Saturday, July 11, 2015

Collapse, pt. 2

For the second time in three years, OSU baseball entered May in excellent position to secure the program's first NCAA tournament berth since 2009, projected as a #2 seed with an outside shot of earning a #1 and hosting a regional. For the second time in three years, it all came crashing down around hapless coach Greg Beals. This one was even tougher to swallow. In 2013, the crash mostly came in non-conference games against tough national opponents (Georgia Tech, Louisville, Oregon), and the Buckeyes still came close to a share of the Big Ten title. In 2015, OSU tumbled down the Big Ten standings, losing eight of their final nine conference games to fall to seventh in the league.

Despite this catastrophic failure, the stagnation of the program under Beals' stewardship, and the expiration of his inital contract, it appears as if Beals will be invited back for a sixth season leading the OSU baseball program. Under previous coach Bob Todd, the Buckeyes and Minnesota duked it out for conference supremacy, a veritable big two and little eight on the diamond. While Todd's program slipped a bit near the end of his tenure, he still made semi-annual NCAA appearances and captured a final regular season crown in 2009. Under Beals, OSU has clearly fallen behind at least Indiana, Illinois, and newcomers Nebraska and Maryland in the Big Ten pecking order.

The Big Ten got five teams into the NCAA Tournament: Indiana, Iowa, the forces of evil, Maryland, and Illinois, with the latter two winning their regionals. But the overall performance of conference teams only adds to the frustration for OSU supporters, as the Bucks finished 35-19 (.648), third in the Big Ten (Illinois led at 50-10, .833). In EW%, OSU was fifth at .636 (Illinois led at .783), and in PW% OSU was third at .643 (again, the Illini led at .748). OSU tied for fourth with 5.63 runs/game against a conference average of 5.36 and sixth with 4.22 RA/game against an average of 4.87.

OSU's offense was paced by its outfield, with the three primary starters ranking 1-2-3 on the team in RAA. Sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson took a step back from his debut campaign, but still hit .279/.357/.465, ranked second on the team with 7 longballs, and created 6.3 RG for +9 RAA. Classmate leadoff man and center fielder Troy Montgomery broke out in a big way, hitting .317/.424/.493 for 8.7 RG and +22 RAA. And senior right fielder Pat Porter played himself into being a fifteenth round pick of Houston with a bounceback .338/.414/.576, eleven homer, 9.4 RG, +25 RAA season that also saw him set the school's career triples record.

The platoon of senior catchers Aaron Gretz and Conor Sabanosh was fairly effective, with 176 and 189 PA respectively, Gretz created 6.1 runs/game and +5 RAA, Sabanosh 5.0 and +1, although it once again mystified this observer that Beals showed a degree favoritism towards Sabanosh in doling out playing time. First base was a major weakness. Jacob Bosiokovic missed most of the season, taking one option out of play. Junior Ryan Leffel struggled at the plate, hitting .211/.304/.267 for 3.3 RG and -4 RAA in 109 PA, while classmate Zach Ratcliff hit well (7.1 RG) in limited opportunities (64 PA). Eventually junior Troy Kuhn saw time at first after starting the season at the hot corner, and was Ohio's most productive infielder with 5.4 RG for +2 RAA in 187 PA.

After Kuhn shifted across, the diamond, junior second baseman Nick Sergakis moved to third. Sergakis did not reprise his strong 2014 campaign with a .250/.320/.330, 4.3 RG, -3 RAA season. Sophomore L Grant Davis plugged in at second, hitting .282/.320/.353, 4.7 RG, -1 RAA over 102 PA. And an early hot streak kept junior Craig Nennig from a third straight dismal offensive performance, but he still only hit .266/.327/.330 for 4.3 RG and -3 RAA.

There was no regular DH, so the only other Buckeye who got more than 50 PA was freshman outfielder Tre' Gantt, who showed promise with speed and a .311/.378/.351, 5.6 RG, +2 RAA performance over 85 PA--he should be a shoe-in for the vacant outfield spot. Freshman catcher/DH/pinch-hitter Jordan McDonough showed some gap power with six doubles in 41 PA (4.7 RG). Sophomore IF/C Jalen Washington and junior OF Jake Brobst served mostly in pinch-running roles, combining for just 37 PA.

OSU's starting pitching was solid, but that's about the strongest praise that can be offered. Sophomore lefty Tanner Tully was slotted as the #1 but not surprisingly took a big step back from his Freshman of the Year campaign with a 5.04 RA (and even more distressing 5.75 eRA) and -3 RAA over 75 innings. His strikeout rate ticked up from 5.1 to 5.3, which tells much of the story. Sophomore Travis Lakins moved into the rotation but was just average (4.78 RA for -1 RAA with a similar eRA in 96 innings), but clearly was the best mound prospect on the team and was draft eligible, signing with Boston after being a sixth round pick. Senior Ryan Riga was OSU's best pitcher and was drafted in the thirteen round by the White Sox after positing a 3.38 RA for +12 RAA over 97 innings).

Freshman Jacob Niggemeyer got the most mid-week starting assignments with seven, but will need to improve on a 4.09 RA, 5.35 eRA, and 4.1 K/9 performance to be a strong candidate for weekend starts in 2016. Redshirt freshman Adam Niemeyer worked in something of a long relief role, pitching 33 innings over 12 appearances (4 starts) with a 2.16 RA and 3.79 eRA for +9 RAA to rank second to Riga on the team. Junior lefty John Havird (3.58 RA, 4.17 eRA in 27 innings) will also be in that mix.

The Buckeye bullpen struggled immensely, particularly down the stretch and in the Big Ten Tournament. In the last regular season weekend at Indiana, the bullpen failed to hold a 4-3 eighth inning lead in the opener, then surrendered two runs with the game tied in the eighth in the finale. In the Tournament, closer Trace Dempsey yielded a two-out, two-strike homer in the opener against Iowa that turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 loss. Scarred by the experience, Beals stuck with his ace Riga in the eighth inning of a 2-2 elimination game against the Hoosiers; they struck for three and ended OSU's season, 5-3.

Dempsey's senior season saw him once again unable to catch his sophomore lightning in a bottle--he was average but not brilliant (4.46 RA, 3.98 eRA, +1 RAA, with 8.4 K/9 against 2.4 W/9, the latter a marked improvement from 4.9 in 2014). The rest of the pen was weakened by a late season injury to junior Jake Post, who was the best Buckeye reliever with a 3.03 RA, 4.05 eRA, +6 RAA over 29 innings. Freshman Seth Kinker pitched well (2.82 RA with similar eRA for +5 RAA, 7.7 K/1.2 W over 22 innings0 and marks a continuation of one of the few positives of Beals' style--a fondness for relievers with less than over-the-top deliveries. As the season progressed Kinker took some high leverage work away from redshirt freshman Kyle Michalik, who pitched better than his traditional stats might indicate, albeit in only 19 innings (5.21 RA but 2.92 eRA). Senior Michael Horejsei really only had his left-handedness to offer him as a key reliever, ranking second to Dempsey with 19 appearances but tossing just 14 1/3 innings with a 6.91 RA and 5.57 eRA. Redshirt sophomore Shea Murray came back from an arm injury to throw seven ineffective but exciting innings (7.04 RA, 4.7 W, 14.1 K); his stuff was good enough for Texas to take a flier on him in the 39th round.

As far as the state of the program goes, there's really nothing to be said that I haven't already. Perhaps one could credit Beals for some apparent development by offensive players (Montgomery in particular comes to mind), but his track record in that regard is still quite sketchy. The dreadful baserunning and bizarre infatuation with the runners at the corners, two out double steal show no sign of abating, the late season collapse is fast becoming a staple, and while a 35-20 record doesn't look so bad, Beals' five-year body of work is 159-125 (.560), the program's worst stretch of that length since 1986-1990 (.500), except for the overlapping 2010-2014 period (.543). The same holds true for conference play where Beals is 49-47 (.510). The six-year NCAA Tournament drought is the longest since OSU went eight years without qualifying 1983-1990. It's time for OSU to once again have a baseball program its football and basketball programs can be proud of, and it seems likely that someone other than Beals would be best positioned to make that happen.

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