College baseball: The most improved players so far this season
Baseball is a game of adjustments, whether they come in-game, midseason or during the offseason. The offseason variety is exemplified by the following individuals who have taken their games to the next level in 2017.
Here are some of the most improved players across college baseball this season:
Sam Fragale | Virginia Tech
The signs of Fragale's improvement at the plate surfaced early in 2017. In Virginia Tech's season opener against USC Upstate, Fragale bashed three home runs in his first three at bats en route to finishing 5-for-5 on the day.
"It wasn't necessarily a look into what the season was going to be like, but it was kind of a glimpse, I guess," Fragale told NCAA.com on Tuesday. “It was an idea of what I could do if I kept working.”
The redshirt junior infielder has rode the momentum from opening day to midway through the season, compiling a .333 batting average, 14 home runs and 53 RBIs so far — all career-highs. In his first two seasons in Blacksburg, he hit all of eight combined home runs in 90 games.
Fragale credits experience and confidence as the major factors in his breakout 2017 campaign. He added that over the offseason he focused on attacking the ball earlier in the count with a simplified swing.
“Throughout the summer playing summer ball, I went in there with the mindset to move the ball earlier in the count," Fragale said. "Last year I had a lot of strikeouts and that cut down on the opportunities to get RBIs and stuff like that.
“I kind of almost slowed my mechanics down but got everything going earlier to get myself more time to see the ball.”
The results have shown in increased power and efficiency. He's cut his strikeout per plate appearance by one and has increased his on base percentage by nearly 50 points from last season.
Fragale's production hasn't slowed down with the start of ACC play, where a different opposing ace awaits each weekend. So far in conference play, Fragale has six homers and a .618 slugging percentage.
“The ACC is one of the best conferences in the country. The competition is fantastic, the pitching is fantastic and you’re never going a weekend without seeing a great arm," he said. "It’s just your mentality in sticking with your approach and not taking a pitch off.”
Brent Rooker | Mississippi State
Mississippi State's first baseman/designated hitter has transformed into the most fearsome hitter in a stacked SEC. Rooker, a junior, ranks in the top five nationally in batting average (.432), home runs (16) and RBIs (57) this season.
That home run total, achieved just past the midway point of the season, surpasses the amount he's tallied over his first two seasons in Starkville combined. As a regular starter in 2016, he went yard just 11 times and batted .324. His on base percentage has also risen drastically from .376 to .532.
Rooker's best work has come in his most recent three-week tear. The stretch started with back-to-back SEC player of the week honors in which he batted a combined 17-for-32 with seven home runs. In the Bulldogs' game against Kentucky on April 8, he slugged three home runs, including a grand slam, in a 10-6 victory. This past week he cooled down just a bit, going 4-for-14 with another home run.
Rooker has gone from a 2016 All-SEC second-teamer to one of the favorites for the 2017 Golden Spikes Award, collegiate baseball's top individual honor.
Steven Gingery | Texas Tech
As a freshman, Gingery was a major piece of the Red Raiders' rotation, starting 14 games including one in the College World Series against TCU. In that final outing of his debut season, Gingery held the Horned Frogs to two runs (one earned) in 4.1 innings. He would get the no-decision in Texas Tech's loss, but it marked the ending to a solid season for the California native. His final 2016 stat line: 4-2; 3.18 ERA; 63 strikeouts.
With the ground work already laid, Gingery has dazzled in his sophomore season in Lubbock. The lefty ace is 7-0 with a 1.48 ERA and 67 strikeouts in nine starts.
Part of the reason for his improvement points toward his increased control on the mound. Last season he finished with 31 walks and 12 hit batsmen in 68 innings. This year he's cut those numbers in half — 15 and seven, respectively — good for 2.5 fewer walks/HBP allowed per nine innings.
Gingery bursted onto the scene last season as one of the Red Raiders' most reliable starters and a dominant force in Big 12 play. Now he finds himself in the elite ranks of starters nationally.
Luke Heimlich | Oregon State
Heimlich has been almost untouchable in his junior campaign for the No. 1 Beavers, emerging as their unquestioned ace with a 5-1 record and 0.83 ERA. His ERA ranks below teammate Jake Mulholland (0.55) for tops in the country while his WHIP (0.82) comes in at No. 8.
The southpaw has come a long way since spending his first two seasons hovering in the mid-threes with his ERA as he split time as a starter and reliever. Last year he went 7-4 with a 3.53 ERA while starting 11 of his 20 appearances. But his stardom began to emerge as the season winded down.
Heimlich closed out the Beavers' 2016 regular season with his first career complete game, shutting out UCLA with eight strikeouts. He's added a second to his ledger this season as he continues to ride the momentum from the tailend of last year. The junior has struck out seven more batters in 21 fewer innings from last season and has stymied opponents to a .172 batting average against.
Oregon State is ripe with talent in both the starting rotation and bullpen. The staff has a combined 1.74 ERA this year, making it the only group in the nation pitching under the 2.00 mark. Even with all this depth, Heimlich has had no problem emerging as the leader of the pack.
Wyatt Marks | Louisiana
Making a move from the starting rotation to the bullpen can be seen either as a demotion or an opportunity to grow. Fortunately for the Ragin' Cajuns, Marks has done the latter in his new role.
After working as a starter his first two season, compiling an 11-8 record and a 3.87 ERA, Marks has shifted gears this season to become one of the more reliable relievers. The fireballer has worked in the eighth and ninth innings of close games — he's second on the team with four saves — while also getting the chance to work extended outings of three-to-five innings in relief. Altogether, he's held opponents to just five earned runs in 41 frames (1.24 ERA).
Robe credits @WyattMarks maturity & ability with the fastball & slider for his awesome strikeout rate, as well as when he enters the game."— Scott Prather (@Scott_1420) April 17, 2017
Marks had already established himself as one of the most prolific strikeout pitchers in the nation as a starter. Last year he racked up 80 punchouts in 76 innings. This year, working in late-game situations, he's already up to 56 and is striking batters out at a clip of 14.59 per nine innings. That's good for second in the nation.
Louisiana has gotten the most out of its talented righty this year.