By Alexander Haynes
The magic of opening night is derived from the unknown, the surprise, the intensity of nine innings. Baseball is a game which can go back and forth, evoking some of the most reactionary sporting moments. One half inning gives a chance to score, the next half inning, the team can no longer score. For fans, the difference between hope while batting and gripping fear of inevitable disaster until the pitcher leaves the mound is unmatched. For players, that unparalleled moment to display grit in the art form of defense is also unmatched.
Mastering that art form, no matter the opponent, is key for the Texas State Bobcats to prevent tumultuous defense defining their season. Consistency is key, and in facing the Oklahoma State Cowboys on opening night, the Bobcats need to find a way to navigate their way through a determined batting lineup. In last season’s series against the Cowboys, the teams combined for 49 staggering runs, with the Cowboys winning the series 2-1. Yet, as the season went on, both teams revealed key fundamentals which will make the 2018 opening series a dynamic three-game set.
The Cowboys’ Roster
Familiarity, experience, and routine are important heading into a baseball season, with special importance on who the Cowboys are returning. Three players had over 200 plate appearances for the 2017 Cowboys; they return only catcher Colin Simpson for this season. No matter what, the roster as an entirety was undergoing prep work as they bring four seniors to lead the showcase.
Andrew Rosa returns to the infield after posting an OPS of .651. Catcher Travis Wacker posted an OPS of .652 but saw only 17 games of work last season. Outfielder Jon Littell saw 191 plate appearances, impressively batting in 28 RBIs but striking out a team second most 43 times. The last senior is pitcher Cole Hearrean, who faced 112 batters out of the bullpen, posting a 4.38 ERA and a 3.21 FIP.
The two most important returning underclassmen are infielders Ryan Cash and Cameron Dobbs. Both posted eerily similar numbers, seen in the AVG/OBP/SLG line of .274/.413/.296 and .220/.346/.273 respectively. The main difference was Dobbs’ propensity to chase balls as he recorded 36 strikeouts in his 164 plate appearances, implicating plate control needs to improve. Interestingly, despite the strikeouts, his SLG did not suffer, rather his average line was the mediocre point. The implication may be that Dobbs chases pitches attempting to pull the ball instead of chasing pitches for power.
The Cowboy’s main pitching pieces, save Blake Battenfield, all return. Hearrean will be combined with juniors Joe Lienhard (10 games started) and Carson Teel (three games started). Hearrean posted a strikeout to walk ratio of 26:11, while allowing 26 hits. Lienhard struck out 60 batters in 65.2 innings, but had trouble controlling trickle damage, as he allowed 69 hits. Teel was the best of the bunch, posting 64.2 innings of pitching, allowing only 53 hits while striking out 77 batters and hosting a 3.06 ERA. Heading into 2018, Teel’s performance in either the bull pen or starting rotation will be key.
No matter if the Bobcats won or lost, many of their matchups last season were high-scoring forays. For better or worse, the matchup against Oklahoma State stands to be another dynamic outing. If the 49 total runs last year in Stillwater, Oklahoma were not emblematic enough, consider that a total of 56 batters were left on base in the series. Despite the difference between the Big 12 and Sun Belt, both teams model a very similar role of that pesky lineup waiting to explode at any moment.
As the lineups both resemble one another, the x-factor becomes pitching down the stretch of middle innings. The Bobcats walked 26 while striking out 24 – the Cowboys walked 12 while striking out 35. However, with so much turnover coming from both staffs, especially notated by the Bobcats hiring pitching coach Chad Massengale, statistical projections for both teams are hard to ascertain.
Not hard to ascertain is the more psychological approach to the game’s outcome. The turnover indicates a young pitching bullpen for the Cowboys. Another way to put that is that the Bobcats need to chip through Friday’s starter Jonathan Heasley and Saturday’s starter Brady Basso to arrive at the bullpen. Heasley threw 38 innings, landing 31 strikeouts and a 4.81 FIP. Basso saw 17.2 innings pitched in his freshman year, posting 28 strikeouts and a 4.09 FIP.
The most proficient method to do this is by batting off fouls and taking ownership of at-bats. Instead of chasing the pitcher, the Bobcats lineup needs to impose impatience on the Cowboys by being frustratingly patient waiting for particular pitches. No matter how cliché and normative it sounds, the quicker the bullpen arrives on the mound, the sooner deeper hits can land.
Steals are another aspect that can assist the Bobcats’ production. In some of their most successful moments, the Bobcats were efficient at frustrating pitchers by stealing. The Bobcats’ roster has a veteran prose compared to the Cowboys bull pen, which opens advantage in heady, psychologically oriented plays such as the steal.
An underlying story through the Cowboys’ 2017 was Park Factor, a stat which tells the difference in runs between home and away games. The Cowboys lead the Big 12 with an infallible 1.551 Park Factor, seventh best in Division I NCAA baseball. With the discomfort playing a role in their play, the Bobcats may have an advantage in successfully making those psychologically unsettling plays.
In the end the punctuation on the game must involve the Bobcats’ bullpen maintaining a level of control every single night. In asking what is most likely to happen, the series will be a high scoring, back and forth slaughter. Batting will only go as far as a bullpen allows it – the trepidation of baseball is partial to the abilities of the bullpen, and as stated in the pre-season, the most important factor in the Bobcats’ season will be their depth and veteran pitching aptitude.
In a succinct impact note, the starting pitchers need to establish a stage for the bullpen to move in relaxed, without the fear of impending disaster. Nicholas Fraze must lower his 43 walks and prevent the Cowboys from freely getting on base. 11 wild pitches and hitting nine batters needs to be distant memories if Fraze wants to efficiently last six innings. Connor Reich held a higher ERA at 5.73 (compared to Fraze’s 4.59), but with 71 strikeouts kept his FIP a point lower than Fraze at 4.55. The differing styles will put different demands on the Cowboy’s lineup, providing a stage for the team to set an opportunistic narrative.
And by Sunday afternoon, the opportunity teammates provide to one another will determine who takes the opening series.
Featured image by Texas State Athletics.