Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 World Yakyu Classic

The World Baseball Classic invokes a number of reactions from baseball fans. Many (particularly in the United States) are indifferent. Some, like the author, love it and consider it a huge bonus--competitive games being played throughout March as the initial thrill of exhibition games begins to dull towards counting down to Opening Day. And others hate it for one reason or another--the threat of injury to key players and a dislike of any sort of display of national pride, regardless of how benign it might be.

The latter viewpoint is the one that I am unable to comprehend for a number of reasons that aren’t really germane to a baseball post. I will simply say that I see no evidence that any of the effects that one might view as particularly harmful have come to pass or are likely to come to pass. I don’t see riots between opposing countries’ fans in the stands, nor a bleed-over of passions stirred by the World Baseball Classic to the regular major league season in a harmful manner. There is much more ample evidence of senseless, tribal conflict between fans of the Yankees and Red Sox than there is of fans of Country X and Country Y.

Organizing teams of ballplayers by country is no less arbitrary or silly than any other manner of doing it. In fact, one could advance the argument that American pro sports have one of the most bizarre means of assigning players to teams, since veteran players are acquired under a completely different structure than young players, teams are placed in cities by the sometimes irrational decisions of a cartel, and these teams have been locked into an organizational structure that is so entrenched that moving a team from one league to another long after the distinctions between leagues have been eroded still can invoke fan meltdowns.

One element of the WBC that is more difficult to defend is the constantly changing set of rules that determine which teams play (and the name, which is beyond awful). These changes have not all been bad by any stretch. For instance, in the initial two Classics (2006 and 2009), the sixteen teams were pre-selected by MLB, but in 2013, four spots were filled through qualifying tournaments. The twelve countries that won games in the 2009 tournament were automatically qualified (Australia, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, The Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States, and Venezuela), and four modified double-elimination tournaments (modified in that the game between the winner’s bracket winner and the loser’s bracket winner served as a decisive championship game rather than a must-win solely for the loser’s bracket winner) filled the remaining four spots. These tournaments, held in the fall of 2012, resulted in Brazil (over Colombia, Nicaragua, and Panama), Canada (over the Czech Republic, Germany, and Great Britain), Spain (over France, Israel, and South Africa), and Taiwan (over New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand) qualifying. The net result relative to the first two tournaments was replacing Panama and South Africa with Brazil and Spain.

The countries have been divided into four pools for the first round, which once again has a new format. In 2006, the first round was conducted as a round robin between the four teams, which require the use of arcane tiebreakers. In 2009, this was modified to double-elimination, which was much easier to understand. However, the 2013 format has returned to round robin and all of the confusion that goes with it. If you want to keep your sanity throughout the tournament, then root for each pool to have one team go 3-0, another 2-1, another 1-2, and some poor country 0-3. Or two 2-1s and two 1-2s, although that is less likely given the often wide variations in team strength.

The teams with the two best records will advance. If there is a tie, a modified run differential (runs/innings batted - runs allowed/innings pitched) that for some reason the IBAF calls “Team Quality Balance (TQB)” will be used to break the tie. Only the games between the tied teams will be used to figure TQB. If there is a three-way tie, then the TQB tiebreaker will be applied, and if two teams remained tied, their head-to-head result will be the determining factor. If all three teams have the same TQB, then a TQB based on earned runs will be used and the process will begin again (this may be the single stupidest rule in baseball history) least until you read down to the next tiebreaker, which repeats the process with batting average. Batting average.

The likelihood of teams being tied after the TQB step is low, but that doesn't make it any jarring to read earned runs and batting average spelled out officially as components of a championship determination process.

A brief capsule on each first-round pool follows; the ranking listed for each team is their IBAF world ranking. These rankings are based only on international competition and thus provide no insight on these specific rosters; I’ve simply provided them for amusement. These rankings are especially harsh on countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela that often do not field teams for the second-rate international tournaments. Of course, given the non-existent sample size of the tournament, any predictions are beyond worthless (witness the Netherlands two victories over the Dominican Republic in 2009), but that doesn’t prevent one from making vague assertions on team strength. Dates are EST.

Pool A

Location: Fukuoka, Japan
Dates: March 2-6
Participants: #1 Cuba, #3 Japan, #18 China, #20 Brazil

Cuba and Japan are obviously the huge favorites to win here. The two countries have already built quite a history at the WBC, with Japan defeating Cuba in the 2006 title game. In 2009, they met in the first game of the second round, with Japan winning; after Cuba beat Mexico and Japan lost to Korea, they met again in a game to determine which would advance to the semifinals. Japan ran their record to 3-0 over Cuba en route to winning a second championship. Unfortunately, their meeting will be the final game in Pool A and both may already be assured advancement, and will be played at 5 AM EST. Japan has opted to go with all NPB players this time, so the names will not be as familiar to American fans (now 38 year-old Kazuo Matsui is the most recognizable).

Pool B

Location: Taichung, Taiwan
Dates: March 1-5
Participants: #4 Korea, #5 Taiwan, #7 Netherlands, #10 Australia

Pool B should be compelling as it is the only pool that features four teams with a relatively decent chance of beating any of the others. Korea, who lost in the 2006 Semifinals and 2009 Final to Japan, is the favorite along with home-standing Taiwan. Taiwan suffered an embarrassing sweep out of the 2009 tournament, including a loss to China, and national baseball pride will be on the line. The Netherlands continues to improve, bolstered by the now-burgeoning talent pool in Curacao. They will not have Jurickson Profar or Kenley Jansen, but Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, Roger Bernadina, and Andruw Jones are all familiar faces. Australia went 0-3 in the 2006 Classic, but got their first win in 2009 against Mexico and lost 5-4 to Cuba before being knocked out in a rematch with Mexico.

Pool C

Location: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Dates: March 7-10
Participants: #8 Venezuela, #12 Puerto Rico, #13 Dominican Republic, #16 Spain

Pool C may have the lowest composite IBAF ranking, but it is the pool in which it is toughest to pick two winners and perhaps the strongest in talent. While Spain has no legitimate change to advance, the top three professional Caribbean powers should make this must-watch beisbol. Much has been written about the decline in Puerto Rican talent, and it’s true that the names aren’t as impressive as those for Venezuela and the Dominican, but if Puerto Rico can patch together a pitching staff (or in a short tournament with pitch restrictions, get one good ensemble performance), they could easily advance. It’s impossible to quantify home field advantage, but it shouldn’t hurt.

Pool D

Location: Phoenix
Dates: March 7-10
Participants: #2 United States, #6 Canada, #9 Italy, #11 Mexico

I’ll have more to say below about the US team and its performance in previous tournaments. The draw here is such that the US is the strong favorite, but as 2006 showed, Mexico and Canada are more than capable of beating the US in a single game. Italy is fortified by American players of Italian heritage, but not to an extent that makes them a strong threat (although they did send Canada home in Toronto in 2009). The key game here on paper would appear to be Canada/Mexico.

The two surviving teams from each lettered pool will advance to the second round, where the pools will be numbered and will follow a modified-double elimination format. Pools A and B will combine into Pool 1, played March 7-12 in Tokyo, while Pools C and D will merge into Pool 2, played March 12-16 in Miami. The second round will begin with the winner of one pool against the runner-up of the other pool. The winners and losers will meet; the winner of the winner’s game will punch their ticket to their semifinals, while the loser of the loser’s game will be eliminated. The remaining two teams will play for the other semifinal berth, and that team will then play the winner’s bracket winner for the pool title, which will only matter in determining semifinal matchups. (This all makes a lot more sense in bracket form). If the favorites were to win, this means Pool 1 might feature Japan, Cuba, Korea, and Taiwan, while Pool 2 would feature the United States, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.

The final four will be played in San Francisco, with the semifinals on March 17 and 18 and the championship game on March 19. The semifinals will feature the winner of one pool against the runner-up from the other.

A few other points on the tournament:


* The tiebreaker rules were covered above, but there are a few other noteworthy rules. The pitch limits are oft-discussed and too detailed to repeat here, but the key rule is that pitchers are limited to 65 pitches/game in the first round, 80 in the second round, and 95 in the final four. Pitchers cannot work more than two consecutive games, and must have a day of rest if they exceed thirty pitches and four days of rest if they exceed fifty.

* Mercy rules are in place that will halt the game if the lead is fifteen after five innings or ten after seven innings in the first two rounds.

* Starting in the thirteenth inning, runners will be placed at first and second base, and should they score will not be considered earned runs (I only mention this last part due to the silly earned run TBQ tiebreaker).

* For some reason which I do not understand, there is a rule that says “Players shall not lie down or sit on the bases when time is called on the field.” This apparently is not in the MLB rulebook, but thankfully we will be spared the horrible sight of players lying down on the bases.

United States

The US team, as you know, has not acquitted itself particularly well in the WBC, needing a runs allowed tiebreaker to advance past Canada in the 2006 first round, then losing to Mexico and Korea in the second round. In 2009 the US was mercy-ruled 11-1 by Puerto Rico in the first game of the second round. After beating the Netherlands, the US needed a dramatic ninth-inning rally to slip past Puerto Rico and qualify for the semifinals, where they lost 9-4 to Japan. Overall, the US was 3-3 in 2006 and 4-4 in 2009.

This has led to a lot of armchair psychology, which is to be expected and isn’t really worth commenting on. It’s certainly not outside of the realm of possibility that the US players have a more casual mindset towards the WBC than players from other countries, or that the genius managing of Buck Martinez in 2006 was more spring training in style than competitive, or that the Asian players in particular are closer to their top physical condition in early-to-mid March.

However, it has also led to two ridiculous strains of argument that can be addressed factually. One is that the WBC results somehow demonstrate that the United States is not the #1 source for baseball talent in the world. (Obviously, this argument is only unreasonable when expressed in terms of bulk rather than per capita talent--but the construction of the argument is inherently a bulk argument, since it’s based on the performance of each country’s “best” roster). This is obviously absurd as the results of a small sample size tournament do not even begin to provide a counterpoint to the wealth of available data from major league play (as well as the performance of players crossing between professional leagues, particularly MLB and NPB).

The second is that the US WBC rosters have been unimpressive aggregations of talent, a second-rate collection of players that is inferior to the rosters used by the other top contenders. While it is undoubtedly true that no WBC roster for the US has featured the best possible roster, it is nevertheless silly to pretend that the US rosters have been less than sterling collections of talent. If the US team were instead a MLB roster, it would be my choice to win the World Series.

For a crude illustration, look at the possible US lineup for 2013 compared to a similar group from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the other top western contenders for the WBC title, the 2012 AL and NL All-Star starting lineups, and the Tigers, who are projected by Baseball Prospectus to lead the majors in runs scored. I’ve listed OPS and an average OPS as projected by CAIRO; obviously OPS is a crude metric and averaging it as I have is crude, but for the purpose here it should suffice just fine:

In this illustration, the US team does not rise to the level of an all-star team, but compares favorably to the Dominican and Venezuelan teams as well as the team projected to have the best offense in MLB. Could the US team be better? could replace Mauer with Posey, Teixeira with Fielder, Jones with Trout, etc. But it’s still a really good lineup.

On the pitching side, there is a more pronounced lack of top stars. The US team does not have the services of Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Stephen Strasburg, Jered Weaver, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia, David Price, Cole Hamels, and the list goes on. And one could certainly argue that the strongest aspect of a theoretical perfect US team would be the starting pitching depth which swamps what any other country can offer.

And yet, the US still boasts two of the top NL Cy Young vote getters in RA Dickey and Gio Gonzalez, and solid major league starts behind them in Derek Holland, Ryan Vogelsong, and Ross Detwiler. The US bullpen features a number of solid arms, in Steve Cishek, Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Luke Gregerson, Mitchell Boggs,... It’s not an all-world group, but it’s a strong real-world unit on paper.

One can argue that the relative dearth of high-profile starting pitchers participating in the WBC benefits the US, since it also hits the Dominicans and Venezuelans: the Dominicans only established major league starters are Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez, while the Venezuelans have Anibal Sanchez, Jhoulys Chacin, and Carlos Zambrano.

One thing that has been disappointing about the WBC from the US perspective is the failure of the first two tournaments to produce two of the three high profile potential matchups. US/Japan has happened twice, but we have yet to see the superpower showdown of US/DR or the politically-charged US/Cuba matchup. From a US-centric perspective, I’d say those are the three most intriguing WBC matchups. Other interesting games like Japan/Korea and Dominican Republic/Venezuela have occurred as the brackets have set them up.

Making predictions about who will win the WBC is a degree sillier than making predictions on playoff series, but on paper, the United States should be the favorite.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Omar y Amigos

Back in the mid-90s, the Indians radio network carried a pregame feature before Sunday afternoon games called "Kenny's Kids". It was your standard bolierplate schlock--little kids given tickets to the game through the Indians charities or Kenny Lofton's foundation or something of the sort would get to listen to Kenny talk to another Indian, or get to ask him questions ("Mr. Wofton, Mr. Wofton, how do I get to be a baseball player?")

Then Kenny got traded prior to the 1997 season, and this grave duty fell to Omar Vizquel. The segment was renamed "Omar y Amigos". When Lofton came back the next year, Kenny's Kids did not return; Omar y Amigos continued. So if you ever thought there wasn't an upside to getting traded, then returning to your former club as a free were wrong.

Title exposition aside, I'd like to discuss Omar Vizquel's place in history. This is a standard boring article written at a low level of sabermetric literacy, one you can safely skip if you're not interested in comparing players' careers across the years (or if you value peak over career). The goal is not to pinpoint a ranking and say that "Omar Vizquel is the fourteenth best shortstop of all-time" or anything like that, just to get a general sense of how he compares to other great shortstops.

One of the most common comparisons for Vizquel, particularly among mainstream thinkers, is Ozzie Smith. The comparison generally assumes that the two provided similar value in the field, and thus can be compared on the basis of their offensive production:

It is easy to see why many traditional, context-free glances at the stats result in considering Vizquel to be Smith's equal. He hit for a higher average, hit fifty more homers, and both drove in and scored over 150 more runs than Ozzie. He hit for a better slugging average while getting on base at the same rate. Smith does have an advantage in basestealing, swiping 176 more bases than Vizquel while getting caught 19 fewer times.

Of course, as a sabermetrically-informed reader you know that context is king. It makes a huge difference; Vizquel played in parks with a composite PF of 1.01, while Smith played in parks with a park factor of .98. Much more significantly, Vizquel played in leagues in which the average team scored 4.81 runs per game; teams in Smith's leagues averaged 4.15 runs per game. Combining the two, Vizquel played in a context in which 19% more runs were scored.

Any serious analytical approach is going to take that into account, and rather than emerging as the superior hitter, Vizquel will assuredly come out as inferior to Smith. Compared to a league average hitter (comparable to Palmer's Batting Wins, except counting stolen bases), I have Smith at +2 wins for his career and Vizquel at -23, with Smith’s RC/out relative to the league average bettering Vizquel’s 102 to 86. Not all methods think the gap is that large (see Technical Note below), but the other commonly used sabermetric methods concur that Smith was a better offensive player: he leads in TAv (.250 to .243), wRC+ (90 to 84), and OPS+ (87 to 82).

Even if one accepts that Smith and Vizquel were similar fielders, they are not particularly close in offensive value. Unless one wants to make the claim that Vizquel was a much better fielder than Smith, Ozzie is the more valuable player--easily.

Engaging in a little bit of unhealthy stereotyping (on both baseball and ethnic levels) one can find decent comparables for Vizquel in three players: Luis Aparicio, Bert Campaneris, and Dave Concepcion. I don't mean to suggest that these three are the most comparable players to Vizquel, but they are obvious comparisons as they are all shortstops, all Latin, all from the expansion era, and all are known for their glovework. One could of course compare Vizquel to players from other positions, or shortstops who arguably were roughly as valuable but with a different offense/defense split than Vizquel (like Jim Fregosi, Tony Fernandez, Junior Stephens, Edgar Renteria, or Miguel Tejada), but comparisons to the aforementioned trio are irresistible:

Once again, it is easy to see why Vizquel is highly regarded in the mainstream when looking at the raw statistics. Most people, presented with that data alone, would choose Vizquel. When park factors and league averages are considered, though, it is clear that Vizquel played in a much more offense-friendly time and place:

The final column is Vizquel's run environment (N*PF, where N is the league average runs/game) as a ratio to the others. Runs were 18% more common in Vizquel's games than Aparicio's, 25% versus Campaneris', and 17% versus Concepcion's. The result is that while Vizquel has -23 hitting WAA, Concepcion has -2, Campaneris -3, and Aparicio -10. (See technical note for an explanation of why the differences are greater than some other methods show).

Let’s suppose you refuse to consider sabermetric measures, and want to limit your offensive evaluation only to what you protest are “actual” runs--runs scored and RBI. For the sake of argument, I’ll play along, as long as you allow me to consider league context and outs made. (See this post for the full details on how these are figured, but essentially R+ is runs scored per out relative to league average, RBI+ is the same for RBI, ANY is the average of R+ and RBI+, and ANYA is the average of runs scored above league average and runs batted in above league average).

When you do, it becomes clear that Vizquel’s runs scored and batted in totals are not as impressive as those in this peer group:

Vizquel scored fewer runs per out than his league average; only Concepcion joined him, but Concepcion had the best RBI rate of the five. In terms of the average, Vizquel is well behind the others at just 83% of league average R and RBI per out.

I'm sure that any Vizquel partisan who is still reading is screaming "What about fielding?" I don't have any particular insight to lend on that question; all I can do is regurgitate the figures that others have published. Bill James, in Win Shares assigns fielders letter grades based on their Defensive Win Shares per inning rates. Vizquel (through 2001) is evaluated as a B- shortstop, with Aparicio and Campaneris earning Bs and Concepcion an A+. As you know, Win Shares fielding ratings are based on a top-down team evaluation without the benefit of play-by-play data.

Chone Smith's TotalZone method uses Retrosheet batted ball locations to estimate runs saved compared to an average fielder. Smith's RAA results for the four almost flip James' rankings on their head, with Aparicio estimated to have saved 149 runs (adding in the double play component) above an average shortstop, Vizquel 144, Campaneris 62, and Concepcion 50.

TotalZone certainly deems Vizquel to have been an outstanding fielder, but not to such an extent that it elevates him significantly above this pack. And thus, in Chone's WAR figures, Vizquel ranks comfortably head of Concepcion but behind Aparicio and Campaneris. Even with a more generous evaluation of Vizquel's prowess in the field, it's difficult to argue that he was clearly superior to the other members of this group.

In Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA, Vizquel ranks as the lowest of the four with just 14 (Campaneris 31, Concepcion 56, Aparicio 109). This contributes to Vizquel ranking 20 WARP behind Campaneris, 17 behind Aparicio, and 6 behind Concepcion.

That leaves the matter of his reputation as a fielder, which is considerable, and often in mainstream discussions is assumed to be nearly on par with Ozzie Smith. You can decide for yourself how much weight to place on non-statistical evaluation of fielding. The only strong suggestion I'd make is not to place too much emphasis on the evaluation of any one particular individual--including my own take on Vizquel which follows, which I offer not because I think it's particularly insightful but because it's my blog.

I watched Omar Vizquel play shortstop more than any other shortstop--I find it hard to imagine that I'll ever watch anyone more in the future. Most of this occurred during my formative years as a baseball fan, so it is quite possible that it has forever tinged my perception of shortstop fielding--that I am unable to fairly evaluate other shortstops I watch because my expectations for a major league shortstop have been set largely by watching Omar Vizquel.

In any event, I don't have much of a pre-Vizquel frame of reference to offer. I can't say that I was never impressed by Omar Vizquel because he didn't look as good to me as Ozzie did, or as Campaneris did. What I can tell you is that, in watching other shortstops after watching Vizquel, I have never felt that I was watching pale imitations of the master.

Vizquel certainly stands among the best shortstops I've seen myself, possibly even the best. But he does not tower over them. I do think that Vizquel did things with as much flair as anyone I've watched--the barehand grab-and-throws, the back turned to the plate catches of outfield pops. But when you rely on observation, flair can be misleading. It's flair that gets you on SportsCenter, not workman-like consistency. It's the flashy play that gets burned in most people's memories, not the routine play or even the tough play made in the hole with a strong plant-and-throw.

None of this is to say that Omar Vizquel was not an outstanding fielder and a fine all-around player. He was, but so were Aparicio, Campaneris, Concepcion, and others who don't form as natural of a comparison group. His reputation seems to place him in a higher class, at least at this time. These assessments seem to be based on a very rosy assessment of his fielding prowess, a lack of recognition of the high-offense era in which he played, or a combination thereof.


I did not make any allowance for players in DH leagues, which is part of the reason you'll see discrepancies between the WAA/WAR figures for players listed here and those from Pete Palmer, Chone, and other sabermetricians. Vizquel spent the majority of his career in DH leagues, but Campaneris is the only other player discussed who spent a significant amount of his career in them.

Swapping out pitchers for DHs has the effect of raising the league averages, which are used to set baselines for average and replacement level performance, and this is something that you want to be aware of. However, the increase in scoring which drives runs per win up is a real factor that should not just be adjusted out of existence.

And while Vizquel would benefit from a DH correction, I've implicitly assumed that the position adjustment for shortstops have remained stable from Aparicio's day to Vizquel's. However, shortstop offense reached its all-time low in the 60s and 70s. The matter of positional adjustments is thornier than simply comparing mean positional offense, but there is a distinct possibility that treating the positional adjustment as a constant is hurting the pre-Vizquel members of the group, canceling out much of the DH hit that Omar takes.

Also, I realize that some people are aware of the offensive environment in which Vizquel played, but ignore it because they chalk it up to steroids. Since Vizquel is not suspected of using steroids, we're supposed to believe that he could have transferred his raw offensive performance into a different era and been more valuable relative to the league. That's a nice story.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Returning Starters (and Success?)

2013 will mark Greg Beals’ third season at the helm of the OSU baseball program, and it promises to be an important season for the program. One reason for this is that the expiration date for the use of any excuses regarding the talent level inherited from the previous coaching staff is now gone. This is now Beals’ team, for better or worse, with a large number of key players recruited by him, and ample opportunity to bring in alternatives to any less than productive holdovers from the prior staff. On top of that, OSU will have a fairly large number of returning starters, and is expected by many to be a contender for the Big Ten championship.

The Buckeyes are likely to have a platoon arrangement, as neither senior Greg Solomon nor sophomore Aaron Gretz have hit well enough to seize control of the job. Gretz’ only real offensive positive as a freshman was his 19 walks to 18 strikeouts in just 91 at bats, an area in which he is the opposite of Solomon, whose plate judgment in two years in Scarlet and Gray (10 W/80 K in 311 AB) has been dreadful. Gretz is considered to have one of the best catcher throwing arms in the conference, although Solomon is also fairly solid defensively. Gretz bats left and Solomon right, so there is a natural platoon possibility. They will handle all the catching if healthy - walkon freshman Matt Emge and sophomore utility man Ryan Wonders round out the roster, but will only see the field in an emergency.

First base will be manned by senior Brad Hallberg, who has bounced between the infield corners throughout his OSU career, starting at third in 2012. Hallberg was one of the team’s better hitters last year at 311/414/431 and will once again figure in the middle of the order. Senior second baseman Ryan Cypret will be a three-year starter but is coming off a rough 2012 (236/350/304) after a very effective 2011 (323/400/428) and will be one of the key offensive players for OSU.

Third base is vacant with Hallberg’s move across the diamond, leaving slick fielding sophomore Ryan Leffel as the most likely starter. Leffel was used often in the field during his freshman campaign as a defensive replacement when Josh Dezse left first base for the mound, but only received 28 PA. According to Chris Webb, Leffel missed early practices with a wrist injury, opening the door for freshman Craig Nenning, also considered to be a strong fielder. Third base is thus a position of concern, especially offensively.

Senior Kirby Pellant will return as the shortstop. The most notable aspect of Pellant’s game both offensively and in the field is his speed (31 steals in 38 attempts), but to this observer he is a bit lacking as a pure fielder. Offensively, Pellant is similar to a number of his teammates in that he hits for a decent average while drawing some walks but rarely ever hitting for power (274/375/340). Other possibilities around the infield include freshman first baseman Zach Ratliff, freshman third baseman/OF Jacob Bosiokovic, freshman Troy Kuhn, and the aforementioned Wonders.

In the outfield, all three spots should be manned by at least partial returning starters. Left field figures to be a battle between senior Joe Ciamacco and junior Mike Carroll. Ciamacco was held back by injuries in 2012, but was a perfect 14-14 staling bases as speed is also his top asset. At the plate, he hit for a decent average (.291) but only a mediocre number of walks (8 in 103 at bats) and little power (.039 ISO). Carroll is a hit-first player who spent a lot of time at DH in 2012, with a better plate approach but similar overall production to Ciamacco (279/368/333). Both bat left, so a platoon is not in the cards.

Junior Tim Wetzel is the leadoff hitter and center fielder--stop me if you’ve heard this before, but he has speed (although a poor two-year base stealing record of 17 for 30), a good eye (63 walks in 390 career at bats), but no power (.049 career ISO). Wetzel has a chance to leave his mark on OSU’s career record books in counting categories as he has already started and played in 104 games and figures to be a four-year starter. Right field will belong to Pat Porter, who played left a year ago and hails from my hometown. Porter’s 266/370/322 line looks all too familiar for this roster, but as a freshman he seemed to improve as the year goes on and will be a key to the Buckeyes’ offensive success in 2013. Outfield reserves include freshman Jake Brobst, Bosiokovich, and freshman Joe Stoll, whose listed on the roster as LHP/OF.

The plan apparently is for junior Josh Dezse to serve as the DH rather than first baseman. Dezse, who has also doubled as the team’s closer, is considered one of the best pro prospects in the Big Ten, but has been something of a tease as a very good hitter but not the all-around offensive star OSU has lacked at a corner position since Ronnie Bourquin. Dezse’s career 318/425/447 line belies the fact that he has much greater power potential. He clubbed three homers in one game at Georgia Tech last year, but that represents one-third of his career total. Still, a healthy Dezse is needed to anchor the Buckeyes lineup. Carroll would seemingly have the first crack at this role if Dezse does not fill it for whatever reason, with Kuhn, Bosiokovich, or Ratliff the next line.

While the offensive starters are fairly well-established, roles on the mound are up for grabs. One that is not is the #1 starter, which will go to junior Jaron Long, a first-team all-Big Ten pick in 2012. Long is a soft-tossing right-hander who relies on his command (13 walks in 101 innings) rather than stuff (63 strikeouts). While watching him work may give the perception of doing it with mirrors, his .329 BABIP was little different than the team average of .331. Still, Long should not be counted on for a repeat performance, but should eat innings and feast on undisciplined lineups.

Behind Long, things are considerably murkier. There was a thought that Dezse could be used in a starting role, but his back issues make that considerably less likely. Senior lefty Brian King stayed in OSU’s weekend rotation throughout 2012 and thus is a good bet to be back. It was King, not Long, who was expected to be the key JUCO pitcher added to the staff, but was only an average performer. The third starter could be senior righty Brett McKinney, who started 2012 as the #1 but eventually lost weekend starting assignments before being pressed back into action at the end of the season.

Three others stand out as possible rotation options: freshman right-hander Jacob Post was apparently impressive in fall camp, and as a new option may prove to be enticing. Senior right-hander Brad Goldberg has sat out the last two seasons as a transfer and then due to eligibility issues, but is now cleared to pitch and will be a contributor in some manner. Junior right-hander Greg Greve has started 28 games over two seasons, but has never been able to keep a hold on a rotation job, and may now be slotted for the bullpen.

Dezse has been the closer for each of the last two years, but OSU planned to transition him to a starting role for 2013. However, Webb has reported that a back issue has sidelined Dezse throughout the fall and into spring practices, which I presume will leave the feasibility of that plan in jeopardy. Behind Dezse, the top setup man will be senior sidearmer David Fathalikhani. Sophomore Trace Dempsey throws from a slightly higher arm slot, but gives OSU a double dose of right handers with unorthodox deliveries. Beals loves to play matchup ball, but the last two years have seen him lose his lefties to graduation one at a time--first Theron Minium and now Andrew Armstrong. Candidates to fill this role include sophomore Matt Panek (who also throws from the side) and sophomore JUCO transfer Ryan Riga. Other pitchers on the roster include right-handers Logan Bowles (freshman), Tyler Giannonatti (a JUCO transfer who had to redshirt in 2012 with an injury), Shea Murray (walk-on freshman), Tito Nava (sophomore transfer from Duke) and left-handers Michael Horesjei (walk-on sophomore), Luke McGee (freshman), and Joe Stoll (freshman).

A constant complaint towards the end of Bob Todd’s career was that the non-conference schedule was week. Beals has beefed it up a little, but this year’s slate offers a striking dichotomy: as unambitious of a pre-conference schedule as one could credibly embark upon, but a few high-profile non-conference clashes during the Big Ten season. OSU will open its season the weekend of February 15 with three games in Sarasota against Mercer, Notre Dame, and St. John’s. The following weekend they are in Port Charlotte for two games each with South Dakota St. and Mt. St. Mary’s. The first weekend of March sees the Buckeyes in Florida yet again (Deland) to play UConn, Stetson, and Central Michigan. The following weekend OSU will play at Coastal Carolina, with two against the hosts plus single games with Harvard, Ball St., and Charleston Southern.

The final non-conference weekend is March 15, a three-game home series against Bryant. Big Ten play will go: @ Purdue, Michigan St., @ Minnesota, @ Nebraska, Illinois, Penn St., @ Northwestern, Indiana (this is the same slate as 2012 except with the home series flipped). OSU will not play Iowa or Michigan (and, if completeness is sought, Maryland or Rutgers).

Non-conference opponents weaved in throughout the schedule are the typical local foes in March and April--Toledo, Ohio University, Miami, West Virginia, Marshall, Akron, Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky. Where it gets interesting is May 7, a Tuesday on which OSU will open a two game home series against Georgia Tech. The Buckeyes and Yellow Jackets have met 22 times, the first in 1924, but never before in Columbus. That weekend (on which OSU is idle from Big Ten play), Ohio State will host Oregon for a three-game series, the first ever meeting between the two schools on the diamond. On the following Tuesday, OSU will host Louisville for a single game.

Such a stretch is, as best as I can tell, unprecedented in OSU history--8 days in which the Buckeyes will play six home games against teams ranked #10 (UO), #12 (GT), and #15 (LOU) in Perfect Game’s pre-season Top 25.

Will the Buckeyes be ready to face that gauntlet? Unfortunately, I’m inclined to think they won’t be, as they don’t look like a top-tier Big Ten team to me. One the positive side, the pitching depth is beginning to return to the level one would expect at OSU, with some reserves who appear to be capable of serving as weekend starters. The offense returns all of its returning starters except right fielder David Corna, and the freshman class appears to offer more promise than those of recent seasons. But in my (admittedly anecdote-based) observation, one of the best way for a college team in any sport to be overrated is if they return a lot of starters from a team that was only average in the prior season (with a 33-27 record, 11-13 in the Big Ten, and #94 ISR ranking, the 2012 Bucks fit this bill). Sure, returning starters means fewer question marks--but the degree of improvement anticipated can often be overstated.

And for me, the jury remains out on Beals. In year three, it’s time for his recruits to shine, and there’s far less ability to blame things on the prior staff. As I wrote about last year, Beals’ game management frustrates me to know end, particularly his obsession with a delayed steal of home that would embarrass many junior high coaches. The fact that he continues to try to pull it off, not just against unsuspecting non-conference opponents, but against Big Ten coaches that surely know it is coming, force me to question his judgment and his ego. It’s hard to look at college coaches through the standard, non-nuanced sabermetric lens (bunts bad, intentional walks bad, etc.) because so many would look bad, but Beals is especially grating. What’s really bizarre is that I have actually read OSU fans on the internet rave about how much more enlightened his offensive strategy is than Todd’s, which is a case of people seeing what they want to see.

My best guess (and it’s just that) at the lineup and pitching staff:

UPDATE: Today OSU announced that Josh Dezse will miss at least the first two months of the season with a "stress reaction in his lower back". This is obviously a blow to the OSU lineup and bullpen, so I have revised my projected lineup accordingly:

1. 8 Tim Wetzel (JR)
2. 4 Ryan Cypret (SR)
3. 9 Pat Porter (SM)
4. 3 Brad Hallberg (SR)
5. D Mike Carroll (JR)
6. 7 Joe Ciamacco (SR)
7. 2 Aaron Gretz (SM)
8. 6 Kirby Pellant (SR)
9. 5 Ryan Leffel (SM)

SP #1: R Jaron Long (JR)
SP #2: L Brian King (SR)
SP #3: R Brad Goldberg (SR)
SP #4 (midweek): R Brett McKinney (SR)
SP #5 (midweek): R Jacob Post (FM)

RP: L Ryan Riga (SM)
RP: R Trace Dempsey (SM)
RP: R David Fathalikhani (SR)
CL: R Greg Greve (JR)