Monday, August 12, 2013

Running Aground

The Buckeyes’ 2013 campaign went according to plan.  Everything fell into place in the manner in which one can imagine that coach Greg Beals would have liked it to.  Not everything was perfect--after all, cleanup hitter/closer/top pro prospect Josh Dezse was lost for the season with back issues, never appearing in a game.  Outside of that misfortune, though, there wasn’t much to complain about.  OSU played an unambitious preconference schedule but went 12-6 in doing it.  In Big Ten play, the Bucks hung near the top of the conference, winning 5 of their first 7 series and sporting a 14-7 record.  All projections had them as firmly in the NCAA Tournament field at that point.

And then OSU embarked on the final homestand of the season, an ambitious nine games in twelve days to close the season in style.  Three non-conference powers would visit Bill Davis Stadium (two games against Georgia Tech, three against Oregon, and one against Louisville) as a prelude to the final Big Ten series, which as fate would have it was against Indiana, who led the conference at 15-6.

As you can probably tell from the buildup, it didn’t go well.  The Bucks split with Georgia Tech (despite being outscored 11-5), mustered just one run in the course of getting swept by Oregon (8-1 margin for the Ducks over three games), and lost 6-3 to Louisville.  This showing damaged the NCAA bid, but Ohio still had a clear path to a quality season: win two of three from the Hoosiers and claim a share of the Big Ten title. A 2-1 win in the opener put OSU in a position to do just that, and the Buckeyes carried a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning of the second game, with closer Trace Dempsey riding a long scoreless streak.  He coughed up two runs, and in the tenth OSU surrendered five runs.  In the finale on Saturday, OSU never had a chance, falling 8-1.

OSU still had the #2 seed for the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, but it was now a must-win.  A walkoff hit batter allowed OSU to pull out the opener with Nebraska 3-2 (only after Dempsey surrendered another ninth inning lead), but Indiana proceeded to drub the Scarlet and Gray 11-3, and the Cornhuskers ended their season 5-0.

Remarkably, after the NCAA Tournament field was announced, Beals took to Twitter to question the selection committee for snubbing his team, citing strength of schedule among his concerns. Regardless of how it may have stacked up in the RPI, OSU finished 73rd in Boyd Nation’s ISR with the 108th toughest schedule in the country--hardly a resume that demands an at-large spot in the field.  And whether any emphasis on recent performance that may exist is in fact logical, going 3-9 in the final three weeks of the season against quality opponents was not going to impress anyone.

Perhaps Beals should devote less time to fretting about the selection committee and more to teaching his team how to run the bases.  Beals’ bizarre obsession with the first and third, two out delayed steal of home did not taper off in his third season on the job.  The staff’s emphasis on rewards for aggressive baserunning have resulted in a team that gives away more outs for nothing than any team I’ve ever had the misfortune of watching play regularly--on any level.

The crowning achievement of Beals’ baserunning blunderers came in the non-conference game against Louisville. OSU trailed 6-3 in the bottom of the ninth and the leadoff batter reached.  After the second batter flied out, the third batter swung and missed at a 1-2 pitch.  The runner at first was thrown out attempting to steal second.  I was at the game, and I was so befuddled by what I had witnessed that I sat in my seat staring at the field for a good ten seconds attempting to process it all.  Had the runner thought it was a wild pitch and known that the Cardinals still needed to record the final out?  Wait, there was only one out, that doesn’t make any sense.  Maybe it was actually ball four, and the catcher threw, it was only 1-2.  I attempted to rationalize the irrational, and was left with the cold reality--Greg Beals is a mid-major college baseball coach with the mind of a little league coach, who is teaching the sturdy sons of Ohio to run the bases like a band of untamed Yasiel Puigs.

For the season overall, OSU was 35-23, for a .603 W% good for fourth in the Big Ten (Indiana led at .754).  Their EW% of .571 was fifth-best (Indiana, .790) and PW% of .547 only sixth-best (Indiana, .723). 

OSU’s offense scored 4.6 runs/game, well below the Big Ten average of 5.2 and good for just ninth in the conference.  They weren’t good in any key offensive category, batting .259 to the B10’s .276, drawing a league-average .1 walk per at bat, and mustering a .082 ISO to the .087 average.  The lack of power was infuriating to watch, but in context the Bucks don’t look so bad--the power outage has infected all of college baseball and made dull, low-scoring games in which the threat of an instant is largely off the table all too common.  OSU’s nineteen homers was right at the B10 average, while Indiana clubbed 53.

Senior Greg Solomon and sophomore Aaron Gretz split the playing time at catcher fairly evenly (138 and 183 PA), with Gretz hitting much better although still below average (-2 RAA).  Solomon’s approach is nearly unspeakably dreadful (4 walks and 26 strikeouts), although I hate to say that about an OSU athlete.  First base was a weak spot offensively as Dezse’s bat was sorrowly missed.  Senior Brad Hallberg had his worst season with a -5 RAA performance.

Second baseman Ryan Cypret, also a senior, turned in an average season with the bat which for him ranked as something of a disappointment but his 0 RAA still placed him second on the team among regulars.  Freshman third baseman Jacob Bosiokovic showed promising power earlier, but wound up with a very pedestrian season line of .273/.327/.369.  Senior shortstop Kirby Pellant was sure-handed with the leather and rapped out some base hits, but did little else with the bat for a .301/.340/.392 line.  Pellant was drafted in the 26th round by the Angels.

No Buckeye had a rougher 2013 than Tim Wetzel, who first lost his leadoff job, then his center field spot.  The junior slumped horribly with a .215/.292/.304 line (-15 RAA) over 229 PA.  Senior Joe Ciamacco took both of Wetzel’s prior roles, but didn’t set the world on fire either (.274/.354/.294 for -4 RAA).  The lone OSU regular who hit better than the Big Ten average was sophomore right fielder Pat Porter, who hit .296/.369/.472 for +10 RAA.  The closest thing OSU had to a regular DH was junior Mike Carroll, who turned in -4 RAA over 108 PA and decided to forego his final year of eligibility.

Given the poor offensive performances, you might surmise that Ohio did not get much production from the bench, and you would be correct.  Freshman Troy Kuhn was the infield reserve de jour and second baseman in waiting, and rode a hot start in BA to a .272/.323/.293 line--that's 2 doubles in 92 at bats. Freshman first baseman Zach Ratliff forced his way into playing time at the end of the season and showed promise with power and what appeared to be a good approach at the plate despite just 2 walks; Ratliff’s .323/.364/.452 line came over just 33 PA, but still enabled him to rank second on the team with +1 RAA.  Freshman shortstop Craig Nennig got all of his playing time in the non-conference portion of the schedule thanks to a complete lack of offense (.125/.143/.146 over 53 PA).

It was pitching that enabled OSU to compete in the Big Ten race. Unfortunately, none of the three weekend starters will be returning for 2014.  Senior Brad Goldberg, in his first season pitching for Ohio State after a transfer and eligibility headaches, emerged as the #1 pitcher, with +11 RAA backing his 6-1 record.  Goldberg was able to overcome spotty control (5.1 walks/9) thanks to stinginess with the homer (just 2 in 81 innings).  Goldberg was selected in the 10th round by the White Sox.  Classmate Brian King was OSU’s #2 pitcher in Big Ten play and the lefty had a fine season with +11 RAA thanks largely to outstanding control (just 1.1 W/9).  Junior Jaron Long was a contender for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2012, but fell to #3 starter as his BABIP reached .360. Still, his control (1.7 W/9) and keeping the ball in the park (3 HR in 100 IP) allowed Long to remain a productive member of the staff (+5 RAA).  After a good start in the Cape Cod League, the Yankees snapped him up as a non-drafted free agent for a $50,000 signing bonus (Long’s father Kevin is the Yankee hitting coach).  The pitcher used consistently as a midweek starter was freshman Jacob Post, and while he struggled in the results department (7.63 RA in 31 innings), his 7.6/2.6 K/W suggests he has future promise.

OSU’s bullpen was also strong particularly the top three, anchored by sophomore closer Trace Dempsey, whose final 1.50 RA in 35 innings was driven up by a couple shaky outings at the end; he still led the team with +13 RAA.  Sophomore lefty Ryan Riga stamped himself as a candidate for the 2014 rotation by  recording +11 RAA thanks to 7.4 strikeouts and 1.7 walks per nine over 46 innings.  Senior Brett McKinney, an erstwhile starter, lived up to his big arm by recording +9 RAA over 48 innings with a 10.8/2.6 K/W rate.  McKinney was picked by Pittsburgh in the 19th round of the draft.

In middle relief, sophomore Greg Greve (another potential 2014 starter after working in that role in his freshman campaign) was effective (3.65 RA) in 24 innings.  Senior sidearmer David Fathalikhani saw his workload drop significantly, but was effective in a near ROOGY role (3.38 RA over 18 innings in 23 appearances).  Junior Tyler Giannonatti served in mopup duty (6.06 RA in 33 innings).

All-in-all, OSU was simply unable to overcome the complete lack of offense.  While Beals has drawn raves for his recruiting, he’s yet to put much talent that he’s recruited out of high school onto the field.  Among OSU regulars, only Gretz , Porter, and Bosiokovic were Beals recruits out of high school.  On the pitching staff, only Greve and Post fit the bill.  Beals has patched the rest of his roster with transfers, often to good effect, but there’s been no evidence yet of a talent pipeline to keep the ship afloat.

Entering 2014, OSU will have to replace the entire starting rotation and several key lineup slots.  Even if Josh Dezse can be counted on to return to help both, it seems quite unlikely that OSU will be as good as they were in 2013.  With a NCAA Tournament drought that now stretches four years (the program’s longest since 1983-1990 and the first multi-year drought in that timeframe) and proof from Indiana (the Big Ten’s first College World Series representative since 1984) that much better accomplishments can be achieved, the clock is ticking on Beals’ opportunity to turn potential into victories.

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