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).


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).


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.


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…

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.