Friday, February 17, 2006

Near the Banks of the Olentangy

Thanks to the bizarre scheduling practices employed by NCAA baseball, in one week the Ohio State Buckeyes will open their 123rd season. Of course, the opening game will be played in Gainesville, Florida, and then the team will go to Jacksonville, Clearwater, and Bradenton for a total of sixteen games before ever setting foot on their home field. I will not go into a digression on the inanity of NCAA baseball scheduling, which gives an enormous advantage to southern teams, but suffice it to say, I am not a big fan of it.

Coach Bob Todd will enter his nineteenth season at OSU firmly entrenched with a school record 726 wins (.666 W%), 335 Big Ten wins (.657), and seven each of Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. He is still searching for an elusive trip to Omaha, where the Buckeyes have not advanced since 1967 and no Big Ten team has reached since 1984. OSU has had several close calls, most recently losing Super Regionals in 1999 and 2003.

The Buckeyes are coming off a 40-20 season in which they went 17-12 in the Big Ten. That was good for a disappointing fifth place, but the team went on to win the Big Ten tournament for the third time in four years, and got the automatic NCAA tournament berth that goes with it. The Buckeyes lost the opening game to #2 Oregon State, giving up a run in the eighth and ninth, but rebounded to defeat Virginia before the season came to an end with a loss to St. John’s. While the early Big Ten regular season performance was disappointing, ultimately with a Big Ten title and NCAA tournament appearance, it was a successful campaign.

Overall, the Buckeyes' .667 W% was second in the B10 behind that team up north (.689). In EW%, based on runs scored and allowed, the Bucks’ .676 was second to those who shall not be named as well (.684). In PW% based on runs created and allowed, Ohio’s .678 edged out those other guys’ .675. So the performance in the W-L column was very much in line with what you would have expected given the inputs.

Of course, in college sports, the changes in team composition for year to year can be radical. The Buckeyes’ key losses are pitchers Mike Madsen and Trent Luyster, first baseman Paul Farinacci, and outfielders Steve Caravati and Mike Rabin. Madsen ranked third on the team with +17 runs saved against an average B10 pitcher, and was second among the starting four in RAA (coincidentally, he was also the team’s designated #2 starter). He was drafted by the A’s and pitched well in the Northwest League last year (80 IP, 1.69 ERA, 7.7 K/9). Luyster was the designated #3 starter, and finished sixth on the team and fourth among starters with +8 RAA. Drafted by the Blue Jays, he did not pitch in pro ball last season.

Farinacci had a reputation as an excellent defender at first, but was a slightly below average hitter. Rabin was the leadoff hitter, and after a poor -14 RAA, .317 OBA junior season put up +2 RAA and a .396 OBA a year ago. He had very little power (ISO of .039 as a junior, .060 as a senior). Caravati was B10 Player of the Year in 2004, but never really got on track last year--despite this, his +17 RAA led the Buckeyes by a wide margin. For a team that struggled offensive last year (-12 runs vs. the B10 average), he is quite a large loss.

Only one player of note transferred out, pitcher/first baseman Jeff Carroll, who has joined the ranks of the preppy frat boys down I-71 at Miami. Carroll was average as a long man out of the pen last year, and didn’t do anything in his approximately 40 career PA. However, he wanted an opportunity to play the field, and apparently felt Miami would be a better place for this.

The Buckeyes welcome a freshman class of thirteen players, on whom I have no real insight, except for the one game I saw them play in fall practice, and did not bring in any transfers from other schools.

Looking at how the defense will fill out, sophomore Eric Fryer will return as the starting catcher. Fryer had a great freshman season (323/390/409, +2), a huge improvement over the production from the catcher’s position in 2004. He did not participate in fall practice due to an injury sustained in summer ball, but apparently will be ready to go in the spring. His backup, Kelly Houser, has graduated, leaving a muddled situation. Redshirt freshman Josh Hula and true freshman Justin Miller are the top candidates. Junior Adam Schneider has some pop, but is not great defensively and did not catch as much last year as he did as a freshman. He’ll pop up again in the DH discussion, and is more of an emergency or pinch-hit option as a catcher.

At first base, there is no clear favorite with the transfer of Carroll. Apparently, Miller or Fryer could play first when they are not catching, and true freshman JB Schuck could also figure in. From what I know of his high school exploits and his performance in fall practice, Schuck is a real talent and will force his way into the lineup somewhere, and will probably pitch as well. To me, he looks like an outfielder, but the outfield depth is pretty good, so maybe he’ll be on the Nick Swisher plan.

Junior Jason Zoeller will be back at second base, off a 302/353/451 dead average season. He is one of the top power threats on the team and good defensively (at least to these eyes). Senior Jedidiah Stephen is the incumbent at shortstop and is a similar offensive player to Zoeller, although perhaps not as good defensively at his position. He played third base as an underclassmen. Junior Ronnie Bourquin also returns at third base. Slowed by a thumb injury last year, he slumped to -6 RAA after a +8 freshman campaign. He will likely be the cleanup hitter for OSU.

The infield backups will include the runners-up in the first base derby and sophomore Chris Macke on the corners, and a number of candidates in the middle (sophomore Tony Kennedy, redshirt freshman Michael Arp, and true freshman Ben Toussant and Matt Currant). Senior Kris Moorman is another corner backup, and could figure in at first base, although I'll believe it when I see it. An intriguing option at first base is Seth Sanders, a true freshman from Ann Arbor, the home base of the enemy. Sanders looks like a power hitter, and showed a good eye in the one game that I watched (obviously not a good sample size). Macke filled in last year when Bourquin was injured, and hit 375/412/469 in 34 PA, but was not really seen again after Ronnie returned. While it does not appear to be in the cards, Macke at third with Bourquin moving over the first base would be a move worth looking into from my perspective.

In the outfield, junior leftfielder Jacob Howell is firmly entrenched. The B10 Freshman of the Year in 2004, he struggled with nagging injuries and faded to 270/323/322, and a team low -8 RAA. If he can return to form, he will be an important cog getting on base out of the #2 slot. Sophomore Matt Angle began to take over the right field job last year, and will be the center fielder and leadoff man in 05. Angle showed little power, but good BA and plate discipline last year, and I believe he will be a Rabin-type performer with a higher OBA due to the walks. He also made some fabulous grabs in the outfield. Junior Wes Schirtzinger is the leading candidate in right, although he has done little the last two years after suffering a wrist injury after a promising freshman campaign. The outfield backups will be senior Cody Caughenbaugh, sophomore Jonathon Zizzo, and true freshman Chris Griffin and Zach Hurley.

At DH, I expect to see a platoon, with Schneider against lefties and Caughenbaugh against righties. Caughenbaugh flashed solid power last year, but his BA was in the 270s which kept his run creation below average.

The starting rotation will be anchored by junior lefty Dan DeLucia, who rebounded from a tough freshman season to become OSU’s ace last year (3.49 RA, 3.54 eRA, +31). DeLucia is the real deal, and could contend for B10 pitcher of the year honors. Sophomore lefty Corey Luebke, the #4 guy a year ago, started out pitching great but faded as the season wore on and briefly lost his rotation slot. In the end, though, Luebke’s 4.68, 4.06, +13 season was very solid for a freshman and if he can improve with experience as many freshman do, Ohio State will have two scary left-handed starters. According to the official preview on the OSU website, junior Trey Fausnaugh will move into the rotation after being a reliever the past two years. He was the closer as a freshman and pitched very well, but last year he was rocked for a 7.93 RA and 5.43 eRA in 27 innings out of the pen. A member of the team told me that his biggest problem last year was a lack of break in his curveball. If that is the case, then perhaps it is an encouraging sign as coaching may be able to rectify that--he did not appear to lose any velocity.

The fourth spot will likely fall to sophomore Dan Barker, who pitched brilliantly in long relief last year, with a 2.75 RA in 30 innings. His .94 eRA was even better, but he only allowed hits on 19.1% of the balls put in play against him. So he was very “hit lucky” it appears, and should not be expected to duplicate his performance. But I think he is a very solid bet to be an effective #3 pitcher (I remain a little skeptical of Fausnaugh as the #3 starter).

Other candidates will likely get a shot at cracking the roation, although it is difficult to say who will get a shot at this, since there are seven freshman or redshirt freshman pitchers on the roster, not including Schuck. Often, with the compact schedule of games on the spring training trip, a number of pitchers will get the opportunity to work a few innings, and then when the team comes back north, hopefully one has emerged. Mid-week games also are an opportunity throughout the season for continued auditions.

One intriguing candidate for the job is fifth-year senior Chris Hanners, a lefty who was roughed up in his only real starting shot as a sophomore and was decently effective as a reliever his freshman year. However, he has made just one appearance each of the last two years due to constant shoulder troubles.

The bullpen will be anchored by sophomore Rory Meister, who was dominant last season with a 2.23 eRA and second on the staff at +22 RAA. His $H was around 22%, so he may have been a little fortunate on that account. The bullpen will be filled out by the other pitchers, and hopefully two or three effective relievers will emerge as the season progresses--if I had to guess, I’d say Shuck, freshman righty Jake Hale (a 24th round pick of the Indians, who had some shoulder issues in the fall), and freshman lefties Josh Barrera and Eric Best. The insight behind this is that they are the only freshman pitchers whose profiles on the team website include quotes from Coach Todd. Other freshman pitchers include redshirt lefty Matthew Selhorst, true freshman righties Taylor Barnes and Jake Weber, and true freshman lefty Brad Hays. One thing that is for sure is that OSU will have no shortage of left-handed pitching.

The schedule begins with three games in Gainesville against Wake Forest, Florida, and Coach Todd’s alma mater, Missouri the final weekend of February. The first weekend of March will be in Jacksonville against UNC-Greensboro, Jacksonville, and Western Michigan. The next weekend in Clearwater will pit the Bucks against Lehigh, Northern Illinois, and Bethune-Cookman. Starting March 19th, the Buckeyes will go to Bradenton to play UMass (1 game), Cornell (3), and Vermont (2), before finally opening at home March 30th against Toledo. Other midweek games, all at home, will feature Miami, Central Michigan, Oakland, Cleveland State, Eastern Michigan, and Pittsburgh.

The Big Ten schedule is very favorable from an OSU’s fans perspective, because the final two weekends of the year will be at home when the weather is most likely to be acceptable for baseball watching. The Buckeyes open at Iowa, come home for Illinois, go up north for the second year in a row, then to Indiana, home for Purdue, at Michigan State, and home for Minnesota (for the second year in a row as well) and Penn State. Iowa’s appearance on the schedule is their first since 2003, while Northwestern is off the schedule for the first time since 2001. All Big Ten series are nine inning games on Friday and Sunday and a pair of seven inning games in a Saturday doubleheader.

It is difficult for me to forecast how this team will do in the conference race, because I honestly don’t know a whole lot about the other teams, other then reputation. Illinois won the regular season title last year with a hot start, while the team up north was the favorite but did not live up to that billing. The perennial contenders, OSU and Minnesota, both struggled at times, but wound up as the top two finishers in the tournament.

Baseball America picked Ohio State to win the Big Ten. Boyd Nation of the Boyd’s World college site found that OSU returns the most RAA of any Big Ten team, although he also found that the predictive value of that measurement was not a great predictor of the upcoming season. My thinking is that there is no hitter on the team, with the exception of Eric Fryer, who I would expect to have a worse year at the plate then they did a year ago. That does not mean that I expect that none will, just that no name jumps out at me. With the short season of college baseball and the inherent variability of sports, it is almost a certainty that some will. But there are at least two guys in Jacob Howell and Ronnie Bourquin who I anticipate will be much better then they were a year ago, if they are fully recovered from their injuries. The struggle for the offense will be power, as it was last year.

The pitching staff loses two senior starters, but I think the top two in the rotation are pretty solid bets. The back two are a little more shaky, but the bullpen at least has a clear anchor. I think the pitching will probably not be quite as good as a year ago, but time will tell. In short, I think this is definitely a Big Ten Tournament team, and a team with a very good shot at the Big Ten title, but I’m not ready to say they should win it. The good news is that March 30th is just forty-one days away.

2 comments:

  1. So my alma mater (Northwestern) is off the Buckeye baseball schedule this season? That's a shame for The Ohio State University (my dad's alma mater) because the Wildcats are off to a horrific start. They've had a 12-game losing streak already this year, though they defeated Michigan twice today from what I can read. Beating Blue is always good, OSU or NU fans can agree.

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  2. Yes, it is a shame...we have taken 3 of 4 from NW each of the last two years. This year we have Iowa instead, who we have taken 2 of 3 from this weekend so far.

    And definite congrats to the Wildcats for beating that state up north. As the bumper sticker says my favorite team is Ohio State and whoever's playing [them].

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