Riley Report: midway through the SoCon campaign

The Citadel has now played fifteen Southern Conference baseball games so far this season, with fifteen more still to come. It’s a good time to take stock in where the team stands at this point. I’m going to discuss the team’s play as it relates to the league as a whole, and also some peripheral statistics associated with the action on the field.

First, though, let’s revisit Game 15 of the league campaign, which is almost certainly the most absurd comeback victory by any team this season in the entire country. For those who have been living under a rock for the past few days, the situation was as follows:

UNC- Greensboro 7, The Citadel 2. Bottom of the ninth inning at Riley Park, Bulldogs down to their last out. No one on base.

With two outs, Fred Jordan elected to give Ryne Hardwick a pinch-hit appearance. The native of Conway entered the game with only one base hit as a Bulldog, but he promptly doubled down the left field line off of UNCG pitcher Dylan Hathcock. This probably didn’t cause much concern for UNCG, although perhaps the Spartans should have been worried, as Hardwick had actually played a role in last year’s wild 17-14 victory over the College of Charleston, scoring a run in that contest.

It seems extreme baseball craziness can happen when Ryne Hardwick enters the fray…

After Nick Orvin legged out an infield single, Mason Davis doubled down the left field line, scoring Hardwick. At this point in the contest, UNCG coach Mike Gaski summoned Brennen James from the bullpen to replace Hathcock. James then proceeded to walk Justin Mackert on five pitches, loading the bases.

Joe Jackson came to the plate, representing the tying run. Jackson grounded to first, but UNCG first baseman Lloyd Enzor’s throw to a covering James was low and wide, and the pitcher couldn’t handle it.

Grant Richards was the next Bulldog to stride to the plate, and like Mackert he would walk on five pitches. Then Drew DeKerlegand would also walk on five pitches. That was it for UNCG’s James, who was replaced by Zach Furl.

After DeKerlegand reached, The Citadel trailed 7-6 and had the tying run at third base and the winning run on second. Hayden Hendry entered the game to pinch-run for Grant Richards. The batter was Calvin Orth, who had started the inning by grounding out to shortstop. Orth would again ground to shortstop — but this time UNCG shortstop Kris Richards bobbled the ball while moving to the second base bag. All hands were safe, and the game was tied.

Johnathan Stokes’ first at bat in the inning had resulted in a fly ball to left field. So would his second. Instead of being caught, though, the ball sailed over left fielder Zach Leach’s head. Hendry scored, and the Bulldogs had somehow won the game.

“You have got to be kidding me!” screamed Danny Reed over the radio.

I couldn’t believe it either. It was a great comeback for the Bulldogs, helped by UNCG’s decidedly unclutch pitching and defense. The Spartans could have ended the game several times, but were unable to make routine plays or consistently throw strikes. Credit The Citadel’s players for not giving in or giving up, though. Three other thoughts:

1) Why was the UNCG outfield playing so far in for Stokes? A left fielder at normal depth probably would have caught the eventual game-winning hit. It’s as if the Spartans thought there were less than two outs. I haven’t seen an outfielder as close to the infield in that situation since the days of Rafael Belliard.

2) The odds of winning a game when down five runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth are…not good. You can get an idea of the mathematics involved using a win probability calculator. Of course, something designed for MLB isn’t ideal for analyzing college baseball, but it’s probably a reasonable approximation. A 0.0006 win probability for The Citadel sounds about right.

3) You can bet that Mike Gaski will support an offer from Yemen to host the Southern Conference Baseball Tournament before he does a bid from the City of Charleston.

The three-game sweep of UNC-Greensboro improved the Bulldogs’ record in SoCon play to 7-8, which is currently good enough for seventh place in the league standings. The top eight teams in the conference will advance to the league tournament, which this year (and next) is being played at Fluor Field in Greenville instead of Charleston. (Actually, the tournament may not return to Charleston, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Longtime observers of The Citadel’s baseball program may be disappointed in being in seventh place, but to be honest I think a reasonable goal for this year’s team is to simply qualify for the league tournament. My reasoning for this is as follows:

– Last year The Citadel finished last in the conference for the first time. This happened the year after a championship season, so it came as a bit of a shock. It may be almost as shocking to realize that this last-place finish came in a year in which the league was down.

In 2010, the SoCon had a conference RPI that ranked as 9th-best nationally among all leagues. In 2011, though, that ranking dropped to 15th overall. This season, the league has had a good deal of success in non-conference play, and as a result the SoCon is currently ranked 8th in RPI.

In other words, The Citadel is trying to move up in the standings from one year to the next while the league as a whole is much improved from last year. The seventh-best team this year is probably considerably better than the seventh-best team from last season — and of course, the Bulldogs weren’t seventh last year. They were eleventh.

– Jeff Hartsell wrote recently about the team’s struggles (this came prior to the sweep of UNCG). I think the key point he made was about attrition. For any varsity sport at The Citadel, keeping attrition low is critical. The baseball program has had a tough run over the last couple of years when it comes to losing players, particularly pitchers, and it was a factor (though not the only factor) in last season’s collapse.

This year’s team is quite young, with three true freshmen manning the middle infield spots and a host of frosh hurlers making contributions. There are actually more freshmen (redshirt and “true”) listed on the roster in The Citadel’s game notes (18) than sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined (17).

Everyone associated with The Citadel knows the difficulty freshmen face in adjusting to life at the military college, both on the field and off. They are not likely to be consistently excellent on the diamond.

The one thing that has to happen, though, is that this year’s crop of freshmen needs to return in force next season. When a program at The Citadel starts turning over freshmen year after year, that’s when it gets in trouble. Retention is all-important, not just for the school’s mission, but for the success of its varsity teams.

– There is one other issue that might have an impact on The Citadel’s overall record (not necessarily its record in league play). The relatively recent compression of the college baseball schedule puts The Citadel at a bit of a disadvantage, even in good years for the Bulldogs. Having to play 56 games in a 13-week period means that more midweek games are being played, and that can test a team’s overall depth, particularly in regards to pitching.

The Citadel has never really been known as a team with a great deal of pitching depth. The Bulldogs have generally had good pitching staffs, but those staffs were built for conference games played on the weekends.

In 2010, The Citadel won the Southern Conference with a league record of 24-6. The Bulldogs wound up losing fewer conference games that year than they did games played on Tuesday. The Citadel was 1-7 on Tuesday.

I remember arguing a little that season with Baseball America college baseball writer Aaron Fitt about The Citadel’s viability as an at-large candidate. He pointed to the Bulldogs’ less-than-stellar non-league record as a reason for doubt. My argument in response was that The Citadel was winning a top-10 league. I could have also noted that regional matchups are not played on Tuesdays.

Basically, what I’m saying is that given the “tighter” college baseball schedule of today, The Citadel may drop an occasional midweek game that it shouldn’t. That won’t be a problem for conference play, and will only matter in years when the team is a legitimate at-large candidate for an NCAA bid.

I think the league can be broken into two distinct groupings this season. There are six teams that will be in the league tournament unless something strange happens (Appalachian State, Elon, Western Carolina, Georgia Southern, Samford, and the College of Charleston). Then there is another group of five teams, with likely two of them making the tourney. Right now The Citadel leads that group, which also includes Furman, Davidson, UNC-Greensboro, and Wofford.

The Citadel has already played UNCG and Wofford, both at home. The Bulldogs won five of those six games, which is important. The Citadel will play Furman later in the season at Riley Park, and will play Davidson on the road.

The Bulldogs’ only other home conference series remaining is against Georgia Southern. The Citadel faces a short trip to Patriots Point for a series against the College of Charleston, and a longer trip to Elon.

In my baseball preview a couple of months ago, I noted that The Citadel’s team defense was awful last season, regressing from a respectable defensive efficiency of 66.8% in league play in 2010 (slightly better than average) to 63.2% in 2011 (worst in the league by far). That differential is even worse when you consider that the new bat standards that went into effect for the 2011 season resulted in generally higher DER across the board.

The Citadel’s defensive efficiency in 2012 stands at 67.2% through 15 conference games, a significant improvement from 2011. It is probably not quite as good as the 2010 number once the changed bat standards are taken into account, but is still respectable.

There isn’t enough readily available statistical information yet to compare The Citadel’s DER to that of its conference brethren this year, but I will hazard a guess that the Bulldogs have been an average defensive team in league action. The fielding percentage stats would indicate The Citadel is actually nearer the bottom of the pack than the top, but I think that’s slightly misleading. There is definitely still room for improvement in this area, however.

Comparing pitching ERA from 2010, 2011, and 2012 (league play only):

Year    Dogs  SoCon avg.
2010    4.26       6.15
2011    5.44       4.69
2012    5.70       4.72

As you can see, the development of the mound staff by new pitching coach Britt Reames is still a work in progress. (The conference ERA over the last two seasons reflects the impact the new bat standards have had on the formerly hitter-friendly league.)

You have to be careful with sample sizes, of course. For 2012, keep in mind that nine of The Citadel’s fifteen games have been at home, at a “pitcher’s park”. On the other hand, three of the six road games took place at Smith Stadium in Boone, which per Boyd Nation had a park factor rating of 124 for the previous four seasons.

Freshmen are responsible for more than 42% of the innings pitched by Bulldog hurlers (that’s for all games, not just league contests), so there is a reasonable likelihood of improvement as the season continues. Reames has not been afraid to use a quick hook, but he has also not hesitated to give pitchers multiple opportunities (five of the frosh pitchers have appeared in at least twelve games so far).

My own sense of Reames’ approach, which may be completely off base, is that he is being careful with the young pitchers, not just from a physical standpoint, but a psychological one. He isn’t inclined to let someone hang around on the hill too long and get absolutely crushed.

I do have one concern with the pitching going forward, and that is the K rate. The Citadel’s pitching staff averaged 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 2010, and had a still solid 7.8 K/9 ratio in 2011. This season, however, that number has dropped to 5.5/9 in SoCon play. That’s too low.

The Citadel’s pitching staff has traditionally had strong strikeout rates, though it is also true that one pitcher (i.e., Asher Wojciechowski) can make a big difference in the overall numbers. Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ pitchers are going to have to miss more bats in order to reach their desired level of success.

I do want to highlight two pitchers who are getting the job done this year, but neither is a freshman. Friday starter Austin Pritcher has thrown at least 5 1/3 innings in each of his nine starts, with a solid 3.42 ERA. He has been a much-needed constant in the starting rotation.

Senior sidearmer Ryan Hines has appeared in 25 of The Citadel’s 37 games, all out of the bullpen, and has proven to be the kind of reliable setup man/closer type that any good team needs. If the Bulldogs qualify for the SoCon tourney, though, Hines is going to need some help in the ‘pen if The Citadel hopes to do more than its fair share of post-season damage.

The Bulldogs are still waiting for their bats to awaken, particularly in conference action. In 2011, the team batting average of .280 was a tad subpar, but it looks great when compared to the current .250 BA that The Citadel is sporting in SoCon play. The Bulldogs had an OPS of 741 last season in league games, which tied for 7th-best in the conference. This season, that number has fallen to 701, which is somehow still better than three other league teams (UNCG, Davidson, and Wofford, with the Terriers having an anemic 600 OPS).

I think the hitting will improve, which may be an optimistic viewpoint, but one that I believe is grounded in reality. Nick Orvin is not a .266 hitter; he’s better than that, and there is still plenty of time this season to prove it.

It may be that he has been the victim of some excellent pitching. Earlier in the season, Orvin was getting in some tough counts while at the plate. I took a lot at his plate appearances through March 11, and found that he was batting .500 when the first pitch of the AB was a ball but only .063 when it was a strike (or if he put the first pitch into play). At that time, he was seeing a lot of first-pitch strikes.

Orvin is going to get his hits, eventually. So will Joe Jackson, who I am hoping will also develop some more power. Another guy who should be about ready to break out is Drew DeKerlegand, who is only batting .250 after hitting .317 in his freshman campaign.

Those players are all proven commodities with a bat in their hands. It may be that opposing pitchers are working around them, not giving them good pitches to hit, and taking their chances with the bottom of the order. One of those batters in the lower part of the lineup needs to get hot. If so, it could prove contagious (to borrow one of Fred Jordan’s pet expressions).

It’s been a bumpy road at times this season for the baseball team. There are signs, however, that the path ahead may be a bit smoother. Don’t be surprised if there are still a few potholes to navigate, though. After all, we’re talking about The Citadel.

Riley Report: The Citadel begins its 2012 baseball campaign

The Citadel will open its 2012 baseball season on Friday, February 17 at 4 pm ET, with a game against Towson, to be played at Joe Riley Park in Charleston. The contest is part of The Citadel Memorial Challenge, an event which also includes Richmond and Liberty.

So far, winter has been unexpectedly mild in the Palmetto State. February debuted with high temperatures in the 70s. Soon, however, there will be a decided chill in the air, the wind will begin to howl, and local TV meteorologists will begin to discuss the potential threat of freezing rain or possibly even snow. How do I know this will happen?

I know because college baseball season is almost here. When it comes to wintry weather, early-season college baseball is the equivalent of the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia.

Despite that near-inevitability, I am looking forward to the upcoming season. Before that glance forward, though, I think it might be a good idea to revisit the recent past, to see just what this season may bring in terms of success for The Citadel.

With that in mind, what follows is a somewhat statistical review of last season’s diamond debacle. It includes comparisons between the 2010 and 2011 campaigns, which were as different as night and day. To briefly recap:

2010: 43-22 overall, 24-6 SoCon (first). That included a road/neutral record of 16-12.

2011: 20-36 overall, 8-22 SoCon (11th and last). That included a road/neutral record of 3-18.

Yikes. The Bulldogs went from winning both the regular season and tournament titles in the Southern Conference to finishing last in the league for the first time ever, not even qualifying for the conference tournament. What happened?

One thing that happened, of course, was some natural turnover in personnel, but that happens every year. Maybe it’s not every season that you lose a dominant #1 starter like Asher Wojciechowski or an outstanding infield mainstay like Bryan Altman, but The Citadel has had to replace good players before.

A decline in team pitching was a major problem, which in and of itself would have made the Bulldogs also-rans in the league, but then was combined with (and affected by) a horrific drop in the quality of team defense, resulting in the horror show that was Bulldog baseball in 2011.

I’m going to start mentioning stats now, some more dorky than others, so don’t say you haven’t been warned. Unless stated otherwise, all of these statistics reflect conference play only. This makes it easier to compare schedules, teams, and home/away considerations. You don’t get anomalies, either good (Logan Cribb’s masterpiece against South Carolina) or bad (losing 9-0 at Winthrop). Besides, a season is usually judged on how the team fares in league play.

Before I go too far with this, I do want to briefly mention park effects. Players are going to put up different numbers at Riley Park than they would at Clements Stadium, just to name two of the league’s more distinctive parks, and when half their games are played at their respective home fields, that will affect team statistics accordingly. Of course, when you compare things on a year-by-year basis it’s easier to see how those statistics translate.

Incidentally, Boyd Nation’s Park Factors data for the 2008-2011 time period indicates what most observers would probably suspect: The Citadel plays in the SoCon’s most pitcher-friendly facility, by far. Most of the league parks favor hitters, particularly those at Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and UNC-Greensboro.

Every scheduled league game save one (Furman-Davidson Game 3) was played in 2011, so every school other than the Paladins and Wildcats played 30 SoCon contests, 15 at home and 15 on the road. As it happens, the same thing occurred in 2010 (just one cancelled game in the league). There were 164 conference games played in each season. That works out well for comparative purposes.

There was one huge on-field difference that changed things in the SoCon, and in college baseball in general. That would be the new bat regulations. The easiest way to statistically demonstrate the difference in the bats from 2010 to 2011 is this: in 2010, SoCon teams averaged 7.1 runs per game in league play. In 2011, that number dropped to 5.7 runs per game. The league no longer featured hitters with slow-pitch softball numbers, with the notable exception of Georgia Southern’s Victor Roache (who had one of the more remarkable campaigns in recent conference history).

The Citadel’s batting statistics declined markedly in 2011. That can partly (not completely) be attributed to the bats. The Bulldogs had an OPS of .901 in 2010; that number dropped to .741 in 2011. However, the league as a whole also saw a decrease in OPS. In 2010, the league OPS was .855; in the 2011 campaign, .768 was the mean. The Citadel finished fourth in OPS in conference play in 2010, but tied for seventh in the same category last season.

Most of the decline in OPS for the Bulldogs was a result of batting average. After a team batting average of .321 in 2010, The Citadel only batted .280 as a club in 2011. The Bulldogs also didn’t draw as many walks in 2011 (119 vs. 96). Basically, The Citadel drew one fewer walk per league game in 2011, and had 1.4 fewer hits per contest. For comparison, the conference as a whole in 2011 had about the same number of walks per contest as in 2010, but teams averaged about a hit per game less.

The difference in the bats really showed in the league’s power numbers. In 2010, there were 1131 extra-base hits in SoCon action. That number fell to 873 last season. Even with Roache’s heroics, the total number of homers in conference play dropped from 374 to 219.

The Citadel’s extra-base hits declined at a rate similar to that of the rest of the league, although instead of hitting slightly more homers than league average, as it did in 2010, the Bulldogs’ 18 home runs in league play during the 2011 season lagged slightly behind the conference average (20). The trend held true for doubles as well.

In a recent radio interview, head coach Fred Jordan suggested that the company which makes The Citadel’s bats may have been a bit behind the curve in terms of adjusting to the new NCAA bat standards, and didn’t produce mondo-mashing metal quite as successfully as other bat manufacturers used by Bulldog opponents. That may have affected the team’s hitting (at least, in relation to other teams’ hitting). Jordan seemed to believe that any problems in that respect had been worked out for the upcoming season.

The Bulldogs’ pitching wasn’t nearly as good in 2011 as it was in 2010. After finishing first in league play in a variety of pitching categories (including ERA and strikeouts) during its championship season, The Citadel’s hurlers suffered through a disappointing 2011 campaign, one in which team ERA increased dramatically (from 4.26 to 5.44) despite the new bats generally holding down offense. The conference as a whole saw a decline in ERA from 6.15 to 4.69 (to reiterate, all these statistics reflect results from league games only).

Interestingly, Bulldog pitchers still maintained a solid K rate (7.8 per game). That isn’t quite as good as the 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings from the 2010 staff, but it was still enough to put The Citadel near the top of the league in the category. On the other hand, walks allowed increased from 3.2  to just over 4 per 9IP in conference play.

The Bulldog pitching staff gave up 9.4 hits per nine innings in 2010; in 2011, that number rose to almost 12 per 9IP. Included in that total was an increase in extra-base hits allowed, despite the nerf-like war clubs being used around the league. The Citadel allowed 28 homers in 30 SoCon games, up from 19 in 2010.

Curiously, the Bulldogs hit only 15 batters in those 30 conference games, tied with Davidson for the league low. That is something which can be interpreted in different ways — good control, lack of aggression/pitching inside, opponents getting out of the way because they want to hit, etc.

It’s hard to fully judge pitching without taking defense into consideration, and that is particularly the case with the 2011 Bulldogs, probably one of the worst fielding teams The Citadel has had in quite a while. One way to measure that pitching BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

In other words, forget about homers, strikeouts, walks, HBPs, or anything the pitcher (at least nominally) controls. What was the batting average for balls hit into the field of play? That should give one a decent idea of a team’s fielding prowess, or lack thereof.

— In 2010, The Citadel’s pitching staff had a BABIP of .345, better than the league average (.353) and fourth in the conference in that category.

— In 2011, The Citadel’s pitching staff had a BABIP of .391, much worse than the league average (.338, thanks to those new bat regs) and dead last in the conference in that category.

It’s no secret the Bulldogs struggled defensively last season. The Citadel committed the most errors in league play (58 in 30 games) and had the worst fielding percentage (by far). The reality was actually worse than the error totals, though, because (as BABIP tends to highlight) the defensive woes were as much about the plays not made as they were about errors on plays attempted. The Bulldogs also finished last in the league in total chances and double plays.

In 2010, The Citadel’s defensive efficiency (how many balls in play were turned into outs) was solid at 66.8%, a little better than the conference average. That was fourth-best in the league, more than good enough for a team with strikeout pitching and dependable hitting. Incidentally, that season South Carolina and Texas each had a DER of 72.6% to lead the country (that obviously included every game played by those two teams, not just SEC/Big XII contests).

Nationally, DER increased in 2011 (again, the bats were the key factor). However, the Bulldogs’ defensive efficiency nosedived to 63.2%, by some distance the worst in the conference. Western Carolina was the only other league team with a DER  lower than 67%.

Simply put, the Bulldogs failed to make two or three defensive plays per game in 2011 that they were able to make in 2010. Those two or three plays are extra outs for the opposition, and when you combine that with a more homer-prone pitching staff already allowing a couple more baserunners per nine innings, all in a lower-scoring environment — well, you’re just asking for trouble.

Tangent: in researching defensive efficiency, I came across a table stating that the Big 10 had a league DER of only 61.3% in 2011. If that’s the case, maybe it’s another example of why northern/midwestern baseball as a rule isn’t as good as that played by schools in the Sun Belt. 

The Citadel will play a three-game series at Minnesota this year. The Golden Gophers did lead the Big 10 in defensive efficiency (64.6%).

There were some changes made in the coaching staff, as Fred Jordan shook up things a bit after the disappointing 2011 campaign. He might have done so anyway, but going 8-22 in the SoCon one year removed from a title may have provided more incentive for trying a different approach.

Jordan hired a pitching coach, a first for The Citadel during the Port/Jordan era, and a move that was welcomed by a number of longtime observers of the baseball program. Both Chal Port and Jordan acted as their own pitching coaches, but this year the pitching coach for the Bulldogs will be Britt Reames.

Reames is extremely well qualified to be The Citadel’s pitching coach, to say the least. Reames is an alum, a former outstanding pitcher/catcher (under Jordan) who made it all the way to the major leagues and hung around for a while. Being a native of South Carolina (Seneca) won’t hurt him when he is on the recruiting trail, either.

Reames also has experience as a college coach, and in the Southern Conference, as he spent the past three years coaching at Furman. I like to think this makes The Citadel the SoCon’s version of the 1950s New York Yankees, with Furman in the role as the Kansas City Athletics.

I hope Reames helps The Citadel’s pitchers and catchers do a better job controlling the running game this season. Bulldog opponents stole 50 bases in 62 attempts during league play, the second-most stolen bases allowed by a team. The Citadel picked off six baserunners, slightly lower than average (there were 92 pickoffs in conference action).

The Bulldogs themselves stole 46 bases in 59 attempts in the SoCon, a respectable percentage (78%) marred by the nine times the Dogs were picked off (by my count). That was in keeping with what seemed to me a poor year on the basepaths for The Citadel.

It’s one thing to be aggressive. I’m not talking about stealing second on the first pitch with two outs and nobody else on base. I’m talking about things like the trail runner getting caught off second base because he didn’t know where the lead runner was going. I don’t have stats to illustrate that, only anecdotal memories (always questionable), but there is no doubt The Citadel needs to improve its baserunning.

Of course, SoCon teams in general have traditionally had a bit of a kamikaze approach when it comes to players running the bases. I am sure if Carter Blackburn called a league game, he would refer to the conference as the “Go-Go SoCo”.

The 2012 team will feature several players who were key contributors for both the 2010 and 2011 teams. Nick Orvin will be the centerfielder once again. Justin Mackert, per the aforementioned radio interview of Jordan, is moving from first base to left field. Jordan also mentioned that Grant Richards would return at catcher (and I’m guessing, perhaps wrongly, he will occasionally be a DH).

These are guys who have SoCon championship rings, and earned them. Orvin in particular has been a wonderfully consistent player for The Citadel for three seasons; he was first-team all-conference last season, despite the Bulldogs’ struggles as a team in 2011.

Richards and Mackert will perhaps be forever tied together in Bulldogs baseball lore thanks to a hit by Richards that scored Mackert in the ninth inning of the 2010 SoCon tourney against Elon. Of course, what is perhaps most remembered about that moment is how much Elon’s Scott Riddle enjoyed Mackert’s baserunning.

Two freshmen from last season were impressive in their rookie campaigns and will be expected to continue an upward track as sophomores in 2012. Drew DeKerlegand brought a solid bat to third base, and will man the hot corner again this season. Joe Jackson also knows what to do with the stick. He’ll likely split time at catcher/DH with Richards.

All of the above-mentioned players can get better. I would like to see the walk rate for each of them increase. Jackson needs to develop more power; I suspect that will come in time. DeKerlegand has to get better in the field. Richards must rebound from a tough year at the plate in 2011.

Jordan stated that there was competition for spots at right field and first base. There are freshman candidates at both positions, as well as returning players. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some platooning in those spots, at least early in the season.

The middle infield is evidently going to be made up of freshmen; there are apparently three of them who can or will see time. That shortstop-second base combo is going to be critical for The Citadel. Those players need to be able to hit, but more importantly, the middle infield has to stabilize the defense.

Austin Pritcher returns as a weekend starter for The Citadel. Pritcher had generally good peripheral statistics for the Bulldogs last season, although he did allow 107 hits in 84 innings. Again, he’s going to need help from the defense converting some of those hits into outs.

The other two spots in the weekend rotation are open to question, although Jordan seemed to indicate that freshman lefthander Kevin Connell would get one of them. Also in the mix is senior T.J. Clarkson, who pitched exclusively out of the bullpen last year.

In the running for weekday starts and/or key roles in the bullpen: sophomore Bryce Hines (battling shoulder stiffness) and his brother Ryan Hines, along with redshirt freshman Zach Brownlee. Jordan also referred to a “good lefty frosh” when discussing the bullpen. Then there is Logan Cribb, not mentioned by Fred Jordan in that radio spot, probably because Jordan did not want to upset the former Gamecock cheerleader who was conducting the interview.

I am sure that several other pitchers (and position players) will pop up as the season progresses, and surprise us all, faster than you can say “Steve Basch”.

I think one thing the 2011 season demonstrated is that there is a very fine line between success and failure when it comes to sports at The Citadel, and that includes baseball. The military college has very little margin for error on the field of play, and it doesn’t take much of a slip for a championship squad to become a cellar-dweller.

That said, I am hopeful that the program will rebound this season. It may be a bit of a transitional year, but I don’t believe the outlook is nearly as dire as some preseason prognosticators suggest. On the contrary, I think this could be a fun season. There are known quantities already in place, and then there is the chance for some younger players to emerge as regulars.

I am worried about the pitching depth, particularly in the starting rotation, and obviously I think it is critical that the defense dramatically improves. Both of those areas are probably going to need some time to develop into strengths, just one reason why it’s nice to see the Bulldogs begin their schedule with a bunch of home games against non-league opposition.

I will definitely be at some of those home games, cheering on the Bulldogs. I will probably be freezing, but I will be there…

Bulldog Baseball: revisiting the Battle of 1714

I just wanted to make a quick post about Saturday’s game between The Citadel and the College of Charleston, which struck me as a game deserving of a closer look. The Elias Sports Bureau won’t be providing any statistical minutiae, but I’ll channel my inner Jayson Stark anyway and list a few “nuggets”…

Saturday’s game was the second of a three-game series between the two schools. The Citadel won the opener, 6-2, behind a fine complete-game effort by Matt Talley, while the College of Charleston would win the third game, breaking out to a 10-0 lead before hanging on for a 10-5 victory.

Saturday’s final:  The Citadel 17, College of Charleston 14.  The score doesn’t begin to tell the story:

  • Nine pitchers (five for The Citadel, four for the CofC)  combined to throw 362 pitches — and The Citadel didn’t come to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
  • Eight of the CofC’s nine batters had multi-hit games (the Cougars used no pinch-hitters, not that they needed any).
  • The only Cougar who didn’t get at least two hits was the #9 batter, catcher Robert Pritcher; however, his one hit was a two-run homer that gave the CofC a 6-4 lead in the 5th inning.
  • That home run was one of three plate appearances for Robert Pritcher in which he faced The Citadel’s starting pitcher, sophomore Austin Pritcher.  The two are brothers.  Robert Pritcher also walked and struck out against his younger sibling, but the homer clearly carried the day in the family matchup.

The lesson, as always:  older brothers rule.

  • That strikeout in Pritcher v. Pritcher, by the way, was one of only three times a Cougar batter struck out in the game, and the only one of those that was swinging.
  • With 23 hits, the CofC had a batting average of .489 for the game.  Bulldog batters “only” batted .395 as a group.
  • The Cougars sent 56 batters to the plate during the course of the game.  On 34 of those occasions, the batter reached first base (23 hits, 7 walks, 1 HBP, and 3 runners reached via an error).
  • T.J. Clarkson had an ERA of 3.00 through his first 17 appearances of the season.  His ERA went up to 4.21 after pitching on Saturday.  Ouch.
  • After scoring six runs in the 5th inning, the CofC probably thought it had an insurmountable 12-5 lead, given that The Citadel entered the game 0-12 in contests when its opponent had scored six or more runs.

And yet, The Citadel won this game.  Somehow.

  • Each team had 23 at bats with runners in scoring position.  The Citadel was 9-23 with RISP, but the Cougars were only 4-23 and left 15 men on base (the Bulldogs had just 6 LOB).
  • Clutchness:  the Bulldogs scored 11 of their 17 runs with two outs, including all five runs in the seventh inning.  Nick Orvin’s three-run double in the eighth, which proved to be the game-winner, also came with two outs.
  • Orvin was 5-5 at the plate (with three doubles), drove in five runs, scored twice, and walked once.  I guess that’s a pretty good day for a leadoff hitter.
  • Matt Simonelli had both a sacrifice bunt and a sac fly in the game — and on both occasions, he reached base after Cougar errors.
  • The BABIP and defensive efficiency (or lack thereof) numbers for this game were, uh, horrendous…

The Citadel’s pitchers had a combined BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .560 in this contest, which is much worse than even the below-par .370 number for the team entering the series against the College of Charleston.  As I noted earlier, this is often a reflection of defense (and sometimes luck).

The Citadel had a mind-numbing defensive efficiency rating (DER) of .463 for the game; in other words, only 46% of balls put into play were turned into outs.  (The average D-1 squad this season is turning about 65% of balls put into play into outs.)

However, the College of Charleston’s defensive numbers were even worse, as Cougar pitchers had a combined .577 BABIP.  The team DER on Saturday was .449; by comparison, the DER in the Cougars’ 24-4 loss at South Carolina was a much more respectable .590 (the team pitching BABIP that day, incidentally, was .556).

It remains to be seen if this game might help The Citadel recover from a bad start to the season.  It didn’t seem to matter much on Sunday, but winning the series against the CofC might prove to give the team a much-needed confidence boost going forward.  The bats seem to be coming around, at any rate.  Grabbing a spot in the eight-team Southern Conference tournament becomes the goal for the rest of the regular season.

Talkin’ Bulldog baseball

I can’t believe I haven’t filed a post yet about The Citadel’s baseball team, but then, I haven’t been posting much at all as of late.  That will change (I hope) in the ensuing months.  At any rate, let’s talk Bulldog baseball.  The Citadel is in first place in the SoCon right now, so it’s the perfect time to jump on the bandwagon!

The Citadel heads into the upcoming weekend series with Samford at 16-2 in the league (28-15 overall).  I have to say I am pleasantly surprised at the Bulldogs’ success in the conference this season, as I thought it would be hard to replace the players The Citadel lost from last year’s team (including Richard Jones, Chris McGuiness, and Sonny Meade).

The Bulldogs needed to replace a ton of offensive productivity, and I didn’t think the pitching (which I expected would be good) would be able to overcome that.  I guess Kendall Rogers, college baseball writer for, deserves credit for picking The Citadel to win the Southern Conference.  I hope I didn’t just jinx the team by writing that.

What follows is a look at this season’s team and how it is faring in the categories of fielding, pitching, and batting.  Some of this is probably going to come across as overly negative for a team currently leading its league, but it’s important to examine the team’s weaknesses as well as its strengths.


Fielding is definitely the Achilles’ heel of this squad, and if the Bulldogs fail to win the league, or do not impress in any post-season play, it is likely to be the key reason why.  The numbers are not good:

  • 73 errors in 43 games (1. 7 errors per game)
  • A fielding percentage of .955 (which would be the worst for a Bulldog team in at least a decade)
  • An average of 38.09 chances per game (which would be the lowest for a Bulldog team since 2003)

The Citadel has committed two or more errors in 22 of its 43 games.  That’s 2+ errors in more than half the games.

The Bulldogs have had defensive issues at third base, second base, and catcher.  There have also been occasional lapses in the outfield, which is surprising, as all three regulars in the outfield are solid fielders with good speed.  All of them are capable of making outstanding plays.

I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that Bryan Altman, playing primarily as a catcher after spending most of his college career at second base, would not be the second coming of Johnny Bench with the glove.  From what I’ve seen, Altman actually does a lot of things well behind the plate.  The one thing he doesn’t do well, as least from anecdotal evidence, is cleanly catch pitches.

The ball seems to pop out of his glove a lot when I watch the games, which would explain his 14 passed balls.  The Citadel hasn’t had that many passed balls in a full season since 2003 (there were 8 all of last year).

At third base, David Greene has committed 18 errors.  Greene committed 14 errors all of last season.  His fielding percentage to date (.860) is substantially lower than it was last season (.903).  This may be a “he was in a slump at the plate, and it affected his fielding” kind of thing.  He’s not in a slump now, though, so maybe his fielding will improve as well.

Then there is second base, where Legare Jones has spent the most time, with Altman and Josh Pless also taking turns at the keystone position.  Jones has 10 errors and a .921 fielding percentage.  Pless, in limited duty, has an .882 fielding percentage.

Last year, the Bulldogs had 39.0 chances per game, almost a full chance more than this season.  That team committed just 1.14 errors per game, more than half an error fewer per game than this year.  This means, essentially, that Bulldog pitchers are having to get 2 and a half more outs per game this season (when you combine the increased errors with the reduced chances).

It’s hard enough to pitch in college baseball as it is, without having to get an extra out every third inning or so.


This was supposed to be the Bulldogs’ strength this season, and it has been.  Asher Wojciechowski was supposed to be one of the nation’s outstanding pitchers this season, and he has been.  A critical reason for The Citadel’s success in conference play has been getting consistently excellent performances from Wojciechowski in the Friday night games.

Not only have the Bulldogs claimed victory in those games (save last week’s game against Davidson), Wojciechowski’s ability to pitch deep into games has allowed the bullpen to do most of its work in a two-game stretch, instead of three.  Also, winning the series opener takes the pressure off the team for the remainder of the series.

This is why Matt Talley’s performance last Saturday (a complete-game shutout) may have been the most important individual start of the season.  For the first time all year, the Bulldogs trailed in a league series after losing the Friday night game.  Talley came up big under pressure, saved the bullpen, and set things up for The Citadel to claim the series by winning the second game of the doubleheader.

Wojciechowski’s numbers are uniformly great (.211 BAA, 98/19 K-BB in 73 IP, only 4 HR, 2.47 ERA).  His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is actually a little high (.328), suggesting he has been a tad unlucky in that area (and that also may be a reflection of the defense behind him).  Wojciechowski threw 138 pitches against Elon earlier this year, but has had only one 120+ pitching performance since then.

I suspect Wojciechowski is making himself a lot of money this season.  He certainly should be.

I’m hoping Talley’s performance last Saturday is a harbinger of things to come.  Last season Talley was 8-1 with a 3.42 ERA, but this season’s move into the weekend rotation (and against generally superior competition) has resulted in an ERA jump of over a full run (4.50) despite a better BAA (.251 this season; it was .273 in 2009).

Talley’s strikeout rate and walk rate are both better this season than last, and his BABIP is actually a touch better this year too, so he hasn’t been unlucky in that respect.   Last season, though, he only allowed 14 extra base hits in 71 innings.  This year in 60 innings he’s already allowed 19.

Also, teams have  finally figured out that Talley has a great pickoff move (only 2 pickoffs so far in 2010 after having 10 in ’09).  Eliminating the runners who were subsequently picked off would give him baserunners per inning totals almost exactly the same for ’09 and ’10.

Talley has also been hurt by the team’s defense.  He has allowed a team-high 12 unearned runs.  Talley has actually allowed two more runs than Michael Clevinger in the same amount of innings, despite having an ERA a full run and a third better than that of Clevinger.

Clevinger has done a respectable job as the Sunday starter for The Citadel, about as much as you could ask for a freshman put in that position.  He has kept the team in the game most of the time, which is the primary expectation of a #3 starter.  Clevinger has done an amazing job at preventing unearned runs (just one UER in 59 2/3 IP), a stat that jumps out at you when you read the pitching lines for The Citadel.  Curt Schilling would be proud.

The Citadel has not had a lot of luck with starting pitching beyond the three weekend starters, which partly explains the lack of success in midweek games.  T.J. Clarkson had an ERA of 3.92 last season; this year it’s 6.35, despite having very similar K/BB rates, hits allowed totals, and BAA.  Clarkson, however, has allowed 6 home runs in only 34 innings after allowing just one (in 41 1/3 IP) all last season.

Austin Pritcher is a freshman who has started six games.  He’s had a couple of bad outings which have really hurt his pitching line (6.89 ERA), but he has had his moments in relief, and could be a factor in tournament play (as could Clarkson, who has proven he’s capable of pitching well against quality opposition in the past).

The Bulldogs have had four pitchers get most of the bullpen duty this season.  Matt Reifsnider is the long man out of the ‘pen, and he’s had a fine year.  His numbers are up (in a good way) from last year in practically every category.  What he’s done best is avoid walking people.  Last season he walked 15 batters in 36 1/3 innings; this season, just 4 in 38 IP.  That, combined with a much-improved BAA (.284; in ’09 it was .398) has dramatically improved his WHIP.

The two setup men for the Bulldogs are Raymond Copenhaver and Chris Boyce.  None of Boyce’s numbers stand out as being exceptionally good, but he’s done a solid job just competing on the mound, and has managed to get some big outs along the way.  As a result he’s 5-0.  Only Asher Wojciechowski has more wins for The Citadel.

I believe Copenhaver is the pitcher most affected by the team’s defensive play.  This is perhaps reflected in his BABIP of .361 (his BAA is .286).  Last season Copenhaver’s BABIP was .327 (with a .284 BAA).  What he does best is not allow extra base hits (just 3 in 20 2/3 IP, with only one a homer).  Copenhaver struggled at times last season, but he’s been better this year, with an ERA more than a full run lower.  I have to wonder if he’s actually been a little better than his results, based on that BABIP figure.

Drew Mahaffey had a great year in ’09 as the Bulldogs’ closer.  This year he has really struggled, though, and what was a team strength now has to be considered a weakness, at least until he can put things together.  The numbers do not lie.  His BAA has gone up from .203 to .238, but more ominous are his K/BB totals.  After striking out 71 and walking just 14 in 50 innings last year, this year he has already walked 18 in just 21 1/3 IP (against 22 Ks).

If the Bulldogs have designs on a long post-season run, I think getting Mahaffey back to near where he was last season is mandatory.  I don’t know whether or not that’s possible.  I just hope it’s not an injury situation.


This is the area where I thought the Bulldogs would struggle the most, but they’ve held their own.  It’s not a deep team, with eight regulars who go to the post practically every day.  DH Brad Felder has started 41 of the 43 games, yet he’s eighth on the team in starts.

There are two players in Fred Jordan’s lineup who weren’t really there last season who have made a big difference.  One of them is Matt Simonelli, who had limited playing time last year because of injury.  He’s back full-time this year and making it count (.952 OPS).

The other player who wasn’t around last year was Kyle Jordan.  Well, at least this version of Kyle Jordan, the one with a respectable bat who can make the routine plays in the field.  Last year’s version, the one with the sub-.500 OPS who led the team in strikeouts?  Gone, and thankfully so.  The younger Jordan does need to walk more and strike out less (8 BB/39 K).

Leadoff hitter Nick Orvin leads the team in OBP and slugging, as he has improved on what was an outstanding freshman season.  He is the runaway leader on the team in walks, with 30.  Orvin should be on the all-conference team.

David Greene appears to have rebounded from an early-season slump and is starting to move his numbers closer to what they were during his excellent freshman campaign.  Greene is also walking more this year, a positive development that I’m hoping may also lead to an increase in power.

Bryan Altman’s power is not in question, as he is tied for the team lead in homers with Felder (nine each).  Like Simonelli, I wish Altman walked a bit more, but also like Simonelli, he’s a contact hitter who doesn’t strike out much.  Altman can also swipe a base (8-10 this year).

William Ladd is also having a solid year at the plate.  He really needs to walk more, though (only four BB all season so far) to take full advantage of his speed on the bases.  Ladd is surely one of the faster left fielders in the country.  Ladd does lead the team in hit-by-pitches (11).

Brad Felder is not a high-average DH, but he has good power (and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his batting average continue to rise).  He also has 10 steals, joining Simonelli and Orvin as double-digit base-stealers.  His respectable .373 OBP has been built up in part by 10 hit-by-pitches.

Justin Mackert’s first season on the field has been a good one.   He now has two home runs and looks to have the potential to hit quite a few more.  He’s also not afraid to take a walk, although not quite at Orvin levels.  He’s another Bulldog who is a threat to steal (9-11 SB).

The ninth position in the lineup has been in a state of flux.  Legare Jones has seen the most time, starting 26 games at second base.  He is only batting .235, however, and as mentioned has had his share of errors in the field.  Jones has actually been better than that .235 figure suggests, though.  He walks enough to have an OBP of .351, and 7 of his 19 hits have gone for extra bases.  In other words, he gets on base at a decent clip and he has some pop in his bat.

Fred Jordan has lately been rotating Jones, Josh Pless, and Altman at second base (with Grant Richards catching when Altman goes to second).  I would imagine this will continue, with Jones and Pless being in a platoon situation and Altman occasionally moving to second base as relief from the stress of catching every day.

Entering weekend play, The Citadel has an RPI of 31, per Boyd Nation.  According to Nation, if The Citadel goes 10-4 in its last fourteen regular season games (12 of those 14 are SoCon games), it will remain in the top 32 of the RPI.  A 7-7 mark would keep it in the top 45.

The Bulldogs’ last four SoCon opponents include the teams currently in second (College of Charleston), third (Samford), and fourth (Georgia Southern) place in the league — and all of those series will be on the road, beginning with this weekend’s trip to Birmingham to play Samford.  The Citadel has a lot of work to do to win the league.

I think a 7-5 finish in league play would be good enough to win the regular season title (8-4 would be a mathematical certainty).  6-6 might be enough, depending on other results.

If The Citadel wins the SoCon regular season crown, I think that would guarantee the Bulldogs a place in the NCAAs, as it would be hard to leave out the regular season champ of a top-10 league.  Possible, but not likely.  The Citadel’s non-conference record isn’t so hot (12-13), but its record against top-50 opponents (6-6, or 6-5, depending on source) is solid.

Of course, if the Bulldogs win the conference tourney at Riley Park next month, they won’t need an at-large berth (for the record, The Citadel has never received an at-large bid to the regionals).

I just hope The Citadel finishes strong and leaves no doubt about its NCAA-worthiness.  I’m ready to go to an NCAA regional again.  It’s been too long since the last one for my liking.