By Alexander Haynes
After a devastatingly awkward end to March, which includes five straight losses for the Texas State Bobcat Baseball team, April action has begun with a twist. Monday saw a 6-1 victory over the Baylor Bears, featuring Anthony Pagano receiving his first 2018 pitching start and win. Ryan Newman made sure to follow up the pitching staff’s display with a statement home run. However, the next evening while defending the comfort of Bobcat Stadium, they dropped another disappointing 3-5 loss to in-state rival UTSA Roadrunners. The loss featured all the tragedies of March: five pitchers used, a lack of thorough hitting, and wasted opportunity. No matter, the first April series is a chance to begin a deep, Sun Belt separating journey. The 15-14 University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks stand at the same 4-5 Sun Belt record as the Bobcats. Before the Bobcats can begin chipping back at the lead Little Rock has, they must begin by separating their style from that of the Warhawks.
ULM Warhawks Roster
The Warhawks 15-14 record is aptly average and embellishes a team defined by some power, but no definitive, congruent method. Chad Bell might have an isolated slugging percentage (ISO) of .228 and a .930 OPS; Johnny DeLa Cruz might be the veteran slap shot hitter batting at .295; Turner Francis even has a pesky 26 walks to 14 strikeouts. In the end, however, the Warhawks have been unable to unify all at one time as a team that can intimidate opponents. Some factors died in their losses, leaving the team incomplete – their negative 20 run differential with a negative 60 hit differential tells the story plain enough (albeit, some of those problems are upon the pitching staff).
If the Warhawks ring the bell of opposing pitchers, Bell is the player who typically has taken charge. He is the leader on the team with 29 hits, nine doubles, four home runs, and the afore mentioned stats. But, Bell carries with him the weight of a .5 walk to strikeout ratio (BB/K), so if he does not make contact he will usually be plodding back to the bench. His .379 on-base percentage (OBS) is inflated thanks to crowding of the plate and six pitches hitting him, providing free trips to first.
The risk of striking out is (arguably) an attribute more batters should take on. DeLa Cruz has two more hits than Bell (31) and the highest batting average at .295 with a more respectable .83 BB/K ratio. Contextualizing those numbers and DeLa Cruz only has one more walk than Bell. He just does not swing for depth of hit, instead opting to be a consistent basis for the team without inflating his numbers. Thus, DeLa Cruz may be the most potent batter for the Warhawks.
Francis and Spencer Hemphill lead the Warhawks in walks at 26 (1.86 BB/K) and 22 (.88 BB/K) respectively. Francis has a lower ISO of only .111, so he relies on plate discipline as his method to get on base. Hemphill also has a lower ISO of .175 in fewer at bats, implicating that rate should continue to drop. If Hemphill lowers his strikeouts, he can join Francis as a patient batter.
College baseball will not always beget every batter having the power to go-yard, but that does not make them any less valuable. See Francis and Hemphill; when they are paired correctly around Bell and DeLa Cruz, the two batters can turn their high OBS from walks into runs. Francis has already done so in winning games, as he is third on the team in runs scored (20).
The leader in runs at 26, however, tacks on another skill to his own 17 walks: stealing bases. Braedon Barrett has scored his 26 runs due to an emphasis on opportunism with 11 steals on 14 attempts. Barrett is also tied second in RBIs with 19, implicating his .410 slugging percentage is no fluke. While not being the most persistent hitter, Barrett is the most diverse.
In summation, the Warhawks potential lies within a crew of hitters complimenting one another with varying skill sets. When paired in the correct lineup, Barrett and Francis will find unique ways to get on base, steal, create more chaos, all allowing for Bell or De La Cruz to send them home.
The summation of the Warhawks lineup ought to sound familiar; the Bobcats lineup sings the same tune. The matchup against the Warhawks, then comes down to pitching – which is also why commentary on the Warhawks pitching has been left to here.
Embarrassing or tediously successful has been the two definitions for the Warhawks staff of pitchers this season. Their starters have been lacking in extensive innings, leaving a drab and tired bull pen to carry the brunt of the effort. Kyle Backofen, Trey Jeans, and Chase Beal have been the most used starters; they own a 12.12, 6.99, and 5.74 earned run average (ERA) respectively. There is nothing special creating their shaky starts – they are simply hittable. The bullpen of Keegan Curtis and Derek Martin are the Warhawks duct tape, owning a 2.87 and 2.84 ERA respectively. Curtis is the quickest worker, with 22 strikeouts and four saves.
The onus at hand is for the Bobcat batters to be more complimentary earlier on. Mentioned last week in playing Little Rock, the Warhawks have the same inverse prospect with a better bull pen than starting staff. While neither are as dominating as the Little Rock staff, the Bobcats can get ahead early if Luke Sherley and Jaylen Hubbard continue to find a way onto the base path. Their ability to be a pest in the back of the opposing pitcher’s mind with a steal ought to give way for Derek Scheible or Dylan Paul to push them forward with deeper, power hits.
One of the underlying points in the Bobcats wins has been the play of Mickey Scott, Jacob Almendarez, or John Wuthrich. While none are distinct for their accolades, they each have held key hits or analytics to build on the success the top of the lineup has experienced in isolated games. The bottom of the lineup has been below average as a whole. Yet, when one finds a way to raise their level of play to average by approaching the plate with confidence, the Bobcats can produce runs. Against the Warhawks staff, that goal is entirely possible.
Conversely, Connor Reich, Nicholas Fraze, and Zachary Leigh must come out with throwing confidence. Those who pitched last series not only lacked control but displayed a lack of confidence. Their pitches were to the whims of the Little Rock staff instead of being in their control.
The Warhawks are a potentially deadly batting lineup when allowed to compliment one another. Reich and Fraze not only own the pitch quality and pitch versatility to control this game, but the endurance to force the Warhawks to adjust toward them. The game becomes about manipulating every pitch. Even if that demands shorter, five inning displays, Seth Jordan and Kyle Bradford need to own the same chess-style component to their set ups to win every at-bat.
Then that becomes the goal for the Bobcats; manipulate this game in batting and pitching from the very outset of the matchup.
Featured image by Marina Bustillo-Mendoza.