The top college baseball coaches constantly make adjustments while playing with the hand they’re dealt. Much like major league teams that must have versatile position players to accommodate 12- and even 13-man pitching staffs, Division 1 college baseball programs need multi-talented student-athletes who can contribute in a variety of ways on the field.
LSU head coach Paul Mainieri and Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan understand that principle. In fact, both men admit they have altered their approach in putting together a 35-player roster that includes 27 receiving at least 25 percent of the 11.7 scholarships allotted D1 programs by the NCAA. Their ability to adapt enabled the two Southeastern Conference programs to reach the Championship Finals of the College World Series this year, with the Gators winning their first national championship.
“When the roster limits went into effect along with the bat changes, I made a concerted effort to get more speed, more athletes between the lines at the positions, and try and dominate on the mound,” Mainieri said. “So you have to have position players that can play really good defense. I think we do. We have for many years. Florida and LSU I think have been the top two defensive teams for many years and for most of the time that Kevin and I have coached our respective teams. I think it’s affected the way I recruit. I just try to make our team more athletic (with) more speed, more defensive ability, more versatility.”
“I think the biggest difference in recruiting now and maybe four or five years ago is we put a lot of emphasis on the two-way player,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve always had really good baseball players. They may not be the fastest, may not be the biggest or strongest, but we try to get guys with high baseball IQ. And I think if you look back over the years, we’ve been really fortunate to have some really good shortstops.
“But I think the biggest change is the two-way player. It may be your sixth outfielder, it may be your 13th pitcher, but it just gives you a little bit more depth on your lineup because of the roster limits now.”
It was not that long ago when teams coveted players who could drive the baseball out of the ballpark. The slugger may have had his limitations on defense and while running the bases, but with one swing of the bat he could change the complexion of the game. Nowadays the bruising basher is becoming a dinosaur, particularly in college baseball.
“It’s just hard to gamble on that one-dimensional player that can hit home runs,” Mainieri said. “Maybe he’s hitting it off of 84, 85 miles an hour in high school, but is he going to hit it off (Florida pitchers) Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar and Alex Faedo? If he doesn’t hit home runs off that caliber pitcher, and he’s not a defensive player, can’t run, doesn’t have versatility, then he becomes a player with very limited value. And when you only have 27 roster spots that you can give scholarship help to, it’s hard to devote money to a guy like that.”
There may come a time when the pendulum swings back and one-dimensional players become more in vogue. For the foreseeable future, however, expect college baseball players to continue to trend toward athletic, well-rounded performers who can contribute in a variety of positions and handle the bat in a manner his team needs most in a given situation.