Talkin’ Baseball with Illinois Baseball Report

April 8, 2009

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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Mini-Stat Watch: Lineups

March 22, 2009

Game starts in 30 minutes, get to the game now! – FA

A few weeks ago I made the case to switch McLouth and Dufek in the batting order, and at the time, it looked like a solid move on paper.  Now that we’ve had a few games to see how the switch is working out, I wanted to take another peak at the move.  Baseball, being a never ending game of adjustments, its good to look back at moves and make sure they’re working out right.

I will note that there have been a couple lineup adjustments that distort this data.  Alan Oaks is now healthy and McLouth had a tweaked ankle that kept him out of the starting lineup for a few game.  I think Maloney has tried to give Oaks more of a chance to take over the DH/RF duties as well.  This cause caused Urban to play more third base (removing Lorenz who hasn’t produced) and also taken some at bats from McLouth.

Graphs

Dufek Hitting Since Switch

McLouth

McLouth Hitting Since Switch

What I should point out to you is that the Dufek graph shows up to .900, while McLouth’s only shows to .300.  So yeah, Dufek’s is MUCH more impressive.  The question becomes why?

There’s a couple ideas that could describe this, but in reality its probably a little bit of each of these.  The first idea is that Dufek finally got hot (stats since the switch).  Perhaps he was just playing down the first few weeks, and now, he has finally found his swing.  I’d buy this at this point.  The second idea is Dufek is feeling less pressure behind LaMarre.  Not only is Dufek not having to try to knock LaMarre and other base runners in, but LaMarre has been on a tear himself, leaving very few base runners for the guys behind him.  Its a win-win situation when the big hitter is on fire.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have McLouth struggling (stats since the switch).  Outside of Siena Game 1 and Arizona Game 2, McLouth is just 2 for 17 hitting with one run, one RBI, and 5 Ks.  He’s not really lighting it up anymore.  Again, part of this has to do with LaMarre getting all the RBIs, but at the same time, the huge drop in McLouth’s average is noticeable.  I’m not sure if this is just him settling into the lineup after a hot start, or if this is closer to what we should expect from Jake.

Normally I’d say I don’t expect much of a change in the lineup, but with the addition of Alan Oaks coming back from early season sickness, I wouldn’t put it past Maloney to shuffle the lineup some more.  I see Oaks staying in the 7 hole for a while, eventually bumping Berset to the 8 when he returns.  That move makes the most sense as Oaks and Berset are projected to have the highest averages, but Oaks can offer a little more power to follow up the run producers above him.  As for Dufek and McLouth, I’d think Maloney sticks with the current lineup for a few more weeks, at least until we can get a better idea of what we can expect of McLouth on a day-to-day basis.

Urban to Third

Something else I’m watching with the lineups is Nick Urban’s defense at third base.  While it hasn’t been a problem yet, it’s only a matter of time until he registers an error or two.  Urban had been a second basemen before his time as an outfielder, so he does have infield experience.  Third base can be a bit tougher for infielders though, as they have less reaction time, and the ball comes off the bat at a slightly different way, causing trickier hops, more bend of line drives, and the potential for tougher slow roller plays.

I like the move as a fan.  This allows Oaks into the lineup in right field, and also takes Lorenz, the weakest regular starter over the start of the season, out of the lineup.  Nothing against Lorenz, he just doesn’t look ready to take the everyday duties.  And Urban, on paper, doesn’t look like a huge loss at third on defense.

Mid Week Preview

During the mid week, I’ll look at the team stats on offense.  It looks like we might have hit our season plateaus for batting average and on-base percentage.   They at least appear to have flattened out pretty well.  I’m still working on meaningful pitching statistics, but unfortunately, the inconsistency from everyone not named Fetter and the lack of a large number of statistics makes things tough.


Radio Announcers

March 20, 2009

Note: This isn’t meant to be malicious.  It was just frustrating all game long.  I fully expect better sooner or later

Before I even get into the recap, can I just have my say on the announcers.  The two guys who did the game today were definitely a bit out of season with baseball.  While many of you might have been lucky enough to see the game in person, I was stuck with the two home announcers.  Here’s a list of general things that just confounded me:

  • They didn’t have a lineup for IPFW with them until nearly the third time through the lineup.  You could hear them as they um… ehrr… uh..’d as they stretched their necks around to see the batters number to have any idea who was coming up.  You’d think they’d have a scorecard with them so they can keep track of the previous at bats and batters.  Perhaps there would be a name on their for easy access.  There wasn’t.  While this complaint may seem petty, I really think this is what really set me off.
  • The color guy … where do I start?  Along with problems of talking into the mic way too closely or way too far creating huge variances in loudness, the guy really didn’t add a single scrap of anything to the whole broadcast.  While it wasn’t quite as bad as the play-by-play guy in the youtube below this, but it was as close to the color commentary equivalent.
  • The play-by-play guy stuttered and stumbled his way through nearly every play for the first 4 innings.  There were stretches of the whole game where I had no idea what the heck was happening.  All of a sudden I hear “he paints the black there for a ball – no, its smashed up the middle as Cislo dives toward first base, it bounces off the wall, strike three he’s out.”  That was all one play.  Okay, it wasn’t really that bad, but the guy was jumping all over the place trying to get to some other baseball cliche.
  • The color guy, in his brightest move of the day, says he doesn’t want to talk because he doesn’t want to look like an idiot on the air.  Irony.  Awesome.
  • The play-by-play guy goes to open up an inning and he introduces himself, then admits flat out that he doesn’t know his partner’s name.

In defense of the play-by-play guy, he was almost serviceable by the 9th inning.  Hopefully the two get a little bit better as the season goes along. Once they actually get to know each other, things should improve.  And I mean, it’s not like they’re the worst announcer/sideline reporter Michigan sports has ever had.

Back to you guys! That never gets old.  So here’s looking to a better season from the announcers.  May Matt Fancett make his triumphant return to the box soon.


Punch Outs

March 14, 2009

Over the last couple weeks, something that has really stood out to me as I watch the Michigan baseball team has been the rate at which we strike out.  Strike outs are obviously the worst form of put out out side of the double play (or triple play, although much less common).  Strike outs do not test the defense.  They, statistically speaking, are subject to much less chance of error for the defense.  Unless the batter swing at a pitch in the dirt with no runner on first, the batter is out.  Even if the ball is in the dirt, there is still slim chance that the runner beats out a throw to first.

For the season, we have played 13 games, and we have struck out 116 times.   That works to an average of 8.9 Ks/game.  For the sake of continuing with tempo free statistics to balance out games in which we are home and don’t bat in the 8th inning and games in which we have gone into extra innings, we have hit a total of 114 innings, placing our strike out rate at 9.16 Ks/9-innings, or just 1.018 Ks/inning.  That rate is obscenely high, and has killed several run scoring opportunities.

You can click on that graph to see it a little bit larger.  You can pretty much ignore Safara, Bircher, and Arbor as they have one plate appearance or less this season.  Really, outside of the normal starters, you should still probably reserve judgment, as Oaks, Aspinwall, Kittle, and Stephens all have far fewer plate appearances than the regulars.  Crank is teetering on meaningful.

Looking at just the starters, 3 players stand out from the bulk, that is Lorenz, Fellows, and Cislo.  Lorenz is currently striking out at least once in every three plate appearances, ~1 K in 2.67 PA.  On the other side of the graph is Fellows and Cislo.  Fellows is doing fairly well, striking out at a rate of .13 per plate appearance, or one in every 7.57 plate appearances.  Cislo is by far the best on the team, striking out at a rate of .04, or once in every 16 at bats.

The rest of the team falls between .20 (McLouth) and .25 (Toth), meaning they strike out at about once per 4 (Toth) or 5 (McLouth) plate appearances.  This generally means at least one strikeout per game per batter.  Not good.

It gets worse when you look at it in terms of how that effects run scoring opportunities.  By having the strike outs spread throughout the whole team, there is no way to really adjust the lineup to get the hitters together.  Coach Maloney has already changed the order to adjust for the Fellows and Toth strike out rates, as well as Dufek and McLouth.  There isn’t really anything he can do from a game management standpoint.  It is up to the hitters to go out and do their thing.


Umpiring and Sportsmanship

March 3, 2009

Had a quick game tonight.  Hour and half and we had ourselves a 13-1 run rule.  The game was a pretty easy call behind the plate for me, but I still managed to blow 2 would be strike calls.  Both were inside pitches that for all intensive purposes should have been strikes.  Neither call was meaningful as both hitters roped a piped pitch with two strikes on them.

A few new things did happen in this game though.  The first was the most innocent.  Sometime in the third inning, the right field light pole that offers most of the light to the right field line mysteriously turned off.  It got a little dark, but my partner and I deemed it playable.  There was still outfield lights on and the soccer stadium just past right field had some lights on too.  It can be dangerous to play with just one pole out, but the right fielder did make a catch one the first play after the 3-4 minute suspension of play, so that made my partner and I much more okay with continuing the game.

Another play that stood out in the game was an inside pitch that was in on the batter’s hands.  I heard a ping of the ball hitting the batt, but the ball was close enough to the hands that I couldn’t tell if it hit the batter on the hands or not.  If the ping had not been such a clean ping, I would have awarded the runner the base.  Instead, the ping sounded like the bat was hit cleanly, as opposed to the general ping/thud mix that happens when a ball bounces off something then the bat.  I called the ball foul despite the player trying to show me a bruise.  Honestly I didn’t see a mark on his hand.  The kid got back in and eventually struck out.  I feel sorry if that was indeed the case, but from what I saw, someone could have faked that and been just as convincing.  I didn’t see it, I made my call, I stuck to my guns.  Sorry kid.

The last call that was a little bit unusual came on a swinging strike three in the dirt with first base open.  The ball bounced off the catcher and down the first baseline.  The batter runner was moving in the same direction and as he was throwing down his bat, the ball bounced off the bat and back at the catcher.  I thought the contact was incidental, but it was questionable.  The question came up that the ball hit him in fair territory.  My ruling was that as a non-batted ball, the runner is not out, and that the contact was incidental and didn’t really affect the play as he knocked the ball back to the catcher who was frantically searching the fence-line with his eyes.  The catcher booted the ball when picking it up and had no chance at the speedy runner.  The coach bought my argument, which I appreciate.  I still believe my call was right.  I got plenty of heat from the stands.  One guy at the end claimed the only reason they lost the game was me being “a piss poor umpire.”  Your team was outhit somewhere around 19-3.  Yeah, it wasn’t me.  It was your JV team being 13 freshman and sophomores and theirs being 14 juniors.  The other team was just more talented.

The last thing that came up, which was the most exciting, was in the second inning right after a hit by pitch.  The home pitcher hit the batter with a wild fastball.  The batter runner made his way to first while “staring down” the pitcher.  Well, I jumped right out there to influence him to keep the course to first.  The pitcher had other plans, stating, “What are you staring at?”  What an idiot.  The kid was huge, and the last thing you want is to be thrown out of a game for fighting.  I immediately got him quiet by stating, “Pitcher, you don’t say anything to the opposing batter.”  He turned around with a cocky look on his face.  Two pitches later the inning was over and I was talking to the coach to give him the warning (and to let him know about his pitcher putting his fingers a bit too close to his mouth to bit off a hang nail – hands to the mouth on the mound is a balk/illegal pitch).  Didn’t have a problem with the pitcher again until the last inning when he was motioning to the whole world what pitch he was throwing.  It was cocky, and I just didn’t issue the warning to keep his cockiness to himself.  I should have though as part of the job is to make sure sportsmanship is held intact.

The only thing that really bothered me with this game was the home team’s yelling in the dugout.  I came from the school of baseball that thinks organized yelling during your time at bat is something made for softball.  These guys were yelling “rip… rip” (which sounded like frogs), “harder harder harder throw harder,” “base hit base rip,” and other things in the low voice type of yelling.  It got pretty annoying.  Going back to the sportsmanship, I really don’t think its appropriate to talk to players of the other team or even in a way that insinuates the other team/player is no good.  Telling a pitcher to “throw harder” or yelling “we get fresh meat” is unnecessary.  I could understand doing the harder chant if you want to say swing, but don’t frame it toward the pitcher.  Let the other team do their job, you just encourage your own team.

As a wise man once said, “do your talking with your bat and your glove.”  It isn’t what you chant, it is the final score.  [/soapbox].


How Long Until Dufek and McLouth Switch? Why Not.

March 1, 2009

Pre-post update: Maloney made the switch for the game this morning, so this is kind of past due. I’m posting it anyways just so I get my ideas across. He also switched Fellows and Toth. I like the idea as Fellows is hitting well enough to deserve the bump, and Toth still gets on base often enough despite the lower batting average where he works in the 9 hole really, really well. I’m off to Minute Maid. I’ve already missed my last chance to see UCI. Too bad. Hopefully I catch something as good as yesterday’s triple play or the 2-hit shut out by Rice’s starter.

Post:

I’m going to add a new tag, “baseball opinions,” for these types of articles.  These are my opinions on the direction of certain players on the baseball team.  At this time, I’m not certain I want to cross post these to Varsity Blue as these are personal opinions based just on what I see, and may not be true representations of the team.  The last thing I want is for the masses to confuse my previews and recaps with my opinion.  So for now, these stay here, and if/when I think the time is right, I will refine these opinions into something for Varsity Blue when I feel comfortable with it.  Example, the article early this morning was written last night, and today, with a little bit more information, I think I’ve had a fairly different opinion after thinking about it over night.  I may make a small post about it in my Monday recap on VB. –FA

I got an email response from Matt Fancett, the Assistant Director of Media Relations and guy in the booth for mgoblue’s audio broadcast in regards to my thoughts.  He also writes for mgoblue’s baseball section.  I have to say I somewhat agree with his sentiments, so I’ll share them here.

Matt made a case for Dufek to stay in 4 hole, if anything to see more strikes in the h0pe that he breaks this current funk and starts to bring up his average.  I see the idea in this, but at the same time, it should be a fairly short leash in my opinion*.  Dufek only batted .325 last year in his half season of starts.  His power numbers weren’t quite there either, with only 6 doubles and 3 homeruns.  While his homerun pace for a full season is between 6 and 15, McLouth’s currently are projecting higher.  So is his average.

I could very easily see these two staying in the same spot just for consistency in the lineup.  Sometimes making a switch when teams are hitting well can be extremely detrimental to team chemistry, or even make Dufek less sure of himself.  He might start swinging at pitches that are out of his zone to try and prove to everyone he shouldn’t have moved down, or that he should move up in the lineup.  The team doesn’t need that either.

So yeah, there’s a good chance we never see this move.  I’m alright with it for now, and I’m sure Maloney will watch the two players and their progress.  The best thing we can hope for, obviously, is Dufek just heating up and playing to his potential the rest of the season.

*This is squarely my opinion, and should be taken as what its worth… that of a fan who knows a little bit of baseball, but not the players themselves.


How Long Until McLouth and Dufek Switch?

March 1, 2009

So listening to the game tonight (we’re in the middle of the second game), I have to wonder, how long until McLouth moves into the 4 hole and Dufek drops to the 5?  Dufek’s batting average has been pretty bad for a clean up hitter, peaking at .300 and currently sitting around .200.  There just is no consistency to his hitting right now.

dufek-batting1

The one bright spot is the number of of walks Mike has accumulated so far this season, 7, which is good for 3rd highest on the team.  This is the one area where McLouth is “struggling.”  Jake has yet to register a walk or hit-by-pitch this season, hence me not putting his OB% in the graph below (it directly matches his batting average).  You would think this would be another reason to promote him.  Pitchers will eventually figure out that he can be pitched around.   Get him up a spot in the lineup, you get your most consistent hitter more strikes as they won’t want to risk it with Dufek and Urban behind him.

mclouth-batting1

As you can see, McLouth is much more consistent at getting on base, and slugging (bases per at bat) very well.  It seems to me I’d rather have McLouth protecting LaMarre at this point.  If I were a coach and there are two outs and a runner on second, LaMarre at the plate, you better believe I’d be walking him to face Dufek.  Dufek is a much higher chance of striking out (he’s already got a hat trick and a golden sombrero this season), and on nights when he’s cold… he’s ice cold.

McLouth, on the other hand, doesn’t strike out that much.  Dufek is striking out once in every 4.75 at-bats.  McLouth, he strikes out one in every seven.  When you look at just batting average, Dufek is at .200, McLouth, .382; slugging, .433 and .647 respectively.  With those discrepancies, you can’t keep McLouth out for too long.

One  problem I see with this switch is the left on base totals.  McLouth has left a few more runners on base, most of which came against Cincinnati.  However, I still get the feeling that I’d rather have the better hitter at cleanup.  Move the big guy who strikes out a bit more to the 5 or 6 hole until he either proves he can pull his average up, or the guy being promoted up the ladder shows he can’t take the pressure.

Something else I’m wrapping my head around right now is can we train McLouth to play first base? Dufek has been sloppy there (not horrible, but he’s been getting away with a lot) and I’d be interested to see if McLouth, as a catcher, would be any good at taking ground balls and picking short hops.

Even better, can we get McLouth or Dufek to play third base and get Lorenz off the field?  The kid is hitting .143 in the 8-spot in the lineup, and that’s just because he connected for 2 hits in the first game of the Jacksonville game.  That’s horrible.  Once Oaks gets healthy, lets let him have a shot at third. At least we know he can hit.