Talkin’ Baseball with Illinois Baseball Report

As an alternative to the in depth preview of Illinois, I participated in a little bit of Q&A with Illinois’s baseball blogger Tom Nelshoppen, formerly with Baseball Zealot. The new site is Illinois Baseball Report, and it does some great justice to the college baseball program in Champaign. Tom works in the IT department for UI and is an avid baseball fan. The guy covers baseball as I could only dream from this distance.

To see my half of the Q&A, visit the IBR. I’m growing less positive, but I swear I’m trying to leave some hope. As I said, this will be the alternative to the in depth preview as it covers a lot of what I do already. I’ll still have a short post up for the weekend on Friday morning for final notes, media, and probable pitchers. On to the questions:

Question 1:

I see last year’s closer Ben Reeser has made the jump to starter most impressively this season, but despite his shiny 2.01 ERA and 12:37 walk-to-strikeout ration, he’s only accumulated 3 wins in 6 starts. Is it the bullpen or the lack of offense that is keeping his win total down?

Arggh! You just made me flash back to last Saturday’s loss against Indiana when Reeser was just one strike away from a 1-0 shutout. So in that case, yes, it was a case of lack of offense. I’m sure that was a tough one for Ben.

Reeser’s pitched great all year and has just been the recipient of some tough luck no-decisions. Fortunately, many have been wins for the Illini.

Question 2:

Speaking of pitching, I can’t help but notice these ERA and opponent batting average numbers for Illinois starters. I’ve heard all sorts of positives from the LSU series, but just how good is this starting pitching staff?

http://www.fightingillini.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/ill-m-basebl-CumulativeStats.html

More specifically, which three starters do we see and who is the weakest link, if one exists?

No doubt we have good pitching but it’s the depth in Illinois’ rotation that has really helped them. Pitchers like Will Strack, Bryan Roberts and Lee Zerrusen have really stepped in when we needed them. Strack surprised some with his shutout against Michigan State two weekends ago. And every time I look at Roberts’ ERA and do a double take because he’s only allowed three runs in past three starts over 21 innings.

This weekend, my guess is that you will see Phil Haig (who had a rough last couple starts but I think he’s coming around), Reeser, and Roberts.

If the Orange and Blue can avoid the big inning by Michigan, they’ll do okay.

Question 3:

Looking over the offense, the Illini have some impressive batting averages (team: .313, starters: .327) and some decent but not great extra base hit totals – 7th in slugging percentage in the Big10. It appears Brandon Wickoff is still an absolute monster (.402 BA, 25 R, .529 slugging, only 4 K in 102 ABs). Is he still batting third and is there a way to pitch around him? Are the batters behind him that much of a threat?

Wikoff is indeed a catalyst on our team. Last night against Bradley, he continued his torrid pace by hitting for the cycle (first Illini to do so since 1990) raising his average to .421. It goes without saying that Wik is an essential part of our offense.

That said, our offensive threat continues all the way down the lineup. If Michigan pitchers want to pitch around Wikoff, be my guest. Cleanup hitter Dom Altobelli is an obvious threat at the plate (.333, 26 rbis) and #5 guy Aaron Johnson simply loves to hit with runners on base (.366, 4 hr, 28 rbi).

Question 4:

On defense, third basemen Altobelli’s fielding percentage at third base. Is he having trouble with run of the mill ground balls, throwing the ball across the diamond, slow rolling bunts, or a little bit of everything? Or, is he just the recipient of some bad luck? I can’t see his bat leaving the lineup, so do you think Michigan will test him at the hot corner?

It’s true, defense has been an issue for Altobelli, especially during the early part of the year. But rumor has it, he’s been working on it. Those who watched the Indiana series last weekend saw the difference. He made the plays he should have and maybe some others wouldn’t have.

I’m expecting the improvement to continue.

Question 5:

Speaking of defense, Illinois appears to be collecting quite a few double plays this season. They rank 9th in the nation in double plays per game by the last NCAA statistics release (3/29/09). Michigan has been all about crippling double plays at times this season (see: Arizona currently leading the nation in double plays per game). Are we going to see a lot of sinking fastballs and splitters this weekend? If so, who from?

Wow, I hadn’t seen that. Since our pitchers don’t strike out a whole lot of batters (Reeser excepted), placement of the pitch is so important. Fortunately, they do it well, keeping the ball down.

Our keystone combination of Brandon Wikoff and Josh Parr are above par (sorry, I couldn’t resist) so I give them a lot of credit for those numbers.

By the way, I just noticed that Indiana surpassed Illinois in DP numbers this week.

Question 6:

Speaking of Michigan crippling itself, Illinois doesn’t appear to be dominating in the strikeout column. I don’t even have a question for you. I just wanted to point out that I think the Illini Ks-per-9-innings is going up this weekend. Call it a hunch.

Hehe, that may be. Your point is well taken about Illinois’ strikeout rate. Reeser has 37 Ks in 40+ innings but no other starter approaches that (though Roberts’ is decent at 25 Ks in 30 2/3). Phil Haig doesn’t strike out a ton of batters but his walk rate is good.

Question 7:

How is starting second baseman Josh Parr doing? I noticed he left a game this last weekend against Indiana. Nothing serious I hope? Would Bonadonna take over second base if he is out? And speaking of Bonadonna, what happened with him? I see he’s still stealing bases like a mad man, but the average has plummeted from last year.

Thanks for asking. The word is that Parr will be back for this coming weekend’s series against Michigan. He made an appearance last night against Bradley as a pinch hitter. I’m glad to hear it since Parr has been an invaluable part of this team from the very start (4 for 4 in his college debut).

As for Joe Bonadonna, Coach Hartleb had confidence in him in the early part of the season when his batting average was quite low. It was a good call because I think it’s starting to pay off. Bonadonna had a key role in a couple games that really paid off for the team. He’s starting to turn it around offensively.

Besides that, Bonadonna brings so much more to the game. You already alluded to the baserunning aspect. His defense in centerfield is superb as we found out last weekend against Indiana. Finally, Joe is starting to develop as a leader within the clubhouse and the dugout. I’m keeping an eye on him.

So that concludes this part of the Q&A, remember to check in with IBR for my answers to Tom’s questions. Thanks so much to Tom for making this happen.

Now, on to more pressing matters, like brushing my teeth… I just opened the CMU box score and threw up a bit in my mouth. [formerlyanonymous shutters then walks away slowly. /scene]

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