Friday, March 15, 2013

Series Preview: Wichita State @ Dirtbags, 3/15-17

I had a "shocker" related clip I wanted to play but it wouldn't load, so here's my default backup: Troll 2. Enjoy.

Travel has forced me to write much of this the Thursday before last weekend’s series against Arizona State, so my analysis here will be a bit brief and somewhat vague. I’ll make up for it in this week’s edition of “Dirty Talk.”

What’s At Stake
Things have gone so far south lately that this series may not matter in the end. Barring some remarkable situation in which the Dirtbags would crush conference competition yet still fail to grab the automatic bid, an at-large selection isn’t happening this year. Either way, the Dirtbags have held a nice rivalry with the Wichita State Shockers (11-5) over the years, so this is always a series worth watching. A series victory for Long Beach State would also be nice to get things back on track before conference play opens in two weeks.

Tale of the Tape
Pitching Match Ups
Friday: RHP Cale Elam (3.26 ERA, 17:5 K:BB, 19.1 IP) vs. RHP Shane Carle (1.82 ERA, 17:6 K:BB, 24.2 IP)

Saturday: LHP Kris Gardner (4.91 ERA, 6:1 K;BB, 11 IP) vs. LHP Jake Stassi (6.00 ERA, 8:6 K:BB, 9 IP)

Sunday: RHP AJ Ladwig (3.86 ERA, 18:4 K:BB, 21 IP) vs. RHP David Hill (4.60 ERA, 10:5 K:BB, 15.1 IP)

Ten days ago I, half-jokingly, said on twitter that Stassi needed to be starting weekend games based on his fantastic relief outing against UCLA (4 IP, 7 K). Long Beach State, totally seriously, decided to go ahead and start him last weekend. The results weren’t great (3 ER, 3.1 IP) but Stassi may get a longer leash in his second start of the year this weekend.

I have mixed feelings about the switch to the Sunday spot. Jon Maciel’s results weren’t great (5.48 ERA) but his peripheral stats were strong (20 K, 7 BB, 21.1 IP) implying he should have better luck soon. However, Coach Buckley has said for some time that he sees Maciel as a reliever long-term. On the flip side, it’s exciting to see Hill finally get his first career start. It’s probably a good bet at this point that Hill will have a permanent weekend job by next season with a slim, but not outlandish, possibility that he’ll be pitching on Fridays.

I won’t say too much commentary on this for now so we can hurry up and get to “Dirty Talk”, but the Shockers’ have gone heavy on the platooning thus far, with 11 players having started at least seven of the team’s first 16 games. Regulars include switch-hitting senior third baseman Erik Harbutz, left-handed catcher Tyler Baker, and the team’s 3-4 hitters, first baseman Casey Gillaspie and designated hitter Johnny Coy.

The Dirtbags lineup… well, there’s not much to talk about so I’ll be brief. Jeff Yamaguchi is predictably seeing his strong early season numbers regress a little, and should probably be dropped in the order. Michael Hill is the only hitter swinging the bat right now, and really needs to be moved to the heart of the order very soon. Juan Avila and Ino Patron… get it together, guys. And Colby Brenner (.446 OPS) has really struggled, to the point where I may have to resign as president of his fan club very soon…

Dirty Talk
This week I’m thrilled to have the commentary of WSU Director of Operations, broadcaster, and former All-American pitcher Shane Dennis. Really makes up for the crappy 500 words I threw together, which preceded

Dirtbag Blues: First off, what the hell’s going on with the weather out there?

Shane Dennis: WSU played opening weekend but it was tough; temperatures in the high 30s with plenty of wind that made it uncomfortable. (Pittsburgh) made it uncomfortable, too. WSU got swept in a home series for the first time since 1970. A trip to Tulsa netted a win against Oral Roberts on the 19th. Then, between the 21st and the 27th, Wichita got 21 inches of snow, 14 inches on the 21st and that wiped out what amounted to eight games. Biggest snowfall in Wichita in years.

DB: Between the Pittsburgh series and all those canceled games, is there much cause for concern over how slowly this season has started for the Shockers?

SD: With eight days to sit around with a 1-3 start, it was rough. Forced indoors, soul-searching after four games is never fun and now you have to just practice and practice and no opponent to try and beat. There was (and is) plenty of concern. That’s not how it goes around here. It’s win or… No other recourse. Plus, with three straight years of no NCAA, EVERYONE is antsy around here when you’re scuffling.

DB: LBSU’s struggles have been a bit more pronounced, but it looks like both programs have taken a bit of a dip in the last couple years. What’s been the biggest cause for the Shockers’ recent downturn and how far is the program from getting back to Top-25 territory?

SD: I think WSU is just about always on the cusp of top 25s to start seasons, if for no other reason Gene Stephenson’s track record. His clubs will get the benefit of the doubt, and in a particular year, if they have a lot of returners they’ll at least be receiving votes or in the top 30. I think the biggest reason that’s tangible for a downturn is the college baseball programs that are more interested in fielding competitive teams, frankly. More people over the last 10 years have seen that college baseball can become somewhat lucrative and if you build some good facilities you can parlay that into a good program. Many programs somewhat close to Wichita State have put more and more money into their baseball budgets and perhaps start to attract more prospects because of that and it’s leveled the playing field, somewhat.

How far is the program away? Hard to quantify but two of the last three years, the RPI of WSU has been right on the edge of NCAA-at-large-worthy, so I guess there’s that. But Wichita State isn’t used to depending on at-large berths. Conference championships and conference tourney championships are what WSU is used to locking up and that’s been rarer the last three years.

DB: What can you tell me about that dynamic duo in the middle of the order, Casey Gillaspie and Johnny Coy?

SD: Casey Gillaspie is a lot like his brother Conor when he was here, in that they both have incredible batting eyes. They rarely chase pitches, rarely strike out and almost always have a quality at-bat. Difference is, Casey has more raw power at this point in his college career and is a switch hitter. Every team likes to have a guy or two in the lineup that makes you say, “Good, we got our guy up there now”. Casey is one of those guys right now, because of what I mentioned.

Coy is an interesting guy because he was our main threat last year, leading the team in homers, RBI, average, slugging and on-base %. Unlike Gillaspie, he’ll overswing now and then and get himself out more. But mistakes to him go a long, long way. Like Gillaspie he has true game-changing, raw power but has a few more holes in his swing. If he’s going well or on a hot streak, you don’t want to be a third baseman or a pitcher. When he barrels balls up, it comes off his bat differently than other college players.

DB: How has Cale Elam’s transition to the rotation been going? In general, what kind of year do you expect from an experienced Shocker staff?

SD: Cale Elam was a lockdown closer for WSU for two years. Due to a junior college signee going pro instead, the staff decided to have Elam start. He has a good sinking fastball, down movement on all his pitches and really good makeup, along with being a good athlete on the mound. It’s hard to say if he was a better reliever because he could go max effort for as long as needed, but so far he’s still trying to settle into the starter’s role. The team is confident when he goes out there because he competes, but he isn’t that power arm that WSU has historically rolled out on a Friday. The jury is probably still out on Elam being a Friday-caliber guy, but he’s not a guy that normally will beat himself. In my opinion, because of the BBCOR bats and Elam’s ability to throw strikes consistently, that’s a start.

The staff as a whole doesn’t have big arms, but like I said, strike-throwers can get you by today. That’s not to say WSU is without ability. Albert Minnis and closer Brandon Peterson probably have the most electric stuff. Minnis is a long-to-middle relief guy with a great sinker slider combo from the left side and induces one ground ball after another when he’s right. Peterson is the guy most likely to sit at 90-92 with his heater. TJ McGreevy is a big-framed strike thrower that has done a better job eating up the middle innings. Lefty Aaron LaBrie is an innings eater in the mid-innings. Overall, very good at throwing the ball over the plate, but most will need help from the defense.

DB: What's the biggest challenge this year's team faces as it tries to get back to the regionals?

SD: I think the biggest challenge for WSU this year is simply this: get back to winning the (Missouri Valley Conference) and win the conference tourney. WSU tries every year to get good RPI games but because the schedule is made sometimes two years out, that’s sometimes a crapshoot. The leadership on the team has to come from within. For the first time ever, no one on a roster has played in the NCAAs. That has to make the players hungry. In turn, they don’t have that NCAA experience to draw on, so they need to get back to having a hunter mentality. Against most teams, WSU will be the hunted, in that it’s still a big deal for other programs to beat Wichita State. Getting that edge back will be a huge start.

Kudos to Shane for putting up with Pittsburgh, snow, and a second-rate blogger these first few weeks of the season. Be sure to check him out on twitter for additional commentary on Shocks baseball.

Dirtbags’ Keys to the Series

The Offense
This has really turned into the key to the season, at this point. The offense needs to start seeing more from their most talented hitters, Patron, Avila, and Richard Prigtano. Freshman Eric Hutting and Zach Rivera are more than holding their own thus far, and juniors Michael Hitt, Jeff McNeil, and Jeff Yamaguchi are having breakout seasons. The ‘Bags have a legitimate potential to be a solid hitting team, but right now they may have the worst offense among the mainland Big West teams.

A New Look Bullpen
The one sure benefit from the recent rotation shake up is it allows Maciel and lefty specialist Landon Hunt to return to the relief corps. While the rotation on Saturdays and Sundays may continue to be a questions mark, stabilizing the back end of the bullpen could be a huge step forward for a pitching staff that, as Coach Buckley puts it, needs more “defined roles.”

Up Next: Cal State effing Fullerton. Oh and San Diego State, too, but who cares.