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March 27, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

College Weekend Preview

by Bryan Smith

If we have developed a theme in previewing the weekend's college baseball action, it is this: every weekend provides a new opportunity to see if a program is for real. Last week, Florida survived its test by taking two of three games from Mississippi in Oxford. In contrast, Virginia did not, losing to N.C. State in Raleigh to suffer its first two losses of the season. While this format will tire itself out as conference matchups force every team to face its fair share of tests, we're not out of the woods yet--we need to see if this Nebraska team is real.

We didn't really think either Nebraska or Stanford were great shakes at the beginning of the season, so the Cardinal hanging onto the series at home wasn't headline news. In retrospect, it was a pretty big series between one of the Pac-10's better teams and one of the Big 12's better teams. It was also--save a split mid-week pair of games against former NU coach Dave Van Horn's Arkansas Razorbacks--one of the few times Nebraska has been truly tested.

Look, UC Riverside isn't bad, so a four-game sweep of the Highlanders is still pretty impressive. Northern Colorado, the alma mater of Huskers coach Mike Anderson, has some big wins over Texas A&M and Arizona State, but a 6-0 record against the Bears shouldn't have us shouting from the rooftops. Nor should series wins (for a cumulative record of 5-0-1) over Kansas State and Oklahoma, two teams with some talented players but no real postseason-caliber depth.

That's a long way of telling you that Nebraska is 19-3-1, and 18-1-1 in its last 20 games; few teams in the nation are hotter. But Austin, Texas has a history of being a place where teams come and cool off. It didn't do so to former Nebraska opponent Stanford in the beginning of the month, but since that series, Texas is 8-2, and Augie Garrido's teams are more famous for the work they do later in the season.

The story of the weekend is simple. On the one hand, we have the Nebraska pitching staff. The leader of the group is Johnny Dorn, a senior right-hander just eight wins from tying Shane Komine's Huskers record. Dorn, like much of the staff, succeeds by hitting his spots and keeping the ball in the park--that method has been good for a 37/8 K/BB ratio and 1.57 ERA in 34 1/3 innings. An emerging Thad Weber and efficient Aaron Pribanic (1.44 ERA, 0 HR allowed) finish out the weekend rotation. The bullpen is solid, as the three players that have saves for Nebraska--Zach Herr, Mike Nesseth, Erik Anderson--have a cumulative 49 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings.

On the other hand, running up against that staff we have the Texas offense. If you had told me before the season that the Longhorns would have a .326/.448/.504 team stat line after 23 games, but with Kyle Russell's OPS below 800, I would have called you crazy. But it's the depth we have seen out of this lineup that makes it so impressive; it's a lineup that can wait for Russell to start making more contact. The key reason for that has been the emergence of two newcomers for Garrido's crew--freshman catcher Cameron Rupp (.406/.506/.725) and sophomore transfer Brandon Belt (.357/.404/.522). Those two players combining with the skill of Jordan Danks, who has helped his draft stock with a .363/.487/.604 line, make this one of college baseball's elite lineups.

The other side of the equation has us asking if either side will be enough in June. The reason Texas will win this series and humble Nebraska is because its weakness nevertheless have better potential upside than Nebraska's. Texas has an ugly 3.97 ERA and 3.4 BB/9, but it also has some pretty good pitchers. Kenn Kasparek (4.50 ERA) is still just a year removed from Tommy John surgery, and the team has yet to utilize freshman Brandon Workman (3.08 ERA) and transfer Casey Whitmer (1.80 ERA) as much as it could. Even a better utilization of Belt (one hit allowed in five appearances) could significantly lower the team ERA. This is a Texas pitching staff, so we know they have some arms.

Nebraska will look to continue to stymie that pitching staff with a West Coast-style offense. It will run a lot against Longhorns backstop Rupp, as the freshman is not known for his defensive skills, having thrown out just 4-of-26 baserunners on the year. Nebraska, meanwhile, is stealing nearly two bases a game--a number it should attempt to raise substantially this weekend. Anything the Huskers can do to get runners in scoring position for Mitch Abeita, the lineup's biggest threat, the better for them.

In the end, though, greater talent plus the Austin advantage will humble Nebraska's group of seniors. But Dorn against the Texas lineup on Friday is the matchup of the weekend.

Weekend Notes

  • Before I reveal some cool statistical findings, let's run through the other weekend matchups to watch. The best has to be Long Beach State defending the title I anointed them with on Monday as the West Coast's top team, against California. Andrew Liebel versus Tyson Ross should be a special matchup. We stay in the West as both Arizona schools, the Wildcats and Sun Devils, test their mettle against California programs in UCLA and USC, respectively. UC Irvine's test against a decent Cal Poly team finishes the West Coast swing.
  • As we preach often and need to preach even more often, understanding statistics properly is to understand the context behind them. In a bubble, I could tell you that Auburn closer Bryan Woodall has allowed one earned run in 13 1/3 innings and set-up man Evan Crawford has allowed thee in 18 2/3 innings. By itself, that doesn't tell you much. If I added that Crawford is a southpaw and that he pitches in the low 90s with elite breaking stuff, and Woodall has a sinker that hovers around 90 mph, you would understand why Crawford is bound to be drafted higher in June. I could also tell you that Auburn needs Hunter Morris, Kevin Patterson, and Mike Bianucci in its lineup, but with only one DH spot, two of them are defensive liabilities. That might explain Woodall's .364 BABIP, but it doesn't explain Evan Crawford's .184 BABIP. Woodall also has allowed just one walk, while Crawford has allowed 11. While the stuff is enough for Crawford to rightfully be drafted higher than Woodall in June, here's to betting the spread is far larger than it should be, in part because someone doesn't understand the context of their performances.
  • One more aspect of context that's especially important in college baseball is schedule strength. Yes, of course Elon's Steven Hensley has a more difficult road to hoe than, for example, Rice's Cole St. Clair. But in looking through Rice's game-by-game log, I noticed that even between players on the Owls there's some disparity. Take the two Rice pitchers behind St. Clair with the highest 2008 draft stock--set-up man Bryan Price and southpaw swingman Lucas Luetge. Price has been up to 97 mph this spring, and Luetge was one of the nation's prized junior-college transfers. Both have been a bit enigmatic this spring, Price with a 3.72 ERA, Luetge with an even uglier 5.48 ERA. In my opinion, the gap between the two is far bigger than those ERAs suggest: Price has now faced a total of 81 batters on the season, and 16 of those were on Long Beach State, 12 were on Texas, 13 on Western Carolina, and 11 on Houston. In all, more than 60 percent of his batters faced played for very good programs. Luetge, on the other hand, has faced 104 batters this season, and the best on his resume are seven Oklahoma Sooners; hitters on Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and the University of Louisiana make up nearly half of his total batters faced. Bryan Price has a 3.72 ERA against some elite competition. Luetge has a 5.48 ERA against very few players that will end up playing in professional baseball.

Last Weekend's Big Winner, Player Edition

Each week, I will attempt to pinpoint one performance that should be noted by draft nuts. Side note: if Kevin Goldstein beats me to it in the Monday Morning Ten Pack, we'll go with the backup choice.

3/21-23 Winner: SS Gordon Beckham, Georgia
3/14-16 Winner: RHP Zach Putnam, Michigan
3/7-3/9 Winner: LHP Tim Murphy, UCLA
2/29-3/2 Winner: SS Reese Havens, South Carolina
2/22-24 Winner: RHP Tanner Scheppers, Fresno State

Between my chat yesterday, my article Monday, and numerous other points this season, I have written an awful lot about Gordon Beckham. Simply put, Beckham is slowly securing himself a spot as a Golden Spikes finalist, and as a potential top 12 pick in the 2008 draft. Beckham is the most important player to his team in the nation; as we saw last weekend, as he goes so goes Georgia. But rather than go over familiar ground, I thought it would be telling to look closer at the 13 home runs Beckham has hit this season, for--to continue our theme--contextual reasons:

Homer #1: David Coulon, Arizona, Center Field
Homer #2: Greg Peavey, Oregon State, Left Field
Homer #3: Greg Peavey, Oregon State, Center Field
Homer #4: John David Smelser, Jacksonville State, Left Field
Homer #5: Jason Zylstra, Jacksonville State, Left Field
Homer #6: Marc Ashley, Memphis, Left Field
Homer #7: Mike McGee, Florida State, Left Field
Homer #8: James Mahler, Arkansas, Left Field
Homer #9: Evan Cox, Arkansas, Left Field
Homer #10: Matt Benedict, Western Carolina, Left Field
Homer #11: Orlando Rivera, Alabama A&M, Left Field
Homer #12: Steve Crnkovich, Tennessee, Left Field
Homer #13: Steve Crnkovich, Tennessee, Left Field

A couple things jump out at me. First of all, Beckham has not hit his home runs off of nobodies; we're talking about a pair off of a Friday night guy in Crnkovich, two off of a future Friday night guy in Peavey, and home runs off equally legitimate arms in Coulon, McGee, Mahler, and Benedict. He's hit four off Jacksonville State, Memphis, and Alabama A&M pitchers, but more off pitchers from very good programs. Also, 11 of the 13 home runs were to left field, and five of his eight doubles have gone to left, as well. I did suspect this, but for all future scouting reports, we can officially mark Beckham as a pull hitter. Note to SEC pitchers: try the outer half.

While Beckham's numbers are sure to regress, my guess is that he will adjust as he's pitched to differently as the season goes on. What adjustments he makes will be a true test of whether or not he's a top ten overall player. But right now, he belongs, and you can bet Oakland is licking its lips at potentially landing the Bulldog.

Last Weekend's Big Winner, Team Edition

Similarly, each week I will point out one team that proved itself worthy with a big weekend series win. Hint: you might read about them first in Monday's Weekend Review.

3/21-23 Winner: Florida
3/14-16 Winner: Florida State
3/7-3/9 Winner: California
2/29-3/2 Winner: Stanford
2/22-24 Winner: Long Beach State

I said a week ago that Florida just wasn't ready to be in this spot after sweeping Auburn, that they'd need to show me something in Oxford. Boy, did they, because outside of one bad half-inning in the ninth on Friday--which cost them the sweep--the Gators were the better team almost all weekend. What a start to Kevin O'Sullivan's career, beating an Ole Miss team I severely overrated just one month ago.

But to give credit where credit is due, because Florida absolutely deserved to win that series. In one short month, this has proven to be one of the nation's most well-balanced teams. O'Sullivan's history as one of the best pitching instructors in the nation has helped the pitching staff immediately, from ace Billy Bullock (3.23 ERA) to freshman Tommy Toledo (1.93).

When O'Sullivan joined the staff, he sought out assistants that had spent years in professional baseball. Bringing in scouts has proven to be a wise decision, as their teachings in the field and on the bases have left the Gators a notch above in each category. Though as O'Sullivan said last week, it sure helps to have an infield of ex-shortstops and an outfield of ex-center fielders.

I think at some point Florida is going to face some bad fortune. I expect that freshman Josh Adams (.388/.479/.688) will go into a slump. The fielders will make more errors, which they did in yesterday's loss to Jacksonville; more balls will find holes. The Gators aren't going to survive a brutal SEC schedule in April and May unscathed. But one short month has done more for the Gators than 2007 did--it has gotten them into the tournament. Staying close with Miami, sweeping Auburn, beating Florida State, and winning in Oxford is going to be enough.

Since it seems like every week we have the responsibility of covering about a dozen teams in California, it's nice to be able to have three teams--four with Central Florida's resurgence--to cover in the Sunshine State.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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