Saturday, August 23, 2014

This House is Falling Apart

On May 4, Ohio State was suffering its worst ever loss in the eighteen-year history of Bill Davis Stadium, trailing Iowa 17-2. Only once had OSU lost a home game by a larger margin than the fifteen that they would wind up losing the game by--and that was in 1899. On two other occasions OSU had lost a home game by fifteen runs (to add insult to injury, both were against Michigan, in 1934 and 1989).

The music choice on the PA was unintentionally appropriate. Although ostensibly an upbeat song by an Ohio band, Walk the Moon’s “Anna Sun” features the infectious chorus:

What do you know? This house is falling apart
What can I say? This house is falling apart
We got no money, but we got heart
We’re gonna rattle this ghost town
This house is falling apart

I found it quite apropos for the moment, because the house that is the OSU baseball program is falling apart under the direction of Coach Greg Beals, and the historic home beatdown was the nadir of the season.

Or was it? Beals’ tactics present any number of other crazy stupid baserunning events that encapsulate a program being run by a coach with the mind of a junior high coach more concerned with winning games than teaching kids how to actually play baseball. At least in that case, outlandish baserunning can produce victories, whereas at the collegiate level it simply produces embarrassment. (Search hashtag #BealsBall if you are interested in an account of these--the 2014 highlight was a batter who hit a home run being called out for passing the runner at first.)

I usually am not this cynical about OSU sports; I am a true believer, a fan who tends towards homerism. Baseball is a little tougher on this front for me, though, since I can’t just turn off my analytical approach to the game just because the uniforms are scarlet and gray. But my sarcasm is aimed at squarely at the professional coaches, not at the student-athletes on partial scholarships who bust their tail for the greater glory of The Ohio State University.

The Buckeyes got off to a pretty solid start to the season, going 8-6 before playing their first home game; while that record does not sound particularly impressive, it included wins over Auburn, Oklahoma, and Oregon, with three of the losses coming in the final stretch of four games in Oregon (three against the Ducks and one against the Beavers). OSU then won its first five home games to fatten the record for 13-6 before Big Ten play opened.

OSU’s first Big Ten series was scheduled to be played at East Lansing, but it was moved to Columbus on account of weather and the Bucks took two of three from the Spartans. Defending champs Indiana came in the next weekend and unceremoniously swept the series, and a trip to Lincoln the following weekend resulted in a Cornhusker sweep on three one-run wins, the latter two walkoffs including a three-run ninth inning implosion in the middle game. When Ohio lost the first game of its next home series against Penn State, the seven-game conference losing streak was the first for the program since 1987.

1987 was a year that came up repeatedly in 2014. While the Bucks won the final two games from PSU and two of three at Purdue and hosting Iowa (the debacle described to open this post notwithstanding), they closed the conference campaign by losing two of three at Ann Arbor and hosting Northwestern. The end result was a 10-14 Big Ten record, OSU’s worst since 1987. And while all this was going on in Big Ten play, OSU was not exactly tearing it up in mid-week games, going 7-6 in such games (including taking two of three in a weekend series from Murray State). OSU was just 5-12 on the road (.294), the program’s worst showing since 1972 (3-14).

In my season preview post, I made a grievous error, stating that the top six finishers in the conference qualified for the Big Ten tournament. I was mistaken--the field was expanded to eight this year in preparation for the thirteen-team Big Ten of 2015. It was a fortuitous change, since otherwise the seventh-seeded Bucks would have been on the outside looking in. It was little matter, though, as one-run losses to Nebraska and Illinois ended OSU’s season.

The final tally was a 30-28 (.517) record, seventh among Big Ten teams. OSU was also seventh in the conference in EW% (.545) and PW% (.523); Indiana led in all three with figures of .746, .803, .733. OSU averaged 4.79 runs to a conference average of 4.87, while the Buckeyes allowed just 4.36 runs per game versus an average of 4.66 (although in comparing these figures it’s worth considering that Bill Davis Stadium is a fairly strong pitcher’s park). OSU’s offense was pretty much in line with the Big Ten average not only in terms of output but shape as well, with a .267 batting average, .103 walk/AB ratio, and .096 isolated power compared to averages of .271, .101, and .089. It seems difficult to believe that OSU actually had a greater than average power output, but power is significantly down in college baseball, and the Big Ten, never a strong power league (talent and weather likely being contributing factors), is no exception.

Offensively, OSU had a couple bright spots, but they were outweighed by disappointments or puzzling coaching decisions. At catcher, Aaron Gretz was one of the team’s more productive hitters, creating 6.3 runs per game on the strength of a team-high .156 W/AB ratio, but got only 129 PA to 102 to his backup Conor Sabanosh. To be fair, Sabanosh created 5.7 RG himself and also had a good walk rate, but hit for less power than Gretz. Beals has never been willing to let Gretz run with the catching duties despite him appearing to be an adequate defender and consistently outperforming the other catcher with whom he competes for playing time.

First baseman Zach Ratcliff was a disappointment in his sophomore season, failing to show the power he had as a freshman by hitting just 2 longballs in 99 AB and turning in the least effective overall performance of any OSU hitter (.232/.262/.313). 1B/DH Josh Dezse enjoyed a bounceback season, although his injuries prevented him from returning to the Buckeye bullpen as expected. Still, his 5.5 RG and 5 homers were an offensive bright spot and he improved as the season went on.

OSU’s other infield positions were subject to some interesting coaching decisions. Sophomore Troy Kuhn started the year at second base and led the team with 6 home runs and was second with 6.3 RG and +9 RAA. Third base was manned in the early part of the season by sophomore Jacob Bosiokovic, who was expected to be a key offensive contributor and power source, but hit just one homer and turned in a perfectly average 5.0 RG. Shortstop was supposed to be the province of sophomore Craig Nennig, but an early season injury left him sideline and opened the door for sophomore Nick Sergakis, who provided a needed jolt to the offense and became the leadoff hitter despite a team-low .053 W/AB. His overall line of 5.4 RG was a definite upgrade for the middle infield. But when Nennig returned from injury, Beals shuffled the infield to get Nennig back on the field. While Nennig is a superior fielder, he has yet to show any indication of being a productive hitter (.231/.331/.256 in 146 PA was a steup up from his debut campaign). This shifted Sergakis to second and Kuhn to third, leaving Bosiokovic to come off the bench and eventually get a look in left field.

Bosiokovic’s chance in left field came because senior Tim Wetzel failed to reverse his junior year offensive collapse, struggling to a .223/.284/.285 line in 185 PA. Also getting significant playing time in both left and center were a pair of freshman, Ronnie Dawson and Troy Montgomery. Dawson emerged as OSU’s offensive star, a .337/.385/.454 (7.0 RG, +12 RAA) hitter with flair and a certain fan favorite. Montgomery’s debut was less captivating (.235/.297/.353). And in right field, junior Pat Porter caught the Wetzel junior curse, tumbling to a .229/.311/.329 line after being penciled in as a reliable #3 hitter. The only other Buck to get significant plate appearances was sophomore Ryan Leffer, who had a solid offensive line (.303/.355/.343) while earning time at third base and DH.

OSU’s pitching staff wound up with a surprising ace, as freshman Tanner Tully was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year with a team-high 93 innings with +14 RAA and team-low 2.22 ERA and .7 W/9. While Tully’s 3.20 eRA and 5.1 KG suggest that he is a strong regression candidate, performance-wise he was the clear leader of the OSU staff. Junior Ryan Riga started the year as #1, but struggled through injuries and was not particularly effective (4.85 RA and 6.01 eRA over 68 innings and 11 starts). Senior Greg Greve turned in the best season of his career, winning a team-high seven games and contributing 12 RAA over 85 innings. The two most common mid-week starters were sophomore Jake Post and freshman Zach Farmer. Post was inconsistent but showed flashes of being an effective starter when filling in for Riga in the weekend rotation (+1 RAA but a 5.17 eRA). Farmer pitched solidly (4.01 RA over 49 innings) but was diagnosed with leukemia and will miss the 2015 campaign, although all indications are that his prognosis is good which of course is paramount.

OSU’s bullpen took a big step back from 2013, largely due to Trace Dempsey’s regression from stud closer to wild and ineffective (-7 RAA and 4.9 W/9). Freshman Travis Lakins was the bright spot of OSU’s pen, pitching himself into a starting job for 2015 with +12 RAA (second only to Tully) and a team-leading 9.0 K/9. Senior Tyler Giannonatti moved into higher leverage innings and responded well with +3 RAA over 33 innings.

The rest of OSU’s reserve pitchers were hit hard by injuries (particularly to promising freshman reliever Adam Niemeyer) and none logged enough innings to really evaluate their potential to help the team in 2015. As the season wore on, freshman Curtiss Irving got more work, but a 6.66 eRA with 5.7 W and 5.2 K per nine over nineteen frames means the jury is still out. Of the others, it’s worth noting that freshman Shea Murray had the lowest RAA on the team (-8), on the basis of getting lit up for six walks and nine runs in just 2 1/3 innings.

2014 was not an encouraging year for the program. While Beals recruiting efforts continue to draw praise, after four seasons there has yet to be any tangible on-field results. Beals four-year record is 124-105 (.541), the worst four-year stretch for the program since 1987-1990 (117-111, .513), and that period featured an upward trajectory as Beals’ predecessor Bob Todd took command of the program (you will note that 1987 came up multiple times as a low point for the program). In 1991, the Buckeyes exploded onto the national scene by going 52-13, coming within a game of reaching the College World Series and finishing as high as #13 in the national polls. Beals’ four-year Big Ten record of 49-47 (.510) is the worst since 1986-89 (40-48, .455).

At some point, Beals’ recruits need to start producing on the field, and the direction they are given needs to improve. OSU’s baserunning is an atrocity. It is impossible for me to convey just how embarrassing the team-wide effort to give away outs is, and it has only gotten worse as #BealsBall has become the culture of the program. As a proud alumnus, it is infuriating that the university has discarded great men like Jim Tressel, Jon Waters, and Gordon Gee, as well as a promising coach in Mark Osiecki while athletic director Gene Smith is allowed to retain his job and retains the services of Beals. OSU baseball is a program that has demonstrated the ability to dominate the Big Ten, exhibit national relevance, draw fans to the park, and even occasionally turn a profit for the athletic department, a rarity in northern baseball. The powers that be would be wise to keep that in mind before allowing Beals to make all that a distant memory.