Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In Praise Of Offensive Linemen

We have now reached the point in the college baseball season where we can ask in all sincerity, what the hell has happened to NC State this year?

The Wolfpack entered the season as a consensus top 10 team and one of the favorites to get to the College World Series. Seven weeks later, NC State is in serious danger of missing the 2014 postseason altogether, and that’s not just the NCAA Tournament. If the season ended today, the Wolfpack would not qualify for the 10-team Atlantic Coast Conference Championship.

How did we get from there to here in seven short weeks? Well, it took longer than seven weeks. This team’s fate was first put in peril when last season ended and three key relief pitchers graduated with no replacements anywhere in sight. Few saw it coming, but it was there in plain sight for anyone who cared to look. Few even bothered.

Let’s be honest here. Relievers are a lot like offensive linemen. They’re absolutely essential, but few people understand just how vital they are until they’re gone. Then they figure it out in a hurry. NC State’s bullpen was the No. 1 reason the Wolfpack got to Omaha last year. That bullpen was more important than Carlos Rodon, more important than Trea Turner, more important than any other single player or group of players on the team.

Wolfpack relievers went 31-5 with a 2.57 ERA and 19 saves a year ago. Head coach Elliott Avent called on his pen 203 times, and his relievers responded by allowing 238 hits and 119 walks while striking out 279 in 315 innings. They held opposing hitters to a .210 average.

More to the point, NC State tried hard to bury itself early last year, jumping to a 3-6 start in the conference (sound familiar?) and 16-9 overall. Over the final 41 games of the year, the bullpen kept the ship from sinking, posting a 20-2 record with a 2.24 ERA and 13 saves. Nine different relievers won games and four recorded saves during that time.

In particular, the trio of Grant Sasser, Chris Overman and Josh Easley — all seniors — combined to make 51 appearances and pitch 78 innings in those final 41 games. They went 9-2 with 11 saves and a 1.04 ERA. They allowed 52 hits and 22 walks (a remarkable 0.9 runners per inning) while striking out 78. They inherited 57 baserunners between them and stranded 40.

For the season, Easley, Overman and Sasser were a combined 11-3 with 15 saves and a 0.96 ERA in 77 appearances and 112 ⅓ innings. They were the team’s tri-MVPs, by a wide margin. They were bulletproof.

As the 2014 season approached, the typical Wolfpack fan may have paid lip service to last year’s bullpen, but most figured that with All-America lefthander Carlos Rodon returning, the pitching staff would be fine. Well, Rodon pitched 132 ⅓ innings a year ago. The rest of the staff pitched nearly 500. The bullpen pitched 315. Where are those innings going to come from?

Great question.

So far, the 2014 bullpen is 5-3 with a 3.22 ERA. The top three pitchers in that pen — Andrew Woeck, D.J. Thomas and Eric Peterson — are a combined 5-2 with a 1.88 ERA and three saves in 25 appearances covering 57 ⅓ innings. Woeck has been a warrior, posting a 3-0 record and a 1.88 ERA in eight appearances, while Thomas is 1-0 and 1.88 in eight games out of the pen. The rest of the bullpen, however, is 0-1 with a 4.93 ERA and two saves in 25 appearances and 45 ⅔ innings. Clearly, things have changed.

The point here is not to bury the 2014 bullpen. The point is that last year’s bullpen may have been the best in school history, and the most important members of that pen are gone and have not been replaced. And that explains much, but not all, that ails this team.

Whatever Happened To The Running Game?
Two years ago, NC State stole 102 bases, shattering the old mark of 90, set back in 1990. Trea Turner, then a freshman third baseman, blew apart the school single-season record with 57 steals in 63 attempts. The Pack broke its own record in 2013, swiping 110 bags.

The Pack combined to post a 90-36 record the last two years, in large part because of its prowess on the basepaths. As the current season nears the midpoint, NC State has stolen 28 bases in 36 attempts. Turner leads the club with eight in 10 attempts. Turner stole eight bases in one three-game series at Clemson two years ago.

So what gives? For more than a month now, the Wolfpack has tried to win by playing station-to-station baseball, a formula that works great with a lineup full of sluggers wielding the bats used in college baseball prior to the BBCOR bat era began in 2011. Since stealing four bases in five attempts in a 7-5 victory Feb. 25 over Davidson, NC State has attempted just 11 steals in 18 games, succeeding just seven times. Not surprisingly, the Pack went 8-10 in those 18 games.

In those 18 games, Turner has one stolen base. Ditto for Brett Austin. Jake Fincher has just two. Logan Ratledge has just two steals all season, none since a 15-0 blowout of N.C. A&T on Feb. 19, the fourth game of the season. Those four guys combined to steal 68 bases in 91 attempts a year ago. They stole 80 in 96 attempts as freshmen in 2012. So far this season, they’re 21 of 24, and the team as a whole is 28 of 36.

In 2012 and 2013, NC State disrupted defenses, distracted pitchers and terrified opposing catchers because of its speed, not its power. The only true power hitter from those two clubs — Ryan Mathews hit 17 homers in 2012 — is long gone. Turner, Austin, Fincher and Ratledge have a combined eight home runs so far, less than half as many as Mathews hit in 2012. The team has a .356 slugging percentage and 48 extra-base hits in 28 games. Waiting around for Dr. Longball doesn’t seem much like a formula for success, especially on a team with this much speed. Maybe it’s time to start running again.

From Overconfident To A Crisis Of Confidence?
This one can’t be backed up statistically and no one can be certain of it, but there seems to be ample evidence to believe this team went into the season thinking that getting back to the College World Series would be easier than getting there the first time.

Several players made no bones about their belief that not getting back to Omaha would make the season a failure. Even head coach Elliott Avent fanned those flames a bit. At the team’s preseason presser at the Backyard Bistro, Avent made several overly enthusiastic statements about the team’s chances, none more provocative than this one:

“I think when we get to the end of the season, if we can survive, I think you’ll see a team that’s ready to go to Omaha. And who knows? I don’t like to predict things, and this isn’t a prediction, but if we get there, there could be a parade in Raleigh sometime in July.”

Okay, it wasn’t a prediction, but it might as well have been, given the setting and the general context. It was certainly a cringe-worthy moment, one that would probably make Lou Holtz blush. And those comments had to have had a ripple effect on the team. Players take their cue from their head coach. If the coach is talking about the victory parade, well, why not us?

So when the Wolfpack jumped to a 14-2 record heading into that showdown series in Tallahassee, only to get blindsided by the Seminoles juggernaut, team confidence had to take a serious jolt since no one apparently saw it coming.

Nine losses in 10 games later, this is a team that needs for something good to happen, to restore some badly shaken confidence.

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