Thursday, April 23, 2015

Regarding Logan Ratledge, One-Run Losses And More

Logan Ratledge enters this weekend’s key Atlantic Coast Conference series vs. Virginia riding a 21-game hitting streak, which is tied for the third longest hitting streak in NC State history, behind only Greg Briley’s 26-game streak in 1986 and Tom Sergio’s 25-gamer in 1995. Ryan Matthews in 2012 and Brian Wright in 1999 also had 21-game hitting streaks for NC State. That’s the rather exclusive neighborhood Ratledge is living in right now.

Ratledge has been blazing hot during his hitting streak, batting .437 (38-for-87) with 12 doubles, a triple, two home runs, 21 runs scored, 10 RBIs and four steals in five attempts. He had two or more hits in 12 of the 21 games, including three three-hit games and Tuesday night’s 4-for-5 performance at East Carolina. During the hitting streak, he has increased his batting average from .312 to its current .384.

The streak began with a 2-for-4 outing March 18 at UNC Greensboro, and aside from a 1-for-6 game in 14 innings last weekend at Notre Dame — the one hit came in the 12th inning — Ratledge has avoided any suspenseful late-inning at-bats with the hitting streak on the line. In 10 of the 21 games, he hit safely in the first inning. In 15 of the 21 he hit safely by the third. The 14-inning affair at Notre Dame was the only game during the streak in which Ratledge did not have a hit by the sixth inning. He has taken care of business early, which has allowed him to pile up the hits. Barring an unexpected extension of the season, however, Ratledge will only be able to pile the hits so high.

With just 13 games left on the 2015 schedule, time is running out for Ratledge and the Wolfpack. NC State has lost five games to bad weather, and while the coaches are no doubt looking everywhere to add games, it’s difficult this time of year. Teams looking to add games late in the season seldom look to add games they might lose. And the teams they do want to play (in other words, bad teams) have no incentive whatsoever to extend what for them is an already miserable season.

The only other chance for the Wolfpack to extend its season is to finish strong, make the field of 10 for the ACC Championship in late May and make some noise there, and then hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in June. Based on recent play, the former looks possible but not without a lot of work between now and then. The latter, while still attainable, looks like a distant long shot at best.

And that’s too bad because Ratledge is having a phenomenal season that deserves to live on past mid-May, even if NC State’s season does not. Assuming the Wolfpack only plays the 13 games currently remaining on the schedule, Ratledge is on pace to finish with 78 hits, 50 runs, 20 doubles, seven home runs, 30 walks and 11 stolen bases. That’s an excellent season, but those numbers will hardly make a ripple in the school record book, and nothing could be more misleading. Extend those numbers another 10 games or so and future NC State fans might be able to look back and realize just what a great 2015 season Logan Ratledge actually had.

One-Run Futility: The statheads of the world will tell you that a team’s record in one-run games is more or less meaningless, determined as much by luck and other random factors as by anything quantifiable. It is without question the height of ego and vanity that stat geeks write off anything and everything they can’t explain as a matter of random happenstance — “If we can’t explain it, then it doesn’t exist” is the common mantra — but in this case they seem to be on to something.

The fact of the matter is that a team’s record in one-run games often explains very little and is nearly impossible to explain. Sometimes a great team has a mediocre or even poor record in one-run games. There are bad teams, on the other hand, that seem to win way more than their share of one-run contests. In other words, a team’s record in one-run games doesn’t always reflect the team’s overall record. So what does it reflect?

In 18 seasons heading into 2015, Elliott Avent’s NC State teams sported a 139-98 record in one-run games, a .586 winning percentage and an average annual record of roughly 8-5. Only five of Avent’s previous 18 teams had losing records in one-run games, the worst being a 4-7 mark in 1999.

With two exceptions, Avent’s best teams all had terrific records in one-run games. The 2013 College World Series team, for instance, was an exemplary 14-4 in games decided by one run. The 2003 team, the school’s first NCAA Super Regional team, was 12-3. The 2005 team was 8-3 and the 2006 team was 11-6. The two outliers were 1997, Avent’s first NC State team, which finished 6-8 in one-run games, and the 2012 team, which went to the NCAA Super Regional in Gainesville but was 7-10 in one-run games.

Thirteen of Avent’s previous 18 squads played in the NCAA Tournament, so he’s only had five teams that qualified as mediocre, one of them outright bad. Those teams’ record in one games was a combined 33-30. The 2000 team finished 30-28 overall but had an 11-6 record in one-run games. The 2009 team, Avent’s only losing team, was 5-4 in one-run games. Go figure.

Clearly, it’s tough to make sense of it, and that goes double for this year’s squad, which, after Tuesday’s 6-5 loss at East Carolina, was a miserable 0-7 in one-run games. Five of the Pack’s last eight losses were by one run. The Wolfpack is 0-5 in ACC games decided by one run.

NC State is batting .275 with two outs for the season, but far too many of those two-out hits have come with the bases empty. The Wolfpack is hitting .255 with runners on base and two outs, .235 with runners in scoring position and two outs. NC State has had 124 leadoff hitters reach base in 338 innings. Only 69 of them scored, 55.6 percent.

The problem has only gotten worse in recent weeks. Following a season-best seven-game winning streak in late March, NC State has lost eight of its last 11 games, with five one-run losses. The Pack is hitting .243 in the 11 games, with only Logan Ratledge (.404) and Ryne Willard (.366) hitting better than .250.  State batters are hitting .217 with runners on base in the 11 games, .146 with runners in scoring position, .205 with two outs, and .000 (0-for-9) with the bases loaded. The pitching staff has a solid if slightly deceptive 3.18 ERA in the 11 games, with 56 walks and 15 hit batters in 99 innings. Opponents are batting .203 against the Pack in that span, with a WHIP of 1.28. So despite all the traffic on the basepaths, the pitching has been good enough to win most nights.

Explaining all this in terms of one-run games is a fool’s errand, but one thing cannot be overlooked: NC State’s season has been defined by one-run losses. Had the Wolfpack won four of those seven one-run defeats, its record would be 25-13 instead of 21-17, an enormous difference. Winning just two of those five one-run ACC losses would turn State’s conference record from 9-11 to 11-9. Take a gander at the conference standings and you’ll understand how important that could be.

In the BBCOR bat era, college baseball teams need to be able to manufacture runs and throw strikes. NC State does neither, but the recent inability to execute the little game has overtaken the pitching staff’s wildness as the team’s greatest shortcoming, turning a talented offensive team into a bad offensive team. As one knowledgeable observer in the press box noted Tuesday night in Greenville, East Carolina put on a clinic in all the little things NC State can’t do.

And that, as much as anything, probably explains NC State’s 0-7 record in one-run games.

Homers Are Up: Evidence nationwide indicates clearly that the new balls used in college baseball this season have had the desired effect of increasing offense, especially home runs. Scoring and home runs are up about 10 percent nationwide. At NC State, home runs clearly are on the rise.

After long balls by Preston Palmeiro and Shane Shepard on Tuesday at East Carolina, the Wolfpack had 30 homers in 38 games. A year ago, NC State hit 30 homers in 55 games. In 2013, the Pack hit just 29 homers despite playing 66 games and advancing to the College World Series.

From 2011-14, the first four seasons using the BBCOR bats, NC State hit 140 home runs in 246 games, an average of 0.57 per game. With 30 homers in 38 games this season, the Pack is averaging 0.79 homers per game, an increase of nearly 40 percent.

Traffic Control: The fact that NC State pitchers lead the universe in walks is hardly news. To their credit, though, Wolfpack pitchers have shown a remarkable penchant for pitching around all the runners on the basepaths, even as their walk rates have increased late in the season. In the last eight games, six of them losses, three of them one-run losses, Wolfpack pitchers have walked 51 in 71 innings, 6.5 walks per nine innings, but allowed just 31 runs and only 26 earned runs for a respectable ERA of 3.30.

For the year, State pitchers have walked five or more in a game 20 times in 38 games, including seven times in the last eight games; but have allowed six or fewer hits 18 times, including 11 times in the last 17 games.

Some Recent Pitching Trends: Despite a walk rate trending in the wrong direction, righthander and Friday night starter Cory Wilder has been downright unhittable most of the season, never more so that in the last month. In his last four starts, Wilder has allowed just five runs on seven hits while striking out 26 in 21 innings for a 1-1 record and a 2.14 ERA. Unfortunately, Wilder’s walk total — 17 in 21 innings the last four games — has forced him out of games much too early. Wilder has pitched into the seventh inning just once all season, an April 2 gem vs. Florida State, even though his raw stuff has allowed him to stay in games longer than one might expect, given all the full counts and walks.

Saturday starter Brian Brown, a freshman lefthander, has dealt with his share of deep counts, but he’s largely avoided the walk bugaboo that has plagued much of the staff. Brown has allowed just four runs, three earned, on 15 hits in 23 innings his last four starts, striking out 21 and walking just six. Brown has walked more than two in a game just once in nine appearances, and has 40 strikeouts and 15 walks in 45 1/3 innings.

Sophomore righthander Ryan Williamson stumbled in his last start, allowing four runs on three hits and four walks in 1 2/3 innings April 18 at Notre Dame, but his three previous outings, two of them in relief, were good. In those three appearances, he allowed just two earned runs on nine hits and four walks while striking out 17 in 12 1/3 innings for a 1.46 ERA.

Junior lefthander Travis Orwig, a bullpen staple much of the season for the 2013 CWS team, is back after missing 2014 because of Tommy John surgery. Orwig allowed three runs on two hits and two walks in one inning in his first appearance of the season, Feb. 22 at Coastal Carolina. In six appearances since then, he is 1-0 with a 0.71 ERA in 12 2/3 innings, striking out 10 and walking three.

Another bullpen mainstay, junior lefty Will Gilbert, had a two-run hiccup April 18 at Notre Dame, but otherwise has been excellent in relief. Minus the one game in South Bend, Gilbert has allowed two runs on eight hits in 19 innings (0.95 ERA) over his last 14 appearances. For the season he has allowed 14 hits and walked 10 in 26 1/3 innings, and has an 0-1 record, two saves and a 2.73 ERA.

Starters/Bullpen Breakdown: NC State’s bullpen continues to carry more than its share of the workload. Through 38 games, Wolfpack starting pitchers are 9-11 with a 3.66 ERA in 155 innings. The bullpen is 12-6 with a 2.79 ERA and seven saves in 187 innings, meaning the pen has pitched 54.7 percent of the Wolfpack’s innings this season. The excess workload shows. In the last 11 games, the relievers pitched 49 2/3 out of 99 innings, a much better ratio, but with a 3-5 record and a slightly inflated 3.26 ERA and two saves. We’re talking about a tiny sample size here, to be sure, but even the naked eye can see that the bullpen is showing signs of wear and tear as the innings pile up.

Dial Up A Six Pack: Six is the magic scoreboard number for NC State in 2015. The Wolfpack is 18-1 when it scores six or more runs this season, but 3-16 when it scores five or fewer.

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