Riley Report: From average to good to a championship — taking the next step

When I last wrote about The Citadel’s baseball team, it had an overall record of 17-16, 6-6 in SoCon play. It now has a record of 27-18, 14-7 in the league. Clearly, the squad has played very well over the past three weeks. What has gone right for the Bulldogs?

Let’s take a look at the pitching, the defense, and the offense.

On April 7, the pitching staff had an ERA of 5.64 in SoCon games. That was through twelve games. Nine league contests later, and the team ERA is 4.56, a significant improvement. I think it is also worth pointing out that six of those nine league matchups were on the road.

I thought at the time that the ERA was a bit misleading, as the Bulldogs’ peripheral statistics suggested that the pitching had been a little better than that. The staff had a K/9 rate of 7.36 through twelve SoCon games, and a BB/9 rate of 3.33 in conference action. The K/9 rate is essentially unchanged after nine more league contests (7.35), but the BB/9 rate has actually dropped to 2.88, a very pleasant trend.

Another excellent downward trend has been home runs allowed. The Citadel has only allowed one homer in its last nine league games. The Bulldogs had allowed 10 in its their first 12 SoCon matchups, but now are on a homers allowed pace similar to last year’s 17 in 30 games, which is perfectly acceptable.

Time to talk defensive efficiency again. Defensive Efficiency (DER) is the rate in which balls put into play are converted into outs by a team’s defense. With 21 league games played, there is a little more to work with in terms of sample size.

The Citadel has a DER in SoCon play of .688, which is a little better than last season (and which has improved slightly over the past nine league contests). It is also better than the SoCon mean of .684 in 2012 (I am not able to get the current league mean DER, at least not without spending more time than I have calculating it).

You may recall that prior to its recent 10-game winning streak, The Citadel was having an issue with what I termed overaggressive fielding — in other words, errors committed while trying to throw out baserunners who were already on base (pickoffs, steal attempts, runners trying for extra bases, etc.). Through twelve league games the Bulldogs had committed twelve such errors, averaging one per game. In the past nine SoCon contests, however, The Citadel has committed only four of those types of errors.

Perhaps not coincidentally, two of them came in the only game the Bulldogs lost during that stretch.

The offense has kept putting crooked numbers on the board. Counting all games, not just conference matchups, The Citadel ranks in the top three among SoCon teams in OBP (leads league), homers, batting average (leads league), slugging, OPS, runs, hits, and walks. The Bulldogs put the ball in play when they aren’t walked or hit by a pitch, as they are second in the league in sacrifice bunts and have the second-fewest strikeouts.

Four Bulldogs rank in the top 7 in OBP in the Southern Conference. Each of those four players — Bo Thompson, Joe Jackson, Drew DeKerlegand, and Hughston Armstrong — also rank in the top 12 in park/schedule adjusted wOBA.

Thompson, in particular, is having a season to remember at the plate. He is currently fifth nationally in park/schedule adjusted OPS, which is an outcome of being third nationally in pk/sch/adj OBP and sixth in pk/sch/adj slugging.

He has not been getting good pitches to hit lately, but Thompson has been patient enough to take a lot of walks. He only has 20 hits in his last 22 games, but has still batted .290 over that stretch because of all those bases on balls (and occasionally HBPs).

For reasons not readily apparent, Furman decided to pitch to him in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader. Thompson proceeded to go 5-5 with two homers and a double.

Thompson has twelve home runs this season while striking out only fourteen times, which is rather remarkable, but he isn’t the only Bulldog with pop who doesn’t strike out that often in SoCon action. Joe Jackson has hit seven of his eight homers in league games while only striking out nine times in conference play.

I don’t think there is any question that The Citadel’s offense, if it keeps up its current pace, is championship-caliber. If Tyler Griffin is able to return from his injury in time for the SoCon tournament, that will add yet another quality bat to the mix.

Another thing to watch is Bo Thompson’s ability to play first base. He played in the field last week against Charleston Southern, his first game in a role other than DH since hurting his ankle early in the season. If he can return to playing first base on a semi-regular basis, that could give Fred Jordan a bit more flexibility in his lineup options (though Calvin Orth has now cemented a role as an everyday player with his fine performance this season).

Whether or not the Bulldogs can take the “next step” from being merely a good team to a title-winning squad is clearly dependent on the pitching and defense. As far as the defense is concerned, I think it is basically a known quantity at this point.

The Citadel has an average to slightly above-average Southern Conference defense, one that can probably hold up as long as it avoids “unnecessary” errors. The team is capable of making the routine plays in the field, and its overall defensive range is adequate.

I am not entirely sure about the pitching, though there are a number of positives to consider, particularly in a tournament situation. The Citadel has the all-but-required “ace” in Austin Pritcher, who while not quite in the mold of Asher Wojciechowski or Jonathan Ellis is definitely a quality No. 1 starter.

The bullpen also has the depth the Bulldogs will need at Fluor Field in late May, provided that Zach Sherrill and David Rivera don’t wear out by then. The two pitchers have combined for 65 appearances in The Citadel’s first 45 games. Having a closer who can finish off batters (Skylar Hunter has 35 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings) will also be helpful.

Earlier I mentioned that The Citadel has a K/9 rate of 7.35 in SoCon play, which is good but not quite at the level of some of the Bulldogs’ championship teams. For example, the 2010 pitching staff had a K/9 rate of 8.72 in league play. That is not insignificant, though it is also true that with the new BBCOR bat standards, pitching to contact tends to be rewarded now more often than it was in 2010.

Three quick notes:

– I don’t think the Bulldogs have much of a shot at an at-large bid this season. Jeff Hartsell summarized The Citadel’s case; it’s just not good enough, not in a slightly down year in the Southern Conference. Now, if the Bulldogs were to beat UNC on Wednesday and win all but one or two of their remaining league games, then maybe this subject can be revisited.

It would also help if Western Carolina went into a tailspin and opened up the league title race, though that doesn’t look likely. The Catamounts are hot and only have six conference games remaining, three of which are against Wofford and all of which are in Cullowhee.

– The Citadel doubled up on last week’s SoCon awards, claiming both Pitcher of the Week (Austin Pritcher) and Player of the Week (Johnathan Stokes). Pritcher is finishing a fine career at the military college in style. He also is one of three Bulldog starting pitchers named Austin, which probably leads the nation.

Stokes has a respectable 22 hits in 21 league games — but in those 21 games, the shortstop also has 18 runs batted in. He makes his hits count. When runners get on base, Stokes is ready to bring them home.

– I tweeted about this a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to mention it again. Appalachian State’s last scheduled appearance in Riley Park will come at the 2014 Southern Conference tournament, much to the Mountaineers’ relief. Counting the league tourney, The Citadel has an alltime record of 29-2 against Appalachian State at Riley Park. No, that’s not a typo.

29-2. Just incredible. App hasn’t always been that strong in baseball, but it has usually been decent. Fred Jordan’s combined College Park/Riley Park record against the Mountaineers is a staggering 37-3. Appalachian State’s only series win against the Bulldogs in Charleston came in 1973, when Chal Port was still an assistant on the football team (in addition to his duties as head baseball coach).

It’s stretch time for the Diamond Dogs. There are eleven regular season games remaining, including nine league games, a game at Charleston Southern, and the aforementioned contest in Chapel Hill this week versus North Carolina. After the final league series, the action moves to the league tournament in Greenville.

It’s time for the team to make its case as a championship outfit. The potential is there.

Riley Report: We must defend this park

The Citadel has now played 33 games this season, including 12 SoCon contests. There is still plenty of action left on the diamond (including 18 league games to come), but I thought it would be worth taking a quick look at how things are progressing so far in the 2013 campaign. To sum up:

– Offense: Good

– Pitching: A work in progress, but the potential is there

– Defense: Ugh

When I previewed the season, I primarily concentrated on league statistics. I’m going to go back and forth between overall and SoCon stats in this post, mainly because 12 games isn’t much of a sample size.

Offensively, the Bulldogs have been solid. The breakout star has been Bo Thompson, who has established himself as one of the league’s premier power hitters, combining patience with pop — and when I say pop, I’m talking serious moonshots. Thompson has hit some of the longest home runs ever seen at Riley Park.

He also is willing to wait on his pitch, and is not easy to strike out (10 homers, 12 strikeouts). Thompson has an OPS of 1206 overall, which rises to 1478 (!) in SoCon play.

Joe Jackson is also having a nice season at the plate. Jackson has a 939 OPS overall and has been even better in league action (1167). Like Thompson, he doesn’t strike out very often (13 times in 134 plate appearances).

Drew DeKerlegand is having a fine bounce-back campaign, hitting well overall (998 OPS) and in Southern Conference games (1000 OPS). He also leads the team in getting hit by pitches, having been plunked 10 times.

Hughston Armstrong leads the team with a .383 batting average. He isn’t a power threat (only 3 of his 41 hits have gone for extra bases), but he can handle the bat (10 sac bunts, leading the squad) and knows his way around the bases (9-9 in steals).

Mason Davis continues to lead off for the Bulldogs, and has started to pick things up with the bat as of late (934 OPS in SoCon games). He is 13-16 in steal attempts and leads the team in runs scored, with 32.

Tyler Griffin has eight home runs for the Bulldogs, along with 30 runs batted in. He has been a mainstay in the batting order all season, appearing in each game, usually batting fifth. Of late he has been a bit strikeout-prone, but his overall production has been good (902 OPS).

In general, it is hard to find too much fault with the offense. At times I think the Bulldogs have been too quick to play “little ball” (The Citadel has 41 sacrifice bunts this season), but it’s hard to argue with the overall results.

The pitching hasn’t been great, but the 5.64 team ERA in SoCon play is perhaps a bit deceiving. Well, it’s deceiving in both directions…

The Citadel’s peripheral pitching statistics are actually better than last year in a couple of key categories. The K/9 rate overall is 6.85, and that rises to 7.36 in league games (it was 5.65 in SoCon action last year). The BB/9 rate is 4.01 overall, 3.33 in conference games.

Bulldog pitchers have been more homer-prone in SoCon play this year, already allowing 10 in just 12 league contests. Last season, The Citadel only allowed 17 home runs in 30 conference games.

That still doesn’t quite explain the increase in team ERA. Defensive issues could explain it, but then things get complicated. Actually, let’s talk about the defense right now.

Defensive efficiency is the rate in which balls put into play are converted into outs by a team’s defense. The Citadel’s overall defensive efficiency so far this season is .690, which is actually almost exactly the same as the overall DER last year (.687). Through 12 SoCon games (again, small sample size), the DER is .663, which isn’t great, but not too far off last season (.678).

I was puzzled at first when I ran the numbers, because they show that the Bulldogs are getting to batted balls in play at about the rate one would expect. Still, the team ERA is arguably higher than it should be, given the peripheral stats, and that doesn’t even take into account the unearned runs (22.75% of the runs scored by Bulldog opponents have been unearned). Then it dawned on me what the real problem with the defense has been, at least in league play.

The problem hasn’t been that the defense has allowed too many extra baserunners. The problem has been the defense once runners get on base.

I went back and looked at the play-by-play for all twelve SoCon games played so far this season. In those 12 games, the Bulldogs have committed 26 errors, a horrific total (their opponents have only committed 11 errors in those same contests).

However, what stands out is that twelve of those errors — almost half — were committed trying to pick off or throw out baserunners. In other words, the Bulldogs have been giving up a ton of extra bases by making bad throws. Pickoff attempts by the pitchers gone awry, overthrows from the outfield, infield singles in which the runner advances a base on a bad throw, etc.

In the Sunday game against Elon, the Bulldogs committed four errors, including three in one inning. Two of those errors in that inning were bad throws on pickoff attempts by the pitcher — and they were from two different pitchers.

I’ve heard of overaggressive baserunning, but I am starting to wonder if the Bulldogs have been guilty at times of overaggressive fielding. If The Citadel is to become a factor in the Southern Conference race down the stretch, that aspect of the team’s play must be fixed.

The Citadel also has to solidify its weekend starting rotation, which after Austin Pritcher is still a question mark. Pritcher, on the other hand, has been as dependable as ever. He has issued a few more walks than one would like, but has also managed to toss 48 2/3 innings so far this season without allowing a home run.

While the bullpen hasn’t been bad at all (and Zach Sherrill and David Rivera have done yeoman’s work, combining for 50 appearances), it is concerning that the only inning in which the Bulldogs have been outscored this season is the ninth — and that by a 16-3 count.

The Bulldogs have their work cut out for them this week, with four road games. On Tuesday, The Citadel makes its annual trip to Columbia to play South Carolina. Then the action moves to Statesboro for the weekend, with three games against Georgia Southern. The Eagles are 9-5 in league play, which is currently good enough for second place in a tightly bunched Southern Conference.

The following week features four home games. Tony Skole brings his ETSU squad to Charleston for a weekday game, and Appalachian State is the weekend opponent for a three-game conference series.

It’s the time of year when seasons begin to wax or wane. Let’s hope the Bulldogs have a lot of life left in this year’s campaign.

Below are some pictures I took at Riley Park on Saturday, a 14-7 victory for the Bulldogs over Elon. The day was sunny but rather windy, a nice day for a game, though I prefer baseball games that don’t take more than three hours to play…

Conference realignment, SoCon style: the football/hoops conundrum

Previously:

It is definitely nitty-gritty time now for the SoCon

A look at the varsity sports portfolios of SoCon candidate schools

After Georgia Southern and Appalachian State announced they would be leaving the Southern Conference for the Sun Belt last week, SoCon commissioner John Iamarino held a media teleconference. All in all, he did a good job, sounding reasonably confident about his league’s future. Among other things, he had this to say:

If we assume we’re adding three schools to replace the three we are losing, you don’t get that opportunity often. We could strategically look at what can help us where we need help, and I’ve said I’d like us to get better in basketball.

But we also have to look at football. We are losing two outstanding programs, and football matters in this league and in this part of the country.

This came on the heels of an interview in the Chattanooga Times Free Press in which Iamarino stated:

No matter how much success we’ve had in football, and we’ve had a lot of it, FCS football doesn’t pay off on a national level the way winning games in the NCAA tournament does for you.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more evident that the one common component of the mid-majors who’ve had some of the greatest success in basketball — Gonzaga, Butler, Davidson — is that they don’t play scholarship football. It’s difficult to find a FCS program that’s also successful in basketball.

He isn’t wrong. Part of the reason for that is schools that spend the most money on their men’s basketball programs tend to be the most successful, and schools that field scholarship football teams at the FCS level generally don’t have the resources to commit to both sports (in some cases, they have the resources but not the focus).

Only one school with a full-scholarship FCS program is ranked in the Top 60 in men’s basketball expenditures. Villanova is 31st.

Note: all references to expenses are per the 2011-12 school year, as reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

It is not an accident that four of the eight schools that advanced to the NCAA regional finals in men’s basketball this season also rank in the top 8 in terms of money spent on hoops. Duke ranked first, with almost $16 million in expenses, followed by Louisville. Syracuse was fourth, and Marquette eighth. Kentucky was third; the Wildcats missed the NCAAs this season, but won the national title the previous year.

Another regional finalist, Florida, wasn’t far out of the top 8 (thirteenth). The exception, in a sense, was Wichita State (68th), but basketball is clearly a focal point for the school, as it does not field a football team.

A majority of SoCon schools don’t put that type of emphasis on men’s basketball. Southern Conference institutions averaged about $1.44 million in men’s hoops expenditures (that includes the three departing schools), while spending a total on average of $14,117,677. That means only 10.2% of expenses went towards men’s basketball.

Iamarino mentioned Gonzaga, Butler, and Davidson. Men’s basketball accounted for 28.6% of Gonzaga’s expenses and 26.6% of Butler’s. For Davidson, that number was a more modest 16.3% — but that percentage is the highest in the SoCon.

Davidson may not spend the most money on hoops in the league (in 2011-12 Samford did), but clearly it puts more emphasis on the sport than any other school in the league. In smaller leagues, that may matter almost as much as the actual gross expenses. It certainly goes a long way to explaining Davidson’s success in basketball within the conference itself.

In contrast, men’s basketball expenses for South Carolina ranked 20th nationally ($7.3 million), but only made up 8.39% of its total expenses. The Gamecocks are still searching for their first NCAA tournament victory since 1973.

Before the Southern Conference adds schools, the powers that be are probably going to have to decide whether to begin a transition to a hoops-first league, or continue as a conference that historically values football over basketball. While Davidson is clearly a “basketball school”, as is UNC-Greensboro (since it has no football program), most of the current membership savors fall Saturdays above all else. This is certainly true for The Citadel and Furman, the two schools with the longest continuous membership in the league.

The conference’s dilemma may perhaps be best demonstrated by comparing Furman and Davidson. They are fairly similar private schools, though Furman is larger and has a much bigger budget for varsity athletics.  Furman offers (or will offer) 20 varsity sports. Davidson offers 21 varsity sports. Furman plays scholarship football and treasures it; Davidson fields a team, but doesn’t offer schollies in the sport.

— Furman total athletic expenses: $20,531,292. Davidson total athletic expenses: $10,603,460.
— Furman men’s basketball expenses: $1,679,288. Davidson men’s basketball expenses: $1,727,330.

Davidson spends more money on men’s basketball despite Furman spending twice as much money on its total sports portfolio.

The major difference is football, of course. Furman’s athletic expenses in football for 2011-12 were $5,414,705. Davidson spent only $790,295 on football.

Football may be part of the reason why 45% of Furman’s expenses are for athletic aid (scholarships), while Davidson, with comparable tuition costs, spent 28% of its total expenses on athletic aid.

I put together a spreadsheet that lists various athletic expenses for a cross-section of Division I schools. Most of these schools are not candidates to join the Southern Conference, but I wanted to show (and also get an idea myself) of how schools in general spend money, at least at the non-BCS level.

There are 75 schools listed on the spreadsheet. All are in non-BCS leagues and most of them are east of the Mississippi. I included every SoCon school, and a majority of schools from the Big South, Atlantic Sun, CAA, Patriot League, and Atlantic 10. I also noted the current league affiliation for each school (through the 2012-13 school year).

The spreadsheet can be accessed at the following link:

2012 expenses, varsity athletics — selected schools

A few (okay, more than a few) caveats: I’m not an accountant, but I do know that some of these numbers could be a little…tricky. Different schools may have different ways of counting expenses, etc. Exact comparisons can be dicey, especially when you take a look at the numbers of, say, the Ivy League institutions.

Also, I try to avoid referring to budgets rather than expenses, because there is a difference.

I compiled five expense categories: total expenses, football expenses, men’s basketball expenses, athletic aid, and coaching salaries. It wasn’t hard to do, just a touch monotonous.

Observations about various schools that are in the SoCon, that are candidates for the SoCon, and a few that aren’t:

– Richmond spent $5.56 million on football, more than any Southern Conference school, and more than any FCS school on the list except James Madison ($6.6 million), Delaware ($5.6 million), and Liberty ($8.3 million). Old Dominion also spent more than Richmond, but ODU is transitioning to FBS. Richmond also spent $3.9 million on basketball.

– William & Mary spent $4.5 million on football, fitting comfortably in the middle of a group that includes Furman, Samford, Elon, and The Citadel.

– Athletic aid is a significant part of expenses for all schools, but especially private schools. Of those schools I surveyed, fifteen of the sixteen that had the largest percentage of athletic expenses allocated to athletic aid were private. The one exception: The Citadel.

Of The Citadel’s total expenses, 40.4% were for athletic aid. It is possible that is the highest percentage for a public school in all of Division I.

– Schools that had 20% or more of their expenses go for coaches’ salaries included Davidson, Georgia Southern, Western Carolina, VMI, and North Florida. Among the schools below 12% in that category: Furman, Wofford, Presbyterian, James Madison, and Tennessee Tech.

– Not referenced in the spreadsheet but of interest: UNC-Wilmington has formed a committee to review its varsity sports programs, after its chancellor said the department had been neglected for a decade.

– Unless you consider Belmont and JMU serious candidates, UNCW is the only school regularly or even semi-regularly mentioned as a possible addition to the Southern Conference that spent as much money or more on men’s basketball as did Samford, Davidson, or Furman — despite the fact that several candidate schools (Mercer, Kennesaw State, and East Tennessee State, just to name three) didn’t have football programs in 2011-12.

Of course, Florida Gulf Coast’s spending on men’s hoops would have put it in the bottom half of the SoCon, and that school seems to have done all right. It should also be pointed out that Mercer had a fine team this past season and finished ahead of FGCU in the Atlantic Sun standings. I think the real conclusion to draw is that the Mercers and the ETSUs of the world are going to have to seriously ramp up their fundraising as they add football, especially if they move to a new conference, and that additional money will be spent on other sports besides football.

– When it comes to total expenses, James Madison and Liberty probably wouldn’t have many issues in moving to FBS, as both schools compare favorably to most Sun Belt and MAC schools. Appalachian State is a little behind them, but not totally out of line (though I wonder about travel expenditures). Georgia Southern has a lot of work to do. A lot.

I wrote about GSU when if first considered making the FBS jump, back in 2009 (when it released its initial “Football Reclassification Analysis“). I thought it would be a mistake then, and I’m still a bit dubious today, even with (or perhaps because of) the changing landscape of college athletics.

– Davidson has been mentioned as a candidate for the Atlantic 10. One problem the school would have is that its current men’s hoops budget would be the lowest among all A-10 schools, and there would be a major increase in travel expenses (not unlike last year’s proposed move to the CAA that Davidson declined to make). One A-10 member, Rhode Island, spent $4.6 million on men’s basketball in 2011-12, almost $3 million more than Davidson. Of course, the Rams have a cumulative record over the last two seasons of 15-45.

There were a few expense-related items not contained in the spreadsheet I wanted to briefly mention, for no particular reason other than I thought they were interesting, if not surprising.

– When Duke lost to Lehigh in the 2012 NCAA tournament, it was a case of a men’s basketball team with $15.9 million in expenses losing to a team with $1.4 million in expenses. That may be some kind of record.

– While Texas has the largest varsity athletics budget ($129 million, including over $20 million in coaching salaries alone), it appears that Alabama spent the most on football in 2011-12: $36.9 million. Right behind Alabama in football expenses was Ohio State, with $34 million. Alabama has won three of the last four BCS titles; Ohio State was undefeated last season. I guess they got their money’s worth.

– SEC schools as a group spent $262 million on football in 2011-12. That did not include the expenses for Texas A&M or Missouri.

– Kentucky ranked fifteenth nationally in total athletic expenses. That was only the eighth-highest total for an SEC school.

There is another aspect to the football/basketball emphasis question that has to be considered. It was most recently mentioned by John Iamarino after the Barry Alvarez “we’re not playing FCS schools anymore” brouhaha in February. While being interviewed about that, Iamarino said:

The only reason to have 63 scholarships is to be eligible to play FBS teams and count toward their bowl eligibility. If those games go away, the entire subdivision would have to look at if 63 is the right number. Could we save expenses by reducing the number of scholarships? It would seem to me that’s one thing that would have to be looked at.

This may be the elephant in the room.

First, I believe Iamarino was mistaken when he said that “the only reason” to have 63 scholarships is to count to bowl eligibility for FBS opponents, but that’s not really the issue here. Saving money is the issue.

If the Southern Conference wants to become a hoops-centric league while maintaining viable scholarship football, it may be that the league will push for the division as a whole to lower scholarship limits. My guess is that the new limit would be around 50, a significant reduction but still distinguishable from the Division II maximum of 36.

The money saved from reducing scholarships and related expenses could be used to improve men’s and women’s basketball, or perhaps it could be spread around to enhance athletic programs across the board. However, I suspect the league wouldn’t make the move unless the entire division did the same. I am more than a little unsure about that, though.

There are two main problems with reducing scholarships. One is the risk of devaluing the product. At a certain point, customers (and donors) will conclude that the quality of what is being offered is not worth their time or their money.

The more immediate concern is the reduction in opportunities for potential students. One would hope that the scholarships not used in football would at least be used to fund scholarships in other varsity sports, but there is no guarantee that would happen.

I don’t know if this subject will come up when league officials and school administrators meet on April 10, but I would be mildly surprised if it doesn’t. It could be a factor in how the league approaches adding new schools, even if the potential reduction wouldn’t come to fruition for several years down the road.

In a few weeks’ time, league observers should have a very good idea of the SoCon’s strategy moving forward, both in terms of membership additions and any philosophical change in its outlook on football and basketball.

Or maybe we won’t have any idea at all…