Riley Report: The Citadel begins its 2012 baseball campaign

The Citadel will open its 2012 baseball season on Friday, February 17 at 4 pm ET, with a game against Towson, to be played at Joe Riley Park in Charleston. The contest is part of The Citadel Memorial Challenge, an event which also includes Richmond and Liberty.

So far, winter has been unexpectedly mild in the Palmetto State. February debuted with high temperatures in the 70s. Soon, however, there will be a decided chill in the air, the wind will begin to howl, and local TV meteorologists will begin to discuss the potential threat of freezing rain or possibly even snow. How do I know this will happen?

I know because college baseball season is almost here. When it comes to wintry weather, early-season college baseball is the equivalent of the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia.

Despite that near-inevitability, I am looking forward to the upcoming season. Before that glance forward, though, I think it might be a good idea to revisit the recent past, to see just what this season may bring in terms of success for The Citadel.

With that in mind, what follows is a somewhat statistical review of last season’s diamond debacle. It includes comparisons between the 2010 and 2011 campaigns, which were as different as night and day. To briefly recap:

2010: 43-22 overall, 24-6 SoCon (first). That included a road/neutral record of 16-12.

2011: 20-36 overall, 8-22 SoCon (11th and last). That included a road/neutral record of 3-18.

Yikes. The Bulldogs went from winning both the regular season and tournament titles in the Southern Conference to finishing last in the league for the first time ever, not even qualifying for the conference tournament. What happened?

One thing that happened, of course, was some natural turnover in personnel, but that happens every year. Maybe it’s not every season that you lose a dominant #1 starter like Asher Wojciechowski or an outstanding infield mainstay like Bryan Altman, but The Citadel has had to replace good players before.

A decline in team pitching was a major problem, which in and of itself would have made the Bulldogs also-rans in the league, but then was combined with (and affected by) a horrific drop in the quality of team defense, resulting in the horror show that was Bulldog baseball in 2011.

I’m going to start mentioning stats now, some more dorky than others, so don’t say you haven’t been warned. Unless stated otherwise, all of these statistics reflect conference play only. This makes it easier to compare schedules, teams, and home/away considerations. You don’t get anomalies, either good (Logan Cribb’s masterpiece against South Carolina) or bad (losing 9-0 at Winthrop). Besides, a season is usually judged on how the team fares in league play.

Before I go too far with this, I do want to briefly mention park effects. Players are going to put up different numbers at Riley Park than they would at Clements Stadium, just to name two of the league’s more distinctive parks, and when half their games are played at their respective home fields, that will affect team statistics accordingly. Of course, when you compare things on a year-by-year basis it’s easier to see how those statistics translate.

Incidentally, Boyd Nation’s Park Factors data for the 2008-2011 time period indicates what most observers would probably suspect: The Citadel plays in the SoCon’s most pitcher-friendly facility, by far. Most of the league parks favor hitters, particularly those at Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and UNC-Greensboro.

Every scheduled league game save one (Furman-Davidson Game 3) was played in 2011, so every school other than the Paladins and Wildcats played 30 SoCon contests, 15 at home and 15 on the road. As it happens, the same thing occurred in 2010 (just one cancelled game in the league). There were 164 conference games played in each season. That works out well for comparative purposes.

There was one huge on-field difference that changed things in the SoCon, and in college baseball in general. That would be the new bat regulations. The easiest way to statistically demonstrate the difference in the bats from 2010 to 2011 is this: in 2010, SoCon teams averaged 7.1 runs per game in league play. In 2011, that number dropped to 5.7 runs per game. The league no longer featured hitters with slow-pitch softball numbers, with the notable exception of Georgia Southern’s Victor Roache (who had one of the more remarkable campaigns in recent conference history).

The Citadel’s batting statistics declined markedly in 2011. That can partly (not completely) be attributed to the bats. The Bulldogs had an OPS of .901 in 2010; that number dropped to .741 in 2011. However, the league as a whole also saw a decrease in OPS. In 2010, the league OPS was .855; in the 2011 campaign, .768 was the mean. The Citadel finished fourth in OPS in conference play in 2010, but tied for seventh in the same category last season.

Most of the decline in OPS for the Bulldogs was a result of batting average. After a team batting average of .321 in 2010, The Citadel only batted .280 as a club in 2011. The Bulldogs also didn’t draw as many walks in 2011 (119 vs. 96). Basically, The Citadel drew one fewer walk per league game in 2011, and had 1.4 fewer hits per contest. For comparison, the conference as a whole in 2011 had about the same number of walks per contest as in 2010, but teams averaged about a hit per game less.

The difference in the bats really showed in the league’s power numbers. In 2010, there were 1131 extra-base hits in SoCon action. That number fell to 873 last season. Even with Roache’s heroics, the total number of homers in conference play dropped from 374 to 219.

The Citadel’s extra-base hits declined at a rate similar to that of the rest of the league, although instead of hitting slightly more homers than league average, as it did in 2010, the Bulldogs’ 18 home runs in league play during the 2011 season lagged slightly behind the conference average (20). The trend held true for doubles as well.

In a recent radio interview, head coach Fred Jordan suggested that the company which makes The Citadel’s bats may have been a bit behind the curve in terms of adjusting to the new NCAA bat standards, and didn’t produce mondo-mashing metal quite as successfully as other bat manufacturers used by Bulldog opponents. That may have affected the team’s hitting (at least, in relation to other teams’ hitting). Jordan seemed to believe that any problems in that respect had been worked out for the upcoming season.

The Bulldogs’ pitching wasn’t nearly as good in 2011 as it was in 2010. After finishing first in league play in a variety of pitching categories (including ERA and strikeouts) during its championship season, The Citadel’s hurlers suffered through a disappointing 2011 campaign, one in which team ERA increased dramatically (from 4.26 to 5.44) despite the new bats generally holding down offense. The conference as a whole saw a decline in ERA from 6.15 to 4.69 (to reiterate, all these statistics reflect results from league games only).

Interestingly, Bulldog pitchers still maintained a solid K rate (7.8 per game). That isn’t quite as good as the 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings from the 2010 staff, but it was still enough to put The Citadel near the top of the league in the category. On the other hand, walks allowed increased from 3.2  to just over 4 per 9IP in conference play.

The Bulldog pitching staff gave up 9.4 hits per nine innings in 2010; in 2011, that number rose to almost 12 per 9IP. Included in that total was an increase in extra-base hits allowed, despite the nerf-like war clubs being used around the league. The Citadel allowed 28 homers in 30 SoCon games, up from 19 in 2010.

Curiously, the Bulldogs hit only 15 batters in those 30 conference games, tied with Davidson for the league low. That is something which can be interpreted in different ways — good control, lack of aggression/pitching inside, opponents getting out of the way because they want to hit, etc.

It’s hard to fully judge pitching without taking defense into consideration, and that is particularly the case with the 2011 Bulldogs, probably one of the worst fielding teams The Citadel has had in quite a while. One way to measure that pitching BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

In other words, forget about homers, strikeouts, walks, HBPs, or anything the pitcher (at least nominally) controls. What was the batting average for balls hit into the field of play? That should give one a decent idea of a team’s fielding prowess, or lack thereof.

– In 2010, The Citadel’s pitching staff had a BABIP of .345, better than the league average (.353) and fourth in the conference in that category.

– In 2011, The Citadel’s pitching staff had a BABIP of .391, much worse than the league average (.338, thanks to those new bat regs) and dead last in the conference in that category.

It’s no secret the Bulldogs struggled defensively last season. The Citadel committed the most errors in league play (58 in 30 games) and had the worst fielding percentage (by far). The reality was actually worse than the error totals, though, because (as BABIP tends to highlight) the defensive woes were as much about the plays not made as they were about errors on plays attempted. The Bulldogs also finished last in the league in total chances and double plays.

In 2010, The Citadel’s defensive efficiency (how many balls in play were turned into outs) was solid at 66.8%, a little better than the conference average. That was fourth-best in the league, more than good enough for a team with strikeout pitching and dependable hitting. Incidentally, that season South Carolina and Texas each had a DER of 72.6% to lead the country (that obviously included every game played by those two teams, not just SEC/Big XII contests).

Nationally, DER increased in 2011 (again, the bats were the key factor). However, the Bulldogs’ defensive efficiency nosedived to 63.2%, by some distance the worst in the conference. Western Carolina was the only other league team with a DER  lower than 67%.

Simply put, the Bulldogs failed to make two or three defensive plays per game in 2011 that they were able to make in 2010. Those two or three plays are extra outs for the opposition, and when you combine that with a more homer-prone pitching staff already allowing a couple more baserunners per nine innings, all in a lower-scoring environment — well, you’re just asking for trouble.

Tangent: in researching defensive efficiency, I came across a table stating that the Big 10 had a league DER of only 61.3% in 2011. If that’s the case, maybe it’s another example of why northern/midwestern baseball as a rule isn’t as good as that played by schools in the Sun Belt. 

The Citadel will play a three-game series at Minnesota this year. The Golden Gophers did lead the Big 10 in defensive efficiency (64.6%).

There were some changes made in the coaching staff, as Fred Jordan shook up things a bit after the disappointing 2011 campaign. He might have done so anyway, but going 8-22 in the SoCon one year removed from a title may have provided more incentive for trying a different approach.

Jordan hired a pitching coach, a first for The Citadel during the Port/Jordan era, and a move that was welcomed by a number of longtime observers of the baseball program. Both Chal Port and Jordan acted as their own pitching coaches, but this year the pitching coach for the Bulldogs will be Britt Reames.

Reames is extremely well qualified to be The Citadel’s pitching coach, to say the least. Reames is an alum, a former outstanding pitcher/catcher (under Jordan) who made it all the way to the major leagues and hung around for a while. Being a native of South Carolina (Seneca) won’t hurt him when he is on the recruiting trail, either.

Reames also has experience as a college coach, and in the Southern Conference, as he spent the past three years coaching at Furman. I like to think this makes The Citadel the SoCon’s version of the 1950s New York Yankees, with Furman in the role as the Kansas City Athletics.

I hope Reames helps The Citadel’s pitchers and catchers do a better job controlling the running game this season. Bulldog opponents stole 50 bases in 62 attempts during league play, the second-most stolen bases allowed by a team. The Citadel picked off six baserunners, slightly lower than average (there were 92 pickoffs in conference action).

The Bulldogs themselves stole 46 bases in 59 attempts in the SoCon, a respectable percentage (78%) marred by the nine times the Dogs were picked off (by my count). That was in keeping with what seemed to me a poor year on the basepaths for The Citadel.

It’s one thing to be aggressive. I’m not talking about stealing second on the first pitch with two outs and nobody else on base. I’m talking about things like the trail runner getting caught off second base because he didn’t know where the lead runner was going. I don’t have stats to illustrate that, only anecdotal memories (always questionable), but there is no doubt The Citadel needs to improve its baserunning.

Of course, SoCon teams in general have traditionally had a bit of a kamikaze approach when it comes to players running the bases. I am sure if Carter Blackburn called a league game, he would refer to the conference as the “Go-Go SoCo”.

The 2012 team will feature several players who were key contributors for both the 2010 and 2011 teams. Nick Orvin will be the centerfielder once again. Justin Mackert, per the aforementioned radio interview of Jordan, is moving from first base to left field. Jordan also mentioned that Grant Richards would return at catcher (and I’m guessing, perhaps wrongly, he will occasionally be a DH).

These are guys who have SoCon championship rings, and earned them. Orvin in particular has been a wonderfully consistent player for The Citadel for three seasons; he was first-team all-conference last season, despite the Bulldogs’ struggles as a team in 2011.

Richards and Mackert will perhaps be forever tied together in Bulldogs baseball lore thanks to a hit by Richards that scored Mackert in the ninth inning of the 2010 SoCon tourney against Elon. Of course, what is perhaps most remembered about that moment is how much Elon’s Scott Riddle enjoyed Mackert’s baserunning.

Two freshmen from last season were impressive in their rookie campaigns and will be expected to continue an upward track as sophomores in 2012. Drew DeKerlegand brought a solid bat to third base, and will man the hot corner again this season. Joe Jackson also knows what to do with the stick. He’ll likely split time at catcher/DH with Richards.

All of the above-mentioned players can get better. I would like to see the walk rate for each of them increase. Jackson needs to develop more power; I suspect that will come in time. DeKerlegand has to get better in the field. Richards must rebound from a tough year at the plate in 2011.

Jordan stated that there was competition for spots at right field and first base. There are freshman candidates at both positions, as well as returning players. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some platooning in those spots, at least early in the season.

The middle infield is evidently going to be made up of freshmen; there are apparently three of them who can or will see time. That shortstop-second base combo is going to be critical for The Citadel. Those players need to be able to hit, but more importantly, the middle infield has to stabilize the defense.

Austin Pritcher returns as a weekend starter for The Citadel. Pritcher had generally good peripheral statistics for the Bulldogs last season, although he did allow 107 hits in 84 innings. Again, he’s going to need help from the defense converting some of those hits into outs.

The other two spots in the weekend rotation are open to question, although Jordan seemed to indicate that freshman lefthander Kevin Connell would get one of them. Also in the mix is senior T.J. Clarkson, who pitched exclusively out of the bullpen last year.

In the running for weekday starts and/or key roles in the bullpen: sophomore Bryce Hines (battling shoulder stiffness) and his brother Ryan Hines, along with redshirt freshman Zach Brownlee. Jordan also referred to a “good lefty frosh” when discussing the bullpen. Then there is Logan Cribb, not mentioned by Fred Jordan in that radio spot, probably because Jordan did not want to upset the former Gamecock cheerleader who was conducting the interview.

I am sure that several other pitchers (and position players) will pop up as the season progresses, and surprise us all, faster than you can say “Steve Basch”.

I think one thing the 2011 season demonstrated is that there is a very fine line between success and failure when it comes to sports at The Citadel, and that includes baseball. The military college has very little margin for error on the field of play, and it doesn’t take much of a slip for a championship squad to become a cellar-dweller.

That said, I am hopeful that the program will rebound this season. It may be a bit of a transitional year, but I don’t believe the outlook is nearly as dire as some preseason prognosticators suggest. On the contrary, I think this could be a fun season. There are known quantities already in place, and then there is the chance for some younger players to emerge as regulars.

I am worried about the pitching depth, particularly in the starting rotation, and obviously I think it is critical that the defense dramatically improves. Both of those areas are probably going to need some time to develop into strengths, just one reason why it’s nice to see the Bulldogs begin their schedule with a bunch of home games against non-league opposition.

I will definitely be at some of those home games, cheering on the Bulldogs. I will probably be freezing, but I will be there…

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