A baseball player hits a home run
Missouri State’s Nick Rodriguez puts the swing on a leadoff home run in Tuesday night’s 8-4 victory over Arkansas at Hammons Field. MIssouri State’s baseball team has 179 home runs in 99 games over the last two seasons. The Bears look to add to the total in a weekend home series against Valparaiso. (Photo: Jesse Scheve, Missouri State)

Missouri State associate head baseball coach Joey Hawkins has heard the question before and agrees with the irony. How is he, the school’s career leader in sacrifice bunts as a player, now in charge of an offense prolific at hitting home runs?

Hawkins holds the Missouri State record for sacrifice bunts with 62 from 2012-15. The Missouri Valley Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year as a senior hit only two home runs in 772 plate appearances. 

“We don’t bunt a lot, but I think home runs are a lot of fun,” Hawkins said earlier this week after the Bears hit two homers in an 8-4 victory over Arkansas.

Power game has been key for resurgent Bears

It’s been quite the offensive show over the last two seasons since Hawkins returned as veteran coach Keith Guttin’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. After hitting 110 home runs in 2022 — second-most in school history — this year’s team has 69 in 39 games, putting it on a pace to again reach triple digits.

The power game has been a key as the Bears (23-16 overall, 11-4 Missouri Valley Conference) have won 10 of their last 12 entering a home series against Valparaiso, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Hammons Field. Other games are set for 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. 

Missouri State leads the Valley in doubles, home runs and slugging average, with an average of 4.05 extra-base hits per game.

A baseball coach smiles for a photo
Former Missouri State player Joey Hawkins returned to the school as associate head coach in 2022 and has overseen a powerful offense. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Meanwhile, the pitching is starting to come around under Hawkins’ one-time college teammate, Nick Petree. The Bears are looking like a postseason contender.

Embracing analytics and technology

They’re also a lot of fun to watch with that powerful offense. Missouri State has adapted to the new era that began in Major League Baseball and has trickled down to the college level, where analytics and technology have put an emphasis on hitting the ball hard and far. Launch angle, exit velocity and other such terms might make old-timers cringe, but the Bears are embracing it all and excelling.

“Part of the philosophy is getting a pitch that you can handle and hitting it hard,” Guttin said. “If you put the right swing on it and the ball’s at a certain angle and bat’s at a certain angle, you have a chance of hitting it out of the park. I think you’re going back to trying to recruit physicality and guys that can already hit the ball hard and then tune them up when they get here.

“I think Joey as our hitting coach has brought a lot of positive things from the Cardinals organization and the people that he was influenced by there. That’s been good for us.”

Hawkins, who earned the nickname “Joey Bunts” as a Bear, spent two seasons coaching in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system, where he learned how to use technology to help hitters improve. Missouri State has been able to add some of those “toys” over the last couple of years for its indoor training facility.

Those include Stadium Trackman (which analyzes where the ball goes after a batter hits it, exit velocity, etc.), portable Trackman, the iPitch pitching machine (donated by Missouri State graduate Jake Burger of the Chicago White Sox), Blast Motion swing analyzer and Uplift biomechanics, which is for both hitting and pitching.

Hawkins said Missouri State is on the cutting edge of college teams acquiring and utilizing the technology. More are adding it each year, but Hawkins believes the Bears have an edge.

“The biggest thing we have that separates us from a lot is we have a real process with it all,” Hawkins said. “A lot of people might use it just as a recruiting tool or whatever. They might know how to use one thing. Every tool we have, we have a process behind it and a system with it. 

“We don’t overwhelm the players with information. It’s more for our staff to filter things out and be able to make individualized adjustments with it.”

Players still have to put in the hard work

The offseason is when most of the benefit occurs. Hawkins said that’s when guys are able to take their swings to a higher level.

“But also in-season it helps us with adjustments,” he said, noting that first-year Division I players Cody Kelly and Zack Stewart “are having some pretty impressive seasons right now and they are guys who have utilized the technology and tools that we have in the indoor on a daily basis, in-season.

“It’s player by player once we get into the season, because you want to make sure they have a clear mind to go out and compete every night.”

The iPitch machine is particularly useful in-season. 

“It has the ability to throw any pitch at any time and for us to take the pitch metrics of the pitcher we’re facing on a given day,” he said. “We put those in there and we can face that pitcher before we come out here” in the game.

Baseball players form a huddle, celebrating a home run
Celebrations following home runs have been regular occurrences for MIssouri State’s baseball team, which has 179 home runs in 99 games over the last two seasons. The Bears look to add to the total in a weekend home series against Valparaiso. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Again, Hawkins emphasized that it’s important to achieve the proper mix of technology and old-fashioned sweat equity. Players still must put in the time and effort. Hawkins is thankful to have the opportunity to take what he learned using technology while working with professional hitters — such as big leaguers Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman — to the college level.

“It was a benefit for me coming from professional baseball,” Hawkins said. “I learned how to use it and then, obviously, from Coach Guttin’s standpoint, he’s been in the game for a long time (41 seasons) but he’s always been willing to adapt, which is big. He lets us buy those things. He fundraises and gets us those tools and we have the process to do some good things with it.”

Catcher Anthony Socci, with all five of his home runs coming during April, said the players are blessed to have the technology and coaches with the ability to implement it.

“Everything we have here, we’re lucky to have,” Socci said. “It helps get us prepared.”

Infielder Mason Hull said technology or not, guys don’t go to the plate thinking about hitting home runs. 

“Go up there and hit the ball hard,” he said, in summarizing the philosophy. “A lot of pitches make mistakes down the middle. It’s about getting your pitch and hitting the ball hard.”

And when that happens, games can turn in a hurry.

“When we can put seven runs on a team before a blink, it’s fun,” Hull said. 

These Bears rarely bunt

By the way, the Bears have two sacrifice bunts this season after having four all of 2022. Not that he would have turned slugger, but Hawkins wonders how technology could have made him a better hitter in his playing days. 

“When I look back on my career, I wish I could have made adjustments and had the tools that are available nowadays,” Hawkins said. “I’m always a curious learner because I want all of our guys to reach their potential. That’s my job. 

“If you get 32 guys to do that, you’re going to have a good team.”

Baseball players sit on the bullpen fence, celebrating a home run
The Missouri State relief pitchers often have a unique way of celebrating a Bears’ home run from their bullpen view. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton