Monday, March 3, 2014

More About That Struggling Wolfpack Offense

A week ago, we pondered whether it was too soon to worry about NC State's lack of hitting. We concluded that it was not too early to be concerned, but too soon to panic.

A few days later, at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, UCLA's Grant Watson shut the Wolfpack down, tossing eight sterling innings and allowing just three hits and a walk. He did not allow a leadoff hitter to reach base, and didn't allow a runner to reach scoring position after the third inning. He allowed just one hit over the last 5 1/3 innings he pitched.

Make no mistake, as good as Watson was — and he was excellent — the State hitters aided and abetted his cause, further illuminating the task facing the Wolfpack coaching staff in getting this offense untracked. In the BBCOR bat era, few teams can play Gorilla Ball. Those days are thankfully gone. Guys like San Diego's Kris Bryant, who hit a staggering 31 homers a year ago, are complete freaks. There is no one on the NC State roster who will ever be mistaken for Kris Bryant. No Wolfpack player in the last 10 years has hit 31 homers in his career, let alone in a single season. It's hard to envision anyone on this team hitting 31 bombs, especially with these dead bats.

Therefore, the sooner NC State can master at least some semblance of the little game, the better off it will be. That means having an approach at the plate. It mean understanding the situation — the ball-strike count, how many outs there are, how the defense is positioned, how the pitcher is attacking hitters, recognizing and anticipating pitches.

Playing the little game means getting leadoff hitters on base, whatever way possible. It means moving runners, hitting behind runners, bunting, putting runners in motion to put pressure on the defense, stealing bases. Playing the little game DOES NOT MEAN looking for a pitch to whack and then swinging from your ass. This is not to accuse any of the current State players of swinging for the downs, but their approach has been no less ineffective.

The BBCOR bats have changed the game of college baseball in a most fundamental way, shifting the dynamic of the pitcher-batter confrontation decidedly in favor of the pitcher. Good pitching always beat good hitting. Now, good pitching dominates good hitting. Teams that adapt to that will be successful. UCLA, coached by one of the best pitching coaches in the country in John Savage, won the national championship last year playing a style of baseball perfectly tailored to the BBCOR bats.

NC State's roster also appears suited for this brand of low-wattage offense. Built around the speed of Trea Turner, Jake Fincher and Brett Austin, the Wolfpack clearly was constructed for the dead-bat era. State advanced all the way to the College World Series a year ago with the same offensive nucleus. The Pack hit 29 home runs in 66 games in 2013, and hit nine of them in one doubleheader against La Salle. There's no reason to believe that this team can't achieve the same level of success without a gaudy slugging percentage.

That's why it's way too soon to panic. Even operating at maximum efficiency, this offense won't be that much different from what we're seeing now. What's missing is not punch, but execution. This team will never do many of the big things offensively, especially with these bats. This team cannot survive, however, unless it does the little things, all of them. And it's definitely not too soon to be concerned about that.

A Few Words About Pitching
Before we move on to notes, we should give a tip of the cap to Watson for his deftly executed dissection of the State lineup. He attacked both sides of the plate with two-seam fastballs, showed a solid curveball, and tied up hitters with a deceptive changeup that he threw for strikes in hitter’s counts. Most important, he worked ahead in the count all day.

It should be duly noted that Watson's fastball sat in the 86-88 mph range. This point was made most derisively on Sunday by someone with ties to the NC State baseball staff, someone who should know better. Radar-gun readings have little, if anything, to do with a pitcher's effectiveness. This is especially true in college baseball, and even more so with the BBCOR bats. It helps to throw hard, yes, but it helps more to throw strikes.

Here's a tale of two former NC State pitchers. Vern Sterry pitched for the Wolfpack in 2003 and 2004. In two years with the Pack, he went 20-2 with a 2.73 ERA, including a perfect 11-0 mark in 2003. His fastball generally sat at 86-87 mph. He complemented it with a major league caliber changeup. He pounded the strike zone, averaging one walk every four innings. Sterry almost always pitched ahead in the count and hitters rarely made solid contact.

Nate Karns, recently traded from the Washington Nationals to the Tampa Bay Rays, was 3-2 with a 2.67 ERA for NC State in 2007, very good but highly deceptive numbers. Karns consistently generated radar-gun readings in the mid-90s, but constantly pitched behind in the count. He walked six men per nine innings. Frequently, sometimes two or three times in an inning, he bounced fastballs 10 feet or more in front of home plate. He averaged a wild pitch every five innings. He was a mess.

Who would you rather have, Sterry or Karns? Well, today you'd rather have Karns, who has a very promising future with the Rays. In their college days, however, you'd take Sterry, a first-team All-American, every time. Karns, who drove his head coach stark raving mad, eventually figured it out in pro ball, where the manager wasn't paid to win games but to develop players.

Nothing against Nate Karns, who was a super nice guy when he was here, but he is exactly the kind of pitcher that recruiting coordinators invariably fall in love with for all the wrong reasons. Coaches should leave the radar gun at home when they go recruiting. If a coach can't tell with his naked eye when a pitcher is beating hitters with his fastball, then he's in the wrong business. All that radar gun will do is make him fall in love with a Nate Karns and pass on a Vern Sterry or a Grant Watson.

The key to pitching is not miles per hour. It's throwing strike one. It's throwing an offspeed pitch for a strike in a fastball count. This is especially true with the BBCOR bats. So given the choice between someone who throws 95 and can't throw strikes and someone who throws 86-88 and carves up hitters, you should take 86-88 every time.

Clearly you'd rather have someone who can do both, who can throw in the mid-90s and carve up the strike zone. NC State has that guy. His name is Carlos Rodon. He's a once-in-a-generation pitcher. Everyone else needs to learn how to pitch.

• The RPI? Don’t Ask. Yet: There’s a good reason the NCAA doesn’t release its ratings performance index until about six weeks into the season. The early-season results just aren’t significant enough to be believed, so it’s best just to ignore them. With that said, we couldn’t help but take a peek.

According to the Warren Nolan simulated RPI through games of March 2, the No. 1 team in the RPI is South Carolina, fresh off a sweep this past weekend of a much-improved Clemson squad. No surprise with the Gamecocks at the top of the heap. The remainder of the RPI, however, has a few surprises. How does Columbia at No. 2 sound? Or Memphis at No. 4? How about Dartmouth at No. 5, Oakland at No. 8, Cal Poly at No. 9, and that perennial powerhouse Holy Cross at No. 10?

And where is NC State in the RPI? The Wolfpack is No. 93, fighting with the likes of Abilene Christian, Presbyterian, Arkansas State and Belmont for a spot in the coveted Top 90.

The reason the Pack finds itself walking the streets of the low-rent district is a surprisingly poor strength of schedule. When head coach Elliott Avent made up the 2014 schedule, he did so with the idea of making the non-conference slate tougher this season. By season’s end that should be the reality, but not after the first three weekends.

Things have not gone according to plan, that is certain. A season-opening series at UC-Santa Barbara never happened because snow grounded the Wolfpack before it could board a flight for the West Coast. Appalachian State, with a young but experienced team returning, over-scheduled and is 1-10 after a brutal opening three weeks. Youngstown State, in town over the weekend as part of the Notre Dame Irish Classic, is 1-7.

Michigan got off to a terrible start and is 2-8. By comparison, Davidson is respectable 3-5, and North Carolina A&T, a member of the RPI-killing MEAC, is 6-3. Do not be fooled by the Aggies.

On the other hand, Canisius, a 2013 NCAA regional team brought to town when the UCSB trip was scuttled, is 6-3 after a 2-4 start. Elon, one of the perennial favorites in the Southern Conference, is 8-3. And of course, UCLA, the defending national champions and participants in the last four College World Series, is 7-4 despite a rash of early-season injuries.

• Knizner’s Nine-Game Hitting Streak: Not only is freshman third baseman Andrew Knizner leading the Wolfpack with a .400 batting average through 11 games, he also has a nine-game hitting streak heading into Wednesday’s action vs. North Carolina A&T. During his streak, Knizner is batting .441 (14-for-34) with four doubles, a home run and seven RBIs. He’s had multiple hits in five of the nine games, including a career-best three-hit game Sunday vs. Youngstown State.

Knizner’s streak is the longest by an NC State player this season, and the longest by a State freshman since Trea Turner and Brett Austin had hitting streaks of 13 and 11 games, respectively, in 2012. Turner batted .527 (29-for-55) with four doubles, a triple, two homers, 19 runs scored, 16 RBIs and 12 steals during his streak two years ago. Austin batted .381 (16-for-42) with three doubles and eight RBIs.

The school record for longest hitting streak by a freshman was Dallas Poulk’s 17-game streak to end the 2007 season. Poulk finished ’07 with a flourish, batting .459 (34-for-74) with three doubles, three triples, a homer, 13 runs scored and nine RBIs.

• The Other Freshman In The Lineup: While Knizner has gotten most of the attention among the Wolfpack’s freshmen, big Matt Cavanaugh, all 6-5 and 210 pounds of him, is hitting .409 in limited action and has battled his way into the starting lineup. Cavanaugh comes into the N.C. A&T game riding a modest four-game hitting streak, batting .455 (5-for-11) with three RBIs during the streak. He has hit safely in seven of the eight games in which he has appeared and is batting .409 (9-for-22) for the season.

• Early-Season Whitewashings: UCLA’s 2-0 shutout of NC State marked the second time in the first 10 games of the season that the Wolfpack was shut out. The last time that happened was 1986, when Western Carolina and The Citadel each hung 1-0 blankings on the Pack. The Catamounts shut out State in the third game of the season. The Bulldogs turned the trick in the fifth game.

• Staff Dominance: Through 11 games, NC State’s pitching staff sports a 2.02 ERA in 98 innings. Wolfpack pitchers have allowed 63 hits, struck out 95 and walked 33. The starting pitchers are 6-2 with a 2.10 ERA. In 64 ⅓ innings, the starters have allowed 42 hits, struck out 55 and walked 19, holding opposing hitters to a .187 batting average.

The real story, however, is the bullpen, which was something of an unknown coming into the season. Head coach Elliott Avent has gone to his bullpen 21 times, and the relief corps has responded with a 3-0 record, a 1.87 ERA and four saves in as many opportunities. Wolfpack relievers have allowed 21 hits, struck out 40 and walked 14 in 33 ⅔ innings. Opponents are batting .179 against NC State relievers. Three State relievers have notched wins, three have recorded saves, and six have an ERA of 2.08 or better.

• How Many Runs Equal Victory? One indication of the strength of the NC State pitching staff has been the ability to win games even with minimal run support. When the offense scores at least three runs, the Wolfpack is 9-0. The pitching staff allowed just five runs in the team’s two losses, but the offense failed to score in either game.

• Jernigan On A Roll: At 2-0 with a 1.04 ERA through three starts, it’s safe to say that junior righthander Logan Jernigan is smoking hot. In his last two starts, in fact, Jernigan is 2-0 and has allowed just six hits in 13 ⅓ shutout innings. He has a scoreless-innings streak of 14 ⅓ innings, dating back to his first appearance of the season.

Much of Jernigan’s success can be attributed to how well he locks in with runners on base. Thus far in 2014, opposing hitters are 1-for-21 with runners on base against Jernigan, including 0-for-13 in his last two starts. His last start, a 3-0 combined shutout of Michigan, Jernigan used just 77 pitches to throw 7 ⅓ innings, by far the most efficient start of his career.

• Pitching From The Stretch: Jernigan is not the only Wolfpack pitcher who is performing masterfully with runners on base. Opponents are hitting just .171 (24-for-170) against the staff as a whole with runners on base. Jernigan leads the staff with his 1-for-21 (.048) lockdown, but Brad Stone has allowed a .087 average (2-for-23) with runners on base. Rodon is allowing just a .156 average (5-for-32) with runners aboard.

Among relievers, righthander Eric Peterson has allowed one hit in eight at-bats (.125) with runners on base, and freshman righthander Joe O’Donnell and senior lefty D.J. Thomas have allowed one hit in seven at-bats (.143) each.

• Stingy With Two Outs: Most people are surprised to learn that most runs in baseball score with two outs, but it only makes sense. Barring a home run by the offense, one or two outs usually occur in the time it takes to string together the two or three hits needed to mount a rally and put runs on the board. One reason why NC State’s ERA is a stingy 2.02 is the Pack’s dominance with two outs. Opponents are batting just .136 against State with two away. They’re 4-for-20 against Logan Jernigan, 3-for-17 against Brad Stone, and 1-for-18 against Carlos Rodon.

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