Riley Report: The Citadel’s 2013 baseball campaign begins (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a two-part preview of the upcoming season. For Part 1, click here: Link

Note: as I mentioned in Part 1, all statistics are for Southern Conference games only unless otherwise indicated.

This chart features the 2012 offensive statistics in league play for The Citadel’s returning players:

    AB      R   HR    BB      K      AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS
 Mason Davis 127 15 2 9 23 0.244 0.304 0.354 0.658
 Joe Jackson 117 22 1 16 17 0.308 0.396 0.462 0.858
 Bo Thompson 88 7 2 15 12 0.250 0.367 0.341 0.708
 D. DeKerlegand 73 13 0 7 18 0.192 0.291 0.260 0.551
 Bailey Rush 70 8 0 6 21 0.186 0.266 0.214 0.480
 Tyler Griffin 68 8 1 10 26 0.118 0.238 0.250 0.488
 Calvin Orth 55 5 1 1 10 0.291 0.298 0.400 0.698
 H. Armstrong 50 5 0 6 7 0.220 0.304 0.300 0.604
 J. Stokes 45 8 0 5 4 0.267 0.340 0.311 0.651
 Ryne Hardwick 9 2 0 2 3 0.111 0.273 0.222 0.495
 Zach Sherrill 2 1 0 1 0 0.500 0.667 1.000 1.667
 Ryan Kilgallen 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0
Totals 705 94 7 78 142 0.234 0.318 0.333 0.6517

Before I started compiling all these numbers, I would have said that one of the things The Citadel’s players needed to do was take more walks. However, I was surprised to find out that the returning Bulldogs actually had a higher percentage of  walks per at bat (11.1%) than the 2011 squad (9.1%), and a similar number to the 2010 title team (11.3%).

One thing that 2010 team did a lot was get hit by pitches, though (29 times in 30 league games).  The 2012 team was plunked 19 times (13 of those bruises were suffered by players on the current roster).

It’s also important to be careful about comparing pre- and post-BBCOR numbers. I think that in today’s game, it is even more important to take advantage of free passes, with power numbers and batting averages down throughout college baseball (though the best players can maintain high averages no matter what kind of stick is being wielded).

While there are some individual players who could stand to increase their walk totals, the bottom line is that to make a jump offensively the team as a whole needs to make more consistent hard contact, and improve those BAA/SLG categories to something approaching at least 2011 levels.

There is no question which position in the lineup needs to improve the most at the plate this season. That position would be…Designated Hitter.

I went through all 30 league games and totaled the numbers at the DH spot. The stats are not pretty. Numerous players manned the position last year, and the batting line wound up looking like this:

.186/.292/.268

That is not a typo. The Bulldogs’ DH position had a 560 OPS in conference play. Almost 22% of the ABs resulted in strikeouts. The Citadel only got six extra base hits from its designated hitters in SoCon action (five doubles and a homer). Only one of those extra base hits came at Riley Park.

Fred Jordan’s biggest challenge among his position players may be to find the individual (or platoon) capable of handling DH duties on a regular basis, and producing the kind of offense one would expect from that spot in the order.

SoCon baserunning statistics of note:

The Citadel stole 42 out of 54 bases last season, for a success rate of 77.8%. That doesn’t count the five times Bulldog baserunners were picked off in league play.

Bulldog opponents stole 47 out of 60 bases in conference action (78.3%). There were nine pickoffs by The Citadel’s pitchers in conference action, including four by Austin Pritcher.

Both The Citadel and its opponents had success rates higher than the league average of 74.5%. Elon attempted the most steals in conference play (69), while UNCG only tried to swipe 30 bags. On the defensive side of things, the range was 30 (the number of steal attempts against Elon during the season) to an incredible 85 (against Georgia Southern, of which 70 were successful).

Pitching and defense are intertwined, but it’s possible to get some idea of a team’s defensive quality independent of its pitching.

In 2011, the Bulldogs had arguably their poorest fielding squad in over a decade, with a defensive efficiency rating of 63.2%, by far the worst in the SoCon. That included leading the league in errors (58 in 30 games). The Citadel turned 17 double plays in conference action.

In 2012, the glovework got a lot better. The Citadel’s DER was 67.8%, meaning the Bulldogs were making two or three more plays per game than they did in 2011. That’s a big difference. The standard defensive measures also reflected this improvement, as The Citadel only committed 39 errors in league play, and also turned 25 double plays in SoCon games.

That isn’t to say The Citadel can’t get better in the field. The Bulldogs actually were slightly below average defensively in the SoCon, per DER (the league average was 68.4%).

Nevertheless, it was a marked difference from the season before, and there is no real reason to worry about regression. As Jordan has noted, The Citadel has solid up-the-middle performers, and some observers believe the players at the corner spots have the potential to become excellent defenders as well. This is a group that will help its pitchers more often than not.

Incidentally, while I am concentrating on league statistics here, I did notice that The Citadel’s DER for the entirety of the 2012 season (58 games) was actually better than its league DER. The overall DER last season was 68.97%.

Here are the 2012 SoCon statistics for The Citadel’s returning pitchers:

      G     GS    IP      H      R    ER    HR       ERA       K/9     BB/9
 Austin Pritcher 10 10 67.0 73 33 26 2 3.49 5.51 2.28
 Logan Cribb 10 10 47.1 54 35 32 5 6.08 6.27 4.20
 Kevin Connell 9 6 30.1 37 17 13 2 3.86 3.26 5.98
 James Reeves 11 3 22.2 31 20 20 1 7.94 5.56 3.65
 Ross White 15 0 13.1 13 12 8 1 5.40 5.40 4.12
 Zach Sherrill 11 0 12.0 19 14 13 3 9.75 5.25 5.25
 Ryan Hines 16 0 22.1 20 5 5 0 2.01 2.82 2.44
 Brett Tompkins 6 0 8.1 9 5 3 0 3.24 5.40 3.33
 Connor Walsh 3 0 2.1 3 3 3 0 11.57 3.86 12.86
Totals 91 29 226 259 144 123 14 4.91 5.38 3.83

(Actual total of league innings worked by returning pitchers: 225 2/3. My chart had some issues, hence the “226” total listed.)

Austin Pritcher and Logan Cribb were in the rotation every weekend. One thing The Citadel will need this year is for its starting pitchers to go deeper into games. Last season, starters in conference action averaged just over five innings per start. If you take the starts by the dependable Pritcher out of the equation, the average dips even further, to under 4 1/3 innings per start.

Those non-Pritcher outings featured 39 walks in 85 1/3 innings by Bulldog starters — and only 47 strikeouts.

The walk rates were obviously too high, and must be lowered. They were not completely unmanageable (and among returning pitchers were actually not that much higher than the SoCon average of 3.77 BB/9), but typical Bulldog pitching staffs do not walk people at that rate. Teams that contend for league titles do not walk people at that rate.

I am particularly concerned with the strikeout totals, however. Having a 5.38 K/9 rate as a team is problematic. Pitchers need those strikeouts.

(For clarification, the K/9 rate for the team in league play last season, including pitchers no longer on the roster, was 5.65.)

It may be that punchouts are slightly less valuable in the post-BBCOR era because “pitching to contact” is more likely to be rewarded with an out, but it’s still important to restrict the number of batters who put the ball into play. There are occasionally pitchers capable of succeeding despite relatively low strikeout rates (Tommy John comes to mind), but they are atypical.

The coaching staff knows this, of course. After all, the pitching coach had a career K/9 of 11.63 when he was at The Citadel.

Actually, from watching the games last year at a safe distance, I got the impression that the coaches were very careful with what was a very young group of hurlers. Britt Reames wasn’t afraid to pull a starter early (which contributed to the  short duration of some of the starts). I’ve used the phrase “transition season” a lot to describe the 2012 season, and nothing reflects that description more than the way the pitchers were used. There was a lot of on-the-job training on the hill.

That’s not a bad thing if it results in sizable improvement, and Fred Jordan seems very confident about the prospects for this year’s pitching staff, which includes some talented freshmen.

I linked a couple of video Q-and-A sessions in the “Links of Interest” section of Part 1. They feature Jordan answering questions posed by media relations director (and crooner extraordinaire) Mike Hoffman. In the video focusing on pitching, Jordan discusses the possibility of having a freshman closer, among other things.

In that video, Jordan also mentions that Joe Jackson will shoulder even more of the catching load this season. It sounds like Jackson will catch all three games in a weekend series, plus a weekday game, perhaps getting a day off from his receiving duties when the Bulldogs play two weekday games.

It is vitally important that Jackson not get worn down over the course of the season. He was the only Bulldog regular to bat over .300 in SoCon play. His solid work with the bat, combined with his status as a catcher, is why Baseball America pegged him as the #8 pro prospect in the conference. Jackson participated in the Cape Cod League this summer, furthering his development and gaining valuable experience playing against outstanding competition.

Jackson won’t be the only returnee with expectations. I won’t go through the entire roster, but a few other names to follow:

– Educated Bulldog fans should make sure they time their trips to the concession stand so that they don’t miss Bo Thompson’s at bats. The sophomore from Mauldin is capable of producing monstrous, tape-measure home runs. He’s not afraid to take a walk, either. With more consistent hard contact, Thompson could conceivably become one of the league’s premier power hitters.

Mason Davis had a very respectable debut season, starting (and leading off) every game as a freshman. This year, he will be expected to get on base more often, which should lead to an increase in his stolen base totals.

– After a fine freshman campaign in 2011, Drew DeKerlegand struggled at the plate last season as a sophomore. The native of Texas will move to left field this year, which may help him return to the batting form he showed two years ago.

Those players and others are discussed in some depth in the school’s video Q-and-A about position players.

Last year was a banner season for the Southern Conference, which finished the season with an RPI that ranked seventh-best in the country. Three schools advanced to regional play.

The league should still be good in 2013, but it may take a small step back. Several squads are going to have to rebuild their weekend rotations, and two schools (Appalachian State and UNC-Greensboro) will have new coaches.

Most of the nation’s baseball cognoscenti are of the opinion that at least six teams could win the league. Baseball America gave its preseason nod to the College of Charleston, as did the SoCon media. College Baseball Today favors Western Carolina. College Baseball Daily and the league’s coaches like Elon.

The experts do not think much of The Citadel’s chances. Most observers put the Bulldogs in a second tier, with at least two outlets projecting the cadets to miss the SoCon tournament, despite all the returnees from a team that did make the tourney last season.

That is not unlike 1990, when The Citadel was the preseason choice to finish sixth in a seven-team league. The Bulldogs wound up tying for fifth…in the nation.

I won’t go so far as to say that will happen this season, but I could see The Citadel having a campaign not unlike it had in 1994, when after a tough start the team put everything together and went on a huge run that ended in the NCAAs. Like that squad, the 2013 outfit may need some time to jell, but I think it has the talent to make some major noise in the SoCon. (I would prefer not to have a repeat of the 1994 team’s 5-17 start, however.)

I can’t wait for the season to begin. There isn’t anything better than a day at the ballpark, especially when you’re rooting for a winning team.

I’m ready to root for a winning team again.

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