James Madison High School in Vienna, VA, has the definition of an elite high school baseball program. Coach Mark “Pudge” Gjormand has been at the school for 22 seasons, collecting 20 or more wins in 10 seasons, including in each of the past five years. (VA high school teams rarely play more than 25 games in a season.)
Obviously, these are excellent accomplishments. Madison consistently sends players to Division I colleges on scholarship, and one of their players—Andy McGuire—was selected in the 2013 MLB Draft, although he upheld his scholarship to the University of Texas.
This season, as far as I know, was the first that the Madison High School team used advanced statistics in their baseball program. Lucky for me, Gjormand sought me out to collect data not found in the general scorebook.
For hitters, I collected information such as batted ball tendencies, including where they hit it, how hard they hit it and the type of batted ball it was (ground ball, fly ball or line drive); average number of pitches hitters saw per at bat; and BABIP. For pitchers, I looked at strike and ball rates; first pitch strike rates; and batted ball tendencies against.
None of this data is the most advanced information, but it can provide important insights as to why the team won or lost a specific game. (Although Madison managed to go 22-3 this year, so there wasn’t much to improve upon.) At the very least, it certainly is more valuable than just the basic information.
To collect this data, I went to every single game in which Madison played. For most, I sat in the press box with a computer, tracking each at bat on both sides. As a result, I watched a ton of high school baseball this year, and have learned so much more about the game at the amateur level than I did before.
Before I get into it, I would like to make a quick note: I will not be sharing any spreadsheets or charts from any of the players or the team. This is a public website, and high school baseball is extremely competitive, so none of the data will be shared in this post. Madison has earned the right to keep the stats to themselves, and I will honor that. So, this post will be more about observations about the high school game in general. Let’s begin.
1. BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) has a completely different meaning
In the Major Leagues, BABIP is generally a measure of luck. A BABIP of .300 is league average, and the general rule is that the higher a player’s BABIP, the more lucky they have been, and vice versa. You can predict something about the rest of a player’s season if they have a BABIP of .200 or of .400 after the first month. But high schoolers do not generate the 650 plate appearances that a regular Major Leaguer does. At most, they get 50-60 plate appearances over a season, so the luck factor of BABIP is sucked right out of it. There is little to no chance for regression to the mean.
Does this mean BABIP is completely useless? Absolutely not. It just tells you something else. Players with higher BABIPs at the high school level are also the players that hit the ball the hardest, creating the most opportunities to reach base.
Take this example. Madison third baseman Joey Goldsmith, who is committed to play baseball at St. Johns River State College, created the most opportunities to get base hits and thus his BABIP was over .500. Goldsmith’s hard hit rate was 15 percent higher than the next closest player on the team. He was the No. 4 hitter in Madison’s lineup, and had power to all fields. Goldsmith hit seven home runs this season, a truly impressive feat. He is an excellent high school hitter.
2. Working the count is more important than you’d think
The games in which Madison saw the most pitches also happened to be their highest scoring affairs. In a 22-0, 5 inning, mercy-rule defeat of a nearby school, Madison saw over four pitches per plate appearance in the game. Working the count has huge effects on both the hitter and the opposing team.
It’s not too hard to comprehend, either. Most high school teams throw their best pitchers as their starters. If you can get them up to 90 or 100 pitches by the fifth inning, a team is likely going to be facing a reliever that is a pitcher of much worse caliber than their starter, as the drop off between rotation and bullpen is much sharper than in the majors. The faster you can knock the starer out of the game, the faster you can score more runs.
Walking also is more made more important at the high school level. Players don’t have the elite control of Major League—or even college—pitchers, so one walk can quickly turn into two, three, four, five, etc. I’ve seen players throw seven or eight consecutive balls before laying in a pitch that is crushed. Taking pitches, and drawing walks, is arguably more important at the high school level than the professional level because of the profound impact that it has on the other team.
Leading the team in pitches per plate appearance this year were senior outfielders Wiley Counts and Peter Freck. (Freck is committed to Emory University next year.) They were both speedy table setters who stole plenty of bases. Taking pitches significantly improved their games. (Goldsmith, too, had great plate discipline, even considering his power hitter-type profile.)
3. The fly ball revolution exists in high school
You might not think that it would, but the fly ball revolution exists, even at the high school level.
Hitting ground balls at the high school level seems more advantageous than at the professional level. It’s not hard to conceptualize. You would think that fielders aren’t as good in high school than in the pros, meaning that more balls would squeak through and more errors would be made.
Actually, that’s not how it works. You must remember that high school outfielders also have poor range and can’t get to as many balls as their professional counterparts. So, really, the high school game is almost proportional to the professional game. You could make an argument that the fielders are all equally worse across the board at both levels.
The Madison hitter to hit the fewest ground balls this season was second baseman Kyle Novak. Unlike Goldsmith, not as many of Novak’s balls dropped for hits, but that does not mean he wasn’t a valuable hitter. Novak dominated the hard-hit-out game, and I recall one game in which he hit the ball to the deepest part of the ballpark (it likely went 375 feet or so) on a line. Unfortunately, the outfielder did make an excellent play on the ball, but Novak’s swing and pop were showcased. He also hit a home run in the regional semifinal game—a screaming line drive. Novak, as a junior, is already committed to play baseball at Division I James Madison University (from James Madison to James Madison, Kyle!).
1. Nothing is more important than first pitch strikes
As I mentioned earlier, high school pitchers can unravel quickly. That’s why getting ahead in the count with a first pitch strike can really set the tone for the at bat. Games are won and lost by pitching depth, especially with two or three games per week throughout the entire season. Being able to save relievers for later games can result in long winning streaks. At one point this season, Madison went 18 straight games without a loss.
Senior Ryan Kopka dominated the strike zone. Over 70 percent of his pitches went for strikes, and almost 80 percent of plate appearances against him began with a first pitch strike. These types of numbers allowed Kopka to throw complete games that got me home in time to both finish my homework and get to bed at a decent hour.
The entire Madison team saw 65 percent of their pitches end with a strike. About 60 percent of first pitches went for a strike. Madison, as a team, threw eight shutouts in their 25 games and allowed one run in six. That means in over half their games, the opposing team scored just one run or less.
2. Soft contact is still a pitcher’s friend
Most Major League pitchers—I’m looking at you, Dallas Keuchel—would prefer to give up soft contact instead of hard contact. It’s easier for the defense to make plays behind them and keep pitch counts low. So, yes, it makes sense that soft contact at the high school level carries a similar importance. After all, we are still playing the same game here.
Sophomore Matt Howat allowed the fewest hard hit balls against him (in less than 10 percent of plate appearances!). This kept the opposition’s BABIP down, and allowed Howat to gain an increased role as the season wore on. Howat pitched a one-hit shutout in the regional tournament, and he looks to be an important piece of the Madison team going forward. How does he do it? With two great pitches. Howat has a solid fastball that he locates well, and his big curveball is able to keep almost every hitter off balance. Plus, even if a hitter makes contact with it, it’s not going far. That was evident throughout the season.
High school pitchers should strive to throw pitches that keep the ball on the ground and in the fielders’ hands. Most varsity starters make most plays, so they shouldn’t be afraid to use their breaking pitches earlier in at bats to generate contact that does not leave the infield.
3. Pitching depth is more important than anything else
Madison’s pitching depth was more by virtue of luck than anything else, but the story goes for all high school programs. The more players you have that can get batters out, the more you’re going to win and feel confident throwing someone other than your No. 1 in big starts. Teams frankly play too many games to survive with just one or two great pitchers, especially if those guys have off nights.
Even with all my praising of the Madison staff, I didn’t even mention Jake Nielsen, a junior who is committed to Brigham Young University. You would think that, from my rambling, Kopka or Howat was Madison’s best pitcher. Well, most would say that you’re wrong. Nielsen was named the Region Pitcher of the Year, and I think this is the case mainly because he’s just purely good at all the characteristics I listed above. Nielsen doesn’t have one standout trait, and that’s okay. That is what makes him great. He was economical, threw hard and generated weak grounders. He was also a horse that could throw many innings.
But, that wasn’t all Madison had, either. Junior Johnny Hecht was a great reliever. Novak could pitch and get outs. Goldsmith? Well, we won’t discuss that, upon his request.
The lesson here, though, is simple: It’s necessary to have multiple guys who can get high school hitters out. That might require some experimentation for future high school coaches. Anyone with a good arm should be tested as a pitcher because you never know when you might need them. Howat, a sophomore playing on this elite team, ended up being one of the most important contributors.
The last similarity we see to Major League Baseball is the playoff format, or at least the Virginia one. As Billy Beane once said, the playoffs are “a gauntlet of randomness.” A team as talented as Madison, that lost just two games during the regular season, can be eliminated in the blink of an eye.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened. A regional semifinal game against a tough pitcher knocked Madison right out of the baseball postseason. That’s one of the reasons why, despite Gjormand’s continued success, the team hasn’t won that many state titles. It’s hard to win the state championship. That doesn’t mean Madison did not have some great moments this season. I saw back-to-back home runs (which, really doesn’t happen that often in high school), a walk off blast by Jack Kidd and plenty of other performances that truly makes Madison a unique baseball school.
But this story isn’t about Madison. It’s using Madison to understand where teams can gain advantages at the high school level in all facets of the game.
What did I learn here? High school baseball isn’t all that different from the professional game. These guys are still smart, powerful hitters and hard-throwing pitchers (high schoolers can be drafted, after all) that make these games way more advanced than you’d initially think.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.