Monday, June 14, 2010

The End of an Era

There are few phrases overused in sportswriting as much as the "era". Writers love to declare the end of an era, often announcing eras closed that most of the world had no idea had even opened--like the "Mike Lowell era". Occasionally, though, the phrase does a pretty decent job of describing the historical significance of a change, without falling into the hyperbole trap.

One of those cases is the retirement of Bob Todd, who since 1988 has been the baseball coach at The Ohio State University. Todd is the most successful coach in school history by practically every relevant standard except College World Series success (and given that the nature of the game now essentially ensures that teams from northern conferences will never reach Omaha, this shortfall of his record is trivial):

* Todd's 23 year tenure is exceeded only by that of Marty Karow (25 years)
* His 901 career wins tower over Karow's 479
* Todd's .654 W% is the best by any coach with a multi-year tenure, beating out Lynn St. John who compiled a .653 W% from 1913-1928
* His .636 W% in Big Ten play easily bests St. John's .599
* Todd won seven Big Ten regular season titles, two more than Karow
* Todd also led the Buckeyes to eight Big Ten Tournament championships, although only his predecessor Dick Finn had the opportunity to do so

Todd's number eighteen jersey was retired prior to his final game against Minnesota, an honor well-deserved. Unfortunately, the 2010 season was a poor way for his career to end.

The Buckeyes came into the season as consensus favorites to win the Big Ten title, with some idle chatter about it being one of Todd's best chances to reach Omaha. Such talk was only natural given that the team was coming off a highly successful season that featured a Big Ten title and a second place finish to Florida State at the Tallahassee regional, enabled by OSU knocking out Georgia. Most of the key players returned, with the main exceptions being first baseman Justin Miller and closer Jake Hale.

The season started well enough, with Ohio winning its first five games. But as the non-conference campaign wore on, the team began losing to opponents they should have handled (St. Louis, Marshall, Bethune-Cookman, Weber International, and Rollins), and sometimes by disturbing margins (the Thundering Herd laid a 17-1 smackdown on the Bucks). OSU was able to right the ship in Big Ten play, staying right at the top in what was shaping up as a wild race at 6-3.

The highpoint of the season came on April 23, a game I was lucky enough to attend between PSU and OSU. Alex Wimmers, OSU's ace, made over 130 pitches in a complete game 3-1 victory, and at 7-3 OSU maintained first place. In the final two games of the series, the lowly Nitanny Lions battered the Buckeyes 18-10 and 14-6.

The next weekend saw OSU at UM in a key matchup between two teams near the top of the standings. But Wimmers was scratched with a hamstring injury that would keep him sidelined until the final weekend of the regular season. From that point on, the Buckeyes held on for dear life. They were never swept in a weekend series, but they failed to win one either, going 1-2 in all of them.

The Big Ten race remained insanely close, with the Buckeyes three games out of first going into the final series with Minnesota while clinging to a spot in the top six (only the top six finishers qualify for the Big Ten tournament). A sweep would give Ohio a share of the title; losing the series would likely mean elimination.

The latter is what happened, as despite a heroic effort (spread across two days due to a weather delay) by Alex Wimmers in the second game, the Bucks lost the first two and were eliminated from tournament contention. The 9-6 win that closed the season was a welcome end for Todd and the seniors but ultimately meaningless.

OSU finished with a 28-23 overall record; the .549 W% was fourth in the Big Ten (MSU led the way at .642), but the non-conference schedule was weak. The Bucks' .532 EW% ranked fifth (MSU, .652), while the .563 PW% was good for fifth (Purdue, .632).

Bill Davis Stadium is a fairly strong pitcher's park, but sticking with unadjusted numbers, OSU's 6.63 R/G lagged behind the league average (6.85). OSU did an excellent job of getting runners on base (their .397 OBA and .12 walk/at bat ratio both led the league), but the power output was putrid. The team managed just 84 doubles (last), 12 triples (last), and 38 homers (tied for sixth) to produce a .095 ISO (eighth). The power outage continued a multi-year trend that had temporarily abated in 2009. Still, the component statistics indicate that the offense should have been more prolific--my rough BsR formula indicates that the team should have averaged 7.2 R/G.

Catcher Dan Burkhart, the Big Ten's Player of the Year in 2009 and a tenth-round pick of the Giants, had a solid offensive season at +17 runs, but his power loss mirrored that of the team as a whole--from a .234 ISO to .127. At first base, Matt Streng failed to duplicate his surprising 2009, hitting just one longball and hitting an anemic .265/.319/.305 (the league average was .311/.375/.420). Second baseman Cory Kovanda closed his career with a typical season (.346/.407/.449). Third base was split between senior Cory Rupert, who was a solid +3 runs heavy on OBA, and redshirt freshman Brad Hallberg who struggled (.273/.357/.333). Junior shortstop Tyler Engle brought reliable fielding, but no offense outside of walks (.224/.342/.276).

Left fielder-leadoff hitter and A's 29th-round selection Zach Hurley was the team's best hitter, leading in BA (.385) and SLG (.602) while compiling +20 RAA. In center, Michael Stephens was the team's biggest homer threat with 10 and his .196 ISO ranked second on the team, but his low walk rate (just 11 in 189 at bats) held back his overall contribution to +11. Right fielder Brian DeLucia did not achieve full-time regular status, but his .302/.395/.503 line made this puzzling. Senior DH/1B/RF Ryan Dew was also effective (.348/.420/.498). Those players took the bulk of the PA; reserve outfielder Chris Griffin was mainly a defensive replacement with a poor performance at the plate (.265/.319/.305 in 54 PA) and Eric Cypret auditioned for the 2011 open second base position with a .267/.353/.289 line in 51 PA.

Alex Wimmers was brilliant again, and the Twins agreed by snapping him up with the #21 overall pick, making him just the second Buckeye (Nick Swisher was the first) selected in the true first round of the June draft. Wimmers became just the second pitcher to win Big Ten Pitcher of the Year honors twice (despite missing three starts) and the first to do it in consecutive seasons (OSU's Justin Fry won the award in 1997 and 1999). He went 9-0, striking out 86 and walking 23 in 73 innings. He won every game he pitched except his final effort against Minnesota which he left after six innings with the lead, and was a whopping +42 RAA.

Behind him, things were shaky. Drew Rucinski began the season as the closer, but was soon put into the rotation out of necessity and had a solid +4 season. Third starter Dean Wolosiansky finished right at 0 RAA and allowed 131 hits in just 95 innings despite a BABIP only .01 points above the team average. Brett McKinney began the year as the third starter, but lost that spot to Rucinski and wound up at -7 RAA in 59 frames.

Senior Eric Best began the year as the team's most experienced reliever and the #2 option behind Rucinski, but the lefty finished at -2 RAA and was passed in importance by junior Jared Strayer. Strayer, featuring a revamped sidearm delivery, pitched 40 solid innings (+4) over 18 appearances in relief. Lefty Theron Minium was average and relied on a low .303 BABIP for much of his success.

What really hurt OSU was the lack of any outstanding pitching other than Wimmers, and any depth to speak of behind the cache of mediocre arms described above. It was the second straight season that OSU lacked the pitching depth needed to hold serve in mid-week games while saving the premium arms for conference play on the weekends.

As of this writing, the coaching position remains vacant. Names that have been mentioned include assistant coach Eric Parker, former pitching coach and current Akron coach Pat Bangston, Kent State coach Scott Stricklin, former Tennesee coach and Netherlands WBC manager Rod Delmonico, and Ball State coach Greg Beals.

Whoever winds up taking the job for 2011 will have their work cut out for them, as there is a lot of talent leading. This was a team built to peak in 2010, and the next year could be an unpleasant time as inexperienced players take their lumps. However, the long-term outlook for the program is still bright, and the shape of the program is such that I would not at all be opposed to a Todd disciple being handed the reins. On the other hand, after twenty-three great years, it may be time to look outside of the program to new blood that will be able to use OSU's resources to build a program with the potential, far-fetched as it may be, to best Todd's success.

1 comment:

  1. "Alex Wimmers, OSU's ace, made over 130 pitches in a complete game 3-1 victory, and at 7-3 OSU maintained first place."

    "The next weekend saw OSU at UM in a key matchup between two teams near the top of the standings. But Wimmers was scratched with a hamstring injury that would keep him sidelined until the final weekend of the regular season."

    Hmmm.... related? Great coach :rolleyes:


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