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Coolican: Jarrett clearly right fit for Irish baseball

| Friday, August 21, 2020

When Link Jarrett was hired as the new Notre Dame baseball coach last July, I, like many other Irish fans, were surprised by the move. It was clearly the right time for a coaching change; Mik Aoki had a losing record over his nine year tenure and led the Irish to the NCAA tournament just once. Considering they had been to the tournament 12 times in 15 years from 1992 to 2006, these last 15 years have been tough for Notre Dame baseball. But many questioned whether Jarrett was the right man for the job.

Although he was a two-time Southern conference coach of the year and had guided UNC Greensboro to the NCAA tournament, could he succeed at Notre Dame?

Aoki was one of the top analytical minds in baseball, but it didn’t translate to on-field success. His teams didn’t hit for much power or average, and while the pitching staff often found more success, in his two last seasons, their ERA ballooned to over 5.00. Players had a great deal of individual success during his tenure. There were 55 MLB draft picks while he was at Notre Dame, but he struggled to win big games. Aoki did do an admirable job transitioning Notre Dame to the ACC, one of the toughest conferences in baseball, which was certainly a major challenge. 

Now is a time in baseball when analytics and advanced scouting have become even more important to most teams. In the MLB, nearly every team uses some form of defensive shift and makes other in-game decisions using analytics. They use analytics to better understand both their own players and opposing players, allowing them to make decisions based on underlying data rather than simply the “eye test.” Analysts will look at anything from the path a runner takes on the bases to the spin rate on a pitcher’s curveball. This has increasingly held true at the college level as well. Analytics have become especially important for scouting high school players, as the scope of competition is so varied, scouts can more easily predict which skills will translate to the next level. 

However, even though conventional wisdom within baseball thinks analytics are the way of the future, there certainly is an argument against them. Hitters may perform better when they simply focus on the pitch rather than determining exactly where a pitcher will throw his changeup or the amount of break on his curveball. Baseball is a game of one-on-one battles, and often the player with the best focus will win. Jarrett certainly isn’t entirely against analytics, but he isn’t as big of a proponent of them as Aoki was. 

I was surprised when the Irish hired such an “old-school” coach who didn’t have any experience coaching in a major conference. Even though Jarrett’s first season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am prepared to admit I was dead wrong. The Irish were fantastic through 13 games, going 11-2 including a three game road sweep of North Carolina, winning their last seven prior to the premature end to the season. Jarrett is a proponent of an approach-based, consistent method for his players, and they seem to have responded. 

However, it wasn’t just the record that stood out. The underlying stats suggested the hot start was not an anomaly. The Irish averaged an astounding 8.9 runs per game while batting over .300. They also hit 16 home runs over 13 games, suggesting the lack of power shown by many of Aoki’s teams is long gone. The pitching staff was equally impressive, holding opponents to a .183 batting average while striking out 131 batters. These stats aren’t the advanced statistics that sabermetricians love, but we don’t need them to understand how good Notre Dame was last season. 

Another mark of how good Jarrett and his staff were last year was the amount how many of the players he inherited improved. Admittedly, it was a small sample size, but there were marked improvements across the board. Multiple players, including Eric Gilgenbach and Spencer Myers, saw their batting averages increase by more than 100 points, and the pitching staff’s collective ERA dropped from 5.01 to 3.77. While those statistics couldn’t be expected to hold had the season gone on, especially as the Irish went on to playing more ACC teams, such large increases show how good of a job Jarrett and his staff have done in regards to development. 

In 2021, the Irish will have a shot at the ACC title. The approach Jarrett has taken clearly resonates with the players, and they have the talent to be competitive in nearly every game. It will be fascinating to see what happens when the Irish take on teams like Louisville, Florida State and Virginia. There will be some learning curves when taking on these established foes, but this team has proven they can handle it. It’s an incredibly long offseason, but if the team can carry over even some of the momentum it had when the season was postponed, Notre Dame baseball will be a force to be reckoned with.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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