive spray type hitter that we were trying to search for a little more power out of and he did a pretty good job of that. He led the club last year with 10 home runs, that's the lowest total for a home run leader that we've had in 11 years here. The preseason All-Conference selection is based on the concept that most people believe that he'll replicate his numbers and increase his power and that's what we think he'll do. He's a kid who can potentially hit 15 to 20 home runs, hit in the mid .350s and drive in a whole bunch of runs.
We have a little bit better talent around him in the lineup than what he did a year ago. That's the unnoticed and unseen part of baseball in a lot of cases, hitters within the lineup bounce off of each other. Who hits in front of you or behind you and how they do has a lot to do with your own success. We think we have a little bit more to go around him and when you look up at the end of the year we think he'll be an All-Conference postseason selection.
bc.net: You guys start practice this week correct?
RW: Yes on Friday. February 1st is the first official practice for all teams. We're able to do individual work right now, so we've had some time with the kids but it's just bits and pieces of time. Friday is the first day that we'll be able to take the full squad out and start working on systems.
bc.net: Can you take us through a typical practice for your team.
RW: One of the things that's unique, because these kids are students, and for my program in particular, very good students, you have some class conflicts that you deal with but generally if it's a practice day we ask the kids to be out to the facility by 2:00 and dressed and on the field by 2:15. We go through a dynamic warmup which is something John Taylor in our weight program convinced us that was much better than the traditional every day stretching in preparation. It pretty much just a series of movements that help warm the body up. Then we'll go over the practice schedule for that day and the upcoming week. Then we'll start at 2:30 with a full squad with what we call a multiple Fungo Drill where you have Fungo hitters, four guys at home plate, normally the pitching staff does this, then we get a lot of repetition with our infielders on ground balls, we'll do about a 15 or 20 minute format with that.
We spend another 15 or 20 minutes on what we call live bat drills. We've always felt like one live ground ball to a shortstop with what we call batter/runner pressure, so even though it's not game, a guy hits the ball to shortstop and runs, the shortstop has the timing he has the response for that you can't replicate by just hitting a bunch of ground balls.
So we'll do an outfielders hit to the infielders and run off a kind of batting practice type of deal where the outfielders job is to hit a bunch of ground balls off the live bat. Then we'll flip that group and the next 15 minutes will be infielders hitting fly balls to outfielders, same thing applies. You can stand there with the Fungo and hit fly balls to outfielders but kids at these levels can catch the ball, that's not the issue. The Issue is getting good breaks and good jumps and getting good angles on the ball and the only way you can do that is to do it off a pitched ball off a live bat. So that's the typical first 45 minutes of practice.
At that point in time it depends on where we are in the week and body health and things like that but we spend a couple days out of the week on full squad with pitchers on the mound dealing with what's called PFP, pitcher's fielding practice. Pitchers will throw the ball to the plate we'll hit the ball to the right side where there's learning and working on first base coverage when balls are hit to the first base where pitchers can cover. That's one of those things that sometimes gets lost in our practice. You forget that your pitcher is your ninth defender and he needs to know what to do with the ball when he gets it. You work on double plays on comebackers to the mound, you work on double plays back to home plate with the catchers, they're specialty type plays. We'll spend a couple days out of the week on a consistent basis working on that.
One of the difficulties that you deal with with getting pitchers enough work is you have to be really careful not to overwork their arms. They have their own cycles, generally a five or six day cycle to keep their arms fresh. The real uniqueness of our game is the management of pitching staffs. Softball is a similar sport to ours, same type of field, smaller size, different size ball, things like that but the difference between baseball and softball is that they don't have anywhere near the recovery time required on the pitching staff. Softball pitchers can throw every day pretty much while baseball guys, once they throw, they have to have a recovery period and it depends on how many pitches they throw and things like that. Once we get through that, we'll deal with the pitcher's fielding practice but the other times we'll deal with stolen base coverages, first-and-third coverage situations where teams will move the runner at first and attempt to steal the guy from third base on the back side. That's something that doesn't happen as much at our level as much as it does at other levels. First-and-third plays, it's the bread and butter play in junior college baseball and high school baseball because there's a little bit lesser defensive talent. But at this level my catcher can throw it to the second baseman or the shortstop and he can throw it back to the plate on a consistent basis in plenty of time to throw guys out. So the plays not run very much but you have to be prepared for it and you have to be ready deal with it, how to read the play. A lot of times in college at the Division I level, first-and-third they may run the guy at first base attempting a straight steal and if the guy at third doesn't break you want the throwout. I know in junior college, when I played in junior college and my brother coaches in JC up in Oklahoma, most of the time when a guy runs first-and-third, the guy at third is trying to get a timing and break to the plate. At the Division I level most of the time it's the other way around.
So we'll deal with that and we'll deal with bunt coverages, squeeze coverages. So most of the first hour and a half of any practice is dealt in defensive systems. Trying to train your defensive ballclub, trying to give them as much experience in game situations as possible. Baseball is such a unique sport in the fact that there are different ways you handle each situation and each situation is dependent on how you're going to handle it depends on how many outs there are in the inning, depending on the game score and things like that. Over the course of 10 baseball games there may be a game situation that a team doesn't see for three weeks. So you have to continue to replicate game situations defensively for guys so that if that situation doesn't occur for a couple weeks and then all of the sudden it occurs at a key point in a game, they're prepared for it.
We spend a lot of time with that as well as fly ball communication on pop ups. It's one of those things you worry about as a coach, a kid makes a good pitch and pops the hitter up and that should be an out 100% of the time yet we all know, anybody that's played and watched baseball, we've all seen major leaguers run into each other or both standing there looking at each other while the ball lands in between them. Those types of bad defensive plays, in a lot of cases are not errored in the box score, can really make a big difference in whether or not you win or lose a baseball game. We spend a lot of time in the first couple of hours in that regard.
Then the last hour to an hour and a half is spent in offensive systems. That can be done is drill rotation where we set guys up in specific drills to train certain things and rotate them through those drill stations or they can be set up in live game situational setups where you put man at first base and the hitters only job is to not hit into a double play. Double play is the biggest momentum breaker in baseball from the offensive side. It's almost equivalent to a turnover in football. You look at games and say the team that turns the ball over the least amount of times wins most the time. Well, the team that hits into the least amount of double plays, and in baseball it isn't so much over the course of a game but over the course of a three or four game series. You can usually just by looking at that stat find out who won the series. We spend time with offensive players doing that.
Game situations like men at second base and nobody out, we would prefer to be in a situation where we don't have to bunt the player over to third. We'd rather the hitter be able to take a shot at driving him in but he can't do that by pulling a ground ball because if you hit the ball to the shortstop or the third baseman the runner at second cannot advance. If it's hit to the shortstop's left or the second base or first baseman, he advances to third. We spend a lot of time in those drills. The more prepared our players are to hit to game situations, the better off, the less often we are required as a coaching staff to bunt or to hit and run.
In bunting situations, the bottom line is I'm a proponent of Billy Beane's [Oakland A's GM] style of baseball, who believes that the value of the out in baseball is undervalued. In other words, if you bunt, you purposely give up an out to move a runner over. I'd rather have a ballclub prepared to move runners over with the idea that we're not going to give up an out, but if we do end up with an out we've still succeeded. That's part of how you can continue to develop opportunities to play big inning baseball which is what we've become pretty proficient at doing. A lot of people believe that you either are a station to station power hitting big inning offense or you're a game situational, bunt the guy over, try to score one run at a time offense. Our belief is that you can do both.
bc.net: You're going to have six games televised on AggieVision this season including a game against Fresno State. Can you talk about the opportunity that it gives your team to be able to be seen in the region?
RW: There's an awful lot of value in it. I remember when it was first proposed a year and a half ago, I believe Kyle Doperalski brought it forward as an idea, a lot of people maybe thought he was nuts that he could get it done and a lot of other people, Steve Macy and those people who are dealing with that have really done a heck of a good job. The production is quality and the key with it is baseball is a little bit different to broadcast than other sports. I talked with Kyle about it and it really looks like they're prepared for it. It's a pretty big advantage. A lot of the schools in college baseball in the southeast have had t.v. for quite a while but in the southwest and in the west there hasn't been a whole bunch of college baseball on t.v. The midwest has had some exposure later in the season through ESPN and ESPN2 those networks, but most of that exposure has come as a result of hockey strikes where they just didn't have anything to put on because hockey wasn't playing and so college baseball got a little bit of benefit that way. It's kind of nice to join the deal on those.
When we played in the Sun Belt there were two or three games a year on the road on t.v. It's not only good for the home team but it's good for the road team. It kind of makes the game itself a little bit more exciting for the kids, just in essence that we're going to be on t.v. a little bit. Whether it's just local or regional it really doesn't make that much difference to be able tell people you've got televised games in college baseball.
bc.net: What does having games on television do for your recruiting efforts in terms of getting your program out there?
RW: It's one of those things, t.v. and radio coverage can be a double-edged sword. If you play the six [games] and win and perform well and look good like the Aggie basketball team did against Utah State a few days ago, you get a 30 point win on national t.v. that's a big deal. But if you don't play well in those cases it can hurt you a little bit but overall it's not so much about what happens with the game, it's being able to tell the recruits that they're going to be on t.v. a few times a year and it something that other people can't provide.
bc.net: One of the new additions to all Aggie athletic events this year is the Rio Grande Rivalry Series, can you talk a little bit about that and what it adds to the competition between NMSU and UNM and knowing that with your games being in the spring, you might be determining who wins the trophy each year?
RW: It adds a little bit more pressure on the series. It's probably good because, one of the difficulties that you have in the fact that UNM and NMSU aren't in the same league is you have to play them early in the year and you're teams aren't at full speed and sometimes it's difficult to convince your kids that the game means anything. Because in the end result, those games can't win you a conference title, they're not going to get you a regional at-large bid so it's something else as a coach that allows me another motivation point for getting them to play hard for the game. A lot of people think, "Well that's kind of crazy, why wouldn't they?" Our goals here are different than other people. Our goals at NMSU are to compete for a conference title and get to regionals. I spent a lot of my childhood in a pretty neat city called Omaha, Nebraska watching dad's [Gary Ward] clubs play for national titles. Those are the goals that we set for us with these kids. Sometimes because it's a non-conference game with UNM, those games don't impact our goals very much. So that's our fault because the games are important. They're important in recruiting factors in the state, they're important to our alumni and to our administration so I'm hopeful when we get there that we have a chance to impact who will win or lose it [Rio Grande Rivalry trophy]. I think it can only add to getting the series of four games we play against them a little more value.
Can't get enough college baseball? Be sure to check out our friend Brian Foley and his staff at The College Baseball Blog as they provide full coverage of the college baseball world.