RICHMOND, Va. – The VCU Baseball team is loaded with pitching talent, and that includes the dugout.
Head Coach Shawn Stiffler and first-year Pitching Coach Steve Hay, longtime friends and former high school teammates, were both accomplished pitchers in college at George Mason and Webber International, respectively. Stiffler served as a pitching coach at Mason and VCU for the better part of a decade before assuming taking over as Rams head coach in 2012. Hay succeeded Stiffler as George Mason pitching coach and produced eight productive seasons for the Patriots. Combined, Stiffler and Hay boast nearly a quarter-century of experience mentoring college pitchers.
It should come as no surprise that as VCU (24-16, 7-5 A-10) readies for a pivotal series with league rival Rhode Island this weekend, the Rams lead the Atlantic 10 Conference and rank in the top 30 nationally in both ERA (2.93) and strikeouts (338).
Stiffler’s teams have generally pitched well, but Hay’s influence appears to be having an impact this season. Senior left-hander Matt Lees, who pitched hurt and saw his ERA balloon to 5.45 last season, has allowed one earned run in 38 innings this year (0.24 ERA). During the fall, Lees and Hay worked to find a more comfortable arm slot for the senior lefty. The result of those labors has been one of the best seasons by a VCU reliever in recent memory.
Senior starters JoJo Howie (4-4, 3.06 ERA) and Heath Dwyer (5-2, 3.32 ERA) have been their usual, outstanding selves, while hurlers like senior closer Daniel Concepcion (2-2, 8 saves, 2.03 ERA) and classmate Tyler Buckley (2-0, 1.71 ERA) – who threw just 5 2/3 innings last season – have really hit their stride this year.
Earlier this week, VCU limited Maryland, the Big Ten’s highest scoring team, to just two runs in back-to-back wins over the 21st-ranked Terrapins.
“It’s all to their credit,” Hay says of VCU’s staff. “They’re good. It’s recruiting. They recruited good guys for me to walk into. They’ve obviously coached them up for three years.”
Not only is Hay deferential when it comes to doling out credit for VCU’s mound dominance, he’s also appreciative. He believes working with Stiffler has made him, and the Rams, better.
“It’s been great for my development, because at Mason, I was the only pitching coach,” Hay said. “Here, I have [Stiffler’s] pitching coach experience to bound ideas off of.”
Whatever ideas are bouncing around the VCU clubhouse, they’re working.
Hay says statistical analysis plays a big role in VCU’s development of its pitchers. He says he and the staff talks at length about the difference in batters’ averages when facing 0-0, 1-0 and 0-1 counts. He says there’s about a 200-point difference in averages between hitters that face 1-0 and 0-1 counts.
Not surprisingly, the Rams view strike one as the most important. That likely has a lot to do with VCU’s league-best strikeout (8.53) and walks (2.93) per nine innings ratios.
“We feel our guys’ stuff is good enough to where if [the opposition] swings, we’ll take that chance every time to not walk him, to not carry a deep count, to keep our pitch counts down,” Hay said.
Hay says that even when the Rams haven’t pitched according to plan, they’ve found ways to keep the opposition off the board. He says that when teams allow the leadoff hitter to reach base, he scores better than 60 percent of the time. VCU, he says, has that kept that percentage around 50 percent this year.
“We’ve pitched very well for the next guy,” he says.
He also believes the experience of VCU’s staff gives it an advantage over a lot of opponents. Out of the eight pitchers who’ve thrown at least 20 innings for VCU this year, seven are seniors.
“Our guys have been through the ringer,” He added. “They know how to compete. We let a leadoff guy on, that guy rarely scores.”