Monday, June 20, 2011

Freshman Blues

I really am struggling with how to write this post, because it will probably come off as fairly critical, and that is far from my intent. I support the OSU baseball program fully, and any time I make a prediction or say anything less than fully complementary of a player, I would like nothing more than to be proven wrong.

On top of that, it’s also necessary to note that the length of the college season is such that statistics are compiled over much smaller samples and with much less predictive value than what I am accustomed to when looking at the major leagues. Of course, caution must be taken with regard to sample sizes and predictability when dealing with statistics of any kind, but it’s more important than usual here. More weight and deference must be given to observation and to the coaches who see the players in practice every day.

A final disclaimer that I need to throw in is that I didn’t really expect the 2011 Bucks to be very good. I thought qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament would be a challenge, and Ohio wound up as the #4 seed, so they actually exceeded my expectations, at least in conference play. It’s difficult to put too much blame on Coach Greg Beals, as he was in his first year and had nothing to do with recruiting the players he had to work with.

OSU lost its first two games of the season, then trailed St. John’s in the third game 7-0 before rallying for an 8-7 win. The team was 6-5 against a not particularly tough schedule before embarking on a California trip that saw them be hammered to the tune of 1-5. From that point on, the team had to work hard to stay near .500.

Mid-week games against non-conference opponents saw OSU go 5-4, which was actually an improvement over 2010 (and included a win over Oklahoma State in a rare matchup with a national program in a game of that type). In Big Ten play, the Buckeyes went 13-11 to earn the #4 seed in the conference tournament. They defeated #5 Minnesota, lost to #1 Illinois, and lost a rematch with Minnesota to bow out with a final season record of 26-27. It was the first sub-.500 season for Ohio State since 1987--the season before Bob Todd arrived in Columbus. It wasn’t just unadjusted record that suggested it was a very poor team by OSU standards--since Boyd Nation’s ISR ratings started in 1997, the lowest national rank for the program had been #130 in 1998, but in 2011 OSU could manage no better than #160.

OSU’s .491 W% ranked seventh in the Big Ten (Purdue led at .649); their .464 EW% ranked seventh (Purdue led at .668); and their .477 PW% ranked sixth (MSU led at .643). The Big Ten averaged 5.38 runs scored and 5.30 runs allowed per game; OSU ranked fifth with 5.6 runs scored and ninth with 6.0 runs allowed. Ohio had a .930 modified Fielding Average, which ranked eighth (the conference average was .939). OSU was also eighth in DER, converting approximately 66% of balls in play into outs compared to an average of 67%.

Offensively, the Buckeyes were almost perfectly average in the major components of offense: average (.280 compared to a .279 B10 average); walks (.100 per at bat versus .l02); and power (.104 isolated power matched the mean). Looking at the individual players, catching was the biggest weakness. Greg Solomon got the vast majority of the playing time, but was ice cold from the mid-point of the B10 schedule on, winding up at -5 RAA for the season. Solomon’s strikeout to walk ratio was a dreadful 42/4. First baseman Josh Dezse copped B10 Freshman of the Year honors thanks to his team-leading +15 RAA, fueled by a team-leading .332 BA but a decent .280 SEC as well. Second baseman Ryan Cypret hit .323, which despite a .208 SEC was enough to finish second on the team with +9 RAA. Third baseman Matt Streng drew just five walks, leaving him with a putrid .138 SEC despite a solid .115 ISO, and was two runs below average as a result. Tyler Engle bounced back to something resembling his sophomore form, drawing enough walks to make himself an average overall offensive player. Steng and Engle were both seniors.

Left field began as a platoon between David Corna and Joe Ciamocco, but Corna’s doubles power (he led the team with 16) coupled with Ciamocco’s failure to hit at all quickly left the former getting all the playing time. Unfortunately, Corna didn’t hit for a high enough average of draw enough walks to rank any better than average (-1 RAA). Freshman center fielder Tim Wetzel showed decent promise, but his lack of power (just three doubles and two triples in 176 at bats) left him at -4 RAA. Senior right fielder Brian DeLucia didn’t hit for power as he had in the past, and thus ended up at just +2 RAA with a .276/.359/.381 line. DH Brad Hallberg led the team with 28 walks, which was enough to make him an average contributor despite hitting .254 with a ISO of just .042. The Bucks did not have much depth, and there were no particularly notable performances by non-regulars; they combined for a .202/.248/.287 line in 137 plate appearances.

On the pitching side, senior Drew Rucinski was the clear ace of the staff, leading the team in innings (82), Run Average (4.29), and RAA (+9), with an even better 3.86 eRA. Sophomore Brett McKinney settled into the Saturday starter role, and turned in average results (5.18 RA) with a promising 49/20 K/W ratio. Freshman Greg Greve got better as the Big Ten season went on, but his overall performance (6.72 RA, -11 RAA) left much to be desired for a third starter. Fellow freshman John Kuchno got a number of mid-week starting assignments (10 appearances, 7 starts)

McKinney and Greve were bumped up in the pecking order because of a complete collapse in performance from senior Dean Wolosiansky, penciled in as the #2 but quickly shuffled off to low-leverage work with a 8.46 RA in 55 innings for -19 RAA.

Beals brought a major change in philosophy to the bullpen. Todd’s teams tended to have a closer, a middle reliever that he trusted, and a bunch of other guys. Beals managed more as a professional manager, with a closer and a number of pitchers who he mixed and matched to get the platoon advantage. Left-hander Andrew Armstrong was used in a LOOGY-esque capacity (29 innings in 33 appearances, with an essentially average 4.91 RA despite 39/16 K/W), a new experience for OSU baseball fans. Fellow southpaw Theron Minimum was not used in as much of a matchup role (he started once and pitched 29 innings in 21 appearances), and was used in lower leverage situations than Armstrong. He recorded a 6.28 RA for -3 RAA.

The situational usage of the lefties was no doubt enhanced by the fact that the Bucks’ top two right-handed setup men were somewhat underhanded. Senior Jared Strayer raised his arm slot to 3/4 this year, while junior former catcher David Fathalikhani delighted this fan with his more pure sidearm approach. Both turned in similar performances, as Strayer worked 29 innings in 27 outings with a 4.66 RA (+2 RAA); Fathalikhani matched that RAA by working 26 innings in 26 appearances with a 4.56 RA.

The other reliever of note (Brian Bobinski and Paul Geuy worked 21 innings between them) was Dezse, the freshman first baseman who doubled as a closer. Dezse throws hard, in the mid-to-high nineties, but he left a lot to be desired in the polish department with 32/22 K/W in 28 IP (plus two hit batters and eight wild pitches) with a 7.48 RA. I’ll have more to say about Dezse in a moment, which will be a little critical, but I intend that to be aimed at the way he was utilized, not at the pitcher himself.

Given that OSU did not return much talent and that could not be pinned on Beals, the most interesting aspect to evaluation of the new coach was his strategy. What I saw I did not like. OSU *seemed* to make more baserunning mistakes than usual, including a couple of horrible little league style delayed double steals of home that were sniffed out with ease by the opposition. OSU’s SB% was 63%, an improvement from last year’s 56%, but well below 2009 (82%) and 2008 (74%). More disturbing was that OSU’s stolen base attempt frequency (measured here as (SB + CS)/(S + W)) increased to 9.9% (2008-10: 11.9%, 8.9%, 7.4%).

Beals also called for many more sacrifices than Todd had over the last three seasons. While he had a less potent offense to work with, the difference was stark enough to suggest that perhaps Beals is a bigger believer in the bunt than Todd. OSU’s SH/(S + W) was .073, while Todd’s final three teams had ratios of .028, .047, and .033.

What really befuddled this observer, though, was Beals’ handling of Dezse. For one, Beals never gave him a chance to start. One of the most bizarre discussions by a TV announcer I can recall occurred during the Buckeyes’ Big Ten Tournament game against Illinois. The announcer lamented the difficult job college coaches have in balancing player development with winning games, and his example was that Dezse could develop more starting but was more valuable to his team as a reliever.

In fairness, it might have been for the best that Dezse was limited to short mound outings, because he showed little command and really was not effective. There were a couple games in which Dezse came in and absolutely blew away the opposition, but he also had several games that can only be described as meltdowns.

On April 3, OSU led Northwestern 14-10 entering the top of the ninth. Dezse gave up four hits and a walk, was bailed out by an idiotic piece of Wildcat baserunning…and still yielded a game-tying three run blast. The Bucks did pull it out with a tally in the bottom of the frame. On May 14, OSU led Iowa 8-4 entering the bottom of the ninth. Dezse gave up three hits, three walks, and the lead as the Hawkeyes wound up prevailing in ten.

But the costliest such appearance came in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. Fresh off a win over #5 Minnesota, #4 OSU had a chance to knock off #1 Illinois and stay in the winner’s bracket. Dezse was summoned to start the eighth with OSU up 4-1. He issued two walks and a wild pitch in the eighth, but kept the Illini off the board. In the ninth he surrendered a leadoff double, uncorked a wild pitch, yielded a single, got a groundout, uncorked a second wild pitch, gave up another single, got the second out on a fly to left, then issued a walk and a single that tied the game. Andrew Armstrong relieved him but his first pitch was hit back up the middle for a single that essentially ended Ohio’s season (the Bucks bowed out with a whimper against Minnesota the next day).

Beals *seemed* to be locked into the mindset that he had to have a closer, and that it had to be his hardest throwing option, regardless of whether he was able to throw strikes or pitch efficiently. Dezse may have outstanding potential, and I’ll grant that it’s possible that he truly was the best option--but as a fan, it was beyond frustrating to watch the same movie play out three times.

I do not want to close this on a down note, so it’s important to point out that Beals has by all accounts done a terrific job in recruiting, illustrated by the fact that two OSU signees went in the first ten rounds of the June draft. There’s a lot more to the job of being a major league manager than just strategy, and that applies even more in a collegiate setting in which procuring talent is also the coach’s responsibility. The true test of Beals’ success will not be bunt frequencies, but wins and losses, and that test begins in 2012.

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