Monday, August 13, 2012

Standing Still

2012 marked the second season of Greg Beals’ tenure as OSU baseball coach. It was not an encouraging season for the future of the program, and I’ve never been more perplexed by on-field strategy, which is saying something for college baseball. This is not to say that I’m declaring Beals to be incapable of restoring the program to the excellence it enjoyed throughout most of Bob Todd’s tenure, but it looks like it will be a long road from here.

The Buckeyes overall record did improve slightly, from 25-26 to 33-27. But the difference was wrapped up in non-conference play, as OSU’s Big Ten record was essentially unchanged (12-11 to 13-13). OSU played a much less ambitious early season schedule, playing five games against southern teams (Georgia Tech and Coastal Carolina) but the rest against northern opponents. In fairness, OSU’s ISR (Boyd Nation’s ranking system) did rise to #94 from #156.

In conference play, OSU was consistently mediocre. OSU took one of three in series against Purdue, MSU, Nebraska, Illinois, and PSU. The other three series were sweeps--two at home in Ohio’s favor against Minnesota and Northwestern, and one to Indiana on the road. The wipeout in Bloomington came in the season’s final weekend and dropped the Bucks into a three-way tie for the sixth and final seed in the Big Ten Tournament. While the Buckeyes won the tiebreaker, it certainly felt as if they had backed into it.

In the Tournament (the last in a four-year arrangement to hold the event at Huntington Park), the Buckeyes rallied to beat Penn State, then lost to #1 seed Purdue. Once in the losers bracket, they beat Nebraska to stay alive but had their season ended by MSU.

OSU’s .550 W% ranked fourth in the Big Ten (Purdue led at .763) and fifth in EW% with a similar .548 (Purdue led at .732). In PW%, OSU looked a little worse (.520, fifth) with Purdue sweeping the W% flavors at .723. The Buckeyes ranked in the middle of the pack in both runs scored (5th at 5.52) and runs allowed (6th at 5.00).

OSU’s offense did one thing well, something that is close to my heart--draw walks. Their .140 W/AB ratio led the conference, well above the average of .100 and far above Illinois’ .107 which ranked second. In fact, Big Ten walk rates were tightly clustered, with the other ten teams ranging from just .089-.107. OSU’s ranked in the middle of the pack in batting average (.269 versus a .278 average) and isolated power (.086 versus the .100 average). The Bucks tacked on the conference’s most productive stolen base effort, leading the conference with 86 steals against 27 caught. This fact was surprising to me for reasons I’ll expand upon below.

Catcher remained a rough spot for OSU, as junior Greg Solomon posted a 38/6 K/W ratio and .252/.283/.396 line. Freshman Aaron Gretz showed a terrific eye (19 walks in 91 at bats), but little else (.253/.382/.286). First baseman Josh Dezse repeated as one of the team’s most productive hitters (second on the team at 11 RAA), but his power remained an enigma. Dezse tied the school record by belting three homers in a game at Georgia Tech, but hit just two for the remainder of the season. His .120 ISO represented a twenty point drop from his freshman season.

Second baseman Ryan Cypret had a nightmarish campaign a year after being one of the team’s most productive hitters, slumping to .236/.337/.304. Third baseman Brad Hallberg turned in a terrific senior campaign, leading the team with 12 RAA on the strength of a .311/.400/.431 line. Sophomore transfer Kirby Pellant represented an upgrade over OSU’s 2011 shortstop production, but at .274/.358/.340 was below average (-2 RAA).

Freshman Pat Porter took over the left field job as the season progressed, and compiling a pretty average .266/.360/.322 (if you are noticing a pattern, this team had a lot of middling averages and high walk rates with minimal power). Sophomore Tim Wetzel was actually the team’s third-most productive hitter by RAA (+6) thanks to his team leading OBA (.403), but no thanks to his lack of power (.056 ISO for a .336 SLG). David Corna, the primary right fielder, had a rough senior season (.241/.317/.390). Sophomore transfer Mike Carroll (.279/.360/.333 in 186 PA) and Joe Ciamacco (.291/.342/.330 in 111 PA) filled out most of the remaining playing time in the outfield corners and at DH.

Only two other players got significant playing time. Senior Brad Hutton served as part-time DH against left-handed pitchers, managing an average RG thanks to his walks (.220/.350/.340 in 60 PA). Freshman Ryan Leffel served as the utility infielder and could be OSU’s third baseman in 2013. For 2012, though, he could have been called “Josh Dezse’s glove”, as his main role was taking over third base when Dezse moved from first base to the mound (with Hallberg moving from third to first). Leffel appeared in 39 games, but only 3 were starts, and he was limited to 28 PA.

OSU’s fielding (admittedly these metrics leave a lot to be desired) was unremarkable, matching the conference average with a .941 mFA with a .674 DER versus the average of .677.

Before the season, OSU’s weekend starters were expected to be junior Brett McKinney, lefty JUCO transfer Brian King, and sophomore Greg Greve. But McKinney and Greve pitched poorly and lost their spots, with sophomore transfer Jaron Long emerging as the staff ace. Long made three relief appearances before establishing himself as the #1, and was the only starter to turn in an above average performance (+17 RAA). Long is a finesse righty who works in the high eighties at best, relying on his control (just 1.2 W/9).

King slotted in as the #2 starter, a bit of a disappointment given the hype with which he arrived. King was solidly average with -1 RAA. The #3 spot remained in flux until midway through the Big Ten season, when sophomore transfer John Kuchno earned the job. Kuchno was not particularly effective (-7 RAA), but his size and arm made him an eighteenth round pick of the Pirates, with whom he signed.

Greve (-3 RAA in 50 innings) and McKinney (-3 RAA in 71 innings) served as midweek starters and will again vie for the rotation in 2013. The bullpen was anchored by Dezse, who was very effective (2.86 RA, +7 RAA in just 28 innings for seven saves). His strikeout rate (6.0 K/9) continues to lag behind his stuff. Beals only had one lefty with experience in the pen, so senior Andrew Armstrong led the team with 36 appearances spanning just 28 innings. Unfortunately, Armstrong was not nearly as effective as in ’11, his 6.75 RA driven by 26 walks in just 28 innings. Junior sidearmer David Fathalikhani was effective, +5 RAA over 29 innings as the Armstrongs’ matchup counterpart. Freshman Trace Dempsey is being groomed as Fath’s replacement, but was not effective in his freshman campaign (5.63 RA in 32 innings).

In a second season of observing Greg Beals as coach, I have become absolutely mystified by the man’s strategy. Beals has increased OSU’s reliance on the bunt and basestealing. OSU’s ratio of sacrifices to (singles + walks) was .06 in 2012 and .07 in 2011, compared to .03, .05, .03 in Todd’s last three seasons. Beals called for many more steals this season as well, which worked out well--OSU led the Big Ten in steals with a solid percentage (75).

However, it was Beals’ fascination with one particular stolen base play that really gets my blood boiling. Beals is obsessed with the delayed steal of home with 2 outs, runners at the corners. Beals surely dreams about this play every night. I wish I had an easy way of counting how many times this was attempted, but my rough guess is once per series. It rarely worked; it might be insulting to call it a high school-level play. It was especially absurd to keep trotting it out in Big Ten play, as if the other coaches in the conference were a bunch of rubes with no ability to scout and no institutional memory.

OSU will be a popular pick to compete for the Big Ten title in 2013. The only key players who were lost to graduation/draft are third baseman Hallberg, right fielder Corna, starter Kuchno, and reliever Armstrong. The incoming freshman class was not ravaged by draft signings as Beals’ 2012 group was, and figures to infuse some pitching options. But my observation (anecdotal only) is that some of the most overrated teams in college sports are mediocre teams that return a lot of starters. The Buckeyes lack power, they lack quality starting pitching outside of Long, and to date they lack a coach who has proven that he can assemble a Big Ten contender.

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