Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Series Preview: Dirtbags @ Vanderbilt, 2/15-17

It’s finally here! The Dirtbags take the field for the first time since J.D. Davis crushed our souls last May. Redemption begins NOW… but may fail miserably later. Either way let’s have fun; it’s a new season!

Though they’ve failed to qualify for the Regionals each of the last four seasons, one could argue that the Dirtbags have earned their moniker by consistently playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. The battle-tested club had the 12th most difficult slate in 2012, according to Boyd’s World, and open this year with arguably their toughest series in years; heading to Nashville to play national championship contender Vanderbilt.

The Commodores enter the season ranked fourth or higher by Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, the NCBWA, Perfect Game, College Baseball Today, and Chasing Omaha. They’re ranked “only” eight in the Coach’s Poll, but that comes with three first-place votes. On the flipside, the coaches did give Long Beach State a pre-season ranking of third… in the Big West.

What’s At Stake
Last year Long Beach State played four series versus teams inside the RPI top-30 (Boyd’s World estimate); they won exactly zero of those series. When you include mid-week games their overall record versus RPI top-30 teams was 3-11, although that included seven one-run losses, and five games lost in the opponents’ final at bat (damn you, Oregon). The Dirtbags, who themselves were 69th in the RPI, should have a strong SOS no matter what, but if they have any hopes of grabbing an at-large regional bid this year then some more impressive series victories are a must.

A series win versus Vanderbilt (who seems like a near-certainty to crack the top of the RPI ranks) is an awfully tall order, but it would easily be the highlight of the LBSU resume when standing before the selection committee. The fact that it’s a road series makes the RPI benefits even greater.

Tale Of The Tape
Like most west coast schools, Long Beach State doesn’t get a chance to head south too frequently. To help me out with this week’s series preview I’ve recruited the help of twitter’s VUHawkTalk; Vandy fan and author of the blog When[It]StrikesMe, to give us some insight on the Commodores.

Pitching Match-Ups (with some bonus bullpen material):
Friday: Shane Carle, RHP (2012: 3.21 ERA in 73 IP in JuCo) vs. TJ Pecoraro, RHP (3.40 in 53 IP)
VUHawkTalk: “Pec is 20 months off of TJ surgery, but came back in almost record time to pitch the last month of last year, and do well.  He's Mr. Consistency with very good but not elite stuff.  He has a Greg Maddux-type approach (hit your spots, trust your stuff and don't try to be fine).  I fully expect him to thrive this year and should be an All-SEC candidate.”

Saturday: Jon Maciel, RHP (1.27 in 35.1 IP) vs. Kevin Ziomek, LHP (5.22 in 79.1 IP)
VUHT: “Ziomek has all the potential in the world and is a possible first rounder.  After dominating as a freshman, he had two great summers on the Cape, but a very inconsistent sophomore season.  Has a fastball that can touch the mid-90s and a hammer curve and sharp slider combo, but he has been prone to giving up the one big inning (often he'll cruise and dominate for two or three innings and then get lit up in a middle inning because he can be wild within the zone, leaving 2 strike pitches over the heart of the plate).  If he regains consistency and the confidence he had on the cape, he should be a 1st rounder and could be an All American candidate.  Big if though, after a 5.00+ ERA last year.”

Sunday: Landon Hunt, LHP (2.08 in 8.2 IP) vs. Tyler Beede, RHP (4.52 in 71.2 IP)
VUHT: “A potential top overall pick for 2014, Beede struggled last year keeping his weight on, leading to very inconsistent fastball velocity (he was 86-93).  He spent the summer working the weights with Eric Cressey (trainer to the baseball stars) in hometown Boston instead of playing on the Cape and has a college ready body now that should hold weight.  Sure enough, his velo is now consistently mid-90s and Cressey gunned him at 99 with a Stalker gun over the winter. He has a filthy changup and now has a year working with the sharp overhand curve that Johnson switched him to when he got to campus.  He will not lose many, if any, Sunday games this year.”

Well, here’s hoping he loses at least one.

VUHawkTalk also gave us a few notes on a couple ‘Dores’ relievers…

Jared Miller, LHP (3.06 in 32.1 IP)
VUHT: “Could be this year's Paco Rodriguez (Florida LHP who was the SEC's top reliever last year). His velo is up from 90 to 93-94 and he features a brutally wicked slider that he can use on lefties and righties.  He was great as a freshman.  He may be the closer, but may also just be the guy who gets called on when needed.”

Brian Miller, RHP (3.26 in 60.2 IP)
VUHT: “A multi-arm slot righty who I call "Dramamine Miller" because you get motion sickness watching him through.  He's mister reliable and, though he is not a fireballer, he's very tough to get good contact on and his Frisbee slider has humiliated many a batter.”

On that note, I should probably mention the Dirtbags’ closer situation… expect I’m not totally sure how it stands right now. However, keep an eye out to see if top freshman RHP David Hill gets a chance to close. In addition to the notes I wrote here, the Dirtbags curiously listed Hill as their top reliever in this recent press release.

I spent way too much time talking about the Dirtbags hitters here and here, the lineup here, then correcting my lineup here. VUHawkTalk gave us the skinny on several of the All-American-type players in the Vandy lineup (basically, almost the whole damn lineup).

On catcher, Spencer Navin (.299/.427/.303 in 59 games)
VUHT: “Gap to gap hitter who bats for average.  Elite level defender who blocks the plate as well as anyone in the nation.  Great feel for handling a pitching staff.  Very good arm can shut down a running game.”

First Baseman, Conrad Gregor (.328/.439/.463 in 63 games)
VUHT: “Most patient hitter in America.  Led the Cape League in walks by a margin of more than 10.  Huge OPS guy and AVG guy who hasn't quite become the HR hitter that everyone expects.  Great athlete who is a work in progress, but much improved, defensively.”

Second Baseman, Tony Kemp (.261/.392/.386 in 63 games)
VUHT: “Sparkplug who bats leadoff.  Led the Cape League in steals and triples.  Along with Gregor, was top 10 in OPS on the Cape.  Most exciting position player in the SEC for two years running.  Phenomenal defender at 2B, despite having been an OF all his life before last May.  Patient hitter with a miniscule strike zone (5'6")…. He's incredibly refined as a batter, an absolute speed demon running the bases (more going for triples and 1st to 3rd than purely stealing), and is a dynamo defensively. He's definitely a draft prospect, but he's not a day one candidate.”

Center Fielder, Connor Harrell (.241/.353/.433 in 57 games)
VUHT: A stabilizing force. Hit the first CWS homer at TD Ameritrade and was a All CWS Tourney first team member. Runs like a gazelle and plays impeccable defense. Huge power potential, but is incredibly hot and cold (either tearing the cover off the ball or swatting flies for about a month at a time -- tends to not lock in until late in the season).

Right Fielder, Mike Yastrzemski (.286/.382/.427 in 63 games)
VUHT: The heart and soul of the team.  For three years he's been good (maybe plus) at everything, but elite at none.  Can hit for average with a little power.  Can steal bases and rarely gets thrown out.  Very good defender with a solid arm.  We've been waiting for his breakout year.

Designated Hitter, Chris Harvey (.216/.272/.311 in 30 games)
VUHT: Perfect Game All American who actually enrolled a full year early.  A catcher who will be our #2 backstop for the second straight year has huge power potential at the plate, but didn't get much of a chance to adapt in limited time last year.  One of the most closely anticipated players this year.

For some reason I'm reminded of the line from Eight Men Out
Reds Player #1: "These guys don't look so tough."
Reds Player #2: "That's what Custer said when the Indians took the field."

Dirty Talk
In addition to the player capsules, VUHawkTalk also sat down (at his computer, I assume) with us for a chat about the Vandy program in general.

Dirtbag Blues: So what the heck happened to Vandy at the start of last season (when the team started 7-15)? What wasn’t working?

VUHawkTalk: Vanderbilt sent a record number of draftees to the pros after the CWS run in 2011.  The main issue was pitching, but I'll start with position players.

While five position players returned (1B Gregor, SS Gomez, LF Kemp, CF Harrell, RF Yaz), you were breaking in a new 3B and 2B, two positions that proved to be black holes for most all of the year (2B was eventually cured by moving Kemp there).  Additionally, Gregor was moving from DH to 1B and was a disaster defensively during the first couple weeks of the season.  In particular, corner defense was a nightmare early on as Conde (at 3B) was a converted shortstop who took about a month to really get set with his footwork.  Bad defense led to big innings and an utter lack of confidence.  The team was, frankly, really tough to watch during their opening 7-15 stretch.  They pressed on offense and panicked on defense (with the exception of outfield defense, where Harrell, YAZ and, when in left, Kemp all shined). 

The defensive struggles, above all else, highlighted the lack of experience on the pitching staff.  While Pecoraro and Ziomek were Freshman All-Americans as relievers (with a few midweek starts) in 2011, the only other pitcher who'd seen any real time for VU was closer Will Clinard (who had a stable, but unspectacular year).  Add in that Pecoraro missed the first few months of the season thanks to TJ surgery at the end of the 2011 regular season, and you had only two experienced arms.  The inexperienced staff tended to get rattled and give up big innings.  The horrible infield defense also contributed to very high BABiP (particularly for Beede). 

In other words, it was not a fun first two months to be a Commodore or Commodore fan.  Very, very little was working, and a ton wasn't.

DB: How did they turn it on at the end of the year?

VUHT: The turnaround started midseason as the kids got comfortable and settled into their new roles.  The defense stabilized and, more importantly, Corbin and Johnson got more comfortable with the roles of the various pitchers.  Sam Selman was moved to midweek for about 7 or 8 starts and, but the time he came back to the weekend rotation, he was the hottest pitcher in the SEC (and ended up going from a guy with about 10 career IP to being a second round draft pick). 

As the momentum turned, the confidence improved and the team picked up in every way.  There was no real expectation of a postseason birth until a tremendous run to end the season (including a series win at LSU and sweep of Ole Miss to close the year).  We ended up making it to the SEC tourney final in order to finish a few games over .500 and qualify for the NCAAs. 

The team played "fun" ball, and ran roughshod on the bases, including torching UF with a team and SEC tourney record 7 steals in the SEC tourney semifinal.  Leadership was a bit suspect all year, but guys like Yaz and Anthony Gomez (who went MiLB in the draft) stepped up when needed.

DB: What can you tell me about Hawkins Field? And what’s the deal with that left field wall?

VUHT: The Hawk typically plays as a more pitcher friendly park, but I think a lot of that data is due to the incredible stable of arms that Derek Johnson paraded through over the last decade.* You will not see a bunch of homers hit, but you can see sustained rallies and the left field wall can turn long flies into doubles.

*Note: A quick look at Boyd’s World shows Vandy’s “Park Factor” from 2008-11 to be 104, implying it’s a very slight “hitter’s” park. If that’s the case then the more subjective numbers, which indicate it’s a “pitcher’s” park, likely are indeed being driven by the talented Vanderbilt pitching, as VUHT says.

The background on the wall is that the Hawk is directly adjacent to the football stadium and the basketball arena.  In fact, beyond the left field bleachers you can watch the game from the promenade plaza of Memorial Gym.  As a result, the dimensions are somewhat preordained.  Instead of offering up a purely short porch, the rebuilding of the stadium at the start of the Millennium led to a green monster (which works very well for our Red Sox fan manager and parade of New England kids).

DB: What can you tell me about this #1 recruiting class Vandy has coming in?

VUHT: The recruiting class is the real deal.  (Infielders Dansby) Swanson and (Xavier) Turner have a good shot at starting as freshman and OF Rhett Wiseman may have the highest ceiling of any Vandy positional player since Pedro Alvarez.  The arms are all fierce, too.  In particular, the "big 5" of the RHPs are all flamethrowers with high draft round potential.  They're led by Floridian Carson Fulmer (who is a lot like Sonny Gray, with a fastball topping out in the mid 90s and a wipeout breaking pitch) and Kentuckian Walker Buehler, who also is mid 90s max with great refinement.  Californian Trevor Ferguson and Indianan Luke Stephenson are classic, big hard throwing righties that Tim Corbin has utilized in the past.  Meanwhile, Pat Delano is a 6'7" giant with a very heavy fastball that pitches to contact.  In the Freshman class, Baseball America just released their top 50 draft prospects and Vandy had Bueler (1st), Fulmer (6th), Swanson (28th) and Wiseman (30th) all make the list.  I suspect guys like Turner, Stephenson, and Ferguson weren't far off of it.

DB: What’s the baseball culture like at Vandy and what impact has Tim Corbin had on it?

VUHT: Relative to the SEC West schools that can regularly draw 9,000+ to a game (LSU, Arkansas, and Mississippi State in particular), you would not call us baseball crazy.  But we've slowly gone from a place where baseball was largely an afterthought (mind you, there was great support at times, like when Jeff Peeples was setting records in the early 1970s that even David Price couldn't top), to a place where it can generate a real, lasting buzz. Mark Bechtel (one of several high profile sportswriters to come out of Vanderbilt recently) wrote this nice piece that referenced the fact that scalpers were seen for the first time during the 2007 Regionals.

All in all, the atmosphere could be improved (the food, while inexpensive, tastes particularly inexpensive), but it's definitely solid.  Relative to the only west coast park I've visited (UCLA's Jackie Robinson), the Hawk is downright palatial. Tim Corbin is constantly working on that and a full jumbotron and skyboxes are in the works, though it may take a while for skyboxes, as they would be dual use with the football field which is adjacent to the Hawk.

While Coach Corbin is the primary driver of the baseball ascent at Vanderbilt, a few other figures deserve praise and notice.  Row Mewborne was the longtime coach who made it all possible.  He arranged for the new stadium to be built (including the founding gift from Charles Hawkins) and paved the way for Corbin as his successor.  Additionally, Mew hired Derek Johnson.  Most consider Corbin retaining Johnson to be just about as important as any other element of VU's rise, other than the hiring of Corbin himself. Finally, David Williams (considered by many to be among the most powerful Athletic Directors in the country -- despite not heading one of the big boys of the SEC) has been a steadfast supporter of both Corbin and facility development at VU.  Above all else, those four individuals deserve the credit.

Special thanks To VUHawkTalk for giving us the 411 on the Commodores. He’s currently running a very in-depth series on the Vandy program on his blog, When[It]StrikesMe, which is worth a read. Don’t forget to check him out on twitter, @VUHawkTalk.

Dirtbags' Keys To The Series
From Stuart, Strufing, Anderson to Carle, Maciel, Hunt.
The Dirtbags are still in the process of finalizing their rotation, yet will be forced to throw their starters into the fire this weekend. If nothing else is accomplished, this series will give the still-auditioning Dirtbags starters prime opportunities to secure rotation jobs. This weekend could serve as an audition for the bullpen as well, which is still looking for some new “go to” stoppers.

Where will the offense come from?
I guess this is more of a "key to the season", anyway... Are we going to bunt Vanderbilt to death? Are Richard Prigatano and Michael Hill really poised to break out this year? How will Colby Brenner’s speed and knack for getting drilled by a pitch be utilized? Will we start referring to a .100 average as “the Murai Line”? (Sorry for the cheap shot, Mei Tai; I’m pulling for you this season.)

How will The Dirtbags handle the running game?
As VUHawkTalk mentioned in my last post, this is a Commodores team that pretty much runs wild and without fear. For three starting pitchers making their Division 1 starting debuts, controlling the VU running game will be a significant task. It will also be a major responsibility for catcher Royce Murai who, for all the grief I’ve given about him not being a “natural catcher”, did manage to throw out seven of 13 runners last year (after nailing just nine of 38 in 2011).

Up Next: No matter how this series turns out, at least the Dirtbags get to go home after this and get a breather against… defending national champion Arizona? You’ve gotta be kidding me…