The SoCon baseball tourney moves to Greenville

It’s SoCon baseball tourney time, live from Riley Park in beautiful downtown Charl…

Oh.  They moved the tournament this year.

That’s right.  After 19 consecutive years in Charleston, the powers that be in the Southern Conference wilted from the non-stop complaints of a select few and moved the tournament (for at least one year) to Greenville, where it will be held at Fluor Field.  (The tourney returns to Riley Park next year.)

The tournament regularly made money (!) when it was held in Charleston.  Don’t expect it to do so in Greenville, where it will lack the kind of community support that has made it successful in the Holy City.  Of course, the conference doesn’t realy need the money.  Wait, what’s that you say?  The economic climate in the country has hit the SoCon hard?  The league is cutting costs, including not holding media days for football and basketball?  It’s going to reduce the number of teams that qualify for conference tournaments in sports like women’s soccer, men’s soccer, women’s tennis, men’s tennis, volleyball, and softball?  It’s going to force conference baseball series next year to be held over two days rather than three, with Saturday doubleheaders, to save on travel expenses?  It’s going to do all those things and then cut off its nose to spite its face by moving its baseball tourney just to please a small group of whiners?

Yes, it is.  (The league is also not printing media guides next year, although that strikes me as a good permanent move, what with being able to publish the guides online.  It would be nice if the conference updated its historical records information in hoops and baseball, which hasn’t been done in several years.)

The complaints came over a perceived home field advantage for The Citadel (and for the College of Charleston to a lesser extent).  The loudest of the voices was that of UNC Greensboro coach Mike Gaski, who campaigned to move the tournament for about a decade, or not too long after his 1998 squad had been defeated by The Citadel in the tournament championship game.  That was UNCG’s first year in the league after having lots of success in the Big South.  Gaski’s crew had won the regular season in the SoCon by a half-game over The Citadel, and by one game over Western Carolina, in a very tight three-way race.  Then the tournament rolled around.  The Spartans had actually swept the Bulldogs in Charleston earlier that season, but when the games really mattered, The Citadel prevailed twice over UNCG by a combined score of 21-1.

There really should not have been much to complain about — 21-1 strikes me as being rather decisive — but that was just the start of the drumbeat for moving the tourney.  The thing is, though, UNCG hasn’t won the league regular season title since then.  The Spartans did make it to the tourney title game in 2001, as the 5 seed, when they lost to (of course) The Citadel, which probably rankled Gaski even more.

As everyone knows, home field advantage in baseball isn’t nearly as important as it is in football or basketball.  There is no comparison between The Citadel playing tournament games at Riley Park and UT-Chattanooga getting to host the SoCon men’s hoops tourney on its home court.  That is borne out by the numbers.  While UTC has won the basketball tournament both times it has hosted it, I think some people would be surprised if they took a look at the baseball tournament history since the SoCon set up shop in Charleston.  There have been 19 tournaments held in Chucktown, and here is the breakdown over that time span:

The Citadel — 5 regular season titles, 7 tournament titles
College of Charleston — 3 regular season titles, 1 tournament title
Western Carolina — 3 regular season titles, 4 tournament titles
Georgia Southern — 5 regular season titles, 3 tournament titles
Elon — 2 regular season titles, 1 tournament title
UNC Greensboro — 1 regular season title, 0 tournament titles
Furman — 0 regular season titles, 2 tournament titles
Wofford — 0 regular season titles, 1 tournament title

The Citadel is +2 overall in 19 years of hosting the event (in terms of tourney versus regular season titles).  Meanwhile, the other local school reputed to have at least something of an edge by the tournament being held in Charleston, the CofC, is -2.  So much for a huge local advantage.

After Gaski and UNCG, the school with the most fans critical of the tournament being held in Charleston is probably Western Carolina — but the Catamounts have had their fair share of success there, and are +1.  Really, it’s Georgia Southern that logically would have the biggest complaint (-2), but its fans don’t seem to have had nearly as much of an issue with the tournament being held in the port city (it’s not an inconvenient location for them, for one thing).

The school that appears to have had the biggest benefit to playing in Charleston, as far as tourney vs. regular season success goes, is Furman, with no league regular season titles but two tourney titles since 1990.  Thus, the conference in its infinite wisdom is moving the tournament so the Paladins can be the host team…

You know what this is really about?  It’s about programs not being as successful as they once were, and not getting in the NCAA tournament, and looking for an excuse.  Western Carolina dominated the league in the mid-to-late 1980s, winning five straight tournament titles from 1985-89, all of which were held either in Cullowhee, Boone, or Asheville.  In those five years, WCU also happened to win the league regular season (or division) title four times.  The Catamounts also won a division title in 1984, but didn’t win the tournament that season.

UNC Greensboro won the Big South in 1994 and 1997, winning that conference’s tournament title both years as well.  It entered the Southern Conference following the ’97 campaign.

Western Carolina fans remember the glory days of winning the league every year.  The Catamounts have generally still been competitive, and among the better teams in the league, but they don’t win the conference title every year, and that is reflected in WCU’s tournament results.  The same can be said for UNCG, which has usually been good, but hasn’t enjoyed as much success as it had in the Big South immediately prior to joining the SoCon.

Unfortunately for Gaski and the Spartans, the year the tournament finally moves to Greenville has coincided with that of one of his worst squads, and UNCG has not qualified for this year’s tournament.  I suspect the coach finds that particularly galling.

I hope that Greenville does a decent job hosting the event.  I think it’s safe to assume that there will be a tarp at Fluor Field.  As some of us remember, that wasn’t the case when the tournament was held in Asheville.  The league can’t afford to repeat the 1989 debacle, which just screamed “Mickey Mouse conference” (and which led directly to the tournament moving to Charleston).

I suppose any of the eight teams in the tournament could win it, but I would rank them like this:

Elon — clearly the best team in the league; NCAA lock
Georgia Southern, The Citadel, Western Carolina, College of Charleston — all think they can win the tourney
Appalachian State, Davidson — dangerous, but probably not dangerous enough to win the tournament
Furman — happy to be the host

The latest projections from Baseball America,, etc., suggest that as many as three teams from the SoCon can make the NCAAs.  I am a little dubious about that.  Elon is definitely in, but if the Phoenix win the league tournament I don’t know what other team, if any, will join them as a regional participant.  That will depend on how the other teams fare in Greenville.  My best guess is that Georgia Southern is best positioned to get a bid from among the other schools.  I think The Citadel and the College of Charleston have to win the tournament (that’s probably a given for the CofC at this point), and that Western Carolina may have to at least reach the championship game.

The seedings were thus very important for the contenders, and the short straw was drawn by WCU and the CofC.  Not only do those two squads have to play each other in the first round, but the winner likely has to face Elon in the next game.  Georgia Southern’s second-place league finish means that the Eagles avoid all three of those teams until at least Friday (the same is true for The Citadel).  That said, this tournament has a history of early-round upsets, and neither Appalachian State nor Davidson are easy outs.  Even Furman has to be given a puncher’s chance.

As for The Citadel, I would like the Bulldogs’ chances a lot more if the relief pitching were a little better.  Drew Mahaffey is a quality closer, but the setup corps has left a lot to be desired.  Fred Jordan only appears to have faith in one other reliever, Raymond Copenhaver, but Copenhaver has had his ups and downs this year.

Of course, one solution to the problem with the relief pitching is to have the starters all throw complete games, similar to what happened in 2004 (when The Citadel had a tournament-record five complete games, two by Jonathan Ellis).  If a particular starter is effective, then Jordan is likely to leave him in the game as long as he possibly can.

The Bulldogs appear to be playing better defensively, and the offense is close to its peak level entering the tournament, which is good.  If the bottom of the order can be at least somewhat productive, The Citadel should score a lot of runs, because batters 1-6 have been getting the job done.

I favor Elon to win the tournament, but I am hoping the Bulldogs can have a special week.  I would also find it a bit amusing if The Citadel wins the tournament in a year when it’s not held in Charleston.

Counting pitches

On Friday night, Wes Wrenn started a key Southern Conference baseball game for The Citadel, at home against Georgia Southern.  Getting off to a good start in a conference series is important, and Wrenn delivered for the Bulldogs, hurling 8 innings of 2-run ball.  The Citadel won the game 6-2 and went on to win the series, two games to one.

In those eight innings, Wes Wrenn threw 143 pitches.

That is a lot of pitches, so many that a longtime poster on a message board for devotees of Bulldogs sports took notice.  I didn’t watch the game, so I have no real idea what kind of stuff Wes Wrenn had late, whether he was tiring, or showed signs of tiring (apparently not).  Sometimes a pitcher has had enough after about 70 pitches, and sometimes a pitcher is in a groove and can go a lot longer without significant risk.

I will say that the tone of the game story published by the school seemed to me to be a touch defensive when reporting the subject:

“Wrenn, who was strong from start to finish, threw 143 pitches in the game as he fanned the last two batters he faced.”

Somebody wanted to make a point of getting ahead of the argument, didn’t they?

It’s the second time this season a Bulldog pitcher has thrown more than 130 pitches in a game.  T.J. Clarkson threw 134 at South Carolina.  I was at that game.  He looked better late than he did early (at the time I wondered if he had trouble getting loose for that game; after the fifth inning he looked really good).  I still thought it was a lot to ask of a freshman with little starting experience (at least in college).  As it turns out, it was a very unusual performance.  Clarkson threw more pitches in a midweek in-season game for The Citadel than any pitcher has since at least 2002.  Other pitchers have thrown more pitches in a game, but all those games came in Southern Conference regular season or tournament play, or in an NCAA regional.

I don’t pretend to know it all when it comes to this subject.  I was never a pitcher on any level, and I’m not a doctor or a physical therapist.  I’m not a pitching coach or a scout.  I just watch games like everybody else.  What I do know, though, is there is a lot of evidence that overuse of pitchers usually leads to injuries in the long run.  Of course, it’s also true that pitchers get hurt all the time no matter how they are used (or abused).

One thing I am hesitant to do, honestly, is compare college hurlers’ workloads to those of major leaguers, if only because college pitchers get seven days off between starts (usually) as opposed to the four or five days off a major league pitcher gets.  This might make a difference.  (Another potential difference is the variance in competition.)  The starts that always worry me are the 120+ pitching performances on short rest during tournaments/regionals, not to mention the “drag the starter from two days ago/yesterday into the game in relief in an elimination game” situation.

I can’t be an expert on the subject from a medical or “baseball man” point of view, but what I can do is look at numbers.  What I decided to do was take a look back as far as I could at the recent history of pitcher usage at The Citadel and see where Wrenn’s outing on Friday night compared.

First, here is a list of game-by-game pitch counts for The Citadel’s starting pitchers this season…

Wes Wrenn — 99, 99, 95, 80, 107, 110, 103, 123, 129, 143
Asher Wojciechowski –103, 31, 125, 124,  115, 91, 121, 98, 111, 124
Matt Crim — 95, 97, 99, 81, 48, 116, 106, 102, 85, 107
Matt Talley — 110,66, 63*, 112,  69, 93, 66
T.J. Clarkson — 67, 90,94, 134
Matt Reifsnider — 98

[I put a “*” by Matt Talley’s start against Charleston Southern on March 25 (in which he pitched well), because I wanted to note that he also appeared in relief three days before, on March 22, against Western Carolina, throwing 59 pitches in 2 2/3 innings.  I believe this is the only “short rest” start for a Bulldog pitcher this season.  He followed up his victory over CSU with a solid effort against South Carolina six days later, also getting the win in that game.]

After compiling that list, I then went to Boyd Nation‘s invaluable site to check out his PAP logs over the past few seasons.  PAP stands for “Pitcher Abuse Points” and is a system Nation uses to see how overworked certain pitchers/staffs are.  A few years ago Nation got into a bit of a controversy with Ray Tanner that spilled onto local Columbia, S.C. radio and a few other media outlets (here is a reprint of an article originally published in The State, the local newspaper in Columbia).  It’s a delicate subject.  Tanner appears to have adjusted his thinking on pitch counts, after issues arose over his handling of pitcher Arik Hempy (as noted in an article reprinted here).

What is interesting (and perhaps reassuring) is that over the past three seasons, The Citadel has less PAP than about 90% of the schools in Division I baseball.  It’s a very good record over the 2006-2008 time period.  Only six times in those three years did a Bulldog pitcher throw 121 or more pitches in a game, and in none of those games did a pitcher throw more than 132 pitches.  Last season only one pitcher threw 120+ pitches in a game for The Citadel.

However, in 2004 and 2005 there were more sizable pitch-count starts.  In 2005, there were five starts in the 121-132 pitch range, and two over 132.  In 2004 there was only one start in the 121-132 pitch range, but six over 132.

If you go back a little further, though (as far back as online statistics are available), the trend is reversed again.  Only one Bulldog pitcher threw more than 121 pitches in 2002 and 2003 combined.

I was a bit puzzled at first when I looked at the PAP stats.  What was the deal in 2004 and 2005?  I looked at the box scores for every game over those two seasons.  I came to the conclusion that the numbers in 2005 were a little bit of an outlier.  2004 is a completely different story, and I’m going to get to that.  The 2005 games of 120+ pitches were as follows:

3/11 Ryan Owens 135 pitches (lost 2-1 to UNCG; complete game)
4/2  Ryan Owens 120 pitches (7 innings in 21-5 victory over Wofford) [estimated pitch count]
4/3  Ken Egleton 127 pitches (complete game victory over Wofford)
4/23 Justin Smith 133 pitches (7 1/3 innings in 10-6 victory over Charleston Southern)
4/29 Ryan Owens 122 pitches (6 innings in a 9-7 loss to Davidson)
4/30 Justin Smith 126 pitches (7 innings in a 4-3 victory over Davidson)
5/13 Ryan Owens 120 pitches (7 2/3 innings in a 9-3 victory over Furman) [estimated pitch count]

[The boxscores of most games these days list the number of pitches thrown by each pitcher, but sometimes that information is left out, and for whatever reason it happened more often in 2005 than in any other year since 2002.  For games lacking pitch counts, a “pitch count calculator” is used.]

All seven of those games were started by veteran pitchers.  The 4/3 game would mark the only time in Ken Egleton’s career at The Citadel where he would throw more than 121 pitches in a game.  This surprised me, because Egleton pitched a lot of innings while a Bulldog, but as it happens he regularly threw 100-120 pitches per game while never exceeding that general pitch count (with the exception of that Wofford game).

Owens and Smith were dependable workhorses for the most part (Smith in particular was noted for having a “rubber arm”, I seem to recall).  Owens’ 135-pitch effort against UNCG was a dominant performance in a loss; he pitched well the following week in a six-inning performance against Elon in which he threw 100 pitches.  After his 133-pitch outing against CSU, Smith took the hill a week later and pitched very well against Davidson, getting a no-decision (the Bulldogs would win the game with a run in the ninth).  After that two-game stretch, Smith would have an indifferent 6-inning effort against East Tennessee State and a decent 5-inning start versus Furman.

2004?  Well, 2004 was all about Jonathan Ellis.

Ellis threw 136 1/3 innings that season, by some distance the most innings ever pitched in one season by a Bulldog pitcher.  He threw nine complete games in eighteen starts.  As mentioned above, there were six 133+ pitching performances that season by Bulldog starters.  Five of those were by Ellis (Chip Cannon had the other).  Look at those five games:

4/9 142 pitches (complete game victory over the College of Charleston)
5/20 136 pitches (complete game victory over UNC-Greensboro)
5/26 134 pitches (complete game victory over East Tennessee State)
5/29 136 pitches (complete game victory over Western Carolina)
6/5 153 pitches (complete game victory over Coastal Carolina)

That’s right.  On five days rest after a 136-pitch effort against UNCG, Ellis threw 134 pitches in The Citadel’s opening-round game in the Southern Conference tournament.  The Bulldogs would later have to fight through the loser’s bracket of the tournament, and eventually faced Western Carolina, needing two wins over the Catamounts.  Fred Jordan started Ellis on just two days’ rest, and Ellis responded with an outstanding 136-pitch effort, with The Citadel winning the game.  (Justin Smith would start and win the next day’s game, as the Bulldogs won the tournament; Ellis would be the tourney MVP.)

Then Ellis would pitch one week later in yet another elimination game, in the NCAA regional, against Coastal Carolina.  I sat in the stands that day in Columbia (and let me tell you, it was hot) and watched him throw 153 pitches to send the Chanticleers home.  It would be the last game of Ellis’ college career.

So in terms of “pitcher abuse” over the last eight seasons at The Citadel, Jonathan Ellis would stand to be the poster boy.  Yet, he is now in AAA ball in the San Diego Padres’ organization, with what seems like a reasonable chance at making the major leagues, and his pro career seems mostly unaffected by his large workload in college.

Incidentally, I think you can make a good argument that Ellis’ 2004 season was the most valuable pitching performance in the history of Bulldog baseball.  Not the most dominant, necessarily, or the “greatest”, but the most valuable.  He pitched a ton of quality innings, obviously, and also won the had-to-win game in the SoCon tourney, as well as the regional eliminator against Coastal Carolina.

What does it all mean?  I don’t know, other than I hope Wes Wrenn can beat Samford on Friday night without having to increase his pitch count total for a fifth consecutive game.  You wonder at what point Wrenn might run out of gas (disregarding injury potential for a moment).  However, two years ago Wrenn threw 104 2/3 innings (he threw 87 last season).  He is probably capable of handling that workload.

Asher Wojciechowski needs to avoid those innings where he loses control and starts walking people.  If he does that, he won’t have to throw 125 pitches per outing.

Most importantly, the guys in the bullpen need to demonstrate to Fred Jordan that he can count on them in big games, and doesn’t have to leave the starters in as long as possible to secure a victory.  I think that’s the real  issue for this year’s team.  The high pitch totals by the starters, in my opinion, can be attributed in part to the problems in middle relief.  Not committing errors that prolong innings is also a factor.

We’ll be watching (and, I suppose, counting).