The recency of Texas A&M baseball assistant coach Michael Earley’s arrival in College Station is still evident in his office at Blue Bell Park. Several autographed bats lean against one wall next to a framed picture of Kyle Field, all patiently awaiting a nail or hook to be properly displayed. Early’s mostly empty desktop features just a computer, mouse and keyboard, the only real indications the station is meant for work.
In reality, his actual workspace is a little more of an open concept.
The burgeoning hitting guru has been key in designing an A&M offense that leads most batting statistics in Southeastern Conference play, but the journey to get to the top has been a straining exercise in hitting routine creation and sports psychology.
“These guys have been all in from Day 1,” Early said. “It takes a special kind of guys, character and mindset to get through those early struggles, because it was tough. It wasn’t easy on anyone.”
Earley inherited a team that seemed inept at driving in runs early in the season. After A&M dropped two games during the Frisco Classic in March, the Aggies ranked last in the SEC in batting average at .254 and second to last in runs with 64.
As the Aggies welcome defending national champion Mississippi State to Blue Bell Park for a three-game series beginning Friday, they lead the SEC in eight offensive categories in conference play, including batting average (.289), on-base percentage (.394), runs scored (180), hits (250) and walks (132).
Earley helped forge the turnaround by establishing workout routines for each individual player, trying to target specific fixes for each player’s swing.
“I’ve been a hitting coach for five or six years now, and you start to see guys that are just like guys you’ve coached before,” Earley said. “So, it’s like, ‘Hey, this worked for this guy, let’s try it with him.’ What you’ve got to be willing to do is try stuff, but if it doesn’t work, scrap that and try something different.”
Outfielder Brett Minnich, who hit a game-winning home run against South Carolina on Saturday, begins his practice with a drill that involves swinging with a short bat. He follows that with a soft toss drill from in front and then soft toss from the side with weighted balls. Finally, the series ends with Early throwing normal overhand pitches to Minnich.
But Minnich’s routine is not like every other Aggie’s.
“He doesn’t have a cookie cutter formula that everybody needs to do,” Aggie catcher Troy Claunch said. “He works with you on how your body moves and what works well for you. He does a good job of what you’ve done well in the past and how to mold that into being a better version of yourself.”
Players are organized into hitting groups that feature similar weaknesses, so they can work through the same drills. The routines Earley set up for each player in the fall have stuck with them throughout the season, hoping repetition will create muscle memory.
“What that does is it gives them consistency, because you have a ton of success when you’re in the cage, and it’s something you can always fall back on,” Earley said.
But has hard as Earley works on forming these routines, he says 80% of a hitting coach’s job falls more in the category of sports psychology.
“I have to stay positive,” he said. “I have to keep it loose. I have to pick and choose the right times when to get on guys, because hitting is a fragile, fragile thing. Sometimes you’re dealing with fragile minds, and so you have to be real careful with what you tell guys.”
The rapport A&M’s hitters have built with Earley often can be seen between pitches. Claunch said he can just look over at Earley in the dugout during an at-bat, and the coach will give him subtle cues on making a quick hitting adjustment.
“He’s a huge part of [the success],” Claunch said. “Yeah, this team has talent ... but everyone has seen an uptick in production, and I would attribute that to him.”
Hiring Earley was a rare bit of a gamble for A&M head coach Jim Schlossnagle, who rarely hires assistants without having a previous relationship with them.
“I’ve never really hired somebody that I didn’t know that well, and he’s the first one, and it’s been awesome,” Schlossnagle said. “So we’re glad to have him here, and we’ll have to work hard to keep him here to be honest with you.”
NOTES — A&M sophomore right-hander Nathan Dettmer (5-2, 3.18 ERA) will start on the mound against Mississippi State junior righty Brandon Smith (3-4, 4.58) on Friday. A&M has not announced its starters for Saturday and Sunday, while the Bulldogs will start two sophomore right-handers in Preston Johnson (3-3, 5.51) and Cade Smith (4-2, 3.90). ... The Aggies’ final midweek matchup against Incarnate Word set for Tuesday has been canceled in a mutual decision between the programs, A&M announced Thursday. “I’m not going to hide from it,” Schlossnagle said. “I think when the NCAA committee puts such an emphasis on RPI and different things and then conference games matter so much, when you get to this time of the year you have to manage that.”