When the 2020 season came to a sudden end, sophomore Zack Raabe had no idea he ranked near the top of Division I in batting average. At the time the season was called off, Raabe was hitting .463, which ranked eighth in the country.
Making Raabe's average more impressive was his relatively large sample size. His 67 at-bats tied for the most of any player in the top 20. Raabe said he was surprised to learn his batting average ranked highly, although he knew from opening day that his swing had drastically improved.
"My first swing of the year was a base hit to left field," Raabe said. "It was off a sinker ball pitcher which usually is my kryptonite. But when I pulled that ball into left field I thought, 'Alright, I got this.'"
As a freshman, Raabe was a consistent contributor for Minnesota, starting 38 games and ranking third on the team with a .271 batting average. In his sophomore campaign, he took a leap forward, not only leading the team in slugging percentage (.612) but total bases (41) as well.
The Gophers struggled with contact at times in 2019, as no player batted above .294 and the team average sat at .256. Due in part to Raabe's hot bat, Minnesota's average spiked to .284 in 2020. Raabe said he owed his breakout success to improved timing, facilitating his ability to handle faster pitches.
"I talked a lot to my hitting coach and my dad," Raabe said. "They both agreed it was my timing that was off. My swing was fine, it was just my timing, getting used to college pitching."
If not for the COVID-19 pandemic canceling spring athletics, Raabe may have found his name in the Gophers' history book after 2020. The program's batting average record is .452, which Mark Merila set in 1994. There's no telling if Raabe could have maintained his pace throughout a full season. However, his .463 average is not eligible for the record, as he did not achieve a minimum of 75 at-bats.
For batters, social distancing is especially troublesome, as there is no substitute for live pitching. Nonetheless, Raabe is working hard to make sure his swing is in top shape for when play resumes in 2021.
"I'm lucky enough to have my dad and a facility where I can go inside," Raabe said. "I've been able to hit with him and work out. Really nothing has changed except I've gone from game mode to training mode. It will probably be that way the whole summer."
Luckily, Raabe has an accomplished hitting coach in his own house. His father, Brian Raabe, is a former Gophers baseball standout who earned first team All-American honors in 1990. He then went on to make his MLB debut in 1995 with the Minnesota Twins, before going on to play for the Seattle Mariners and Colorado Rockies.
Raabe credits his father as having a significant influence on his development as a player. Especially now, he feels fortunate to have someone with professional experience he can lean on for advice at any time.
"It's an absolute advantage," Raabe said. "I respect him a lot for taking time out of his day to help me all the time. He pushes me to get better and always pushes me to work hard."
Whenever baseball returns, Raabe figures to have a spot locked up in the Gophers' infield and near the top of the batting order. At that time, Raabe has hopes to achieve his ultimate goal: bringing a championship to Minnesota.