"Okay, guys, Washington is coming," Oregon St. coach Pat Casey tells the Beavers, "and they aren't your fathers' Huskies any more." (Photo by RVM)
Most Pac-10 (now 11/12ths) baseball fans are well aware of the status of the traditional powers, but in recent times don't usually think of Washington in the same way. However, under Coach Lyndsey Meggs, the Huskies have inserted themselves into the thick of the race. Taking 2 of 3 from a ranked Oregon team in their Pac-12 opening series has the Diamond Dawgs right in the middle of the battle early, just 1/2 game behind Oregon St. and the 3 way tie atop the standings.
There's a new attitude of investment in the baseball program up at Montlake, with much more to come, and its already starting to pay off. Washington's overall record matches Oregon St.'s heading into the team's series this weekend (assuming the steady rain relents as some point).
The Beaver-Husky baseball rivalry goes back over 100 years, but hasn't been as heated as football and basketball has. However, that's starting to change, and the general rise of college baseball in the northwest will only enhance the intensity.
In order to catch both Buildingthedam readers and a burgeoning audience for Pac-12 baseball up north, we got together with Sean Smith up at UWDawgpound to talk in detail about questions both programs have about the other.
You can read our answers to there questions here.
Lets get right to the scouting report!
The Huskies' starting pitching seems pretty good, at least as far as the weekend starters go. Is that an accurate read on the stats they have posted?
How do you feel about the Washington bullpen?
Starting pitching has been, as it should, the key to winning for Washington. I cannot recall any game where the Huskies won where theor starting pitcher didn't go at least five innings. Thankfully, the starters have been magnificent, even more so as of late with the addition of Freshman Tyler Davis to the Saturday slot.
It is a rare game when the Dawgs don't get 5 innings from their starter, helping to keep the 'pen fresh as can be for whenever its needed. The SP's have been on pitch count and/or inning restrictions throughout the non-conference, only going 5-6 innings and / or ~80 pitches up until Pac-12 play recently began.
The Dawgs go power-chess-power with Aaron West, Davis and Austin Voth, creating a nice speed, heck complete style change for opponents to deal with. The strategy has been to pitch to the defense, and besides the few games (losses) when they strayed from the path, both ends have held up their own end so far. The defense currently sits at No. 6 in Div-I with a .980 fielding %, with a team ERA of exactly 3.00 and opponent batting AVG of .218 keeping the number of plays they need to make at a minimum.
Aaron West was a top-ten round draft pick until Tommy John Surgery, but he's back in a big way. He will hit the low-mid 90's on his fastball which he loves to pound inside on RH batters, then go outside and down with a nasty slider and low 80's change-up. Six innings seems to be his ceiling right now, but he will not walk a batter - has been top-ten in the country all year in walks - and usually leaves with only one or two runs and around 4-5 hits on the scoreboard allowed.
Freshman Tyler Davis will be making his third start of the season after showing composure and maturity beyond his years coming out of the bullpen- he shut down bases loaded, one out situations twice along with a couple other gems to earn the trust of the coaching staff very quickly. He has done nothing but completely fool batters with a deceptive delivery and uncommon curveball, which he combines with a + change-up to "pitch backwards", never showing a batter the same speed twice. He throws strikes and will outsmart a lineup even with his mid-80's fastball; lacking elite arm strength he has developed an excellent understanding of the art of pitching. Having a pro big brother who also happens to be a pitcher doesn't hurt either, I would assume... With his delivery he can easily go seven innings, and I wouldn't be shocked to see him go a full nine if he uses his change-up frequently early in a game.
Austin Voth started the year off struggling with his command, consistently missing high, right in the wheelhouse of any decent hitter. He paid the price, yet still walked away with wins and no decisions, thanking the offense for pounding the other Sunday starter. In the last two starts he has become a different pitcher, showing much improved mechanics en route to tossing some heat around the plate finally. He will also hit the mid-90's with his fastball, has a decent change-up and slider, but relies on that fastball. Sunday has the potential to be an offensive show with the two starting pitchers set to take the bump for either side.
The Dawgpen has surprisingly been the most consistent unit on the team, with newcomer Joshua Fredendall becoming the closer this team has been sorely missing, earning every save opportunity given with ease. He already has five saves on the year and is your prototypical "heavy-ball" power closer, becoming automatic and gaining confidence with every door shut. He will hit the mid-90's with his fastball, using a cutter, slider and ten-ton splitter; expect to see choppers back to the mound and strikeouts when he takes the bump. Most of the attention from The Men With Guns Behind Home Plate has been focused on Fredendall and West.
Tyler Kane has appeared in six games with seven scoreless innings, while Nick Palewicz had a rough start but has come on strong as of late after fixing some early mechanical issues. These three compose our number one relief rotation, and all can hit the - depending on weather - low-mid 90's, with another out pitch or two in the repertoire.
Former weekend starters George Asmus and Mac Acker can come in for long relief when needed, as well as sidewinder Dae Yang Kim and submariner Adam Cimber for specialist work. The Dawgs are very deep in the pen, making an early exit for one weekend starter imperative if a team wants to give themselves a much greater chance of winning the series against Washington.
Weakness? Only one southpaw, on the entire staff, and he is the Freshman Mac Acker. Technically there are two, but the other guy has been nonexistent; I'm assuming the reason is injury-related with the current situation. It must be...
Overall, the Huskies have held opponents' scores down, and the pitching has been keeping their ERAs down. But coming into this series, is there a concern with some of the Beavs' new hitters such as Michael Conforto and Dylan Davis? If there are some concerns, what part of the Huskies' rotation is of most concern for UW?
The Huskies on the year have only given up four home runs, and only two until last weekend. But they are very susceptible to being hit hard with all the power arms at work. Austin Voth throws very hard with some command issues, making himself an easy target for hard hits when he misses up in the zone, which he tends to frequently do. He leads the team with homeruns (2) and doubles (5) allowed helping him give up 32 runs already, 14 more than the next guy, Aaron West, who has 18.
West can also be hit hard, but he has excellent command and will pound the inside half with fastballs until you prove you can turn on it. If he gives up a hard hit, it is almost always foul. Left handed power bats are a weakness for Washington, as they only have one LHP in the bullpen as stated before. Conforto should be walked when the situation requires it, if he isn't then that is a gamble I am not inline with. I have too many examples on tape of certain lefty's eating the Dawgs up, and as of late Washington has been pitching around them at every possible opportunity... Watch for Conforto to have another big series if he gets a chance to hit something, read: receives a pitch close to the strike zone.
Following up on that, do the Huskies "go with the percentages", i.e. lefty-righty matchups, as the driving philosophy on bullpen use, or do they have a couple of preferred arms in the bullpen they prefer to rely on regardless of the situation?
Coach Meggs is about as "by the book" as a coach can get, a self proclaimed disciple of small ball who likes having a little power with his bunts and speed, reminding me very much of a Joe Maddon built team with a philosophy of your own Casey.
I suspect the sheer number of DH's and/or power bats on the current roster is more a testament to the best from the Knutson era carrying over, though Meggs did bring in Branden Berry, Michael Camporeale and Robert Pehl, who all have "next level hitter" written all over 'em. It's hard for me to not draw comparisons in my mind to Maddon's teams, truth be told, with the same aggressive philosophy on offense combined with good pitching and defense.
He will play the percentages and matchups, implementing the numbers using players in specific roles. If Aaron West goes six innings - his average - Friday night you will see Tyler Kane in the 7th, Nick Palewicz in the 8th and Joshua Fredendall to close the ninth if it a close game, especially if holding the lead.
He has no choice in the matter this year, again having only one LHP in the 'pen he can call upon. If he had more southpaws, Meggs would use 'em before Fredendall if the percentages said so. Only once has going by the book, and not his gut, cost Washington a victory - the potential sweep-game three vs. Oregon - so expect him to follow his commandments piously.
Winning the series against Oregon was impressive, but other than Cal-Poly, the Huskies' schedule has otherwise not been overwhelmingly impressive. How do you feel about the non-conference schedule, and how it has prepared Washington for the Pac-12 campaign?
The series win over Oregon answered that question for me. Leading up to the series the schedule was the main reason the national media didn't want to give Washington much credit, regardless of being a Pac-12 team with the record they had at the time. If you watched the Oregon series you would have been shocked to find out which team was the ranked one; in all honestly I am still shocked they are ranked and UW isn't.
Be hungry when you face them, for your eyes will be feasting on a smorgasbord of bird legs... All it would take is some film and their collective eyeballs would be opened wide around the country, showing them the win wasn't a fluke, but more of an absolute domination by an overall better team.
Ask any Oregon fan in attendance, and they would tell you UW would win 8 of 10 between the two teams, if they weren't *ucks for a moment.... It would have been a sweep if not for our starting left fielder being at second base - because of substitution musical chairs - muffing an easy ground ball. Everything I saw in the early going translated to Pac-12 play, and I expect the same going forward with the obvious talent Washington now has.
This is not the same Washington team everyone is used to. The common theme so far this year is: opposing announcers assume an easy victory over a bottom-feeder Pac-12 team, only to be in shock after Friday, confused and angry after Saturday and begrudgingly complimentary on Sunday after watching the 2012 Diamond Dawgs in action.
Meggs only kept 15 players from last year, the best of the best from Knutson, and combined it with one of the top-rated recruiting classes on the west coast to create an entirely different beast. Throw everything you thought you knew about Washington baseball out the window; time will show Meggs to be a winner after he is given the assets he needs from an AD that finally wants to fully support baseball. Having an Athletic Director formerly of LSU might have something to do with that...
Do the stats give a good indication of where the offensive fire power is at in the Washington batting order? Should the Beavers just walk Michael Camporeale and Branden Berry every time they come up?
Go ahead, for it won't do you any good; right behind them are bats just as powerful. This roster is chock full of power bats, both left and right-handed, with nine different Huskies having a homerun and 12 with a double.
The corner infield / catcher / outfield depth chart has power top to bottom, to a fault: the Dawgs really need some more infield gloves with wheels and some specialists on the pine. Left or right, Meggs usually has a lineup with five guys that can change a game with one swing of the bat. Robert Pehl, Jacob Lamb, Ryan Wiggins, Trevor Mitsui, Caleb Brown, Chase Anselment and BK Santy have all displayed good power at some point, many of them regularly. This lineup is outscoring opponents 132-76, a 46 run differential, with 115 being RBI's.
I don't see this massive power trend continuing as Coach Meggs brings in "his guys", but he is doing a masterful job of adapting his small ball ways and strategies to fit the players he has, not forcing them to do things they cannot do. He has power this year, so he is going to use it for all it's worth.
The team model this year has a very pro feel to it, with the power on the corners and speed where it should be, including the power hitting first baseman playing second base - ala Jeff Kent - Robert Pehl. This also helps create a glaring weakness up the middle in the field. Watch for that, UW doesn't turn many double plays.
It looks like, much like Oregon St.'s batting order, the hitting is a little up and down going through the lineup, and game to game. Is there a hidden threat fans should watch for?
Jayce Ray at leadoff is a man made of fuel. Every time the Dawgs have a big inning, he lead the way or played a huge role. With great wheels he is the best contact hitter on the team by a wide margin; this guy just doesn't miss and would have a higher batting average if not for hitting the ball at a fielder so many times. He already has three triples and seven doubles, both team-high's. A leadoff man hitting .350 / .513 / .429 and tied for the team lead in runs scored is a beautiful thing. Like your Smith, he is the spark plug that makes the Husky offense go.
It was way back at the start of the season, but Washington did pretty well against San Diego St., a team that took it to Oregon St. pretty good shortly thereafter. What worked well, and is it still of particular "relevance", or has the Husky team already evolved significantly since opening day?
The SDSU series actually set this team up for the success they have enjoyed this year. The Friday night game was televised for the retirement of Stephen Strasburg's number, not that the Opening Day atmosphere was charged up enough with Head Coach Tony Gwynn in the hospital recovering from emergency surgery. This emotional burden was extremely evident throughout the entire series. The Dawgs won behind West, Fredendall and the power offense that night and they haven't looked back, winning the second game in dramatic fashion right after the first spoiler.
The team gelled with the Saturday victory, which was a heavyweight bout to the end with both teams exchanging huge haymakers of momentum swings, and Branden Berry crushing a homerun to seal up another heart breaker for SDSU.
It took everything the Aztecs had to earn a walk-off victory Sunday to avoid the sweep, and they looked like a team who was about to go through the change Washington had just gone through the night before. You can thank UW for SDSU being so ticked at the Pac-12 and coming out on fire against the Beavers.
The weather looks dubious for this weekend, even with artificial turf at Goss. If the games do get played, they will probably be cold, wet examples of the worst of northwest baseball. We know Washington is used to this as well, but do these conditions actually favor the Huskies, or do you dread them for reasons other than reporter comfort?
The Huskies actually haven't performed well in inclement weather so far, losing to Seattle U and Portland at home in the cold. I would prefer, for the sake of the offense, to have the temp above 50- rain doesn't seem to have any effect. Conversely, Washington has performed very well in the warm, California sunshine...
In general, where do you think the best match ups will be for UW (pitching versus OSU hitting, OSU pitching versus UW hitting, something else)? Be specific!
When Washington has won, they have jumped on pitchers early. The longer UW goes without the lead or some offensive production, the harder it seems for them to get it going. Hitting without runs is OK, but generally when they haven't hit early they won't, being shut down by the oppositional relief too often for comfort. When the Dawgs can get into the bullpen early, feasting usually follows until the series ends.
Also will be looking to see how the corner defenders field the bunts headed their way, along with the middle infield defense. Robert Pehl is not a second baseman, not yet at least, but he is getting better everyday. This still leaves something to be desired as far as range goes, getting Pehl subbed for a glove in the later innings.
Patience with this project is must, and growing pains you will see. Infield defense has been a roller coaster ride at times, with a few streaks of games containing some mind-boggling errors and mental gaffs. If a ball gets past the pitcher it usually results in a hit, while a bunt down the lines can be just as effective when placed well. The Husky infield didn't handle the small ball game of Cal Poly very well, so...
Finally, you have 1 game at Safeco Field this year. In the past, the Beavers have played the Huskies there, and it was a great atmosphere, and a great draw. It seems like a game with Seattle or the Cougs over there would be a natural, and it also seems like playing 1 game against either Oregon St. or Oregon there would make sense as an annual event. What is the strategy on games played there? Will we see more games there in the future?
Good question, and one I wish had an answer to. With the weather in February and March being what it is, many here are baffled by the lack of games at Safeco. A roof down the street sitting unused, while Husky games get rained out just seems like a waste somehow, someway of money. I am going to do some research now to find out what the deal is with Safeco. A good draw indeed, and a perfect setting for a Cascadia tournament or annual NW rivalry games, we agree.
Looking forward to a break in the weather, and some baseball!