The Evanston Power Surge: ‘Cats Baseball

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

In an age of launch angles and exit velocity, it’s easy to get caught up in complicated metrics. But for Northwestern baseball, the ‘Cats don’t preach launch angle. They preach making solid contact.

Through the first 14 games of the season, the approach has worked: the ‘Cats have blasted 29 home runs––one of just two teams in the country to average at least two home runs per game. This comes after hitting 29 home runs in the program’s previous 66 games since the start of 2019. Against Illinois this weekend, Northwestern hit the ball over the fence 15 times, a remarkable feat for a program that’s not known for its slugging prowess.

Junior first baseman Anthony Calarco has been one of the focal points of the Evanston power surge. After hitting three homers on Saturday, he now has five overall on the season––this from a player who had just five career extra-base hits in 90 at bats entering the year.

“The biggest thing is just his ability to stay in the zone. He doesn’t leave the zone very often, and he’s just doing a good job of hitting the ball where it’s pitched,” head coach Spencer Allen said of Calarco. “That makes it really, really hard when he’s hitting doubles the other way, then pitchers try to attack differently, (and) he’s got the ability then to still turn on it.”

Calarco credits his three years of learning from Allen and hitting coach Dusty Napoleon as key to his breakout 2021 campaign. Driving the fastball the other way and being ready to adjust to breaking pitches might seem like a relatively simple approach, but staying consistent in that plan has allowed him to have this kind of sustained success.

“The focus was really on making solid, consistent contact,” Calarco said. “If you hit the ball with the right spin, it’s just gonna keep going.”

Calarco hasn’t been the only breakout performer for Northwestern so far this season. Stephen Hrustich and Michael Trautwein are tied for the team lead with six home runs, and Shawn Goosenberg joined Calarco with five after hitting two long balls in Sunday’s 12-5 win. 

The team’s emphasis coming into the season wasn’t necessarily predicated on hitting home runs. Rather, Allen believes this is just a product of the development of his players.

“Guys have gotten better,” he said. “There’s not necessarily (an) approach change, it’s just really the personnel we’ve got. The guys have been doing a great job.”

Last year, the ‘Cats got off to a meandering start. They took two out of three from a strong South Carolina team, were swept by South Florida and then won three of the next four before COVID-19 shut down the season. Hrustich felt the offense was in a good spot, which made it all the more agonizing to have the rest of the season canceled. Nevertheless, the extended time off helped motivate the players. One of the keys for the hitters, he said, was becoming a consistently good fastball hitting team.

“It’s definitely helped when you can hit fastballs pretty well like we have all year,” he said. “It’s going to come off hard and it’s gonna go farther, and the home runs are gonna come.”

So far the home runs have come in bunches. The players and coaching staff always thought the lineup would continue to improve, but they didn’t necessarily expect a barrage like this.

“To be completely honest, as well as I thought the season could’ve gone, I didn’t expect us to have a weekend where we hit 15 home runs,” Calarco said. “I didn’t expect something like that to happen, but I’m glad it is happening.”