Thursday, February 27, 2014

Time For The Wolfpack To Break Out The Bats?

Eight games into the season, NC State is 7-1, ranked No. 6 in the latest Baseball America poll and riding a seven-game winning streak into this weekend’s Notre Dame Irish Classic. The Wolfpack pitching staff has been effective, posting a 2.50 ERA and getting excellent performances from starters and relievers.

So is it too soon to be concerned about the Pack’s spotty offense? Not really. It is a legitimate concern. While State is batting .274 for the year — hardly an imposing number to start with — that figure is skewed by a trio of early-season blowouts. Since a 15-0 rout of North Carolina A&T on Feb. 19, the Wolfpack has batted .250 and slugged .355 in four games.

During those four games, Andrew Knizner (.385 with a .462 slugging percentage and a .467 on-base percentage), Jake Armstrong (.308, .615 slg), Trea Turner (.333, .389 obp) and left fielder Bubby Riley (.313, .438 slg, .389 obp) have carried the Wolfpack. The rest of the lineup was largely AWOL, with occasional cameo appearances, such as Chance Shepard’s grand-slam home run Tuesday vs. Davidson.

For the season, the bottom three spots in the lineup are batting a collective .224 (19-for-85). The bottom third of the order batted just .172 (5-for-29) in last weekend’s series sweep of Appalachian State.

Most distressing has been the lack of offense by the freshmen, who are hitting a collective .271 (19-for-70) for the season. Knizner, currently on a six-game hitting streak, is hitting .414 (12-for-29), meaning the rest of the freshman class checks in at .171 (7-for-41). Knizner has four doubles. The rest of the freshmen have one extra-base hit between them, a double by Kyle "Buchanan" Cavanaugh.

So it’s not too soon to be concerned, but it’s way too soon to panic. The freshmen need patience. The jump from high school senior to college freshman is a quantum leap in this sport, especially when you don’t get regular at-bats. Guys like Shepard, Will Nance and Brian Taylor also have suffered from lack of consistent playing time as head coach Elliott Avent has tried to get a good look at everyone on the roster. That’s partly the nature of early-season games.

There also is reason to expect more from the veterans in the lineup. Turner is hitting .400 for the season, but he’s hardly stung the ball the way he did a year ago before his ankle injury. We all know what he’s capable of producing. Jake Fincher, picking up where he left off last summer when he was a Cape Cod League all-star, is hitting .320 with three doubles and a team-best six steals.

Brett Austin, hitting .276, should benefit greatly from the emergence of back-up catcher John Mangum, meaning Austin won’t have to catch virtually every inning of the season as he did in 2013 when he wore out down the stretch. Austin has no extra-base hits through eight games, but he led the team with 21 doubles a year ago, meaning he’s still getting untracked.

Then there’s Logan Ratledge, off to a miserable start at .148. He began last season by breaking his hand in the season-opening loss to Appalachian State and was hitting .196 as late as May 4. He closed with a rush, batting .346 (9-for-26) in seven games in June, and .293 (29-for-99) the last 30 games of the year. Ratledge doesn’t have a broken hand this time, just a lack of hits other than two singles and two home runs. He would seem to be due for a breakout.

Assuming the offense is going to turn it around, the sooner the better. The Wolfpack will face a talented Michigan squad on Friday, and then square off against defending national champion UCLA on Saturday. Next weekend marks the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play with Notre Dame coming to the Doak. The following week, State heads to Tallahassee to play second-ranked Florida State, which is never an easy assignment. It would be nice to break out the bats by then.

• Double-Figure Hits: There is some good offensive news. The Pack banged out 11 hits against Davidson after managing six, seven and seven in the three games in the weekend series vs. Appalachian State. State hitters have reached double figures in hits in four of eight games. By comparison, last year's team had double-figure hits in 32 of 66 games.

• Batting Around: The Wolfpack's five-run fourth inning Feb. 25 vs. Davidson marked the fifth time this season that State batted around in an inning and the first since a four-run sixth inning Feb. 19 vs. N.C. A&T. That was the second bat-around inning against the Aggies. The Pack sent 13 men to the plate in the fifth inning of that game and scored eight runs. In the two innings vs. A&T, State sent 23 batters to the plate, with 17 of them reaching base safely. Two reached on errors, six drew walks, and two were hit by pitches.

NC State Batting Around In An Inning
Date - Inning and Opponent (batters, runs)
2/17 - 3rd inning vs. Canisius (10 batters, 5 runs)
2/18 - 1st inning vs. Elon (9 batters, 4 runs)
2/19 - 5th inning vs. N.C. A&T (13 batters, 8 runs)
2/19 - 6th inning vs. N.C. A&T (10 batters, 4 runs)
2/25 - 4th inning vs. Davidson (10 batters, 5 runs)

• February Man: Trea Turner continues to hit in February. Turner extended his season-opening hitting streak to eight games with a 2-for-5 performance against Davidson. Turner hit a seventh-inning double, his first extra-base hit of the season. Turner now is hitting .438 (39-for-89) in 24 February games for his career. He's hit safely in 23 of the 24 games, and currently carries a February hitting streak of 17 games into Friday's game vs. Michigan. Since Turner is generally considered a certain high draft pick in the 2014 MLB draft, Friday's game vs. Michigan figures to be the last February game of his college career.

• Season-Opening Hitting Streak: Trea Turner has batted safely in all eight games thus far this season. That ties him for the 10th longest season-opening hitting streak by an NC State hitter since 1999, but the third longest in the BBCOR bat era, which began in 2011. The longest hitting streak to open a season since '99 was a 17-game streak by Dallas Poulk in 2007, his freshman campaign. Dallas batted .459 (34-for-74) during his streak.

In 2010, five Wolfpack hitters began the season with hitting streaks of 10 games or more, led by Drew Poulk, Dallas's cousin. Drew hit in the first 16 games that year, the second longest streak to open a season since 1999. Drew batted .366 (26-for-71) during his streak. Kyle Wilson (14 games), Chris Schaeffer (11), Danny Canela (10) and Pratt Maynard (10) also began the season with hitting streaks of at least 10 games.

Since the BBCOR bat era began in 2011, the longest season-opening hitting streak was 14 games, by Chris Diaz in 2012. Diaz batted .433 (26-for-60) and drove in 20 runs during his streak, en route to All-America honors that year. Turner hit safely in the first 12 games a year ago and hit a ton during his streak, batting .510 (25-for-49) with five doubles, two triples, four homers and 16 RBIs.

Season-Opening Hitting Streaks (as of 2/25/2014)
#  Name (Year), Avg (H-for-AB), 2B-3B-HR, RBIs
17 Dallas Poulk (2007), .459 (34-for-74), 3-3-1, 9
16 Drew Poulk (2010), .366 (26-for-71), 6-0-3, 20
14 Chris Diaz (2012), .433 (26-for-60), 6-0-1, 20
14 Kyle Wilson (2010), .455 (25-for-55), 4-0-1, 12
12 Trea Turner (2013), .510 (25-for-49), 5-2-4, 16
11 Chris Schaeffer (2010), .486 (18-for-37), 4-0-3, 13
10 Danny Canela (2010), .386 (17-for-44), 4-0-1, 9
10 Pratt Maynard (2010), .455 (20-for-44), 3-1-2, 13
 9 Mike Roskopf (2007), .345 (10-for-29), 1-0-3, 8
 8 David Hicks (2004), .379 (11-for-29), 3-0-3, 7
 8 Matt Camp (2006), .417 (15-for-36), 4-1-0, 6
 8 Trea Turner (current), .400 (12-for-30), 1-0-0, 4

• On The Other Hand: While the offense is off to a sluggish start, the pitching has been mostly excellent. The staff allowed just six runs, four of them earned, on 12 hits in 27 innings during the Appalachian State series (1.33 ERA), striking out 33, walking six, and holding Mountaineer batters to a .133 average, a .196 on-base percentage and a .178 slugging percentage.

The Wolfpack's starters are 4-1 with a 2.80 ERA in 45 innings. The starters are averaging 5 2/3 innings per start and are holding opposing hitters to a .196 average. Starting pitchers Carlos Rodon, Logan Jernigan and Brad Stone were 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA against the Mountaineers. Patrick Peterson got roughed up by Davidson for four earned runs in four-plus innings on Tuesday, but at 1-0 with a 3.72 ERA he’s hardly a cause for alarm. Peterson may have thrown too many strikes against the Wildcats, who were aggressive early in the count and tagged him for an uncharacteristic seven hits, three on first pitches and one more on a second pitch.

The bullpen has been even better than the starters, easing preseason concerns about the losses of Grant Sasser, Chris Overman and Josh Easley from last year's pen. The 2014 bullpen is 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA and three saves in as many chances. The pen was 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA and a pair of saves against Appalachian State, and Andrew Woeck and Jon Olczak combined for five shutout innings against Davidson. For the season, Wolfpack relievers have allowed 13 hits, walked 11 and struck out 37 in 27 innings. Opposing hitters are batting just .146 against the Wolfpack bullpen. Woeck, Olczak and Eric Peterson have combined to work 17 2/3 innings in relief, allowing just one run on six hits while fanning 20.

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