The first plate appearance of the year was not a good look for Tulane third baseman Kody Hoese, who struck out on three pitches against George Washington.
Just about every at-bat since then has been a must-see experience, and the final opportunity at Turchin Stadium to witness his historic season starts Thursday night when the Green Wave (30-22, 11-9 American Athletic Conference) opens a series against Connecticut (31-21, 10-11).
Hoese, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior from Griffith, Indiana, was named one of 25 semifinalists Wednesday for the Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the top amateur baseball player.
He is tied for the national lead with 23 home runs after hitting five as a sophomore and zero as a freshman. His next long ball will move him ahead of Chad Sutter and into sole possession of second place in Tulane’s record book, trailing only Jason Sparks’ 30 homers in 1998 at the apex of the gorilla-ball era.
Hoese leads the NCAA with 173 total bases. He is in line to break James Jurries’ 20-year-old school record of 194 if the Wave, which needs to beat UConn twice to hold on to second place in the AAC, plays four games at the league tournament next week.
Hoese is hitting an AAC-best .403, threatening to become the sixth player at Tulane to crack the .400 barrier. He paces the league in seven categories, including hits (85), runs scored (67), on-base percentage (.496) and slugging percentage (.820).
“He’s just a special player and a special person really,” said catcher Frankie Niemann. “He kind of has it all figured out, it seems like.”
The secret to his success is supreme dedication.
He added five to 10 pounds in the winter, getting his body in tip-top shape for the season. Although he did not change anything mechanically with his swing, he fine-tuned it with repetition.
“It was just the commitment every day to coming out here and getting better, just putting in the work every day,” he said. “Everyone works hard, but you have to put the extra work in to become a very good player. In the fall, I just felt so much more comfortable in the box.”
Suddenly, the same guy who was taken in the 35th round by Kansas City as a draft-eligible sophomore after hitting .291 is projected as a late-first round pick June 3.
“He doesn’t miss a whole lot of mistakes,” said Southeastern Louisiana coach Matt Riser, who committed his own error when he chose not to pitch around Hoese earlier this year and watched a tie-breaking, three-run homer sail out of Alumni Field in the seventh inning. “As you move to minor league baseball all the way up to the big leagues, it’s guys minimizing mistakes and capitalizing on mistakes. He’s having a Hall of Fame type year.”
Hoese has remained true to himself despite all of the hoopla as he transformed into a superstar.
“He stays so humble,” Tulane coach Travis Jewett said. “His ability to absorb what he’s had put on his plate, the meetings he’s had, the phone calls, the scouts that are here to watch him every day is impressive. I’ve seen how high pressure can paralyze people, but he hasn’t let it paralyze him mentally or physically.”
Even keeled to the nth degree, Hoese treats every at-bat exactly the same. He never hunts home runs despite his prodigious total.
In a game against Houston that spilled over from last Saturday night into early Sunday morning, he led off the ninth inning with the Wave trailing 5-3 and fell into an 0-2 hole.
Instead of swinging for the fences at the end of an excruciatingly long doubleheader, he fouled off three pitches and eventually walked, leading to a two-run rally that tied the score.
“He was just hunting first base,” Jewett said. “It says everything about the kid and what the team means to him.”
Hoese drove in the go-ahead run with a single an inning later as Tulane won 9-7.
“I really take pride in getting on base,” he said. “You have to reach base and you have to score runs to win. The walks, the on-base percentage, all that stuff is very important.”
Nothing illustrates Hoese’s approach better than his strikeout to home run ratio. When he took a called third strike against South Alabama on Tulane, his total of strikeouts (24) surpassed his number of homers for the first time since it was 1-0.
That is phenomenal at any level of baseball. Only two Major Leaguers have finished a year with more homers than strikeouts since 1956 — George Brett in 1980 and Barry Bonds in 2004.
No Tulane player has done it, and no one near the top of the current college baseball home run list is anywhere near. Vanderbilt’s JJ Bleday, one of the three co-leaders, has struck out 43 times, and his 23/43 ratio is the second best of anyone in the top 10.
Hoese makes pitchers work. Following his initial at-bat against George Washington, he has struck out on three pitches only twice more.
“When he strikes out,” Jewett said, “you almost fall down because it happens so rarely.”
As the draft approaches, Hoese insists he is focusing only on helping Tulane reach a regional, which will require winning the AAC tournament.
From almost anyone else, it would be hard to accept.
With Hoese, it is perfectly believable.
“He’s got 1,000 people that want to see him tomorrow,” Jewett said after the South Alabama game. “It’s probably going to ramp up even more. He’s just going to have to manage his time and keep his emotions in check, and there’s nothing that tells me he is going to do anything different.”