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April 17, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

College Weekend Preview

by Bryan Smith

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We're not trained to think that April is a month for marquee matchups, but colleges across the country give us a brand of baseball that challenges that assumption. While Major League Baseball tries to turn Dusty's return to Wrigley as a pivotal baseball story, college baseball has a much more genuinely pivotal regular-season series beginning on Friday: Miami at Florida State.

These teams are so similar that this series is impossible to handicap. Both teams have lost three games. Both have lost to Florida once, but have outscored the Gators on the season. The Seminoles offense has hit .352/.463/.570, while the Hurricanes are hitting .344/.440/.573. Miami has a 3.78 team ERA, and their pitchers have allowed a .237 batting average against; Florida State has a 3.53 team ERA, and a .238 batting average against. Both teams have underclassmen in the Friday starter role with sub-3.00 ERAs and undefeated records. Both have an electric weekend arm that has been more erratic than effective. Both have very good closers. So, you ask, where are they different? Here are my thoughts on that:

Florida State Advantages

First of all, the Seminoles are playing at home, which is not something to take lightly because they are 21-1 at Dick Howser Stadium. Tuesday's game over Florida drew over 6,500 fans. With top-ranked Miami coming into town, this will be as heated a venue as ever.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, Florida State has the hottest--and an argument for the best--hitter in the country. Kevin Goldstein sung Buster Posey's praises in his Monday Ten Pack this week, calling Posey a lock for the top 10 in June's draft. For now, you can bet the catcher will take a weekend series win. In his last eight contests, all Florida State wins, which include three games against Virginia and a mid-week victory over Florida:


G   PA   AB    H  2B   3B   HR   BB   K   OBP    SLG
8   38   30   19   7    1    2    7   2  .711  1.133

He also has thrown out 57 percent of baserunners this season, which will nullify the edge that Miami would otherwise have on the bases. Also, Posey has become the effective closer for the Seminoles, shutting the door in four of the five games he has entered this season. With a game on the line in the late innings, coach Mike Martin will look to his most trusted source, and Posey will get the ball. Last week, I talked about Ike Davis' value to Arizona State as a hitter and closer; this weekend, Posey's importance on the field is at a level that even Davis hasn't reached.

Florida State's other advantage is they have a pitching staff trained to cancel another of Miami's big strengths: their power. The Seminole pitching staff has allowed just 18 home runs in 321 innings this season, and five of those have been against reliever Tyler Everett in only 18 1/3 IP. The weekend starters--Matt Fairel, Bo O'Dell and Elih Villanueva--have combined for only five home runs allowed in 137 2/3 innings, and ace reliever Jimmy Marshall hasn't allowed one yet.

Miami Advantages

Florida State fans will dispute this, but it's true: Miami has more talent than anyone in the nation. While Buster Posey is likely to be the most talented single player on the field this weekend, Miami might have the next five spots. They have the much-heralded threesome of Jemile Weeks, Yonder Alonso, and Dennis Raben in the middle of the lineup, but you can't overlook Blake Tekotte atop the lineup, Mark Sobolewski in the middle, or Dave DiNatale and Ryan Jackson, both having breakout campaigns. Even freshman catcher Yasmani Grandal has heated things up in the last month.

The Seminole starters, outside of Villanueva, just don't have knockout stuff. Against this group of hitters, it's imperative.

Even in a hostile environment, the 'Canes have a fantastic bullpen. No one is more central to that success than sophomore Kyle Bellamy; the side-armer had a disastrous freshman season with Miami, allowing eight earned runs in 9 1/e innings, but since then he's allowed two runs over his last 55 IP (that's if you include his stint in the New York Collegiate Baseball League over last summer). Bellamy is deadly on right-handed hitters especially, and his 0.45 WHIP has to be the best in the nation. He hands the ball to closer Carlos Gutierrez, who has been brilliant, garnering eight saves on the season. Gutierrez also has the staff's most electric stuff. The Hurricanes will look to get a lead in the first six innings, and from there trust the bullpen to shut down the Seminole offense.

Prediction

Miami re-inherits Eric Erickson for this series, their old Friday night starter before he was felled with injuries. Even so, the opening game will still likely belong to freshman Chris Hernandez. Pitching in Tallahassee is a dangerous assignment for Hernandez, particularly going up against Matt Fairel, who has been fantastic this season; I think Florida State wins Friday. From there, it's a crap shoot, and I think the outcome of the series depends on how often Buster Posey and Jemile Weeks make outs. I'll say that Miami beats up Bo O'Dell on Saturday to take that game, but in the decisive Sunday matchup Florida State wins their home series, and becomes a favorite to be the top seed in the postseason.

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 Ten Pack, we'll go with the backup choice.

4/11-13 Winner: RHP Steven Strasburg, San Diego State
4/4-6 Winner: OF/LHP Ike Davis, Arizona State
3/28-30 Winner: RHP Aaron Crow, Missouri
3/21-23 Winner: SS Gordon Beckham, Georgia
3/14-16 Winner: RHP Zach Putnam, Michigan

When performance demands we break form, I listen. While this space has been dedicated to the 2008's draft risers this season, there was one box score line I couldn't ignore from the weekend slate. It wasn't Jacob Priday's four-homer game on Friday, because even if three were deemed "legit," 30 mph winds change an approach as much as they alter a fly ball.

No, instead there's simply no way to understate the dominance of a 23-strikeout game, which is what San Diego State right-handed pitcher Steven Strasburg did on Friday. Yes, the Aztecs were playing Utah, ranked by Boyd Nation's ISR as the 92nd-best team in the nation. Still, think about it: Strasburg faced 30 batters in his one-hitter Friday, and struck out 23 of them. What did the seven men who didn't grab some bench do? Strasburg is allowed a bit of wildness with such fantastic stuff, so we'll forgive the walk and HBP. We also might as well erase the two sacrifice bunts from record, as Strasburg might have struck those batters out. So, what does that mean in terms of legitimate balls in play? A fly ball to right field, a groundball to first base, and a single up the middle. Nothing to the left side of second base, not one, not against a fastball that was ranging from 93-99 mph.

The amazing thing about this start is that it completely changes the narrative about the 2009 draft. No longer is it a pitcher's draft, with Kyle Gibson, Strasburg, Kendal Volz, Andy Oliver, and others dominating the discussion. No longer is the top selection a choice between Strasburg, Gibson, and Grant Green. No, this is Strasburg's draft, much like it was David Price's following his freshman season. Even if something goes wrong in Strasburg's journey as a starting pitcher, he still is a valuable asset--he can simply return to the bullpen, where he'll deliver consistent 97-99 mph readings on the gun. He returns to a two-pitch arsenal, and like that, he's a closer. But his body--6'4", 220--and his stuff, including an improving changeup, combine to suggest that he should have no problem starting in the minor leagues.

Strasburg's Utah start was his second against the Utes, so for the season he has allowed eight hits and two earned runs against them in 17 innings, striking out 32. He struck out 12 in a two-hit, eight-inning shutout of Houston. He struck out eight on BYU, nine against Santa Clara, five against Cal Poly, and seven in a win over Brian Matusz and San Diego.

It says a lot about Strasburg that the hardest decision in college baseball right now is this: if you have one game to win, who do you pick, Aaron Crow, or Strasburg? It's a lot closer than you'd think.

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.

4/11-13 Winner: Georgia
4/4-6 Winner: Georgia, Ole Miss
3/28-30 Winner: Nebraska
3/21-23 Winner: Florida
3/14-16 Winner: Florida State

I couldn't put all my chips on Georgia last weekend, partly because their series against Kentucky was so important, and partly because Mississippi deserved some attention. However, with a sweep of Kentucky and now riding a new win streak, Georgia should have a few more words devoted to them. Dave Perno's Bulldogs are one of the season's better stories, using seasons from their best draft prospects--Gordon Beckham, Josh Fields and even Trevor Holder--to become perhaps the team to beat in the SEC.

Offensively, unsurprisingly, things still center around Beckham. He was the saving grace last night in a game against Georgia State that could have been a bit of an embarrassment if not for his walk-off three-run homer. His seventeeth of the season sealed Georgia's fifth straight victory. For the season, Beckham is hitting .430/.522/.866, with 11 steals and 30 extra-base hits. Like we saw against Kentucky, though, Beckham is beginning to get the Barry Bonds treatment, and like we saw against Kentucky, Perno has built safeguards against that. The beneficiary of Beckham's great season appears to be Rich Poythress, the Bulldogs' first baseman currently getting a lot more pitches to hit, and to his credit, Poythress is hitting them, batting .394/.503/.664 on the season. He doesn't have Beckham's power, but with Gordon on first base after a walk, Poythress doesn't need to do much except continue the inning. The team's cumulative .297/.388/.469 line isn't great, but it would be once you remove Josh Fields and Adam Fuller, both of whom aren't getting much playing time any more.

The bullpen is something we've talked about, as teams cannot score in the late innings against Fields, Justin Earls, Nick Montgomery, and the rest of the team. The unsung hero on this pitching staff, though, is probably Holder atop the rotation. He's been lights-out since joining the Cape Cod League last season, earning a spot as Mr. Irrelevant on my top 30 prospects list. Holder doesn't have great stuff--he's 90-92 mph with his fastball, with good feel for his off-speed pitches--but he's thrived with improved fastball command, something that has improved for many Bulldogs this spring. Holder's 4-2 record isn't indicative of his pitching, as he keeps Georgia in every game. While Stephen Dodson and Nathan Moreau are no great shakes on Saturday and Sunday, Holder is a true college ace, the last key piece in Georgia's top-heavy puzzle.

A regional in Athens? You couldn't have found many people predicting that back in February, but at this point in the SEC schedule, it's a near certainty.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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