Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Doubles or Nothing

In previewing the season to come for any team, it is customary (for good reason) to start by taking a look back at the previous season. Sometimes this is a pleasant or at least unobjectionable experience. On some occasions, though, it forces one to review an absolute disaster of a season, as was turned in by the 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes.

OSU went 22-34, which was the lowest W% by a Buckeye club since 1974. Their 8-16 Big Ten record was the worst since 1987. The seven years in which Beals have been at the helm have produced a .564 W%, which excepting the largely overlapping span of 2008-2014, is the worst since 1986-1992. Beals has taken the program build by Bob Todd, who inherited the late 80s malaise, and driven it right back into mediocrity.

Yet merrily he rolls along, untroubled by the pressures of coaching at a school that fired its all-time winningest basketball coach for having two straight NCAA tournament misses, despite compiling a .500 record in Big Ten play over those two seasons. Beals and his unenlightened brand of baseball may be too small fry to draw the ire of AD Gene Smith, but tell that to the track, gymnastics, and women’s hockey coaches who have been pushed out in recent years. Beals record of doing less with a historically strong program is unmatched at the University.

When one peruses the likely lineup for 2018, it’s hard to think that a turnaround is imminent. Stranger things have happened, of course, but eight years into his tenure in Columbus, enough time to have nearly turned over two whole recruiting classes with no overlap, he is still plugging roster wholes with unproven JUCO transfers, failing to develop the high school recruits he’s brought in. It’s gotten to the point that if a player doesn’t find a role as a freshman, you can basically write him off as a future contributor.

Junior Jacob Barnwell is firmly ensconced at catcher; he was an average hitter last year and appears to have the coach seal of approval as a receiver, so he’s golden for playing time over the next two seasons. True freshman Dillon Dingler may be the heir apparent, with junior Andrew Fishel and redshirt freshman Scottie Seymour providing depth.

Seniors Bo Coolen and Noah McGowan, both JUCO transfers a year ago, will compete for first base; Coolen was bad offensively in 2017 with no power (.074 ISO), McGowan a little better but still below average. Junior Brady Cherry will move from the hot corner to the keystone, a curious move to this observer; Cherry flashed power as a freshman but was middling with the bat last year. That opens up third for sophomore Connor Pohl, who filled in admirably at second last year but does look more like a third baseman; on a rate basis he was the second most productive returning hitter, although it wasn’t a huge sample size (89 PA and it was very BA-heavy with a .325 BA/.225 SEC). JUCO transfer junior Kobie Foppe is penciled in at shortstop. The utility infielders are both sophomores; Noah West played more as a freshman, getting starts at second base (he didn’t hit at .213/.278/.303) and serving as a defensive replacement for Pohl, while Carpenter had 14 hitless (one walk) PAs. True freshman Aaron Hughes rounds out the roster.

Senior Tyler Cowles has the inside track at left field, coming off a first season as a JUCO transfer in which he hit .190/.309/.314 over 129 PA. McGowan could also contend for this spot, with backup outfield redshirt juniors Nate Romans and Ridge Winand also in the mix. JUCO transfer Malik Jones has been anointed as the centerfielder, with true freshman Jake Ruby as an understeady. Right field along with catcher is the only spot on the roster that features an established starter at the same position; sophomore Dominic Canzone is OSU’s best returning hitter, although it was BA heavy (.343 BA/.205 SEC). Some combination of Cowles, McGowan, and Fishel would appear to have the first crack at DH.

OSU’s pitching was an utter disaster last year, partly due to injury and partly because, well, Greg Beals. The only sure bet for the rotation appears to be senior Adam Niemeyer, with junior lefty Connor Curlis and senior Yianni Pavlopoulos (who closed as a sophomore) most likely to join him. Their RAs were 6.23, 5.03, and 7.65 respectively in 2017, although only Curlis had good health. Junior Ryan Feltner pitched poorly last year (7.32 RA over 62 IP despite 8.2 K/9), then went to the Cape Cod league and was named Reliever of the Year. Sophomore Jake Vance had a 6.92 RA over 26 innings, largely thanks to 20 walks, and is the fifth rotation candidate.

The perennial bright spot of the pitching staff is senior righty Seth Kinker, who easily led the team with 13 RAA over 58 innings, even getting 3 starts when everything fell to pieces. He figures to be the go-to reliever, with fifth-year senior righties Kyle Michalik, Austin Woody, and Curtiss Irving in middle relief. You’re not going to believe this, but their RAs ranged between 6.85 and 7.94 over a combined 66 innings. Sophomore Thomas Waning will follow Kinker and Michalik in one of Beals’ good traits, which is an affinity for sidearmers; Waning was effective (11 K, 4 W) in a 12 inning injury-shortened debut season. Junior Dustin Jourdan will be in the mix as well.

Beals also has an affinity for lefty specialists, which he will have to cultivate anew from sophomore Andrew Magno (4 appearances in 2016) and true freshman Luke Duermit, Griffan Smith, and Alex Theis.

The schedule is fairly typical, with the opening weekend (starting Friday) featuring a pair of games with both Canisus and UW-Milwaukee in Florida. The following weekend will see the Bucks in Arizona for the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge where they’ll play two each against Utah and Oregon State. Another trip to Florida to play low-level opponents (Nicholls State, Southern Miss, and Eastern Michigan) follows, followed by a trip to the Carolinas that will feature two games each against High Point, Coastal Carolina, and UNC-Wilmington.

Bizarrely, the home schedule opens March 16 with a weekend series against Cal St-Northridge; usually any home dates with non-Northern opponents come later in the calendar. Another non-conference weekend series against Georgetown follows, and then Big Ten play: Nebraska, @ Iowa, @ Penn St, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue, @ Michigan St. Mixed in will be a typically home-heavy mid-week slate (Eastern Michigan, Toledo, Kent St, Ohio University, Miami, Campbell) with road games at Ball St and Cincinnati.

As I wrote the roster outlook (which relied on my own knowledge and guesses but also heavily on the season preview released by the athletic department), two things that I already thought I knew struck me even more plainly.

1) This team does not appear to be very good. One can construct a rosy scenario where the pitching woes of 2017 were due largely to injury, but we’re talking about pitcher injuries. It takes extra tint on those glasses. It has to be better than last year, when nine pitchers started at least three games, but this team was 22-34; “better” isn’t going to cut it.

2) The offense has a couple solid returnees, but in the eighth year of Beals tenure, major positions on the diamond are still being papered over with JUCO transfers. There is no pipeline of young players getting their feet wet in utility roles and transitioning into starting as you would expect in a healthy program. There are no freshman studs to come in and commandeer lineup positions as you would expect in a strong program. It is quite easy to imagine a scenario in which five of the nine lineup spots are held by first or second-year JUCO transfers.

Beals has failed in recruiting, he has failed in player development, and most importantly he has failed to win at the level to which an OSU program should aspire. I’ve devoted many words in previous season previews and recaps (and the hashtag #BealsBall) to his asinine tactics. I won’t rehash that here, but I will end with a quote from the Meet the Team Dinner that program icon Nick Swisher was roped into headlining, which makes one seriously question in what decade Mr. Beals thinks he coaches:

“Our goal in 2018 is to hit a lot of doubles,” said Beals on Saturday night.

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