Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Most Pyrrhic Victory

It’s never fun to be in a position where you feel like your team’s short-term success will hamper its long-term prospects. For one, it is inherently an arrogant thought - holding that you can perceive something that often the professionals that run the team cannot (although one of the most common occurrences of this phenomenon in sports, rooting against current wins with an eye to draft position, doesn’t fit). It feels like a betrayal of the loyalty you supposedly hold as a fan, specifically with the players that you like who are caught in the crossfire. Most significantly, it’s just not fun - sports are fun when your team wins, not win they lose, even if you rationalize those losses as just one piece of a grander design.

It is even harder when the team in question represents your alma mater, an institution to which you feel an immense loyalty and pride, one far deeper than anything you feel towards any kind of social or religious institution, professional organization, or (of course) a government. Such is the predicament that I find myself in when following the fortunes of Ohio State baseball. It is a position I have never been in before as a fan of OSU sports - I have rarely been part of the rabble calling for a regime change in any sport, and in the one case I can recall in which I was, it wasn’t with any kind of glee or malice. I believed that the coach in question wanted to win, was trying their best, was a worthy representative of the university, might even succeed in turning it around if given the opportunity - but that it was probably time to reluctantly pull the plug.

None of this holds when considering the position of Greg Beals. Beals’ tenure at OSU now stretches, incredibly, over nine seasons, nine seasons that are much worse than any nine season stretch that proceeded it in the last thirty years of OSU baseball. A stretch of nine seasons in which a Big Ten regular season title has rarely been more than a pipe dream. I don’t feel like recounted the depressing details in this space - the season preview posts for the next four seasons will provide ample opportunity. That’s right - Beals now holds a three-year extension that takes him through 2023.

How has he managed to pull this off? Apparently with another well-timed run in the Big Ten Tournament, winning the event for the second time and thus earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It’s not as if the Buckeyes were on the bubble before the tournament - well actually, they were. They were squarely on the bubble for the Big Ten tournament. OSU’s overall season record ended up at 36-27, but if you look deeper it was worse than that. At 12-12 in the Big Ten, they finished in a three-way tie for sixth place, needing help on the final day to qualify for the eight team field. Then they turned around and won it.

In the NCAA tournament, the Buckeyes were thumped by Vanderbilt, eked out a thirteen-inning victory over McNeese to stay alive, then falling to Indiana State. To add insult to injury, another Big Ten team, the one from the heart of darkness, also had an unlikely tournament run. Except that outfit, channeling the spirit of departed basketball coach/practitioner of the dark arts John Beilein, made their run in the NCAA tournament, all the way to 1-0 lead in the final series before the aforementioned Commodores restored order to the universe.

The Buckeyes were actually outscored by one run on the season, averaging 5.56 runs scored and 5.57 runs allowed per game. Compared to the average Big Ten team, the Bucks were +10 runs offensively and -15 runs defensively. However, this obscures some promising developments on the pitching side. The weekend rotation of Seth Lonsway (9 RAA, 12.3 K/5.8 W), Garrett Burhenn (10, 6.8/3.1), and Griffan Smith (3, 8.9/3.8) was surprisingly effective given its youth (sophomore, sophomore, freshman respectively). Relief ace Andrew Magno was absolutely brilliant (22, 10.4/5.0) with some heroic and perhaps ill-advised extended appearances in the tournaments; he was popped in the fifteenth round by Detroit. Outside of them, there were a group of relievers clustered between 2 and -3 RAA (Joe Gahm, Thomas Waning, Will Pfenig, and TJ Root) and a few rough lines - midweek starter Jake Vance had a 7.90 RA in 41 innings for -11 RAA, and three relievers (Mitch Milheim, TJ Brock, and usual position player Brady Cherry) combined for 57 innings and a whopping 65 runs allowed for -31 RAA. Thankfully most of these were low-leverage innings.

The pitching was also not done any favors by the defense, as Ohio recorded a DER of just .641 compared to a conference average of .656. The good news is that the offense made up for it at the plate; the bad news is that the best hitters have exhausted or foregone their remaining eligibility. The biggest excpetion was sophomore Dillon Dingler, who returned to his natural position behind the plate after a freshman year spent in center and hit .291/.391/.424 for 9 RAA. Junior Connor Pohl was just an average hitter playing first base, but is a solid defender and was durable. Senior Kobie Foppe lost the second base job as he struggled mightily over his 118 PA (.153/.284/.194); junior utility man Matt Carpenter assumed the role but only hit .257/.300/.324 himself. Sophomore Noah West started the season at shortstop and was much improved offensively (.284/.318/.420), but his injury led to a reshuffling of the defensive alignment, with freshman Zack Dezenzo moving over from third (he hit a solid .256/.316/.440 with 10 longballs) and classmate Marcus Ernst assuming the hot corner (.257/.316/.300 over 76 PA) before yielding to yet another freshman, Nick Erwin (.235/.288/.272 over 147 PA).

Senior Brady Cherry finally fulfilled his potential, mashing .314/.385/.563 for 23 RAA in left field. Little-used fifth-year senior Ridge Winand wound up as the regular center fielder, although his bat did not stand out (.243/.335/.347). In right field, junior Dominic Canzone had one the finest seasons ever by a Buckeye hitter, parlaying a .345/.432/.620 (37 RAA) line into an eighth-round nod from Arizona. Sophomore backup catcher Brent Todys eventually assume DH duties thanks to his power (.256/.345/.462); his .206 ISO trailed only Canzone and Cherry, who each blasted sixteen homers.

So the Beals era rolls on, and at least another Big Ten tournament title has been added to the trophy case. When official SID releases after the season-ending NCAA tournament loss to Indiana State say “Buckeyes Championship Season Comes to an End”, you wonder whether there is some sarcasm even amongst people who are paid to provide favorable coverage. And then you realize no, it’s not even spin, they really believe it. Once #BealsBall takes root, it is nigh near impossible to make it just go away.