Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Baylor right-handed pitcher Trent Blank has been a contributor on the Bears' pitching staff since his 2009 freshman season, but a simple change in arm slot last May has taken his performance to a whole new level.
The Colombia, Ill., senior took a suggestion from pitching coach Trevor Mote and lowered his arm slot at the start of last May. Prior to making the change, Blank had gone 6-4 with a 6.15 ERA over 98.0 innings in his first two-and-a-half seasons at Baylor. Since the change, he's posted a 9-0 record with a 2.59 ERA over 62.2 innings.
"I think it's been a noticeable difference," Mote said. "His opponents' batting average has gone down, and he's been able to sustain that throughout this year."
Blank allowed 124 hits in 98.0 innings prior to the change, averaging 1.27 hits per inning. With the lower arm slot, opponents have only 47 hits in 62.2 innings, which averages out to 0.75 hits per inning.
The change was first suggested during last year's finals break when head coach Steve Smith decided to have pitchers throw extended bullpens.
"I asked Trevor to come with me to the pen," Smith said. "I just wanted a different set of eyes to look at these guys. I said, ‘I'm going to the bullpen to stand behind the catchers. I want you to step on the mound with the pitchers, and if you see anything or want to make a comment to anybody, go ahead. You have free reign to do what you want to do.'"
When Blank came up to the mound, Mote recommended he lower his arm slot. The power driving this new pitch was instantly recognized.
"My first thought was ‘Wow,'" Smith said. "Most of the time when guys change arm slots, velocity goes down. Trent's actually went up. So you could tell right away that it was not uncomfortable. It was really kind of natural for him. Next time at TCU he struck out four and it was obvious then that he was onto something."
Blank felt the difference in the pitch right away. It didn't take long for the new arm motion to feel comfortable.
"The biggest difference is just the way the ball comes off the bat," said Blank. "I think by number sample, it's helped a lot. I've just been successful getting a lot of soft groundballs with it."
The change wasn't without a rough spot. Blank allowed five runs in 0.2 inning of a game against California in last year's NCAA Houston Regional, but he remained in Waco during the summer to get more work with his new mechanics. He says he's still working on changes every day.
One question, however, still confuses both hitters and spectators.
How can Blank's 83-87 mph fastballs be so effective against Big 12 hitters who have had success hitting mid-90s fastballs?
To put it simply, Blank said, "It's just something different."
"It's not straight," explained Smith. "There's a lot of movement. It's kind of the difference between someone throwing you a regular tennis ball and someone throwing you a whiffle ball."
This change has proved beneficial in multiple aspects. Not only has it improved his numbers on the mound, but it's also kept the defense involved in the game.
"I don't get a lot of fly balls, just a bunch of ground balls," said Blank.
Those ground balls keep Blank's teammates involved in the game. Mote believes the change has helped develop Blank's confidence on the field."
"I think with anyone, having confidence on the field brings leadership," Mote said. "He's performing at the highest level he's ever experienced."
The pressure accompanying this new level has not affected Blank so far this Big 12 season. His performance has been nothing but consistent. He's worked at least 6.0 innings in all three Big 12 starts, helping Baylor get out to the best start by any team in Big 12 history at 10-0 in league play.
With a 7-0 overall record this season, Blank leads the nation in wins. As of April 2, he ranks fourth in the Big 12 with a 1.88 ERA and second in the league with a .182 opponents' batting average. He's allowed only 10 runs on 30 hits in 48.0 innings for the year.
It's quite the contrast from his sophomore season, when he didn't pitch in any Big 12 games. In fact, his 48.0 innings pitched this season have already surpassed the 46.1 innings he combined to work in his first two years at Baylor.
Blank doesn't want to settle for individual success. He says he's focused on taking the Bears back to Omaha for the first time since 2005.
"You have to set your sights high. And we're capable," Blank said. "This is my last year here, so if I can contribute to making that happen, it would be a great way to end my career."
Baylor has won all nine games Blank has pitched in this season. If the senior keeps putting blanks on the scoreboard, there's no reason to believe the Bears can't return to baseball's promised land.