From 1961: the SoCon rejects a radical hoops idea, and a baseball schedule

Very quick and pointless post…

For reasons not worth mentioning, I delved into some newspapers (circa 1961) from what was then called The News and Courier. While doing some research, I happened upon this story: Link

To sum up the article (remember, this is from 1961), Davidson director of athletics Tom Scott proposed that the Southern Conference change the way it awarded its automatic invite to the NCAA basketball tournament. Just as it does today, at that time the league awarded its conference tournament champion the auto-bid.

What Scott suggested was that the regular-season champion should basically get a mulligan if it didn’t win the league tourney. Under his proposal, if the team that finished first in the regular season was knocked out of the conference tournament, it would then play the team that did win the tourney in a subsequent game for all the auto-bid marbles.

The impetus for Scott’s idea came from the year before, when George Washington (at that time a SoCon school) went 6-16 during the regular season, then won three straight conference tourney games and advanced to the NCAAs.

Davidson’s Scott suggested a “playoff” between regular-season and league tourney titlists would be a big money-maker for the SoCon, but his proposal was rejected after only thirty minutes of discussion.

I found his idea very interesting. I’m not sure it could work today, but it might be a potential solution to the problem of teams in smaller conferences with great regular seasons getting knocked out of league tourneys and having to settle for the NIT.

As with all things, it would come down to TV. I don’t think ESPN would go for it, to be honest. Still, it’s something worthy of consideration. It should have been more worthy of consideration back in 1961 than a 30-minute discussion, in my opinion.

The Citadel’s baseball media guide is generally very solid. I particularly like some of the old-school pictures of baseball teams from past decades. There are some gaps, however (understandably so). For example, the 1961 baseball season lists an overall record of 11-8, which is correct, but does not have all the individual games listed.

I was going through newspaper accounts in an effort to find out whether The Citadel’s two games against Georgia Southern that year were at home or on the road. They were played at WLI Field, as it turned out. While doing that, I decided to see if I could “complete” the schedule. I think I succeeded. Here, for posterity’s sake if nothing else, are the results from the 1961 campaign.

Two quick notes: The Citadel had a home game against George Washington rained out (it had been scheduled for 3/31). Also, from what I could tell, the majority of the home games were played at WLI Field, as The Citadel shared College Park at that time with a local minor league team (a White Sox affiliate).

1961 The Citadel Baseball (11-8 overall, 5-6 SoCon)

3/24 Clemson — W, 6-4 (Home)
3/25 Clemson — L, 4-6 (Home)
4/1 West Virginia — W, 6-5 (Home) *
4/7 William & Mary — W, 6-5 (Away) [Game 1 of doubleheader] *
4/7 William & Mary — W, 1-0 (Away) [Game 2 of doubleheader] *
4/8 Richmond — L, 3-4 (Away) *
4/17 VMI — L, 1-3 (Home) [Game 1 of doubleheader] *
4/17 VMI — W, 9-3 (Home) [Game 2 of doubleheader] *
4/22 Virginia Tech — L, 2-5 (Home) *
4/26 South Carolina — W, 13-2 (Home)
4/28 Furman — W, 6-5 (Away) *
4/29 Furman — L, 14-15 (Away) *
5/2 Davidson — L, 19-20 (Away) *
5/3 Davidson — L, 2-7 (Away) *
5/6 Georgia Southern — W, 3-2 11 innings (Home) [Game 1 of doubleheader]
5/6 Georgia Southern — L, 1-5 (Home) [Game 2 of doubleheader]
5/9 South Carolina — W, 3-2 (Away)
5/13 Oglethorpe — W, 14-2 (Away) [Game 1 of doubleheader]
5/13 Oglethorpe — W, 7-0 (Away) [Game 2 of doubleheader]

* = Southern Conference game

Riley Report: midway through the SoCon campaign

The Citadel has now played fifteen Southern Conference baseball games so far this season, with fifteen more still to come. It’s a good time to take stock in where the team stands at this point. I’m going to discuss the team’s play as it relates to the league as a whole, and also some peripheral statistics associated with the action on the field.

First, though, let’s revisit Game 15 of the league campaign, which is almost certainly the most absurd comeback victory by any team this season in the entire country. For those who have been living under a rock for the past few days, the situation was as follows:

UNC- Greensboro 7, The Citadel 2. Bottom of the ninth inning at Riley Park, Bulldogs down to their last out. No one on base.

With two outs, Fred Jordan elected to give Ryne Hardwick a pinch-hit appearance. The native of Conway entered the game with only one base hit as a Bulldog, but he promptly doubled down the left field line off of UNCG pitcher Dylan Hathcock. This probably didn’t cause much concern for UNCG, although perhaps the Spartans should have been worried, as Hardwick had actually played a role in last year’s wild 17-14 victory over the College of Charleston, scoring a run in that contest.

It seems extreme baseball craziness can happen when Ryne Hardwick enters the fray…

After Nick Orvin legged out an infield single, Mason Davis doubled down the left field line, scoring Hardwick. At this point in the contest, UNCG coach Mike Gaski summoned Brennen James from the bullpen to replace Hathcock. James then proceeded to walk Justin Mackert on five pitches, loading the bases.

Joe Jackson came to the plate, representing the tying run. Jackson grounded to first, but UNCG first baseman Lloyd Enzor’s throw to a covering James was low and wide, and the pitcher couldn’t handle it.

Grant Richards was the next Bulldog to stride to the plate, and like Mackert he would walk on five pitches. Then Drew DeKerlegand would also walk on five pitches. That was it for UNCG’s James, who was replaced by Zach Furl.

After DeKerlegand reached, The Citadel trailed 7-6 and had the tying run at third base and the winning run on second. Hayden Hendry entered the game to pinch-run for Grant Richards. The batter was Calvin Orth, who had started the inning by grounding out to shortstop. Orth would again ground to shortstop — but this time UNCG shortstop Kris Richards bobbled the ball while moving to the second base bag. All hands were safe, and the game was tied.

Johnathan Stokes’ first at bat in the inning had resulted in a fly ball to left field. So would his second. Instead of being caught, though, the ball sailed over left fielder Zach Leach’s head. Hendry scored, and the Bulldogs had somehow won the game.

“You have got to be kidding me!” screamed Danny Reed over the radio.

I couldn’t believe it either. It was a great comeback for the Bulldogs, helped by UNCG’s decidedly unclutch pitching and defense. The Spartans could have ended the game several times, but were unable to make routine plays or consistently throw strikes. Credit The Citadel’s players for not giving in or giving up, though. Three other thoughts:

1) Why was the UNCG outfield playing so far in for Stokes? A left fielder at normal depth probably would have caught the eventual game-winning hit. It’s as if the Spartans thought there were less than two outs. I haven’t seen an outfielder as close to the infield in that situation since the days of Rafael Belliard.

2) The odds of winning a game when down five runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth are…not good. You can get an idea of the mathematics involved using a win probability calculator. Of course, something designed for MLB isn’t ideal for analyzing college baseball, but it’s probably a reasonable approximation. A 0.0006 win probability for The Citadel sounds about right.

3) You can bet that Mike Gaski will support an offer from Yemen to host the Southern Conference Baseball Tournament before he does a bid from the City of Charleston.

The three-game sweep of UNC-Greensboro improved the Bulldogs’ record in SoCon play to 7-8, which is currently good enough for seventh place in the league standings. The top eight teams in the conference will advance to the league tournament, which this year (and next) is being played at Fluor Field in Greenville instead of Charleston. (Actually, the tournament may not return to Charleston, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Longtime observers of The Citadel’s baseball program may be disappointed in being in seventh place, but to be honest I think a reasonable goal for this year’s team is to simply qualify for the league tournament. My reasoning for this is as follows:

– Last year The Citadel finished last in the conference for the first time. This happened the year after a championship season, so it came as a bit of a shock. It may be almost as shocking to realize that this last-place finish came in a year in which the league was down.

In 2010, the SoCon had a conference RPI that ranked as 9th-best nationally among all leagues. In 2011, though, that ranking dropped to 15th overall. This season, the league has had a good deal of success in non-conference play, and as a result the SoCon is currently ranked 8th in RPI.

In other words, The Citadel is trying to move up in the standings from one year to the next while the league as a whole is much improved from last year. The seventh-best team this year is probably considerably better than the seventh-best team from last season — and of course, the Bulldogs weren’t seventh last year. They were eleventh.

– Jeff Hartsell wrote recently about the team’s struggles (this came prior to the sweep of UNCG). I think the key point he made was about attrition. For any varsity sport at The Citadel, keeping attrition low is critical. The baseball program has had a tough run over the last couple of years when it comes to losing players, particularly pitchers, and it was a factor (though not the only factor) in last season’s collapse.

This year’s team is quite young, with three true freshmen manning the middle infield spots and a host of frosh hurlers making contributions. There are actually more freshmen (redshirt and “true”) listed on the roster in The Citadel’s game notes (18) than sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined (17).

Everyone associated with The Citadel knows the difficulty freshmen face in adjusting to life at the military college, both on the field and off. They are not likely to be consistently excellent on the diamond.

The one thing that has to happen, though, is that this year’s crop of freshmen needs to return in force next season. When a program at The Citadel starts turning over freshmen year after year, that’s when it gets in trouble. Retention is all-important, not just for the school’s mission, but for the success of its varsity teams.

– There is one other issue that might have an impact on The Citadel’s overall record (not necessarily its record in league play). The relatively recent compression of the college baseball schedule puts The Citadel at a bit of a disadvantage, even in good years for the Bulldogs. Having to play 56 games in a 13-week period means that more midweek games are being played, and that can test a team’s overall depth, particularly in regards to pitching.

The Citadel has never really been known as a team with a great deal of pitching depth. The Bulldogs have generally had good pitching staffs, but those staffs were built for conference games played on the weekends.

In 2010, The Citadel won the Southern Conference with a league record of 24-6. The Bulldogs wound up losing fewer conference games that year than they did games played on Tuesday. The Citadel was 1-7 on Tuesday.

I remember arguing a little that season with Baseball America college baseball writer Aaron Fitt about The Citadel’s viability as an at-large candidate. He pointed to the Bulldogs’ less-than-stellar non-league record as a reason for doubt. My argument in response was that The Citadel was winning a top-10 league. I could have also noted that regional matchups are not played on Tuesdays.

Basically, what I’m saying is that given the “tighter” college baseball schedule of today, The Citadel may drop an occasional midweek game that it shouldn’t. That won’t be a problem for conference play, and will only matter in years when the team is a legitimate at-large candidate for an NCAA bid.

I think the league can be broken into two distinct groupings this season. There are six teams that will be in the league tournament unless something strange happens (Appalachian State, Elon, Western Carolina, Georgia Southern, Samford, and the College of Charleston). Then there is another group of five teams, with likely two of them making the tourney. Right now The Citadel leads that group, which also includes Furman, Davidson, UNC-Greensboro, and Wofford.

The Citadel has already played UNCG and Wofford, both at home. The Bulldogs won five of those six games, which is important. The Citadel will play Furman later in the season at Riley Park, and will play Davidson on the road.

The Bulldogs’ only other home conference series remaining is against Georgia Southern. The Citadel faces a short trip to Patriots Point for a series against the College of Charleston, and a longer trip to Elon.

In my baseball preview a couple of months ago, I noted that The Citadel’s team defense was awful last season, regressing from a respectable defensive efficiency of 66.8% in league play in 2010 (slightly better than average) to 63.2% in 2011 (worst in the league by far). That differential is even worse when you consider that the new bat standards that went into effect for the 2011 season resulted in generally higher DER across the board.

The Citadel’s defensive efficiency in 2012 stands at 67.2% through 15 conference games, a significant improvement from 2011. It is probably not quite as good as the 2010 number once the changed bat standards are taken into account, but is still respectable.

There isn’t enough readily available statistical information yet to compare The Citadel’s DER to that of its conference brethren this year, but I will hazard a guess that the Bulldogs have been an average defensive team in league action. The fielding percentage stats would indicate The Citadel is actually nearer the bottom of the pack than the top, but I think that’s slightly misleading. There is definitely still room for improvement in this area, however.

Comparing pitching ERA from 2010, 2011, and 2012 (league play only):

Year    Dogs  SoCon avg.
2010    4.26       6.15
2011    5.44       4.69
2012    5.70       4.72

As you can see, the development of the mound staff by new pitching coach Britt Reames is still a work in progress. (The conference ERA over the last two seasons reflects the impact the new bat standards have had on the formerly hitter-friendly league.)

You have to be careful with sample sizes, of course. For 2012, keep in mind that nine of The Citadel’s fifteen games have been at home, at a “pitcher’s park”. On the other hand, three of the six road games took place at Smith Stadium in Boone, which per Boyd Nation had a park factor rating of 124 for the previous four seasons.

Freshmen are responsible for more than 42% of the innings pitched by Bulldog hurlers (that’s for all games, not just league contests), so there is a reasonable likelihood of improvement as the season continues. Reames has not been afraid to use a quick hook, but he has also not hesitated to give pitchers multiple opportunities (five of the frosh pitchers have appeared in at least twelve games so far).

My own sense of Reames’ approach, which may be completely off base, is that he is being careful with the young pitchers, not just from a physical standpoint, but a psychological one. He isn’t inclined to let someone hang around on the hill too long and get absolutely crushed.

I do have one concern with the pitching going forward, and that is the K rate. The Citadel’s pitching staff averaged 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 2010, and had a still solid 7.8 K/9 ratio in 2011. This season, however, that number has dropped to 5.5/9 in SoCon play. That’s too low.

The Citadel’s pitching staff has traditionally had strong strikeout rates, though it is also true that one pitcher (i.e., Asher Wojciechowski) can make a big difference in the overall numbers. Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ pitchers are going to have to miss more bats in order to reach their desired level of success.

I do want to highlight two pitchers who are getting the job done this year, but neither is a freshman. Friday starter Austin Pritcher has thrown at least 5 1/3 innings in each of his nine starts, with a solid 3.42 ERA. He has been a much-needed constant in the starting rotation.

Senior sidearmer Ryan Hines has appeared in 25 of The Citadel’s 37 games, all out of the bullpen, and has proven to be the kind of reliable setup man/closer type that any good team needs. If the Bulldogs qualify for the SoCon tourney, though, Hines is going to need some help in the ‘pen if The Citadel hopes to do more than its fair share of post-season damage.

The Bulldogs are still waiting for their bats to awaken, particularly in conference action. In 2011, the team batting average of .280 was a tad subpar, but it looks great when compared to the current .250 BA that The Citadel is sporting in SoCon play. The Bulldogs had an OPS of 741 last season in league games, which tied for 7th-best in the conference. This season, that number has fallen to 701, which is somehow still better than three other league teams (UNCG, Davidson, and Wofford, with the Terriers having an anemic 600 OPS).

I think the hitting will improve, which may be an optimistic viewpoint, but one that I believe is grounded in reality. Nick Orvin is not a .266 hitter; he’s better than that, and there is still plenty of time this season to prove it.

It may be that he has been the victim of some excellent pitching. Earlier in the season, Orvin was getting in some tough counts while at the plate. I took a lot at his plate appearances through March 11, and found that he was batting .500 when the first pitch of the AB was a ball but only .063 when it was a strike (or if he put the first pitch into play). At that time, he was seeing a lot of first-pitch strikes.

Orvin is going to get his hits, eventually. So will Joe Jackson, who I am hoping will also develop some more power. Another guy who should be about ready to break out is Drew DeKerlegand, who is only batting .250 after hitting .317 in his freshman campaign.

Those players are all proven commodities with a bat in their hands. It may be that opposing pitchers are working around them, not giving them good pitches to hit, and taking their chances with the bottom of the order. One of those batters in the lower part of the lineup needs to get hot. If so, it could prove contagious (to borrow one of Fred Jordan’s pet expressions).

It’s been a bumpy road at times this season for the baseball team. There are signs, however, that the path ahead may be a bit smoother. Don’t be surprised if there are still a few potholes to navigate, though. After all, we’re talking about The Citadel.