By Alexander Haynes
Part One of a Two Part Series
There is an old adage in the relatively young department of baseball analytics: success boils down to a balancing act until a team can score more runs than they give up. Everything from fielding, FIP, walks and OPS is built into an even more obtuse word: efficiency. The goal at the end of the day is to be hyper-efficient, even pedantically boring and thoughtful on the way to deriving wins.
The odd point of baseball analytics is the brevity in the story they tell; in a sport that contains so much rich story, dramatic intensity, and addicting pain in the end of the ninth, analytics are all about shortening those stories into a spreadsheet, some poignant calculations, and then ridding the sport of as much drama as possible all for the sake of the perfect formula.
Unfortunately for robots and calculations, and fortunately for those who wish to always understand the game on a deeper basis, humans are fallible, and so is the search for perfection in sports. Watching a baseball game makes that perfectly understandable. And in 2018, the Texas State Bobcat baseball team will perfectly epitomize the fun and dynamism of baseball, while also being beautifully frustrating at times.
Such is life, and such is baseball. Just remember: the blend of analytics and the human comes down to process. That process for the Bobcats is going to be tested every game in a Sun Belt Conference that is ripe with competition. There are parts of the process which provide hope, and there are those aspects of major concern. From an analytical approach, the 2018 Texas State Bobcats are on their way to achieving the daunted level of efficiency more commonly known as the Sun Belt Conference Championship.
Run differential is a telling tale of how the entire team has performed by the end of the season. The Bobcat’s 2017 run differential was five – merely above the line of trepid pain which is a flat zero. For comparison, the Sun Belt East regular season victors, Coastal Carolina, had a run differential of 94. Yet it was South Alabama, the Sun Belt tournament champions, who owned the stunning run differential of 178.
Making up 173 runs to reach the levels of South Alabama is a tall task, especially considering their mark was 11th best in all NCAA Division I baseball (Louisville lead with 243). However, the key to understanding what run differential tells about the Bobcats’ projection for 2018 is to combine context with areas that need improvement, and then justify if those areas can equate to the good overpowering the bad.
386 runs were the total amount scored by the Bobcats in 2017, second best in the Sun Belt. That is the analytical line which gives the 2018 season underlying hope. The problems are not intrinsic to the natural approach to baseball, but the lines which paint a picture of a team who was buried in their own grief more often than not.
Before meddling with the individual players and coaches in batting and fielding, there is another line of support for hope in the Bobcats improvement: their Pythagorean Win Percentage (henceforth, PYTH). PYTH can be summarized as using runs scored and runs allowed to project an expected winning percentage. In the Sunbelt, six of 12 teams outperformed their PYTH. Or, theoretically, half the league may see heavy regression to the mean this season.
No team wants to fall under their PYTH, a mark usually emblematic of some unshakable inefficiency. The Bobcats had a .507 PYTH but ended with a .492-win percentage. The onus of analysis then becomes to find the inefficiency in the data and discover if that inefficiency is partial to nuance intrinsic to the talent or a correctable statistical line.
Pitching and Fielding Demands
One matter which must improve to assist the PYTH rate is the scream-inducing wild pitch, a stat line the Bobcats lead the Sun Belt in at 69. There is little to no excuse for erratic pitching, and no reason to explain the phenomenon other than mechanics. New pitching coach Chad Massengale has his hands full with a new pitching staff. At the same time, the enthusiasm and mysterious electricity around the uniqueness of Coach Massengale make the pitching staff an intriguing study in 2018.
Another data point that ought to be corrected by practice is errors. The Bobcats finished with 76 errors in 2017, tied for second most in the Sun Belt. Again, experience for players such as Jaylen Hubbard (19 errors) and Luke Sherley (seven errors) should correct the intricate moments in which all chaos seems to pour over the diamond.
Between the disciplined batting and correction in messy statistics (errors, wild pitches, steals allowed), the Bobcats are in good position to improve their run differential in 2018, and thus improve their overall record. After all, the 146 turned double plays point to the natural playmaking ability that must be tapped on a consistent basis. The intrinsic principles of analytics and human performance come together quaintly.
However, there is one area of concern. Aforementioned coach Massengale has one of the most important jobs in 2018. The Texas State pitching staff allowed the second most walks (316), had the third highest ERA (5.69), and the second most earned runs (332) in the Sun Belt. These are poor statistical lines, difficult to clean up in one off-season. The Bobcats can certainly improve on the attributes given above, but to truly improve to a championship level, the pitching staff and bullpens need to focus and harness a refined mound approach every game.
Speculating momentarily, with only 380 strikeouts (second least in the Sun Belt) it may be a matter of pitching more toward the strike zone. The Bobcats allowed 46 homeruns in 2017, but homeruns and power are not as bad as giving up walks and opportunities to build up scoring plays. A solo homerun every now and then is less egregious than the subsequent two RBI shots after giving up three hits.
There are two pitchers on the staff who deserve special attention. Junior Brayden Theriot from the bullpen and projected sophomore starter Nicholas Fraze stand to be the two most important pieces for the success of the team. Theriot finished the season with the lowest FIP (4.02) on the Bobcats’ staff, while also netting 34 strikeouts to 14 walks. After 37.2 innings of relief which stand to grow in 2018, Theriot could become an essential piece of stability coming into games late.
Fraze saw the most batters last season (370) and was only a freshman. His natural force exists, but he stands to improve on his control. Fraze’s 49 strikeouts underlie the pure potential that exists, but 11 wild pitches, nine batters hit, and 43 walks are too far removed from being effectively wild.
All in summation, the Texas State Bobcats, despite finishing under their projected record in 2017, have room to improve thanks to the notions of experience, cohesiveness and cleaner play. Analytics paint the picture of a team with natural talent, buoyancy, and discipline. A young pitching staff is now a year older, and there is room to improve on a disappointing team ERA. Analytics project a team whom can be boringly efficient under the umbrella of methodical winning. All that needs to be eliminated is the obtuse, chaotic plays.
The wait will not be long. Only two days separate the crisp, cool evenings of an electric and intriguing Texas State baseball team from displaying their own path to perfection on the baseball diamond.
Featured image by Madison Tyson.