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March 26, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

College Knowledge

by Bryan Smith

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I'm going to try a new approach today, allowing for more of my favorite type of analysis-diving into box scores to see if I can find something interesting. With that goal in mind, I'm going to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, and we'll see what sticks. When I contemplated the six subplots in college baseball that intrigue me the most, this is what I came up with.

Strasburg Watch

The train kept rolling in San Diego last weekend, even though Stephen Strasburg registered his first non-decision of the season. While the Aztecs came out of their weekend series to BYU on the heels of a 4-2 loss, their ace was hardly at fault, scattering two hits and two walks over seven scoreless innings. Strasburg struck out 15 of the 25 batters he faced, bringing his season total to 74 strikeouts in 131 attempts (56.5 percent). His other outs have been generated by 14 ground-ball outs and 13 fly-ball outs. The two hits allowed are his best showing in that category this season. In total, the eight-figure arm has given up 21 hits so far: 16 singles, four doubles, and one home run (to San Diego redshirt junior Nick McCoy). Here's a non-diagrammed hit chart of what he's allowed:

Infield hits: 3 singles
To right field: 6 singles, 2 doubles
To center lield: 4 singles, 1 double
To left lield: 1 single, 1 double, 1 home run
Through left side: 1 single
Through right side: 1 single

This Week: Strasburg will make his first start out of California, and what promises to be his toughest outing of the season, on the road against Texas Christian. Jim Schlossnagle's nationally ranked program bounced back from a series loss to Minnesota by beating Utah in two of three games to open up Mountain West Conference play. The Horned Frogs are hitting .325/.399/.522 as a team, but will likely only send two left-handed hitters up to face the big right-hander. In an Unfiltered post from a year ago, Schlossnagle put Strasburg on a par with Mark Prior and David Price, saying before his team faced Strasburg last May that, "[t]he big thing when you're facing a good pitcher is you have to be ready to handle failure, because you're going to have a lot of it. You're going to have very limited opportunities to score. Just fight like crazy to put the ball in play."

The Race for Second

As June nears and Strasburg separates himself further from the historical pack, the drop-off between picks one and two has never appeared so vast. The group of names behind Strasburg at the college level is underwhelming, and every week it seems more and more clear that the Seattle Mariners would be best served to choose between prep lefties Tyler Matzek and Matthew Purke with their first-round choice. Still, we're a long way from the draft, and the race to be the second college player selected is very competitive. There appear to be four names in the running at this juncture-North Carolina's Dustin Ackley and Alex White, USC's Grant Green, and Missouri's Kyle Gibson-though any and all comers are being considered. We've been down the roads of Ackley, White, and Green many times before, so this week I'll profile the newest addition to the race.

As Gibson is showing every week, the quickest way onto this list is to show big stuff in difficult environments. Already this season, Missouri has asked its ace to pitch against top 10 teams three different times, including twice on the road. So while his 19 strikeouts and one earned run allowed against Nevada and Ball State is a nice way to show that he can keep his focus, it's the starts against Arizona State, Texas, and Texas A&M that will prove he's ready to an organization drafting in the top five picks. In those three starts, Gibson has pitched a worrisome 25 IP while allowing just five walks, 16 hits, and four earned runs (1.44 ERA). He's also struck out 35 batters, including a career-high 16 against Texas A&M last Friday. The grade on Gibson's fastball, which sits in the low 90s, is still based on projection, but the 6'6" junior is now showing a better feel for his secondary stuff. He's been better than Alex White in every start this season, and it was only about 14 months ago that Gibson had the higher grade. Don't be surprised if he passes White again before June.

Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25: March 19, 2009

 1. Louisiana State
 2. Cal State Fullerton
 3. Texas
 4. North Carolina
 5. Rice
 6. Texas A&M
 7. Baylor
 8. Georgia
 9. Miami
10. Arizona State
11. Georgia Tech
12. UC Irvine
13. TCU
14. Oklahoma
15. Arkansas
16. Ole Miss
17. Cal Poly
18. Oklahoma State
19. Coastal Carolina
20. Pepperdine
21. East Carolina
22. San Diego
23. Clemson
24. College of Charleston
25. UC Riverside

Clemson felt the wrath of the slow change over to results-based rankings, rather than expectations-based, which simultaneously pushed Miami and ASU over Georgia Tech and UC Irvine, and also finally put Rice into the top five. It was a brutal week for our top six teams, with only LSU and Fullerton making it out of the weekend unscathed. I just couldn't drop Texas much further, but the offense must improve, and the road performance has to be better. I'm starting to really like the Oklahoma and Pepperdine programs, and I think if their winning ways continue, it's going to be reflected with big jumps in the top 25. I have the opposite feeling, one of trepidation, in regards to Georgia Tech and Ole Miss. Only one new team made the list this week, which I feel good about-the less fluidity, the more it says about what we're trying to accomplish with these rankings.

The Week's Best (Non-Strasburg Edition)

Team: Kansas. When you beat the nation's best team (Texas) in three straight one-run games, you deserve your 15 minutes. The correlation between bullpen strength and victories in close games was borne out in Lawrence; you can guess which bullpen allowed two runs, and which bullpen allowed zero. The Kansas bullpen allowed just five baserunners in eight innings of work, walking none and striking out six. It's been the key this season for the 14-7 Jayhawks, as their .287/.371/.415 offense puts the onus for victory or defeat almost entirely on the pitching staff. The position players aren't completely without contributions, however, as the sweep would have been impossible without their good play in the field. The team was errorless in the first two wins, and while an error caused an unearned run on Sunday, it didn't come back to hurt them. The Big 12 promises to be a wild ride this season, and though Kansas might not be able to keep their head above water all season, this was a weekend the Committee will come back to in May.

Player: Kyle Roller, DH, East Carolina. There is no hotter slugger in the nation than Roller, who has led the Pirates to eight straight victories, during which the team is averaging 13.8 runs per game. This week, he really turned up the gas, going 15-for-23 (.652) in the team's last five games. He clubbed two doubles and four home runs during that time, and wound up crossing the plate nine times in five games. The 248-pound junior probably doesn't have a lot of professional potential, but if he continues bashing Conference USA pitching like this, he'll have some baseball life after college. There is no better offense in college baseball right now than that of ECU, cumulatively hitting .381/.449/.609, and Roller is at the center of it all. The team goes on the road against Marshall this weekend, so it will be interesting to see if the hot streak continues; in the Pirates only other weekend on the road March 6-8, Roller went just 2-for-10.

Disturbing Pitcher Usage

Wes Musick, LHP, University of Houston
Last season, between March 14 and April 11, Musick made five Friday Night starts for the Houston Cougars. In four of the five, he threw at least 115 pitches, capped off with 126 pitches at the end of that span. The lone exception was a bad start opposite Stephen Strasburg on March 28, and if you need a reminder of the type of prospect that Musick is, Baseball America previewed that start a year ago (http://www.baseballamerica.com/today/college/weekend-preview/2008/265818.html). Since that streak of high pitch counts ended 11 months ago, Musick has pitched 70 innings of Division I baseball. He's allowed 51 earned runs in that time, for a 6.56 ERA (this season, his ERA stands above 7). The message seems clear: overuse hurts young pitchers.

Trust me, this isn't a cautionary tale told in hindsight, there's more to the story. This weekend, Musick had his first good start of the season-that is, the first time that his throwing 100 pitches actually benefited the team. In their Conference USA opener against UAB, Musick struck out 11 over seven innings, allowing just one earned run for his first win of the season. The bad news was that he was allowed to throw 124 pitches. Musick was drafted in the 24th round as a draft-eligible sophomore a year ago, so returning to school was an obvious decision, but if the damage continues, I worry about his draft stock this season, when Musick will really deserve the money. Keep an eye out.

Weekend Matchups

Friday: Arizona State at USC, Mike Leake vs. Brad Boxberger
Any Gerrit Cole start withstanding, this is the premier Pac-10 matchup for West Coast scouts. Throw in the opportunity to get one more report on Trojan position players Grant Green and Robert Stock, and you can bet this game will be highly attended. Boxberger pitched against Cole last weekend, and was a mess, walking eight batters in 5 2/3 innings. He's really beginning to remind me of Ryan Perry-stretched as a starter, but with the athleticism and durability that makes it hard to shunt him off to a career of relief pitching. Still, whether it's in July or in two years, Boxberger's command problems will take him to the bullpen, where I suspect he'll be pretty good. Leake, on the other hand, is more of the starter-or-bust type, with solid stuff, and thriving when he's repeating his delivery and hitting his spots. His 15 strikeouts last weekend is a sign of how far his secondary stuff has come, as well as a red flag about his usage: 33 batters faced is too many (we might not have access to a raw pitch count, but it would be a surprise if it was below 120). For as good as Leake has been of late, he's been overworked, which doesn't bode well for anyone in the end-his May performance with the Sun Devils, his draft stock, or his professional career. It's time to scale it back, Coach Murphy.

Saturday: Oregon vs. Oregon State, Bennett Whitmore vs. Greg Peavey
It's not the strength of this individual pitching matchup that intrigues me, it's that it's the first series between these schools. Oregon State has done so much for college baseball, and gets a new in-state rival now that George Horton agreed to re-start the Oregon program. His job so far has been admirable, a 10-12 record and series wins over Fresno State and Santa Clara. This weekend probably won't be a winner, but with a neutral site in Portland, it will be a chance to win over some fans. Whitmore, a big junior-college transfer, has been brilliant at times this season, as his 27/3 K/BB ratio in 27 innings would suggest. This should overshadow his 5.33 ERA and .313 opponents' batting average-his .465 BABIP will come down at some point. Peavey is slowly getting his career back on track; he was a highly recruited blue-chipper, and he had a career-high seven strikeouts in each of his last two outings, but he's been nothing special. If I had to make a prediction, I think this might be the Ducks' most winnable game.

Sunday: Pepperdine at San Diego, Aaron Gates vs. Matt Thompson
I admit to not knowing much about Gates before the season began-a southpaw freshman that passed up a professional career with the Rockies after being drafted in the 33rd round. The Rockies liked his potential at the plate, and in the small sample size of his offensive performance so far (nine hits, four for extra bases in 26 at-bats), we can see why. The improvements that Gates has made on the mound are tremendous, as he has posted a 1.90 ERA through 23 2/3 innings. Baseball America has likened him to Tim Murphy of UCLA fame, which immediately makes him one of Pepperdine's most valuable players. For Thomson and the Torreros, this series will be the chance to re-establish themselves where they opened this season, as WCC favorites.

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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