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Gene's Blog: 2018 analysis might cause WHIP-lash

Gene's Blog: 2018 analysis might cause WHIP-lash

Analytics are here to stay in baseball. Statistics are being trusted more every year as a tool to help predict outcomes and improve strategy.

Statistical trends over a full season are usually a good predictor of team results. But occasionally there's a disconnect.

Case in point: 2018 Tommie Baseball. A person could get WHIP-lash trying to understand why St. Thomas' glossy pitching stats didn't help generate a better won-loss record.

Coming off 2017's solid postseason run and 29-18 finish, St. Thomas had high hopes for an even better run in 2018 with a roster guided by more than a dozen seniors.

Coach Chris Olean's team endured a brutal spring stretch of weather that squeezed about six weeks of games into three and limited activity to indoor practice for a three-week span in April. They also had approximately six games postponed and not made up.

It didn't help that the Toms only played six of their 38 games on their home diamond, where past St. Thomas have won nearly 80 percent of their contests. That's the fewest played on campus in at least 25 seasons.

The Tommies again faced one of Division III's toughest schedules -- ranked No. 11 hardest out of 374 teams for the combined won-loss record of their foes. That included 11 games against eventual 30-win teams. Ten of the Tommie losses came by one or two runs. 

Scoring was its biggest challenge. For context, UST's third-place NCAA finisher of 2014 averaged nearly eight runs a contest. This spring, the Toms averaged around four runs a game.

St. Thomas was held to two or less runs in 13 of 38 contests. It went 15-1 in games when it scored four or more runs, including a 12-0 record when it scored six or more. But the Toms went just 5-17 when they scored three or less, including a 1-12 mark when they scored two or less.

Olean started 21 different position players at some point this season as he tried to jump start the offense. And they did make progress. After a 1-6 start, the Toms won 15 of their next 21 games. In stats from the 20-game MIAC season, surprisingly St. Thomas led all 11 teams in batting average (.306) and runs scored (98). 

But clutch hitting and clutch fielding came up short at key moments. The Toms went 19-4 when they outhit opponents, but 1-14 in all other games. They had no multi-HR games. They also had six throwing errors by pitchers, and went 1-5 in those games.

The bottom line was a 20-18 final record, a share of third place in the MIAC, and two one-run losses during its 2-2 conference playoff experience.

 

Pitchers Shine

When you take a deeper dive into their pitching statistics, it's clear that 2018 was a lost opportunity for the Tommies. St. Thomas hurlers ranked at or near the top nationally in several categories, yet that didn't translate into the win column the way you'd expect.

Tommie Pitchers in 2018:

  • had a 3.01 ERA, 10th best in Division III;
  • had a .209 Opponent Batting Average, likely at or near the top of all 933 NCAA baseball teams, and the best by any MIAC team in at least 17 seasons;
  • limited foes to a stingy .219 batting clip with runners in scoring position;
  • allowed a .278 Opponent Slugging Percentage, near the top of all NCAA teams;
  • allowed two or less runs in 21 of 38 games, including seven shutouts;
  • allowed no triples, whch ranked either alone at the top or tied for the fewest among all NCAA teams;
  • allowed 7.03 Hits per 9 Innings, ranking first in Division III and fifth among all NCAA schools;
  • tied with MIAC rival Bethel for the lowest WHIP (Walks-Hits per Innings Pitched) among all NCAA schools at 1.09. For context, Division II champion Augustana ranked fourth, and the Big Ten champion Minnesota Gophers are 10th.
  • ranked third in Division III in Strikeouts per 9 Innings at just under 10;
  • had a 3.6-to-1 Strikeout-to-Walk ratio to rank fifth in Division III;
  • its top six pitchers recorded a 2.29 ERA and a .196 opponent batting average, including just four home runs allowed;
  • retired all 14 opponents sent up to pinch hit.

The top arms for UST this spring were senior Ryan Zimmerman (6-3, 3.36 ERA, .182 opponent BA, 57 innings, 75 Ks, 28 walks), now pitching professionally with the St. Paul Saints; senior Drew Molin (3-1, 1.51 ERA, 199 opponent BA, 36 innings, 33 Ks, six walks); and junior Henry DeCaster (2-5, 2.69 ERA, .224 opponent BA, 64 innings, 72 Ks, 18 walks).

"We were fortunate we had guys like Zimm, DeCaster and Molin, they were like our three horses," Olean said. "Molin was nursing a sore elbow, too. Had been healthy all year, he would have made even more difference.

"What makes these three good is that on a bad day, even if they don't have their A-plus stuff, they can still beat you. They are just big-game pitchers. They remind you of (2010 National Pitcher of the Year) Matt Schuld back in the day. He might be at his best, but he would always compete and give you seven innings. The term 'bulldog' is probably overused, but you can tell the guys that go out there and refuse to lose a game."

Olean credited senior Ben Meyer (2-2, 0.68 ERA, .172 opponent BA, 27 innings, 28 Ks, five walks) for his emergence from the junior-varsity staff in 2017 to an important varsity arm in 2018. 

 

Moving Forward

The 2019 Tommie staff returners include rising seniors DeCaster, Grant Gunderson, and JT Engeswick; rising junior Shaun Falbo; rising sophomore Graham Laubsher. Plus, the coach said his 2018 recruiting class might yield as many as seven pitchers capable of breaking into next year's rotation or bullpen.

DeCaster was the 2017 MIAC Pitcher of the Year and made All-Region. In his two Tommie seasons, the lefty has pitched 22 times (all starts) and has a 10-8 record with a 2.83 ERA. He has posted 164 strikeouts and just 39 walks in 143 innings. If DeCaster can continue to improve, Olean said a late-round pro draft or free-agent opportunity is possible next summer.

In 24 career appearances over two seasons, Falbo has given up just one earned run over 30.1 innings. He's 4-0 with six saves and an 0.30 ERA, with 36 strikeouts to 13 walks. Opponents have a slim .092 batting average off of him with no extra-base hits.

Laubsher went 2-2 with a 2.73 ERA in his debut college season in nine appearances (five starts), with 37 strikeouts and 12 walks in 33 innings.

Offensively, Ryan Lust (team-best .384 BA, 33 hits, 30 games) had a breakout sophomore season. Rising senior Sam Cobbs (91 hits, 36 walks in 84 games with UST) has the ability to carry the team. Catcher Adam Krajewski and OF Avery Lehman led a promising freshman group.

There's one other 2019 challenge for Olean and fellow area college coaches. US Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis will be unavailable for any February-March games as the facility is prepared for the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four. The Tommies will schedule some games in St. Louis and possibly Arizona in March, and may expand their Florida trip.

You don't have to be an analytics wizard to predict this: Look for the 2019 Tommies to play another tough schedule... look for more out of state games (and probably more weird weather)... and look for a hungry Tommie team determined to improve on the 2018 results. If the offense can rebound, and the pitching stays stingy, Olean likely will be talking about a lot more close victories instead of a lot of close losses next spring.

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 24th season at St. Thomas and 30th overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu