Riley Report: The Citadel begins SoCon play

Previously: Previewing The Citadel’s 2015 baseball season

The Citadel begins league play in the Southern Conference after a fairly lengthy pre-conference schedule (23 games). The Bulldogs are 14-9 as they enter their first SoCon weekend series, travelling to Cullowhee to take on Western Carolina.

The rest of the league opened conference action last weekend. Western Carolina, the preseason favorite to win the SoCon, got off to a stuttering start, splitting a pair of blowouts with UNC-Greensboro before losing the rubber game of the series in Greensboro to fall to 1-2 in the league.

I think it would be fair to describe the Bulldogs’ campaign to date as encouraging. A lot of young players have played significant roles for The Citadel, and on the whole they have acquitted themselves quite well.

I decided to compare this year’s start to last season’s pre-league slate. It’s an inexact comparison for several reasons, including the number of games (last year the Bulldogs played 17 games before beginning SoCon play) and different opponents (this year’s schedule was, by design, a little less challenging).

Weather is also a factor. For example, The Citadel’s February 28 game versus Alabama State was played in conditions that were not really conducive to quality baseball.

That said, I thought it would be interesting to see where things stood as of today versus the way things were in 2014 (when the Bulldogs were 8-9 prior to beginning conference action).

Batting

Considering the returning Bulldogs combined for only 282 at bats in SoCon play last season, The Citadel’s offense was the biggest unknown entering 2015. So far, so good.

Through 23 games this season, The Citadel has a team OBP of .381 and is slugging .394, which results in an OPS of .775. Those numbers after 17 games in 2014 were .365 (OBP), .348 (SLG), and .713 (OPS).

The team batting average is up slightly (.277 versus .275), but the Bulldogs are walking at a higher rate. Through 23 games this season, The Citadel is averaging 4.7 free passes per game, solidly above 2014’s pre-SoCon rate of 3.9 walks per contest. That doesn’t count the “bruise factor”, either — Bulldog players have been hit by pitches 27 times, more than one per game.

As far as slugging is concerned, the Bulldogs averaged 1.65 extra-base hits per game in last season’s first 17 games. In 23 contests in 2015, The Citadel is averaging 2.83 extra-base hits per game.

The top 5 Bulldogs in terms of OPS, minimum 20 at bats: Connor Walsh (.983), Stephen Windham (.982), Johnathan Stokes (.872), Jason Smith (.777), and Drew Ellis (.771).

Stokes is a veteran with a lot of experience, but the other four players had a combined 65 at bats (30 in SoCon play) last season. Ellis is one of several freshmen who have been solid contributors thus far.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the young season is the play of Windham, who had a career batting average of .179 (5 for 28, no extra-base hits) entering 2015. Windham is slugging .508 through 23 games this year.

One thing the Bulldogs could do a better job of going forward is making consistent contact at the plate, as the team is averaging almost nine strikeouts per contest. Given that the squad is not really made up of big boppers, that needs to be a priority (though it should be noted that eight different cadets have homered so far this year).

Pitching

There were plenty of 2015 returnees on the pitching staff with experience. However, not all of that experience had produced good results.

Early on, it appears the pitching has improved. The team ERA is 4.39, which is a much better performance than that from last season’s pre-conference slate (5.23).

Potentially, the news could be even better. The staff has walked fewer batters (BB/9 of 3.03) this year than it did in the first 17 games of last season (3.93) and has dramatically increased its strikeout rate (K/9 of 9.44 this year; K/9 of 6.19 in early 2014).

The jump in opponent whiffs is important, particularly given the Bulldogs’ fielding issues (more on that subject below). Last year, The Citadel had a K/9 rate in SoCon action of 6.50. The Bulldogs need to continue picking up those strikeouts as they enter league play while not issuing too many walks.

The Citadel has allowed ten home runs in 23 games, which isn’t great, but isn’t terrible either. It’s a slightly higher rate (0.43 per game) than what was given up in last year’s pre-conference schedule (0.35).

James Reeves has been a dependable anchor in the weekend rotation, with a 2.81 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 32 innings (and only four walks). If Reeves stays healthy, he should continue to be a very effective pitcher for The Citadel. Another left-handed starter who has impressed is freshman J.P. Sears. The native of Sumter has looked very good in almost every one of his appearances.

The bullpen has held things together for the most part, with occasional hiccups (which have usually featured too many bases on balls). Skylar Hunter already has nine saves; with his next save, he will set the all-time career saves record in the Southern Conference.

Fielding

This is an area of concern. The raw numbers are, well, raw.

The Citadel has allowed 39 unearned runs in 23 games; that’s a not-so-hot 1.7 unearned runs per contest. The Bulldogs are averaging over two errors per game.

The problems on defense also show up in categories other than errors committed. For instance, The Citadel has given up 55 non-homer extra-base hits in 23 games this season. Last year, the Bulldogs allowed 26 non-homer extra-base hits in the first 17 games.

A lot of the doubles and triples are on the pitching staff, of course. Anyone who has watched The Citadel play this season, however, is well aware that defense has affected those statistics as well, and not in a positive manner.

If The Citadel hopes to be a contender in the Southern Conference this season, the Bulldogs need to at least maintain their batting and pitching rate statistics while substantially improving on defense. It is hard to imagine the squad making a move to the top of the standings with subpar defensive play.

It has been a promising start to the season for The Citadel. With the calendar turning to April, fans should come out in force to Riley Park and cheer on a hard-working, entertaining bunch of Bulldogs.

At the very least, portable space heaters won’t be needed any more…

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