Like most Southern Miss pitchers, Drew Boyd, a perfect 4.0 student majoring in pre-med, strikes out more batter than he walks. (Southern Miss athletics)

You occasionally might beat Southern Miss baseball pitchers, but know this: Golden Eagles pitchers, a most intelligent group, do not beat themselves.

The USM pitching staff ranks No. 1 in the nation in strikeouts-to-walks ratio, which might be the most under-valued of all pitching statistics. Southern Miss pitchers have fanned 522 batters, while walking only 122 over 466 innings. That means they have struck out 4.28 times as many batters as they have walked. No team in college baseball is even close.

Rick Cleveland

Senior righthander Hunter Stanley, expected to start Friday against Florida State in the first round of the Oxford Regional, leads the way having struck out 119, while walking only 16 over 93 innings. That means Stanley makes batters swing and miss quite often, while constantly throwing the ball over the plate. That’s not easy.

And, as imposing as that is, it might not be the most impressive statistic for Southern Miss pitchers. Pitchers play college baseball for two reasons: to pitch well and to get a college education. Get this: All four Golden Eagle weekend starters have a higher grade point average (GPA) than earned run average (ERA). OK, I’ll grant you that is an esoteric stat, but it is nonetheless impressive.

Keep in mind, the lower the ERA the better and the higher the GPA, the better. An average ERA for a college pitcher is somewhere around 4.5 earned runs per nine innings. An average GPA is probably about 2.5. Now then, consider:

Hunter Stanley

Stanley, an exercise science major, has an ERA of 2.42, compared to a GPA of 3.9. No. 2 starter Walker Powell, the Conference USA Pitcher of the Year, has a 2.53 earned run average and a GPA of 3.1, He already has earned his Business Management degree and is one class short of his Master’s in Sports Management. No. 3 starter Ben Ethridge, a freshman majoring in sports management, has a 3.4 GPA, compared to  2.65 ERA. And fourth starter Drew Boyd has a 3.76 ERA and a picture-perfect 4.0 GPA. He’s in pre-med and has yet to make anything lower than an A in any class since he started elementary school.

Says Christian Ostrander, the Eagles’ pitching coach, “They are all a lot smarter than I am, that’s for sure.”

Excellent starting pitching has led the way for Southern Miss to achieve a 37-19 record, a national ranking and the No. 2 seed at Oxford. Hitting, especially clutch hitting, has been spotty at times, although it has improved in the late season. Relief pitching, strong early in the season, has dropped off lately. But strong starting pitching has been the one constant. When your four main starters have a collective earned run average of under three runs a game, you should win a bunch. USM has.

My question to Ostrander: How does intelligence factor into a pitcher’s performance? Does intellect matter?

“Oh yeah,” Ostrander answered. “IQ is definitely a factor. It plays a part in it. You’d rather have smart guys who know how to pitch. But the other thing is, the same discipline that plays a huge part in balancing athletics and academics applies to pitching. I’m talking mostly about hard work. These guys have really, really worked at it, both physically and mentally. They’ve made themselves better. What they’ve done this season is phenomenal, really. The numbers don’t lie. That strikeouts to walks ratio is about as good as I have ever seen. That’s what I am most proud of.”

The pitchers credit Ostrander’s tutelage.

Walker Powell

“Don’t beat yourself has been pounded into our heads every day,” Powell said. “Walking people gets you beat. Coach Oz stresses it every day: Don’t give them first base.”

The spring semester is over, but Boyd, the lone lefthander among USM’s top four starters, was studying for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) last week during the Conference USA Tournament. He is a senior academically, but just a sophomore eligibility wise because of a redshirt year and then getting back the 2020 season that was aborted due to COVID-19. He wants to be an orthopedic surgeon, much like the famous Dr. James Andrews, who performed Boyd’s Tommy John surgery between his high school career at Oak Grove and his college career. 

“Drew is a thinking man’s pitcher,” Ostrander said. “He doesn’t overpower you, although you better respect his fast ball. He is a thinker and a competitor, who moves the ball around, changes speeds, and just knows how to pitch.”

Says Boyd, the son of USM’s last three-sport letterman Larry Boyd, “Coach Oz stresses the mental part of it. We all work hard physically to prepare for games, but once you get out there on the mound to pitch in a game it’s a lot more mental than physical.”

Said Ostrander, “I tell them you work your butt off for six days physically and going over scouting reports to prepare and then the seventh day. Day 7, that’s the one you pitch, that’s fun day. That’s when all that work pays off.”

It pays off a lot more often when you strike out far more batters than you walk. At Southern Miss, in 2021, that’s been the case.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.