Thursday, August 10, 2017

Bottoming Out

On June 5, OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith unceremoniously fired Thad Matta, the winningest men’s basketball coach in the history of the school. He did so months after the normal time to fire coaches had passed, and he did so in a way that ensured that the end of Matta’s tenure would be the dominant story in college basketball over the next week. Matta won four regular season Big Ten championships, went to two Final Fours, and was as close to universally respected and beloved by his former players as you will ever find in college basketball. He did all of this while dealing with a debilitating condition that made routine tasks like walking and taking off his shoes a major challenge; it was a side effect of a surgery performed at the university’s own hospital. OSU was coming off a pair of seasons without making the NCAA Tournament, but basketball is a sport in which a roster can get turned around in a hurry, and this author feels that Matta had more than earned another year or two in which to have the opportunity to do just that. Gene Smith felt otherwise.

On May 20, the OSU baseball team lost to Indiana 4-3 at home. This brought an end to a season in which they went 22-34, the school’s worst record since going 6-12 in 1974. They went 8-16 in the Big Ten, the worst showing since going 4-12 in 1987. The season brought Greg Beals’ seven-year record at OSU to 225-167 (.574) and his Big Ten record to 85-83 (.506). Setting aside 2008-2014, a seven-year stretch in which OSU had a .564 W% (since four of the seasons were coached by Beals), the seven-year record is OSU’s worst since 1986-1992. The seven-year stretch in the Big Ten is the worst since 1984-1990 (.486). The Buckeyes finished eleventh in the Big Ten, which in fairness wasn’t possible until the addition of Nebraska, but since the Big Ten eliminated divisions in 1988, the lowest previous conference standing had been seventh (out of 10 in 2010, out of 11 in 2014, out of 13 in 2015).

The OSU season is hardly worth recapping in detail, except to point out that baseball is such that Oregon State could go 56-6 on the year let have one of those losses come to the Buckeyes (February 24, 6-1; the Beavers won a rematch 5-1 two days later). The other noteworthy statistical oddity is that in eight Big Ten series, Ohio won just one (2-1 at Penn State). They were swept once (home against Minnesota) and the other six were all 1-2 for the opposition. The top eight teams in the conference qualify for the tournament; OSU finished four games out of the running, eliminated even before the final weekend.

The Buckeyes’ .393 overall W% and .412 EW% were both eleventh of thirteen Big Ten teams (the forces of darkness led at .724 and .748 respectively), and their .463 PW% was eighth (again, the forces of darkness led with .699). OSU was twelfth with 5.07 R/G and tenth with 6.05 RA/G, although Bill Davis Staidum is a pitcher’s park and those are unadjusted figures. OSU’s .659 DER was last in the conference.

None of this was surprising; OSU lost a tremendous amount of production from 2016, which was Beals’ most successful team, notching his only championship (Big Ten Tournament) and NCAA appearance. With individual exceptions, outside of the 2016 draft class, Beals has failed to recruit and develop talent, often patching his roster with copious amounts of JUCO transfers rather than underclassmen developed in the program. Never was this more acute than in 2017. None of this is meant to be an indictment of the players, who did the best they could to represent their school. It is not their fault that the coach put them in situations that they couldn’t handle or weren’t ready for.

Sophomore catcher Jacob Barnwell had a solid season, hitting .254/.367/.343 for only -1 RAA; his classmate and backup Andrew Fishel only got 50 PA but posted a .400 OBA. First base/DH was a real problem position, as senior Zach Ratcliff was -8 RAA and JUCO transfer junior Bo Coolen chipped in -6; both had secondary averages well below the team average. Noah McGowan, another JUCO transfer started at second (and got time in left as well), with -3 RAA in 162 PA before getting injured. True freshman Noah West followed him into the lineup, but a lack of offense (.213/.278/.303 in 105 PA) gave classmate Connor Pohl a shot. Pohl is 6’5” and his future likely lies at third, but his bat gave a boost to the struggling offense (.325/.386/.450 in 89 PA).

Senior Jalen Washington manned shortstop and acquitted himself fine defensively and at the plate (.266/.309/.468), and was selected by San Diego in the 28th round. Sophomore third baseman Brady Cherry did not build on the power potential his freshman year seemed to show, hitting four homers in 82 more PA than he had when he hit four in 2016. His overall performance (.260/.333/.410) was about average (-2 RAA).

Outfield was definitely the bright spot for the offense, despite getting little production out of JUCO transfer Tyler Cowles (.190/.309/.314 in 129 PA). Senior Shea Murray emerged from a pitching career marred by injuries to provide adequate production and earn the left field job (.252/.331/.449, 0 RAA) and was drafted in the 18th round by Pittsburgh, albeit as a pitcher. Junior center fielder Tre’ Gantt was the team MVP, hitting .314/.426/.426, leading the team with 18 RAA, and was drafted in the 29th round by Cleveland. True freshman right fielder Dominic Canzone was also a key contributor, challenging for the Big Ten batting average lead (.343/.398/.458 for 8 RAA).

On the mound, OSU never even came close to establishing a starting rotation due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Nine pitchers started a game, and only one of them had greater than 50% of his appearances as a starter. That was senior Jake Post, who went 1-7 over 13 starts with a 6.41 eRA. Sophomore lefty Connor Curlis was most effective, starting eight times for +3 RAA with 8.3/2.7 K/W. He tied for team innings lead with classmate Ryan Feltner, who was -13 RAA with a 6.71 eRA. Junior Yianni Pavloupous, the closer a year ago, was -10 RAA over 40 innings between both roles. Junior Adam Niemeyer missed time with injuries, appearing in just ten games (five starts) for -3 RAA over 34 innings. Freshman Jake Vance was rushed into action and allowed 20 runs and walks in 26 innings (-4 RAA). And JUCO transfer Reece Calvert gave up a shocking 39 runs in 39 innings.

I thought the bullpen would be the strength of the team before the season. In the case of Seth Kinker, I was right. The junior slinger was terrific, pitching 58 innings (21 relief appearances, 3 starts) and leading the team by a huge margin with 13 RAA (8.4/2.0 K/W). But the rest of the bullpen was less effective. Junior Kyle Michalik missed much of the season with injuries and wasn’t that effective when on the mound (6.85 RA and just 4.8 K/9 over 22 innings). Senior Joe Stoll did fine in the LOOGY role, something Beals has brought to OSU, with 3 RAA in 23 innings over 25 appearances. Junior Austin Woodby had a 6.00 RA over 33 innings but deserved better with a 4.79 eRA and 5.5/1.8 K/W. The only other reliever to work more than ten innings was freshman sidearmer Thomas Waning (3 runs, 11 K, 4 W over 12 innings). Again, it’s hard to describe the roles because almost everyone was forced to both start and relieve.

It’s too early to hazard a prognosis for 2018, but given the lack of promising performances from young players, it’s hard to be optimistic. What remains to be seen is whether Smith’s ruthlessness can be transferred from coaches who do not deserve it to those who have earned it in spades. No, baseball is not a revenue sport, and no, baseball is not bringing the athletic department broad media exposure. But when properly curated, the OSU baseball program is a top-tier Big Ten program, with the potential to make runs in the NCAA Tournament, and bring in more revenue than most of the “other” 34 programs that are not football or men’s basketball. Neglected in the hands of a failed coach, it is capable of putting up a .333 W% in conference play. Smith, not Beals, is the man who will most directly impact the future success of the program.

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