February 26, 2009
Wait 'Til Next Year
Horned Frogs, Riding High
When coach Jim Schlossnagle leaves Fort Worth, dominance in the Mountain West Conference notwithstanding, the caliber of pitchers that have passed through Texas Christian University is likely to be his most important legacy. Consider that in the last four June amateur drafts the Horned Frogs have seen six pitchers taken in the first five rounds. In 2005, Lance Broadway became the school's first-ever first-round pick, a feat duplicated last year by Andrew Cashner. In 2007, ace Jake Arrieta fell to the fifth round before signing for first-round money.
Amazingly, in the same four drafts, six pitchers were taken in the first five rounds from Texas A&M, Baylor, and University of Texas combined (two from each). Schlossnagle will talk about the difficulties of recruiting in Texas, but that statistic is a recruiting tool that few in the nation can duplicate. It has already had an effect-in 2008, the team had Greg Holle in the weekend rotation, touted as the school's top freshman recruit of all time. Holle is pitching on weekdays to start this season, effectively replaced in the rotation by Kyle Winkler, a new freshman fireballer whose fastball hits the mid-90s. The talent is coming full circle, and ultimately, it is talent-not a school's budget-that guides a team through the postseason.
Texas Christian, one of the toughest omissions from my pre-season top 25, earned a spot in the rankings this week by upending Cal State Fullerton on the road in the school's first series. After dropping the series-opener on Friday, the Horned Frogs scored 19 runs in two days to win two out of three. Back home during the week, the team kept the momentum going with wins over Dallas Baptist and Texas State, allowing just two runs overall. With a trip to Oxford, Mississippi this weekend to battle Ole Miss, TCU has an opportunity to prove that not only do they belong in the top 25, but they are a real threat to host a regional and make it to Omaha.
The first few weeks of the college baseball season are always a grim reminder of the long odds of ever being able to truly contextualize statistics at this level. Arizona State, for instance, really impressed many last weekend when they allowed just nine runs in a four-game series while scoring 53, but it came against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. How can we learn anything about the Florida State Seminoles in non-conference play if their toughest opponent is a depleted Auburn Tigers opponent? Sorry, but Hofstra University isn't a tool by which to gauge anything. This is why it's refreshing to see a school like TCU challenge themselves out of the gate with two road series against top 10 teams.
"Playing a great team-like Fullerton especially-really helps you learn where your team is at that time, and what you need to improve upon," coach Schlossnagle e-mailed this week. "Playing a soft team early may help with confidence, I guess, but I don't think you get better."
There are logistical reasons as well: the Horned Frogs will begin conference play on March 20, and for the next two months their most difficult weekend opponent will be San Diego State. Hosting a regional has proven next to impossible for a team whose conference will naturally hurt its RPI, so Schlossnagle's decision to begin the season with road-testing matchups is twofold: it helps the team's RPI should they be a potential regional host, and if they are ultimately selected as a two-seed instead, the team has already tested its mettle in difficult road environments. It's the experience, more than winning or losing, that guides the decision. Last year, the eight teams in Omaha in pre-conference play were just 20-19 against teams in the top 50 of Boyd Nation's Iterative Strength Ratings. Fresno State, Georgia, and Rice all stumbled out of the blocks before using their early season experience as a post-season strength.
What the Horned Frogs are really doing, without anybody noticing, is following the Wayne Graham/Rice University blueprint for building a top-notch baseball school within a highly contested state. Rice consistently tests itself in the opening weeks-last year, they played nine games against schools in Boyd Nation's top 50 before conference play began. The Owls have a long history of great pitching and good defense-talents that Schlossnagle is preaching, and recruiting, at TCU. Last year, the Horned Frogs ranked sixth in the nation in Defensive Efficiency, which does far more to explain the team's 3.63 ERA than their pitching staff, which, from a talent perspective, is their weakest of the past five years.
By contrast, this year's pitching staff is probably the strongest they've had. It must be with Holle pitching on weekdays-while still a raw talent, his stuff might be the best in the Mountain West Conference south of Steven Strasburg. He's not even the first option on weekdays, as junior Steven Maxwell is finally healthy after having elbow issues. On Tuesday, he shut down Dallas Baptist for five innings, allowing just two hits while striking out five and garnering eight ground-ball outs. The team also appears to have the bullpen depth to make it through a long season. Through five games, TCU relievers have pitched 20
Schlossnagle knows that a regression in defense is inevitable-the team lost senior shortstop Bryan Kervin, and the lineup has a few positions where sluggers are being played for the sake of offense. Taylor Featherston, a freshman slugger who leads the team with six RBI through five games, already has four errors. Junior college transfer Matt Curry will never be confused with a Gold Glover at first base, but he already has two home runs, and he could make a run into the teens this season. The talent on the pitching staff can afford a drop-off in defense-the talent of the bats on this roster will ensure that the team wins when the pitching staff falters.
After this weekend, no matter what the outcome against Ole Miss will be, it's going to be easy to forget about the Horned Frogs for a few months-at least until they become a victim of the Strasburg Express. Hopefully the committee, and those of us ranking the top 25, won't forget the challenges that Schlossnagle presented to his team in March, or the talent that is on this roster. It's doubtful Schlossnagle will get another arm into the top five rounds this year, but thanks to those great arms of the past, TCU has its deepest roster in program history, and their best chance of making it to Omaha.
Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25: February 26, 2009
1. Louisiana State 2. Texas 3. Texas A&M 4. North Carolina 5. Cal State Fullerton 6. Clemson 7. UCLA 8. Ole Miss 9. Baylor 10. Georgia 11. Georgia Tech 12. Stanford 13. San Diego 14. Missouri 15. Rice 16. UC Irvine 17. Oklahoma 18. Florida State 19. Florida 20. Arizona State 21. TCU 22. Oklahoma State 23. Coastal Carolina 24. Miami 25. Arkansas Off: Louisville, Alabama, Pepperdine
A real problem is developing with this list, as I have become sufficiently unimpressed by any of the available options from five through 10, with the exception of Clemson. Who else in what I have proposed as college baseball's second tier took a step forward on opening weekend? Perhaps the two schools from Georgia-except that there is no fix to be found for Georgia Tech's shallow pitching staff. UCLA looked great while outscoring UC Davis 18-3 in the series' first two games, but they've lost three straight since. Missouri and Rice both floundered, and San Diego and Baylor were merely OK. Even Ole Miss and Cal State Fullerton were significant disappointments, so for lack of a better option, and with the goal of trusting my pre-season instincts, I chose to drop only Missouri from my top eight, and I just rearranged the back of my top five. The notice is out for the schools that made the cut: it's time to put up or shut up.
Weekend Preview: Premier Match-Ups
Friday: Miami at Florida, Chris Hernandez vs. Patrick Keating
By the way, for all of the coverage that Jason Kipnis and Dustin Ackley received for their fantastic first weekends, did anyone notice Yasmani Grandal? The Hurricanes' sophomore catcher was fantastic. In the Friday debut, Grandal went 2-for-3 with a walk and his first home run. In Saturday's doubleheader, he added another home run and three more walks, and he reached base three more times on Sunday, scoring two of Miami's 18 runs in the series-clincher over Rutgers. Six walks and two home runs, and Grandal is again looking like a potential first-rounder a year from now. Can the Hurricanes facilitate the same lemons-to-lemonade transition for freshman Harold Martinez?
Saturday: UCLA vs. Baylor, Gerrit Cole vs. Shawn Tolleson
Sunday: Missouri at Arizona State, Nick Tepesch vs. Seth Blair
Other Series I'd Happily Pay to Attend: I would love to watch both Cal State Fullerton and Ole Miss this weekend-to see the fire in the eyes of both teams players after both lost their first series. Ironically, Ole Miss will face TCU, who took down Fullerton a week ago. The Titans, meanwhile, will face Stanford, who looked awfully good against Vanderbilt at home. There are good pitching matchups across the board there, but none better than Drew Pomeranz going up against sinkerballer Steven Lockwood in the Rebels-Frogs series on Friday.