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Championship Series Q&A With Burnt Orange Nation

When it was looking like Texas and LSU would meet for the championship, the guys from Burnt Orange Nation contacted me about having some cross-pollination on the blogs. A couple of their guys do most of the baseball coverage over there, and they sent me some questions to answer.  The questions and my responses can be found here.   I then sent some questions over to them.  Here are the responses:

1.  The Big XII is perceived as being a conference where runs are at a premium.  Is this generally true?  And if so, is it because pitching is really good?  Or is it batting that is lagging behind.  Just by way of example, our two ace starters, Coleman and Ranaudo, were #1 and #2 in the SEC in ERA among pitchers with certain minimum innings pitched, yet their ERAs hover around 3.0, and Mike Minor was a 1st round draft pick out of Vandy with an ERA of around 4.0.  Your pitchers have ERAs considerably better than that.  Do you have any insight as to how to compare them?

BON:  To answer your question there's one important fact to point out:  concerning Big XII baseball, there's Texas, and then there's the rest of the conference. This is evident in the results on the field (mainly because Texas is more talented year in and year out than the rest of the conference) and also shows in the way the teams play and score. A lot of the latter has to do with the environment in which Texas plays, namely the cavernous Disch-Falk Field which deflates both offensive and defensive statistics.

On the whole, the Big XII minus Texas has been more or less statistically equal to the SEC this season both offensively and in terms of pitching, so the perception that the Big XII is a pitcher's league without a lot of hitting teams probably isn't true. The Big XII (without Texas' stats) this season has averaged 7 runs per game with an ERA of 5.12, which compares favorably to 7.27 runs per game with 5.09 ERA for the SEC. The Big XII has its share of big arms, AJ Morris of KSU and Kyle Gibson of Missouri come to mind, but Texas is by far the best pitching club (4 of the top 5 leaders in ERA in the conference are Longhorns). The league generally hits the ball pretty well but that's probably a result of playing against inferior pitching and getting to hit in smaller ballparks. When the rest of the league heads to the postseason they run into good pitching and bigger ballparks, hence why only one Big XII team made it out of the regional round.

As an aside, we suspect that part of the reason Texas usually does so well in Omaha is because it is such a big park and usually plays to the team's strengths (pitching and defense). Texas' pitchers are very, very good, and there are a bunch of really solid arms, but they also benefit (and continue to benefit in Omaha) from playing in a big park.



2.  How is the Texas defense?  Does your catcher throw people out?  Do your outfielders cover a lot of ground?  Is the middle infield slick-fielding and strong-armed?

BON:  To borrow a phrase from former President Clinton, that depends on what your definition of "is" is. At the beginning of the season, we were very clear about the fact that the most important improvement that the Longhorns needed to make was in the field. Last year, we had a solid offense and decent pitching, but our fielding consistently sabotaged the team's attempts to jump from good to great. That correction did happen, as evidenced by Texas' presence in this championship series; yet for the last several games of the postseason, suddenly we have become error-prone again. The problem has been particularly prevalent in the middle infield, and even more particularly at second base. Travis Tucker has been very good in that spot all year long, but has had several lapses in either execution or judgment since he arrived in Omaha. Brandon Loy, at shortstop, can definitely be described as "slick-fielding and strong-armed" but has made a couple of mental errors lately as well.  At third base, Michael Torres has been magnificent both in terms of range and arm strength here lately. So if the infield can get back to its peak form from 2009, the answer is that our defense is very good.

Parts 2 and 3 of your question actually go hand-in-hand. Yes, our catcher does throw people out. Cameron Rupp has been fantastic behind the plate as a leader and a manager of the pitching staff. He has also displayed excellent mechanics in blocking the ball and coming out of his crouch to throw out base-stealers. The flip side to that is that Rupp beat out Preston Clark to don the tools of ignorance, sending Clark to left field. So we have a catcher by trade in left and Kevin Keyes, with his average-at-best speed, in right. Thankfully, we have Connor Rowe in center field and he has speed to burn. So we cover the outfield at or above average, but most of that ground is covered by Rowe.

3.  We at ATVS generally think that sacrifice bunting is rarely advisable.  We think the vast majority of successful sacrifice bunts leave the team worse off than it was before the bunt and ruins chances to get big innings.  We bunt a lot more than I would like, though we seem to have cut down on it a bit lately. I know you guys sac bunt a lot more than we do.  How do y'all feel about it?

BON:  Funny you should ask that. There has been an ongoing discussion all year at BON about the usefulness of the sacrifice bunt. Some argued against the bunt, we argued for the bunt as a useful offensive weapon for this particular Texas team to employ. As you've probably heard, and the 9th inning against ASU notwithstanding, Texas doesn't have a lot of strong bats in its lineup. Brandon Belt is one, although he's been struggling of late. Kevin Keyes is another. Cameron Rupp is probably the only other "power" hitter in the lineup.

When Texas gets into a bunting situation, that is leadoff man on base with nobody out, it has bunted a little over 55% of the time. With the bunt, Texas scores roughly 1.22 runs per inning, and when they don't bunt they score about .939 runs per inning. Three of Texas' biggest innings this season (11 runs in the Big XII tourney, 8 in the 9th to beat Army and 6 against ASU) have come without the bunt, so it's clearly not applicable in every bunting situation. But on the whole, Texas scores more runs when it uses the sac bunt then when it chooses not to.

Of course, you've got to see the bunt as part of the whole picture. Texas this season has gotten superior pitching and only needed a few runs per outing to win. The Horns are 30-1-1 this season when scoring six or more runs, with the only loss coming in the Big XII tourney. Without much power and only needing a few runs per outing, it makes sense that Augie would use the bunt in order to increase the odds of scoring a few runs.

That having been said, we don't think the bunt works for every team or in every situation, and Augie clearly recognizes this. Hence why Texas didn't bunt in the 4th against ASU. Texas also only bunted about 25% of the time when in a "bunting situation" because last year's team had much, much more power (but not nearly the pitching). If we had more power we wouldn't bunt as much. LSU has 26 sac bunts on the year, we have over 100...think about that the next time you want to complain about bunting too much.

4.  Tell me about your starting pitchers.  Who are we going to see?  How do they pitch?  Were they among the best in the Big XII.  Who will we see out of the bullpen?

BON:  Our starting picthers are spectacular, but all right-handed. They were most certainly among the leaders in the Big XII, as explained below in Question 5. We also go into this a little bit in Question 5, but the ideal rotation for Monday to Wednesday is Chance Ruffin, Cole Green, and Taylor Jungmann. The more likely rotation, though, is Chance Ruffin, Cole Green, and Brandon Workman. Jungmann is likely to be used out of the bullpen instead, because as one of our strongest pitchers Coach Garrido will not want to leave him waiting for an if-necessary game if one of the others gets in trouble against a scary LSU lineup.

 On the other hand, Green would be throwing on three days' rest if he pitched on Tuesday and Workman hasn't thrown at all since 3.2 innings in relief against Army in the sub-regional. With those opposite problems lurking, Garrido may go with Jungmann on Tuesday and save Green for Wednesday.

In any event, Ruffin is the staff ace who has come back down to earth a little bit after a monstrous freshman year, but who has still been fantastic all season. He has a lethal combination of craftiness and power that refelects a maturity not often seen in college pitchers.

Out of the bullpen, you may well see Jungmann or Workman at some point. You will definitely see Austin Wood and Austin Dicharry. And since our only other left-handed option is Keith Shinaberry, we expect him to get at least one hitter in at least one game; our guess would be that Garrido will go to him if we need to get Schimpf, Dean, or Mitchell out in a middle-innings situation. Shinaberry is a senior with a funky delivery, so he can be very, very tough on left-handed hitters. And if we get into a war of attrition on Wednesday, Kendall Carillo and Stayton Thomas would be our next choices.

5.  Would y'all consider pitching Austin Wood for extended innings, i.e. more than the 2 or so innings per appearance he normally pitches.  Considering he is a good pitcher, and he's your only real lefty option, he's probably the pitcher who would give us the most trouble.  How much do you expect him to go this series?

BON:  Austin Wood will almost certainly pitch more than 2 innings in at least one outing this series, if not more. What's been happening of late is the starter will go 6 strong innings then get into trouble in the 7th and Wood will be brought on to finish the game. He's a starter by trade, that's why he was able to go 13 innings against BC, and he can pretty easily pitch 2 innings for 3 straight games.

He won't necessarily be our first reliever out of the pen though. If Chance Ruffin gets into trouble on Monday, freshman phenom Taylor Jungmann will probably come out to save the day. Jungmann is scheduled to pitch the third game, but he has been Texas' best long reliever this season and can eat up a ton of innings. Given the choice between blowing your third starter early and a game potentially getting out of hand, Augie probably won't hesitate to burn Jungmann as a starter.  Augie will also probably use freshman Austin Dicharry early but with a short leash as he hasn't been the same pitcher in the postseason (with the exception of the BC game) that he was all year.

Starting in the 7th though, and possibly even the 6th inning, I'd get used to the idea of seeing Austin Wood. People have been saying that he hasn't been the same since BC, but he really hasn't gotten any help either defensively or from the baseball gods. ASU had three hits against him: an infield single, another infield single and a triple.
Against USM he gave up 3 runs (1 earned) but only gave up an infield single and a seeing-eye single to lead off an inning. TCU hit him hard but Texas was up 5 runs at the time.

Maybe we're just whistling through the graveyard, but we hope not.  Austin Wood will never be the pitcher that threw 12.1 hitless ball against BC, but expecting any pitcher to ever do that is to give them insanely unreal expectations. Rather, he is a very good pitcher that can eat up a lot of important innings. Hopefully for us he got a little bit of his mojo back against ASU.