For 40 games this season, the Kansas State baseball team was the top hitting team in college baseball.
And although the Wildcats’ position has waned this week — dropping down to No. 3 at .326 — the performance at the plate has undoubtedly played a prime role in turning the program around from its dreadful 2012 season.
K-State was 27-31 a season ago, and entered the 2013 season with a new attitude, a new motivation, and a new hitting coach.
Junior outfielder Jared Kind said it’s been a complete turnaround from last season.
“After last year, the constant losing, there’s no worse feeling,” he said. “It’s almost like coming to the field and knowing something bad is going to happen. This year, being able to come to the field and know you have a rock solid group of guys around you that you know is going to get the job done, the whole season has been a good moment for me.”
After the 2012 season ended, two-year hitting coach John Szefc left his post for the head-coaching job at Maryland. The Wildcats brought in Texas A&M coach Mike Clement, looking to keep their current philosophy, but get a change of personality.
K-State coach Brad Hill said adding Clement created a perfect combination that led to the success at the plate this season.
“We’ve got experienced guys, guys that are hungry this year,” Hill said. “Last year was not fun, so they were very hungry to be good this year. Coach (Clement) brought a great enthusiasm, a passion. He thinks simple and is a great communicator. It’s a combination of three or four things I think.”
Thinking simple has the Wildcats hitting just a few spots below the nation’s best-hitting team in New Mexico at .330. North Florida is one spot ahead of the Wildcats at .327.
But the most startling aspect of the Wildcats’ hitting is just how far ahead they are of the other Big 12 teams. K-State’s .326 average is far ahead of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State’s .296 average, which rank 46th and 47th in the nation.
The only change along the way, essentially, was Clement. The Wildcats returned several bats from last season, including one of their best in King, but they needed a few others to emerge in order to be successful this season.
They have a few.
Sophomore Austin Fisher is second on the team with a .356 average, while Shane Conlon is hitting .339. All eight of the Wildcats’ everyday players are hitting better than .325.
Hill said they changed nothing about approach when Clement came in — still looking to work the ball to the middle of the field and be aggressive on the bases — but the combination of his enthusiasm with a group hungry for success has worked perfectly.
King said Clement reminds of him of former K-State hitting coach Andy Sawyers, who was popular with players during his time with the Wildcats.
“He kind of brings that same mentality, just go with the flow, feel good, play good, not too much mechanical,” King said. “Just more of the mental side and approach.”
Clement’s strategy, according to King, is to simplify the game from the hitting approach. King describes it as an easy approach at the plate, focused far more on your mindset than your mechanics. And he said a mental approach, rather than a physical one, has been good for this team.
The Wildcats are just two games out of first place in the Big 12, looking locked in on advancing to the postseason.
Even though they fell out of first place in the nation’s hitting ranks, King said as long as the Wildcats keep doing what they’re doing, they should be sitting pretty going forward.
And thanks to all the quality hitting this season, and some breakout performances from young pitchers, King said he doesn’t have to worry so much when he heads to the ballpark.
“That was kind of our goal, to not be where we were last year,” he said. “This whole fall, coaches always reiterated how that felt last year, being where we were, and now you just don’t want to be there anymore because we have a lot of good guys. That’s been the motivation this year.”