A few thoughts on Bulldog baseball

Wow, this place is dusty.  I guess I need to post more often.

It’s been a tough year so far for The Citadel’s baseball team, to say the least.  One year after claiming the Southern Conference regular season and tournament titles, the Bulldogs are 10-19 overall, 5-10 in the SoCon (entering a weekend series against the College of Charleston).  If the season ended today The Citadel would barely qualify for the league tournament.  The Citadel failing to make the SoCon tourney, held again this year at Riley Park, would obviously be a painful outcome for the program and could have repercussions going forward (in terms of future SoCon tourneys in Charleston).

Obviously when a team is 10-19 there are multiple issues at play, but let me put my own spin on things…

The Citadel is 2-9 in one-run games, and 1-5 in two-run games.  Yes, that’s a lot of one-run games (tied for most in the nation heading into the weekend).  The Bulldogs played 12 one-run games all last season (going 6-6 in those contests).

One thing to keep in mind is that there have been more one-run games this season in college baseball.  Across the board, 10% more games have been decided by one run this year (through the first 45 days of the season) than last.  That means that almost one-fourth of all Division I games are being decided by one run.  There are also more games going into extra innings.

The reason for all the close games?  The games are lower-scoring, thanks to the new bats.  The new bats also make it very hard to compare statistics from last season to this season, but I’ve taken a look at a couple of things with regards to The Citadel that I want to note.

Before I start, I want to say that some of the general information I’m posting comes courtesy of CollegeSplits.com, although most of the numbers are not posted on that site (which provides analytical and data services to about half of MLB).  However, occasionally one of the site administrators publishes an article on ESPN Insider and discusses some of the data they have compiled.

Defensive efficiency is a statistic that measures the rate batted balls become outs — in other words, plate appearances that lead to the ball being put into play, as opposed to walks, homers, strikeouts, etc.  It’s a good way to judge a team’s defensive ability, as it doesn’t have the biases inherent in fielding percentage.

Last season South Carolina and Texas were the two teams that had the highest defensive efficiency in the country, which should come as no surprise to anyone.  They each rated at 72.6%.  This year, more balls are being put into play (thanks to the decline in homers), so the national leader after 45 days has a higher rate (74.6%).  That would be Louisville, led by former Bulldog second baseman Dan McDonnell.

What this means is that defense is arguably even more important this year than in previous years.

I can’t calculate exact defensive efficiency data for The Citadel in 2010 and 2011, mainly because I don’t know the number of runners who have reached base via an error.  I could get that data if I went through each game log for the past two seasons, but I can only be a dork for so many hours at a time.  At any rate, I have the BABIP data, which tells more than enough of a tale.  BABIP means batting average on balls in play, for anyone wondering.  The numbers for The Citadel are instructive.

Last season in Division I, the average BABIP was .351 (so slightly more than 35% of batted balls that weren’t homers turned into hits).  This year, with the new bats, that number is down markedly, to .334, as more balls are being gobbled up by fielders and turned into outs.

In 2010, The Citadel had an impressive .332 team BABIP.  In 2011, though, it’s at .370 through 29 games.

Yikes.  In my opinion, that goes a long way to explaining the team’s struggles, particularly in close games.  Those are extra outs Bulldog pitchers are having to get, and they aren’t always getting them.

Last season Matt Talley had a .302 BABIP; through April 7 of this year, it’s at .370 (right at the team average).  Drew Mahaffey had a .267 BABIP last season, which wasn’t likely to hold up this year, but as of today he’s got a .431 BABIP.  Wow (and not in a good way).  In other words, 43% of balls hit into play against Mahaffey are turning into hits.  Either teams are hitting screaming line drives off him, or a lot of bloops are finding holes.  I think it’s the latter.

It isn’t just about defense.  The Bulldogs have not pitched as well this season as last, although interestingly they are striking out batters at a very high clip (almost a batter per inning).  The Citadel is also averaging about a walk allowed per two innings, significantly higher than last season.  Neither of those numbers are in line with the “new bats data”, as strikeouts are just slightly up nationally, and walks are down.

The Bulldogs’ bats have been very slow to get started, as some of the returning regulars have struggled with the new “lumber”, although there are signs that they are heating up.  Good thing, too, as The Citadel is 0-12 in games in which the opponent scores 6 or more runs.

I have been impressed with two of the freshmen.  Drew DeKerlegand has had a solid year at the plate, and looks like he will be manning the hot corner for the next few seasons.  Joe Jackson (the great-great-great nephew of The Shoeless One) can really hit, too.  I am not sure yet about his abilities as a receiver, although I haven’t seen anything to suggest he won’t eventually become a fine catcher.  With that bat, he’ll play somewhere regardless.  I’m hopeful that he will develop more power with time, too.

One of the problems Fred Jordan has had is figuring out a way to keep the five returning regulars from last season in the everyday lineup (including all three of last year’s outfielders, catcher Grant Richards, and 2010 primary DH Brad Felder) without leaving out Jackson (DeKerlegand being set at third base).  All the jumping around has probably had an effect on the defense, particularly at shorstop, but also including the outfield.

However, I can’t blame Jordan for shuffling things around trying to find the right combination.  If I had a suggestion, it would be to settle on the best defender at shortstop and stay with him.  Easy to say from a distance, to be sure.

Another thing I want to mention briefly is the baserunning.  While the Bulldogs’ stolen base totals are okay, I don’t think the baserunning has been good at all.   Too many guys have been picked off, and there have been multiple miscues on the basepaths.  In a lower-scoring environment, The Citadel cannot afford giving up outs (and killing potential rallies) with bad baserunning.

Personally, I think The Citadel is better than its record suggests, but as Bill Parcells would say, “You are what your record says you are.”  The Bulldogs still have time to salvage the season, but the team needs to avoid losing confidence as a whole.  I’m a little worried about that — two of the last three games have been blowout losses — but I believe the squad will perservere.

The recipe for success over the remainder of the season?  Hope, faith, and less charity on defense…

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