Taking A Look At The State Of College Baseball, At Oregon St. And Overall

The 2013 Season In Review statistical package for Oregon St. baseball is out, and its an interesting data mining document, if not necessarily riveting reading.

Oregon St. fans may or may not have had a good grasp of some of the accomplishments, or perhaps just a general sense of them, but there's some worth noting.

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Dylan Davis, above, led the Pac-12 Conference with 86 hits, 3rd most in Oregon St. history in a single season, 61 RBIs, and 22 doubles, while Michael Conforto, below, was the league co-leader in home runs, with 11, and led the conference in walks, with 41. Conforto is the first Oregon St. player to ever lead the league in home runs in consecutive seasons, after tying for first with 13 in 2012.

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On the pitching side of things,Andrew Moore tied for the Pac-12 and national lead in wins, with 14. Matt Boyd led the Pac-12 with a .197 batting average against, and also threw the most innings, 132 2/3.

Those are a few of the reasons why the Beavers won their third Conference Championship under head coach Pat Casey, and went to their 3rd CWS final, ultimately winding up 4th in the country.

That's not bad, and depending on the number of juniors who decide to return, it could very realistically be a springboard for another run at Omaha next year.

Speaking of Omaha, attendance was up overall, and for the final game, which set an all-time attendance record at TD Ameritrade Park, which saw huge crowds the entire 11 day run. With the increasing commitment of ESPN to cover the entire NCAA post-season, college baseball is enjoying a unprecedented upturn in interest nationally.

At the same time, the theme of the entire week was about the absence of offense. UCLA winning the National Championship with a CWS ERA of 0.80 supported the notion that you win with pitching and defense, but also gave rise to groaning about the need to change something to fix what many see as an over-correction from the days of Gorilla Ball, and the USC 21-14 win over Arizona St. (no, not in football).

Oregon St. and their fans were right in the middle of the controversy, and on both sides of it. Like the Bruins, the Beavers are built on pitching, defense, and a nerve-wracking amount of small ball and grind it out offense, which served them well at times. But it also bit them, as everyone recalls, when Danny Hayes' would have been a home run in almost every ball park in America shot that would have been good enough had it merely hit the wall.

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The conversation of course centers around the BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient Of Restitution, or as is more popularly known, Bats Barely Capable of Offense or Runs) bat standard mandated by the NCAA.

Bat ratings have become the centerpiece of baseball and softball at every level below professional ball, with bat makers making a mint in the process, as everyone tries to tone down offense, and more importantly, point blank injury liability.

Overall, the idea is sound, and almost everyone involved with college baseball considers the BBCOR era to be a move in the right direction. But the devil is in the details of fine tuning, and of course the arms race that follows.

Around Omaha, there was endless talk about how teams had to completely change the way they had played all season to get to the CWS once they got there. Though that didn't extend to the Pac-12 teams, it was an issue for many.

The perception was that TD Ameritrade Park, notoriously adverse to power hitting, in general and in comparison to Rosenblatt Stadium that was the host of the CWS until 3 years ago, was exacerbating a problem common across college baseball, though an in-depth look at facts by Team Speed Kills, an SB Nation site focused on the SEC, poked some holes in that.

But there is no doubt that offense is down overall, and at the CWS, where it matters most, as far as national perception and growth of the sport, especially so. Conversation quickly moved beyond the BBCOR bats, fueled by an ESPN Sports Science piece that discussed the difference in baseballs between what the NCAA uses and what is used in professional ball.

The key is the difference in drag the higher seams produce, compared to the more tightly stitched ball.

Moving fences in at TDA Park is one way to deal with differences between it and Rosenblatt, which was situated differently, and didn't experience nearly constant south winds blowing in, and could therefore be more productive with the same dimensions, and as the SEC article above suggests, park specific changes in a few other places would substantially address the issue, at least where they have experienced it.

But the world isn't composed only of the SEC, and so the conversation has relevance elsewhere, as this CWS analysis touches on.

It's also relevant to start with the SEC and Pac-12 in the conversation, as these conferences have squared off 3 times in the last 4 years for the National Championship, clearly establishing the 2 conferences as the top circuits in college baseball. And yet the conferences also represent the opposite ends of the spectrum in many respects when it comes to how to construct a winner. (Though, interestingly, everyone thought of hitting first when it came to Arizona, who swept the post-season 10-0 last year like UCLA did this season, with almost no hitting until their 8-0 finale.)

In the Pac-12, small ball is king, as indicated by Conforto leading the conference for 2 years with fewer home runs that San Diego's Kris Bryant hit this year alone in the West Coast Conference.

Weather is a part of that, at least at times in the "Northern Division", which is one reason why not only Casey, but Oregon's George Horton and Washington's Lindsay Meggs build their teams in the manner they do.

That doesn't apply very much to UCLA though, and yet Bruins coach John Savage out-Caseys' Casey ball at times, and by choice.

A good reason for this that has nothing to do with the bats, balls, or fences which both Casey and Horton have sighted is the challenge they face trying to recruit. That small percentage of truly plug-and play power hitters attract huge contracts and signing bonuses from MLB, and a partial scholarship to play baseball in the winter half the season doesn't compete well.

But Pac-12 teams can recruit pitchers who can't approach 100 mph on the radar gun, and you can find players who can defend. It's a component of the resurgence in northern baseball in places like the Big 10, and even the small and mid-majors as well.

Because those factors won't be changing, a baseball change might be in order, and would be an easy way to increase interest in the sport, which is clearly growing, but also clearly needs to continue to make itself marketable. A look at those annual stats reminds us that while Oregon St. had their most successful season ever in terms of wins (which is component one to selling tickets), and also attendance at Goss Stadiuum, more seats will be filled for the Eastern Washington and Hawaii football games than 32 baseball games could bring out.

But could that be overkill in the mostly more intimate SEC stadiums?

And what about what it could do to the already often almost interminable baseball games that frequently drag on for over 3 1/2 hours? Everyone appreciates the under 2 1/2 masterpieces that Boyd and Moore cranked out on multiple occasions, but that isn't the norm. Does anyone want to see Oregon St. pitching coach Nate Yeski coming out 15 times a game, and use 10 pitchers per game?

So it could take some tweaking to get it right, but because of the outcry in Omaha, and the comparative willingness of college baseball coaches to change things up, expect to see some subtle changes coming in the seasons to come.

To bring this full circle, the biggest questions facing Oregon St. as they attempt to get back to Omaha are what do they need to address, with the state of the game being a factor in the strategy.

Pitching, defense, and hitting are the main areas of the game, and most agree that that's the order of importance. Even changes to restore offense won't holistically change that.

But its like debating which is more important to the Oregon St. football team, offense, defense, or special teams; coach Mike Riley will tell you being good at all of them is a good thing.

The best news is that time has shown that Casey and Yeski do a good job of recruiting and developing pitching. Oregon St. has had some grease-fire events with both their starting and relief pitching at times, but Casey usually gets it figured out by the end of the season, and this year's team ERA of 2.28, which ranked #1 in the Pac-12, and more impressively, #2 in the nation, bears that out.

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Moore, above, was a Freshman All-American, and Boyd joined him on all-American lists, but when Ben Wetzler, at 10-1, and a 2.25 ERA, is at the back end of the rotation, and there were 3 relief pitchers with over 20 appearances and ERAs of 1.30 (Max Englebrekt), 1.76 (Tony Bryant), and 2.08 (Scott Schultz), there wasn't anyone in Omaha not wearing UCLA blue that wouldn't have traded straight up.

There's no reason to believe that's going to change.

Defense is a little more intriguing. A glance at the stats shows a fielding percentage of .973, which wound up right smack in the middle of the Pac-12, and #44 in the nation. At first glance, it looks like there's room for improvement there.

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But from Darwin Barney to Tyler Smith, above, there's plenty of evidence of elite defensive players in Corvallis that will help keep the recruits coming. And fielding percentage can be one of the more mis-leading stats in a stat crazy game that some times forgets that circumstances drive stats, not the other way around.

Oregon St. traditionally gets to balls, and tries to make plays, in situations a lot of teams never would. Those efforts don't always work, and the stats pay the price, often more than the scoreboard. The fact that the Beavers led the Pac-12 in double plays, and was 9th in the country, despite not always getting a lot of chances, are more telling, and tells us that Casey's approach works here too.

But while hitting is third in line as far as winning games goes (and Robert will surely reinforce this soon enough), it might be the area where the biggest improvement can be made.

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Oregon St. had 5 regular players that hit over .300, led by Davis' .335 and Andy Peterson, above, at .333 (an astounding number for a bunt specialist), but it tailed off all the way to .236 at the end of the batting order, and worse, there wasn't much that could be relied on off the bench in a pinch-hitting capacity. The team batting average was only .289.

Those numbers don't tell the real trouble the Beavers self-inflicted down the stretch, when they were 1 for 21 with runners in scoring position to end the season. That wasn't as bad as opponents of UCLA did, 1-29, but then those opponents lost all of their games against the Bruins too. Clearly, clutch hitting is an area where improvements could pay huge dividends.

The need for depth of hitting, versatility, and a better handle on technique that leads to line drives instead of rollers in the infield, has been apparent the last few years. And while a baseball with tighter wound seams will fly faster and further, it will also turn into a double plays quicker as well.

If Casey can make a course correction here just in time for changes to promote offense, it could culminate in more CWS action.

Andy_Wooldridge@yahoo.com

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