TERRE HAUTE —
One of the many charms of baseball is that there are a thousand different debates about a thousand different topics one can embroil themselves in. One of the most passionate is whether clutch hitting exists.
Google it. You’ll find plenty of treatises and missives that come down on one side of the issue or another. Sabermetrics meet probability statistics meet the eye test, and never the three shall meet. The debate will likely rage on forever.
No matter which side you stand with, one truism remains: There are clutch situations, even if one might not believe there are players or teams that rise to the occasion often enough to make it a statistic than can truly be given value.
Indiana State’s baseball team is doing its part to make the debate interesting. In its 21-7 start that has ISU ranked in the national RPI top 25, the Sycamores have been uncommonly good in two-out situations.
After Sunday’s sweep of Wichita State, ISU is hitting .294 (93 of 316) with two outs. The Sycamores have also amassed 66 of their 145 RBI with two outs. It means 45.5 percent of the runs ISU has driven in have come in two-out situations.
“Our guys have done a good job focusing with two outs and they’ve worked hard on not wanting to be that last out and they’ve stayed within themselves to drive the ball into the middle of the field,” ISU coach Mitch Hannahs said.
That two-out prowess was never more evident than during the three victories over the Shockers. Nine of the 11 runs ISU scored in the series were driven home with two outs.
How does ISU’s two-out production hold up to the normal standard? During the 2013 Major League Baseball season, the 30 big-league teams combined to hit .241 with two outs. Teams drove in 19,272 runs with two outs, which works out to 37.5 percent of the total RBI recorded in 2013.
The best team in the majors in 2013 with two outs was Detroit (.273). St. Louis was second at .265. Ten teams hit .230 or worse with two outs. Texas was the best team in the two-out RBI percentage department, as the Rangers drove in 43.4 percent of their runs with two outs.
All of those MLB bests have fallen short of what the Sycamores have accomplished so far with two outs. Smaller sample size in college baseball? Yes, but ISU’s two-out production might have staying power because it has a lot to do with mind over matter.
“For the most part, the guys have eliminated the situation from their minds. They’ve eliminated the fact that there’s two outs and they’ve eliminated the ‘I’ve got to’ mentality as opposed to just sitting in there and putting together a good at-bat,” Hannahs said.
The players said the two-out runs are a carryover effect from the approach taken deep in counts regardless of how many outs there are. The Sycamores are instructed to hang tough during two-strike situations, and that ethos translates to two-out situations as well.
“We do a good job of having a two-strike approach. It shows a lot of composure and self-discipline if you’re able to hit with two strikes. It’s always good to get deep into a count and hit, and it’s always good if you can do deep in an inning too,” ISU right fielder Jacob Hayes said.
ISU outfielder Tony Rosselli said the makeup of the Sycamore offense also contributes. ISU is bereft of sluggers — ISU has hit 10 home runs in 28 games — so few of the Sycamores go up to the plate with a free-swinging attitude.
“We’re not a big team that can hit the home runs every inning. We’re looking for the base hit to get the next guy up. We’re looking to move guys into scoring position,” said Rosselli, who did smack one of ISU’s home runs in Sunday’s 5-4 victory over WSU.
One group of Sycamores has enjoyed watching ISU’s offense pile up the two-out runs — the ISU pitching staff.
“It’s great for us. It’s great to have them on our team. They battle their butts off every day, and it makes us want to do the same thing,” ISU reliever Ryan Keaffaber said.
So far, they have. ISU’s hurlers have been equally stout with two outs. Opponents are batting just .207 and have just 34 RBI with two outs, which equates to 33.3 percent of their total.
Will ISU’s two-out numbers eventually regress to the mean? Perhaps. Are ISU’s two-out numbers an outlier in the great debate about clutch hitting (and pitching)? Could be.
But for now, the Sycamores are just going to let their two-out production do the talking.
• Big mid-week ahead — The stakes are high for ISU as it plays two key mid-week games. ISU travels to Southeastern Conference power Vanderbilt tonight. The Sycamores then pay Indiana a visit on Wednesday.
More than halfway through the college baseball season, ISU finds itself very much in the mix a possible NCAA Tournament at-large bid. As of late Sunday, ISU was 21st in the RPI. A win over the Commodores (7th RPI) or Hoosiers (11th) would go a long way toward bolstering the Sycamores’ chances.
“If you want to talk about being in that elite company, you’ve got to go play them,” Hannahs said. “We picked up Vanderbilt late. It was a quality program that we can drive to and play.”
Hannahs said it’s likely that several pitchers will be used over the course of both games. Nick Kolarik was going to start at Vanderbilt, but his three-inning stint against WSU on Sunday will likely alter that plan.
Vanderbilt (25-8) has already fallen victim to a Missouri Valley Conference team in a mid-week game, as Evansville defeated the Commodores 8-3 on Feb. 26. ISU has already beaten IU (17-10) this season — a 12-8 victory at Bob Warn Field on March 26.
ISU’s RPI figures to stay healthy for most of the season. The MVC is ranked fifth in conference RPI as of late Sunday. The MVC is within range of third-place ACC and fourth-place Pac-12. The Big West Conference, ranked sixth, is right on the MVC’s heels as well.
ISU plays just one more team this season — Butler — that’s ranked below 200 in the baseball RPI.