Saturday, July 21, 2018

A Mildly Pleasant Surprise

Given the low expectations that this author held for the 2018 Buckeyes, the season that was can be seen as quite successful. Rebounding from a dreadful 2017, OSU went 36-23 and 14-10 in the Big Ten. Although finishing in the exact middle of the conference (seventh), strength of schedule and a solid non-conference showing that included wins over Southern Miss and Coastal Carolina earned Ohio a second NCAA tournament bid under eighth-year coach Greg Beals. In the tournament, OSU’s bullpen buckled in the opener against South Carolina (8-3 loss), and a mid-game delay bifurcated the 4-3 thirteen inning loss to UNC-Wilmington that ended the season.

While the season itself was a success, the 2019 roster would appear to have a number of question marks, and in this corner, while rooting against the team is never an option, further job security for Beals is problematic.

Coming into the season it appeared that starting pitching would be a major issue after a disastrous 2017. It still was; the team succeeded despite, not because, of its starting pitching. Junior Connor Curlis was the only reliable starter, turning in 8 RAA while tying for the team lead with 17 appearances and 16 starts. Curlis was drafted by Cincinnati in the 24th round. Tying Curlis in appearances/starts and pitching 92 innings to lead him by three was classmate Ryan Feltner. Despite possessing good enough stuff to be a fourth round pick of Colorado, Feltner was -13 RAA with a 6.06 eRA that suggested he really pitched that poorly. Feltner’s ERA was held down as he allowed a whopping 21 unearned runs that drove his RA just over two runs higher than his ERA. (As an aside, OSU did not field well at all, last in the Big Ten with a .924 mFA and .647 DER). The other weekend starter, senior Adam Niemeyer, fared even worse at -15 RAA.

The bullpen was the saving grace, led by senior Seth Kinker who capped his career as one of the finest relievers in school history by walking just five batters in 63 innings, fanning 60, and leading the team with 13 RAA. The only real blemish on Kinker’s season was that he was unable to hold the lead in the NCAA opener against the Gamecocks. OSU also got solid work from senior Austin Woodby (9 RAA in 45 innings) and sophomore Jake Vance (3 RAA in 36 innings). Senior Kyle Michalik was slightly below average but still reliable, while classmate and erstwhile closer Yianni Pavlopulous somehow matched him at -2 RAA despite a ghastly 28/33 K/W ratio over 36 innings. His career came to an unfairly ignominious end when he was walked off by UNCW. Beals always relies on lefty specialists but sophomore Andrew Magno was injured early and freshman Griffin Smith (-7 RAA in 32 innings over 25 appearances) wasn’t ready for prime time. Junior Thomas Waning, who showed promise in 2017 as Michalik’s heir apparent as a sidearming middle reliever, was rocked for 18 runs in 16 innings.

It was offense that drove OSU’s success, as the Bucks averaged 6.5 runs per game (good for second in the conference). Junior Jacob Barnwell was again productive enough (-3 RAA) given his solid catch/throw game, and Colorado concurred, plucking him in the 22nd round of the draft. Freshman Dillon Dingler started the year as his backup before eventually becoming the starting center fielder (that’s nothing, as prior backstop Jalen Washington went to shortstop between 2016 - 2017); his .244/.325/.369 line definitely understates the future that the coaching staff sees for him. Junior Andrew Fishel got only 39 PA and slugged just .294, leaving backstop as a huge question mark for 2019.

Dingler wasn’t the only Buckeye who played at multiple positions, as the defensive alignment was in flux for much of the season. After getting hurt in his first season, senior JUCO transfer Noah McGowan was a monster, mashing .351/.433/.561 for 25 RAA, one of the best offensive outbursts by a Buckeye in recent years. McGowan played primarily first, third, and DH, where classmate Bo Coolen did not have as impressive of a second year bounce with an ISO of just .086 en route to -3 RAA. Junior JUCO transfer Kobie Foppe started at short but eventually moved to second coinciding with turning around his season at the plate. Foppe filled the leadoff role perfectly with a .335/.432/.385 line that produced 11 RAA. He took the spot lost by junior Brady Cherry, who failed to build on a promising sophomore season (.260/.336/.410 in 2017 to .226/.321/.365 in 2018).

Sophomore Connor Pohl started at third but eventually swapped corners with McGowan; his production was underwhelming for the latter role (.279/.377/.393 for 3 RAA) but still quite playable. Foppe’s replacement at short was sophomore Noah West, who improved on his 2017 offensive showing by taking walks but still has much room for improvement in other areas (.223/.353/.292). Junior Nate Romans was good in his utility role (.236/.360/.431 over 91 PA).

Senior Tyler Cowles also followed the Noah McGowan career path (although Cowles really struggled in 2017 as opposed to being derailed by injuries); Cowles was second on the team with 13 RAA from a .322/.381/.582 line. The aforementioned Dingler took centerfield after JUCO transfer Malik Jones struggled mightily outside of patience (.245/.383/.286 in 63 PA). Sophomore Dominic Canzone took a slight step back but was still excellent (.323/.396/.447 for 11 RAA) and will be counted on to anchor the 2019 attack.

It’s too early to draw many conclusions about the outlook for 2019, especially given Beals’ penchant for supplementing his roster through the JUCO ranks. But it is striking to note how the entire already mediocre starting rotation and most of the high-performing relievers are gone, along with the starting catcher and two of the top three offensive performers at the corners. As has usually been the case through his tenure, Beals will look to his modest past successes to ward off the heat that can result from a roster short on homegrown replacements. At a school where the demand for winning can sometimes be cutthroat, Beals has survived almost a decade by skirting by doing the bare minimum needed.

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