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May 12, 2010

Campus Notes

Virginia Coach Adapts Measures of Success

by Charles Dahan

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Even the most advanced statistical measures translate poorly to evaluating college players, let alone high school recruits. An OPS of 900 in the Atlantic Coast Conference is far different than a similar achievement in the Big 10, and the assumption of hitters being unaffected by the pressure of game situations is less reliable with players just two years removed from being dropped off for practice in the family minivan.

The University of Virginia’s Brian O’Connor—2009 National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Coach of the Year after leading the Cavaliers to their first College World Series appearance and skipper of one of this season’s three elite teams—spoke recently about the importance of data that is most valuable in the college game.

“From the recruiting standpoint, statistics are really hard to use,” explains O’Connor. “It’s because in high school baseball or in summer baseball, you never now the level of competition someone is playing against. There are different levels of competition throughout the country. You hear about it all the time, the guy hit .600 on the year. That doesn’t relate to what they’re going to do at the next level.”

Perhaps more interesting are the methods college coaches utilize to evaluate their players. O’Connor’s method focuses on positive reinforcement and attempt to highlight hitters who work counts, and pitchers who limited their pitches thrown per inning.

“We do a thing where we chart our players' quality at-bats, so we have a completely separate stat sheet on the quality of our at-bats that our hitters have throughout the year,” O'Connor said. "What I mean by that is someone statistically may be hitting .280, but their (percentage of) quality at-bats might be .520.  We try to get our players away from not concerning ourselves with hard statistics, as to what they’re doing quality at bat-wise.  It’s conceivable a player might go 1-for-4, but his quality at bats might be 3-for-4 or 4-for-4.  What that means is, are they doing something to help the team win.  It might have been a sacrifice fly or the first at-bat might be a 13-pitch at-bat. It’s more positive reinforcement, as batting averages are going to range anywhere from .250-.400, so there are so many negatives built around our game because of statistics.  If someone’s hitting .350, they’re failing 6 ½ times out of 10."

ACC’s Wild Ride

Virginia has lived up to expectations this season, separating itself as the elite team in the ACC and building on its trip to the College World Series. North Carolina, class of the conference for the past half-decade, has faced a tough rebuilding year and been swept by both Georgia Tech and Miami and lost series to Florida State and the expected Coastal Division doormat, Duke.  Last weekend’s sweep of Wake Forest as well as a recent series victory at Clemson, place the Tar Heels back in the discussion of making a run at a regional appearance. This weekend’s series at Virginia as well as the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech provide opportunities for the Tar Heels to write their own ticket.

The ACC Coastal is certainly the most competitive conference in the nation, though North Carolina's 11-13 record going into this week is certainly a disappointment.  O’Connor describes the difficulty of playing in the ACC Coastal, “The depth within the teams is what separates the ACC or the SEC of the other power conferences.  Within each team they have a quality lineup, 1 thru 9. They have depth in their bullpens.  They have guys that are coming off the bench that are quality hitters.  You’re going to face quality starters every game.  Where in some situations you get to the 6 hole or 7 hole, like when you're playing Georgia Tech, it's still tough  because they have over five guys with over 10-12 home runs.  You just feel like you can’t ever make a mistake.”

The culprit of the Heels’ slide is a combination of early-season pitching woes and difficulty replacing the contributions of outfielder Dustin Ackley (the second overall pick in last year's draft), pitcher Alex White (15th), catcher Mark Fleury (82nd), and pitchers Adam Warren (135th) and Brian Moran (203rd) took them out of contention for the regular-season ACC crown.  The Heels won’t be hosting their fourth consecutive NCAA regional.

The Tar Heels travel to Charlottesville for a Friday-Sunday series against Virginia. This will be the Wahoos’ first game since May 4, and while they are assured of the opportunity to host a super-regional, the Tar Heels can lock up an NCAA berth with a strong showing.  Virginia is riding a 12-game winning streak—including scoring 43 runs against Maryland while giving up seven and outscoring Duke 33-10—and has only dropped one three-game series, during the first weekend of April against North Carolina State.

ASU Steps on the Gas

A similar showdown takes place in Tucson, with Arizona hosting rival Arizona State.  After the Sun Devils proved their dominance in the Pac-10 three weeks ago by crushing UCLA on the road in each of their three games, 5-1, 6-1, and 12-3, they look to extinguish Arizona’s hopes of hosting a regional. The Wildcats won the first game against the Sun Devils, 4-2 in Tempe, which was the high-water mark of their season.  Immediately following that win, Arizona began its current 2-5 slide, losing two out of three in series against UCLA and USC as well as losing 13-1 at Arizona State.  After Arizona State, Arizona closes the regular season by hosting Stanford and traveling to Corvallis to take on a struggling but talented Oregon State team. A strong finish could result in three teams spending a weekend participating in a regional in Tucson.

LSU Struggles

Perennial power LSU more than doubled its season total in losses in a week, dropping seven straight—three against both Mississippi and Florida on the road, and at home in a single game against New Orleans—from April 24-May 2. The Tigers weren’t able to get back on track in a crucial weekend series at home against Vanderbilt last weekend, dropping two of three.

12-Pack

1. Arizona State­­—The Sun Devils' dominance of UCLA vaults them to the top of the Big Three.

2. Virginia—The Cavaliers are expected to win 50 games, eclipsing even the most optimistic pre-season predictions.

3. Texas—The Longhorns are limited in marquee wins by a Big 12 conference filled with good, but not great, teams. Only one team—Kansas State—has an outside chance at hosting a regional, though six teams (Texas A&M Kansas State, Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansas, and Texas, have a shot at the postseason. That said, Texas makes a strong case for the nation’s top spot, with 24 straight wins—though only one (home versus Rice) against a ranked opponent. 

4. Florida­—Sweep of LSU puts the Gators ahead of Florida State, despite a 1-3 record against the Seminoles this year.

5. Florida State—The 'Noles took two of three at Boston College last weekend, and hosts North Carolina State before heading to Clemson to conclude their regular season.

6. Coastal Carolina—The Chanticleers are 23-1 since April 1, losing their only true test this year, on the road against Virginia. No longer in the shadow of North Carolina, this year is Coastal Carolina’s best opportunity to head to Omaha as the road should head through Conway, South Carolina for a superr-egional instead of Chapel Hill, North Carolina

7. Texas Christian—The Horned Frogs have dominated the Mountain West and held their own against ranked opponents, taking two in a series against Fullerton State and concluding last weekend’s three-game series at New Mexico by throttling the Lobos 26-4.

8. Georgia Tech—It’s hard to say a team on the cusp of hosting a super-regional gets lost in the national discussion, but the ACC is just that good. 

9. Arkansas—The Razorbacks took two of three from a particularly strong Mississippi squad last weekend, and starter Drew Smyly—with a K:BB rate of 3:1, an ERA of 2.26, and an 8-0 record—leads them Razorbacks into the SEC tournament, where they will make a run at Florida.

10. Louisville—The Cardinals dominated the Big East this season, as well as taking two of three at Ole Miss, winning at Western Kentucky, and sweeping their Big Ten opponents in the Big Ten/Big East challenge. 

11. South Carolina­—The Gamecocks' ranking could fluctuate the most of any team, as they have the toughest road left of anyone in the nation. They travel to play three at Arkansas before closing the regular season by hosting Florida in a stretch that starts Friday and runs through May 22.

12. Miami—Hosting four super-regionals is not out of the question for the ACC.

Related Content:  Arizona,  The Atlantic

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