ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Last week University of New Mexico head coach Ray Birmingham was officially announced as the hitting coach for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team this summer. His appointment, while a huge honor, should not have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his work.
Since Birmingham’s arrival at UNM prior to the 2008 season, the Lobos have led the mountain west in batting average four times, slugging percentage three times, on-base percentage four times, runs three times, hits four times, doubles four times, triples three times, home runs twice, and total bases three times.
Included in that total are the two highest team batting averages in MW history (.363 in 2009 and .346 in 2010), the highest team on-base percentage (.432 in 2009), and the most triples (47 in 2009).
They’ve managed this despite playing in a league with some of the top pitchers in the nation. Since 2008 the Mountain West has had 14 pitchers selected in the top 10 rounds of the MLB Draft, including first rounders like Stephen Strasburg of San Diego St. (2009) and Braden Shipley of Nevada (2013).
“This league has some top, top pitchers in it,” Birmingham said. “It’s not easy hitting in this league, but we do it every year.”
Also included on that list are current pitchers like Jordan Brink of Fresno St. and Michael Cederoth of San Diego St., both of whom are being talked about as potential first-round picks in next June’s MLB Draft. Another former San Diego St. pitcher, Addison Reed, was selected in the third round of the 2010 draft, and former TCU pitchers Matt Purke and Andrew Mitchell were taken in the third round in 2011 and fourth round in 2012, respectively. Despite not having a reputation as a pitching-friendly league, there is plenty of skill on the mound all over the Mountain West.
If you need more proof, then consider that the four best team ERA marks in MW history, as well as four of the five lowest batting averages allowed, have come since 2008. The pitching has only gotten better in the MW over the years while the Lobos’ offense tries to keep up.
And what exactly have Birmingham’s teams done the past six years? They’ve only averaged a .326 batting average, 140 doubles, 29 triples and 41 home runs per season. In 2013, they were the only team in the nation to surpass all those numbers. During that span they have also averaged 7.6 runs per game. Last season the Lobos were one of only six teams in the nation to reach that mark (when they led the nation at 8.3 runs per game), and that has been their average since 2008.
So despite losing their top four hitters from 2013 (DJ Peterson, Mitch Garver, Luke Campbell and Josh Melendez), don’t expect any dropoff from Birimingham’s Lobos this season. Chase Harris, Alex Real, John Pustay, Sam Haggerty, Jared Holley and Ryan Padilla all return to power an offense that should be, once again, at the top of the MW.