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…

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