I hate math, so I became a journalism major.
For the most part, that idea has worked out nicely for me. I haven't taken a math class in over two years, and I rarely have to deal with numbers. But there will always be a place where I'm more than willing to dive into numbers head-first: baseball.
2016 Baseball Preview
2016 Baseball Preview
As a college and professional baseball fan, it's hard to compare coverage of the two. There are plentiful resources available for professional baseball statistics, especially in the realm of sabermetrics. For college baseball? Not so much.
However, that won't keep me from trying. College baseball season is right around the corner, and our Missouri Tigers get under way this Friday against Seton hall. And as we suffer the final few days before baseball is officially back, I think it'd be fun to take a look at the different aspects of Missouri's team based on what we saw last year. We won't be able to use a lot of the most fun advanced statistics, but baseball is fun regardless.
Today, I'll be taking a look at Missouri's offense heading into 2016. Last year's numbers tell an interesting story, one that suggests a potential breakout could be in the offing. However, there are a lot of factors that need to happen if the Tigers are to improve on last year's below-average offensive output.
So let's take a look at last year's numbers and what they mean moving into this season.
Note: Everything I say is predicated on the idea that last year's Missouri hitters will be better than they were last year. That's usually the hope with developing college players, so we'll go ahead and assume that's the case here.
"You get on base, we win. You don't, we lose."**
I'm a big believer of the "get on base to score runs" strategy. It's my absolute favorite. Hitting solo home runs is nice, but hitting RBI doubles and singles is nicer. So how did the Tigers fare when it came to getting on base last season?
Looking at the SEC rankings, Missouri ranked 14th in the SEC in terms of On-Base Percentage (.330).
That's not good; it's literally the worst it could be, actually. The Tigers were .018 behind the next closest team (Alabama) and .034 under the league average (.364). Your pitching can be outstanding, but you aren't going to win games if you aren't getting guys on base to score runs.
But this statistic can be confusing when you look at the Tigers individual stats. Four of the seven players to start over 50 games* for the Tigers last season had OBPs that were either above or right at league average (Howard, Ring, Lester and Peel). And Bond had a decent .352. So what explains the drastic difference?
First off, the team had multiple players with dreadful OBPs. Zach Lavy, the team's returning starter at 1B, had a .281 and Trey Harris, a returning starter in the outfield, had a .307. Seniors Case Munson, Jake Ivory and Logan Pearson all had OBPs well under the .300 mark.
This can be taken as a hopeful sign for fans. Even though they're losing their third and fourth best on-base guys (Lester and Peel), the team is also dropping a bunch of deadweight. Munson, Ivory and Pearson dragged the team OBP down woefully, and hopefully they can be replaced by players that get on base more frequently.
But this is no guarantee. As mentioned earlier, Trey Harris and Zach Lavy weren't the best on-base guys. And why is that? They strike out way too much and walk far too little. And really, this was true for the team as a whole.
Missouri ranked 13th in walks and in the top half of the SEC in strikeouts. That's not exactly a formula for success when you're trying to raise the team OBP. Again, fans can find some solace in the leaving seniors. Munson, Ivory and Pearson had the three highest strikeout percentages (K%) on the team by a wide margin. And while the returning players don't have great K%s, they're not nearly as bad as the >.300 range that many seniors touched last year.
The bigger concern for this season are the walk rates (BB%). The Tigers were abysmal in drawing walks last year. Out of the seven 50-game-starters, only Lester had an identical BB% and K% (.142). No one else on the team was even close. Even Ryan Howard, the team's consensus best hitter, had a BB% of .080. Woof.
You may say, "How can you expect college hitters to walk more than they strikeout? That's crazy. They're still developing players." Right you are. It's unreasonable to expect Major League standards from college players.
However, I'm willing to concede a few more strikeouts if it means more walks. Like I said, many of the team's most K-prone members are gone. What you're left with is a bunch of players who still strike out too much, but are probably due to see their K%s go down as they become better, more complete hitters. If keeping their K%s around the same range means they'll draw more walks and, consequently, get on base more often, I think that's a trade-off with which any fan could get on board.
The numbers from last season clearly point to an offense that wasn't patient. If I'm heading into the season, I'm telling my hitters to wait for more strikes. This doesn't mean not being aggressive; it simply means Tiger hitters need to have a better eye for the pitches they want to swing at in every given at-bat. It'll take more preparation and more situational awareness, but this is baseball, after all.
"We need to replace 38 home runs."
OK, it's not exactly 38, but hey I'm not going to change a movie quote.
To follow up my OBP love fest above, we can take a look at the sexy offensive numbers: power numbers.
On-base related stats are, in my opinion, the most important factors in a team's offensive success. But if you've got a team that can mash, that'll cover some discrepancies in the on-base game. Unfortunately for Missouri...
"Hold on a second. Missouri was 7th in home runs. What's so wrong with that?"
I'm glad you asked, hypothetical reader. I will counter that picture with this one.
Home runs are great, but slugging is better. If you're not hitting home runs, but hitting lots and lots and lots of doubles, your slugging isn't going to be bad. 2B > HR.
Of course, that's all reliant on the OBP stuff, so let's get to those home run numbers, shall we? The Tigers were indeed in the top half of the SEC in dingers, but it would be... unwise to bet on that happening again. Those seniors I kept mentioning earlier, the good and the the not-so-good? They accounted for 37% of the Tigers HRs last year.
That's not to say it's impossible or even unlikely for this year's Tigers to replace that production. Missouri does return five players who hit 4-5 bombs last year. And Shane Benes, a player who flashed a lot of promise after his injuries last year, hit 2. If they can all improve on their power numbers, they can make up for the lost homers.
But that's a big "if."
If I had my druthers, I'd rather see the Tigers move to hit more doubles. Like many offensive statistics, Missouri ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in doubles (11th). But why doubles? Why not just go for the big bombs?
Here's the great thing about doubles: they're not as hard to hit as you think, and they're very beneficial. If you've got a team with some pop (which Missouri does), you're going to be able to hit some balls into the gap. Those are the easier doubles. But if you can hit a ball down the line and be thinking "double" right out of the box, you're going to be able to steal a few. You might get thrown out every now and then, but good base-running will solve a lot of those problems (there are metrics for this in the majors, but they'd be next to impossible to come up with for college baseball, so we'll skip them.) And when you hit a double? Surprise! You've got a man in scoring position for the next batter. All of the sudden, a single can score a man. But so can a double. And a home run is now worth two instead of just one.
See? Doubles! Doubles are just the best.
So what does it take to hit more doubles? More line drives. Unfortunately, I can't get my hands on fly ball rates for college teams. I will assume, however, based on the fact that Missouri was 8th in the SEC last year in sacrifice flies, that last year's offense had a decent fly ball rate.
This is more of a mechanical issue than anything. If players are more focused on driving the ball than hitting it over the fence, more doubles will be a result.
Based on last year's numbers, this year's team should be one with power potential. If they're going to struggle to get men on base again - hopefully not -, they're going to need that potential to become reality. And if they focus on hitting fewer long balls and more doubles, I'd be willing to guess that they might not hit as many home runs as last year, but they'll score a lot more runs.
"I wanted you to see these player evaluations..."
Here are a few players I'm really excited about offensively this season:
This isn't much of a stretch as he was one of the team's best hitters last season. He hit a respectable .282 last season, below that of fellow returnees Brett Bond and Ryan Howard, and added 4 HRs and 30 RBIs. But those are just his traditional "Triple Crown" stats. There are other reasons to think he could be Missouri's best hitter this year.
For one thing, Ring had the highest OBP on last year's team at .376. And how did he accomplish that? Surprise! He walked a lot, second most on the team; he tied with Lester at 30, one behind Peel. Of the returning major contributors, Ring was the only one to walk more than 20 times. He struck out a lot, but again, there's reason to think that number may go down based on his development over the offseason and his approach at the plate this year. He had a nice slugging percentage (.432) on top of that and led last year's team in doubles and triples. Coaches aren't afraid to let him run either; he had 12 stolen base attempts last year, though I'd like to see his success rate go up from a very low 67%.
Overall, Ring's profile suggests that he could be the most valuable offensive asset Missouri has this year, barring a surprise newcomer. With his combination of on-base savvy and power potential, he should slot nicely as a top-of-the-order hitter: I'm thinking second.
Bond doesn't exactly fit the mold I've been setting up this entire article, at least based on last year's numbers. His OBP was decent if not great (.352), he didn't hit a lot of doubles (2) and he rarely ever walks to match a lot of strikeouts.
But his power is sooooooooooo intriguing. In only 163 at-bats last year, Bond hit 5 home runs; give him the same number of at-bats as many of his teammates, and he probably hits a few more. On top of that, he struggled through injuries last year. If he could have a fully healthy season, he could be the Tigers' biggest power threat. He's a typical middle-order type of guy, but he adds the value of getting on base more frequently than most power guys.
Perhaps the biggest wild-card in the line up this year, Benes is hard to predict based on last year's numbers. He only hit .225 and struck out far too often (over 33%). But he also missed most of the season with an injury, so you can almost count the season as a wash. And he still managed to hit 2 home runs.
He's got baseball genes (son of former Cardinal Andy Benes) and was, at one point, the best recruit in the state. Coaches and teammates rave about him. He certainly looks the part of a future star, and he probably would've been picked high the MLB Draft if not for his injuries.
If Benes can stay healthy, he's got the potential to be a difference maker in the Missouri lineup. His past says it's possible, and he certainly had flashes of brilliance last year. With tempered expectations, Benes might be one of the most important cogs in this lineup.
And as I shatter the 2,000-word mark. I'll wrap this post up. Check back in a few days for my preview of the Tigers pitching staff.
Yay! More baseball math!
*Brett Bond started 46 games which, you know, is practically 50.
** All of these section headers are quotes from Moneyball. Call me crazy, but its my favorite baseball movie. It's hard not to get romantic about baseball, after all.