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June 22, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

College World Series Championship Preview

by Bryan Smith

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It's been four and a half months since I returned to BP to cover the 2009 college baseball season, but we're set to finish the year where we began, with LSU and Texas atop the rankings. I'd love to brag that I saw this final coming all along, but to be honest, I had an inkling about Cal State Fullerton before the season began, and I picked Arizona State to win just ten days ago. The Tigers and Longhorns have always seemed like the best teams, but the best two teams reaching the finale of the season is a rarity in college baseball (cue highlights of Cinderella-story Fresno State one year ago).

It only seems right to take a cue from Baseball Prospectus' history with the start of tonight's College World Series championship, and go with the time-tested format usually reserved for Playoff Prospectus.

Lineups


LSU Tigers                  AVG/ OBP/ SLG
2B-R D.J. LeMahieu         .347/.415/.462
LF-L Ryan Schimpf          .344/.458/.680
DH-L Blake Dean            .335/.434/.613
C -S Micah Gibbs           .292/.402/.460
CF-R Mikie Mahtook         .326/.390/.514
RF-L Jared Mitchell        .329/.474/.573
1B-R Sean Ochinko          .323/.379/.496
3B-R Derek Helenihi        .284/.349/.453
SS-R Austin Nola           .243/.361/.369

Texas Longhorns             AVG/ OBP/ SLG
3B-L Michael Torres        .299/.358/.424
2B-R Travis Tucker         .296/.388/.379
1B-L Brandon Belt          .333/.433/.545
DH-L Russell Moldenhauer   .233/.387/.342
RF-R Kevin Keyes           .308/.408/.507
SS-R Brandon Loy           .295/.380/.336
C -R Cameron Rupp          .293/.382/.512
LF-R Preston Clark         .272/.360/.397
CF-S Connor Rowe           .279/.332/.448

While Texas plays in a notorious pitcher's park (park factor of 86 from 2005-2008, according to BoydsWorld.com) and the Tigers' new stadium has played hitter-friendly, it's still no stretch to call Louisiana State the more offense-oriented team. LSU outscored Texas by a total of 166 runs up to this point; they have three more players with 10 or more home runs than the Longhorns, and three more with a .400 on-base percentage. The offensive disparity has held true in the postseason, with LSU averaging 2.6 more runs per game in the NCAA Tournament.

There really isn't much that the Tigers' offense does not do well, as they walk, steal bases, and hit for more power than Texas. The season's turnaround began when Blake Dean turned on the gas in May, as well as when Mikie Mahtook joined the everyday lineup. If there are any weaknesses in this Tigers team, it's a propensity to strike out, as they did so 2.2 percent more often than Texas this year. Chicago White Sox first-round pick Jared Mitchell is notorious for his swings and misses, and Helenihi, Mahtook, and Gibbs don't do much better. Contact will certainly be key against such a great opposing pitching staff.

As the broadcast crew has often commented during the College World Series, Texas has an offense built by the old-school, station-to-station mentality. Longhorns coach Augie Garrido has won championships with all sorts of teams, powerful and not, but he seems most comfortable flashing the sacrifice bunt sign. You'll see it used often against LSU, and your most likely candidate for the player taking that call is freshman Brandon Loy. The shortstop laid down 25 sacrifice bunts in 64 games, but it seems counterproductive to throw a guaranteed out in front of the team's home-run leader, sophomore catcher Cameron Rupp. The keys for Texas will be the oft-injured duo of Moldenhauer and Clark, as their successes predicated the team's pre-season #2 ranking.

Benches

LSU: Leon Landry, Chris McGhee, Buzzy Haydel, Nick Pontiff, Tyler Hanover

Texas: Tant Shephard, Kevin Lusson, Kyle Lusson, Tim Maitland, David Hernandez

The rub of adding Mikie Mahtook to the everyday lineup was that the Tigers had to put sophomore Leon Landry on their bench. If only Texas had such a luxury; Landry's 12 home runs in 166 at-bats would have led their team. Between Landry and Hanover, you have two players that started 94 games this spring. Landry is a perfect double-switch candidate, as he's got power as well as all-world defensive abilities in the outfield.

The Texas answer as far as fourth outfielders go is Tant Shephard, who started 47 games this spring as Clark and Moldenhauer battled injuries. After a nice freshman season, he slumped as a sophomore, but he gives Augie at least some hope for pop off the bench. The rest of the Longhorns' bench crew, by contrast, combined for zero home runs on the spring, so if they see the plate, it will probably in a bunt-related scenario.

Three-Game Rotations


Louisiana State         IP     ERA     K/BB
RHP Louis Coleman     121.0   2.68   132/22
RHP Anthony Ranaudo   119.0   2.87   155/45
RHP Austin Ross        81.1   5.09    76/21

Texas                  IP      ERA     K/BB
RHP Chance Ruffin     118.1   3.27   104/24
RHP Cole Green        108.1   3.07    84/34
RHP Brandon Workman    70.1   3.45    78/25
RHP Taylor Jungmann    85.2   2.10    92/32

Both of these teams have started just two guys in Omaha, and both Ranaudo and Green are likely to make their third starts (on short rest) in the second game of this championship series. It's clear that the Tigers are hoping to make quick work of Texas, because if we go to a do-or-die third game, the combination of Workman and Jungmann (and I'm guessing Augie will pick the red-hot freshman Taylor Jungmann if push comes to shove) is head and shoulders above fringy sinker/slider right-hander Austin Ross.

The matchup in the first game will be interesting, as the hitters on both sides will see their fair share of strikes. Coleman is a right-hander with a lower arm angle who profiles well as a middle reliever someday. He has been one of LSU's undeniable MVPs this season, taking over the gutsy starter/closer/whatever-you-need role vacated by Jared Bradford a year ago. Ruffin went from having as dominant a freshman season-going 8-3 with a 1.96 ERA in 2008-by backing it up as a sophomore, reaching the 10-win plateau by working a lot of innings and not walking anybody. If there's an advantage for LSU, it's that Ruffin is the most hittable starter we'll see in this championship series.

The second game also favors LSU, as Ranaudo blossomed as a sophomore and could be living up to his title as the best pitching recruit the program has ever seen. While Workman entered the season as one of the most likely 2010 first-rounders in the nation, Ranaudo has passed him on most 12-month early draft boards. Green is, by contrast, sort of like Louis Coleman, a do-everything sinker/slider guy who will be death on the right-handed hitters in the LSU lineup. He's allowed just five runs in 13 innings in Omaha, so he'll be tough.

Bullpens

LSU: Matty Ott (closer), Paul Bertuccini, Daniel Bradshaw, Nolan Cain, Ryan Byrd

Texas: Austin Wood (closer), Jungmann, Workman, Austin Dicharry, Stayton Thomas

There have certainly been times this season that Texas has seemed like destiny's team, and somehow Wood has been around every game. Whether it's throwing 169 pitches in a 25-inning marathon or just coming in to face the opposing team's most dangerous lefty, Wood has accomplished everything thrown at him this postseason. By contrast, LSU closer Matty Ott has made some headlines of his own with a 66/5 K/BB ratio this spring in 47 1/3 innings.

If the advantage in depth goes to the Tigers, who have another two or three players that Paul Mainieri won't be afraid to use, Texas has the obvious advantage in terms of stuff. Jungmann has really taken to his long relief role, and Dicharry is another freshman right-hander with fantastic stuff. To think that this entire pitching staff, other than Austin Wood, will be returning next season gives hope that the Longhorns will be back in this spot in 2010.

Defense

In terms of Defensive Efficiency, this isn't particularly close, as Texas can thank their defense for their nation-leading 2.88 ERA as much as they can their solid pitching staff. While Louisiana State's Defensive Efficiency improved when I updated their numbers, Texas is still turning 69.2 percent of balls in play into outs, while LSU stands at 64.8 percent. This is because while LSU has done everything they can to maximize their offensive output-like taking Landry out of their lineup for Mahtook-Texas has stayed with an infield that hasn't hit home runs. Tucker and Torres really have no business being on the team offensively, but they are making all the plays in the infield. I think this methodology is probably why Paul Mainieri started putting Austin Nola into his everyday lineup, but what we thought could be one of the nation's all-time best defensive outfields to start the season (with Landry flanked by two football players in Jared Mitchell and Chad Jones) has evolved into something far more average.

Coaches

I certainly don't think there's an advantage one way or the other here, as Augie Garrido and Paul Mainieri are on the short list of America's best college baseball coaches. Garrido's influence has been tangible so far in Omaha, as much has been made of the effect that a dugout meeting had on the Longhorns when they were losing 6-0 to Arizona State in the team's second game in Omaha (which Texas ended up winning 10-6). With 1,700 wins and five national titles, Garrido certainly knows how to push every possible button.

Mainieri, meanwhile, will cross the 1,000-win threshhold next season, and what he's done to reinvigorate the Louisiana State program is something else. When he came south to Baton Rouge after building up the Notre Dame program in South Bend, he arrived with a rap sheet of disciples and good words. There's not a nicer coach in college baseball, and as such, there are few coaches that get more from their players.

Prediction

I feel as if I'm picking against fate by not choosing Texas, who seem to have turned every game into a story, and who have finally started to hit home runs. Texas has already played four one-run games in the postseason, and with two dramatic home runs to come back against Arizona State on Friday, are finding some power in their clutch play. But the percentage pick is LSU, whose last loss was a 4-1 first-rounder against Mike Minor in the SEC Tournament opener on May 20, and who have been averaging nine runs per game in this post-season tournament. I see the Tigers getting to Ruffin in the series opener, and then Anthony Ranaudo making it a two-game affair by winning game two.

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

Related Content:  A's,  Jared Mitchell,  Blake Wood,  The Who,  Brandon Loy,  Texas,  Will Clark

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