By Alexander Haynes
It was the middle of March and all was trending in favor of the Bobcats in the beginning of their Sun Belt series. Through the latter half of March, however, the Bobcats have gone 4-5 marching through mud, now standing at an overall record 14-9-1 and have a dangerous precipice of dropping into the obscurity of Sun Belt mediocrity. Correcting the slide begins by chipping away with improvements one game at a time against Sun Belt opponent Little Rock Trojans. The Trojans were the 2017 definition of average – owning a Pythagorean record of .500 as they finished with as many runs scored as given up (300). However, their actual record of 21-34, falling underneath the Pythagorean, was due to a tragic slide of incomplete output. One year removed, the Trojans are seeking to define their play with a record of 14-10 and 4-2 in Sun Belt play. The Bobcats and Trojans have equal onus this weekend to take the series, less the hole starts to become too big to turn the tide in April. Both teams will have their month of March defined by this series.
Little Rock Trojan Roster
The Trojans have an RBI and run creation problem, sitting at a run differential of negative five and only one player, Troy Alexander, with more than 15 RBIs (26). The RBI problem originates precisely from a strikeout and on-base percentages (OBP) problem. No player has a walk to strikeout ratio greater than 1:2, epitomizing a bevy of OBPs that are stuck at a team average .337. While .337 is not tragic, it’s the textbook definition of marginal base production. The meta theme for the Trojan’s batting lineup is a team unable to succeed in the play-creation department.
With a high number of RBIs arriving from home runs, prudency would be to pitch away from home runs. Yes, their 20 home runs have come in 11 of 24 games (46 percent), but those numbers are rather clustered with 11 home runs coming in the span of three games. Besides Alexander and Matt Merino with five a piece, the team is streaky. While streaky usually indicates average regression, streaky does mean at varied points, they will catch on fire.
The player most responsible for their fire is Alexander, dominating with a 1.089 OPS, 37 hits and 63 total bases. As mentioned, he has found ways to send players home with 26 RBIs. The next leader in total bases, Chase Coker at 43, also owns a high OPS at 1.007, just at the cost of hits with 28. He nearly has the same analytical line as Alexander, just discounting home runs to a whopping one. Merino is the third punctual hitter, with five home runs and 14 RBIs he has powered with a .494 slugging percentage (SLG) that should end above .550 come end of the season. While not being overt, Merino also has adjusted his game to lower strikeouts to a team best rate of 11 percent, making himself arguably the most stable Trojan batter.
Kale Emshoff and Marcus Ragan round out the potent batters on the team. Emshoff has nine hits, an .845 OPS and nine doubles. In fact, his doubles have been a major boost to providing leverage situations and a win against Northwestern State earlier in the year. The team as a whole is on a six-game streak of hitting doubles, which is notable due to the potential of Ragan. The Trojans are not defined by base path athleticism, but Ragan has captured 11 steals in 14 attempts. There is a respectability to their lineup if they compliment analytics by aligning their placement hitters (those responsible for doubles) immediately before Ragan while working in pinch runners.
Chandler Fidel, Cole Townsend and Ethan Daily compose the three most utilized starting pitchers in respective order. Yet, relief pitcher Justin Garcia has been the most functional pitcher by a landslide, already receiving credit for five saves. Garcia is a riding a magic carpet with a very respectable 3.8 walks per nine innings (BB/9) and an incredible 15 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9).
Fidel is the epitome of the Little Rock persona; he strikes out at an average pace, does not own the verbose style and has a low 1.6 BB/9. Not profound, but good enough to get the job done on a regular basis. That is unless he starts hitting pitchers (awkwardly high eight on the season) or gives up the proverbial double (11 allowed) which has given him the persona of a pitcher who deteriorates upon one bad event. Townsend is analytically more proficient than Fidel, although they pitch much the same style with some power and more control (Townsend just more refined). While Daily does not own the control, he makes up for it with variety seen in 10.3 K/9 and 8.85 BB/9, ultimately forcing ground outs.
Garcia and Donavin Buck clean-up for the bullpen. Even if the batting lineup does not get out to an early lead, the bullpen has a rare trait to redefine a game in the highest leverage innings. As mentioned, Garcia is the most dominating pitcher on the team, luring batters toward false precepts with 47 strikeouts. Buck is more of a project who has somehow evaded disaster. Despite a lower margin of strikeouts (18 strikeouts – 6.72 K/9), Buck has kept runs from creeping in with a 2.96 ERA. Eventually, he may start slipping, but thus far, he has had the mental edge to battle through a storm.
The Trojans are a team, on a macro level, who neither crowd the plate nor take a high proportion of walks. The Bobcats pitchers, in their slide, have been providing more opportunity than teams deserve due to both walks and erratic pitching – the loss to the Texas Longhorns on Tuesday night extrapolated the travesty. Thus, the first note on this game would be to analyze whether the bull pen was facing more austere teams, or if they are truly generous in giving other teams a frustrating advantage.
Nicholas Fraze and Connor Reich have been typically progressive in forcing the issue toward batters – an advantage point pitching toward a team who may not have a decent identity yet. Their confidence will play a huge part in the series. Zachary Leigh has less control on his pitch, leading toward a slightly higher ERA at 4.68. Leigh’s definition pitch and variance will be key for him finding a way to net a victory.
The Trojans do not boast an analytically proficient roster. Their batters are akin to that of Texas State in the notion one player will hit a walk or single, but the next series of batters will ground out. Without that complementary method, the bull pen composition of whomever can take advantage and extend their appearances, preventing the wasting of a pitcher to get one out and immediately replaced at the turn of the next inning. Recall, the game against the Longhorns used five pitchers, giving the bull pen only two days rest.
Texas State batting has been dubious and full of pitiful brevity as of late. Doubles and SLG are mere statistical lines unless they create functional scoring plays. The challenge against Little Rock, and for the remainder of the season, is to finally send Derek Scheible, Luke Sherley or Jaylen Hubbard home after they get on base. Slap shot hitters have to be efficient early and often.
The particular emphasis is on early. Unlike many baseball games, the Little Rock Trojans have a formidable bull pen; once they get ahead, they stay ahead. Their bull pen also gives the batting lineup a chance to come back. Thus, the starters are the most pierceable pieces through traditional play sets. Unless the Bobcats want to rely on Dylan Paul to rescue them with a ninth inning home run (a strategy that usually results in his walking), the Bobcats need to take advantage of the starter in innings one through four.
In summation, the Bobcats pitching walk rate and batting through the first four innings will tell the narrative of the series.
Featured image by Marina Bustillo-Mendoza.