Well the first Third of the season is in the book. It's had it's highs (opening SEC play with a series win) and lows (last weekend's sweep). A fair warning and disclaimer before you read this:
I love Auburn baseball and sometimes it is hard to take off the Orange-and-Blue-tinted glasses. With that being said, sometimes you have to look at the team you love objectively and fairly and give a warts-and-all breakdown. This is what I hope to give here.
Only Auburn fans had high expectations for the upcoming year. We saw the talent (Hunter Morris, etc) and preseason honors. We saw the recruiting class and the renewed optimism that comes with a new coach. We knew about the tradition and the facilities. To casual fans, it was a no brainer. There was no reason Auburn couldn't or shouldn't be successful in baseball. To people who follow the league it would be a struggle and Auburn was predicted to finish 5th in the West. A prediction so far, that is holding true to form.
The glory years of Baird (and partly Renfroe) are long gone and the league has changed tremendously. Auburn, currently, is treading water, and is doing an admirable job trying to stay afloat in arguably the best conference in America. I won't second guess any Auburn hires, but Tom Slater, in my opinion, didn't leave the program in the best shape. To be successful in college baseball you need senior leadership, consistent play, and one or two dynamic playmakers.
Yes, Auburn has the pieces to be successful. However, it also has some glaring holes.
The numbers don't lie. They also paint a picture about Auburn as a whole. Yes, we can hit the cover off the ball (and SEC leading 48 Home Runs) and is in the top three of many of the SEC batting categories (slugging %, Hits, Doubles, Triples, Total Bases) but it's all power (Auburn also leads the league in Strikeouts and is just middle of the road in Batting Average). There is little speed on the base paths (dead last in steals and steal attempts, towards the bottom in caught steeling).
The most alarming stats are the ones that show just what's really killing the Tigers.
The battery has just been battered (and SEC worst 5.32 ERA) and is the pitching stats are just well, miserable. Auburn ranks hold the dubious distinction of leading the league in Opponent Batting Average, Saves, Hits allowed, Runs allowed, Earned Runs allowed, Walks allowed, Doubles allowed, and Home Runs allowed.
Before you say pitching (which is true). The Main killer, in my opinion, is defense. Auburn trails only Florida in the Errors (32 on the year). They also don't turn double plays (7th) and Opponents have stolen 22 bases against the Tigers.
The most alarming stat is this: Auburn's infield (3B: Sanders SS:McElroy and 2B: Hargett) each have 6 errors on the year. That's a glaring hole in our infield that will be hard to fix.
Before you blame the bullpen on coaching, let me stop you. It's not the coaches fault. Auburn is just holding true to form from the years under Slater. We had a team ERA of 4.86 last year (5.67 in the SEC) last year and Under Slater the ERA ballooned from 3.89 in his first year to 5.15 in his second. It's a jump Auburn never really recovered from.
The defense was still a problem last year (Hargett and Sanders led the team in Errors with 13 and 14 last year respectively).
Also, and most importantly, this is Coach John Palowski’s first year. Another key to success in the league is stability at the head coaching position. Hard to do when Athletic Departments have quick trigger fingers. Take a look at the current SEC Standings, and the Coaches tenure at the school (Years at School or YaS) and their 08 Finish:
|Arkansas||6-0||Dave Van Horn||6|
|Ole Miss||4-2||Mike Bianco||8|
|Mississippi St||2-4||John Cohen||1|
|South Carolina||2-4||Ray Tanner||12|
Notice a pattern? The teams at the top, early in the year, have Skippers with over 5 years tenure at the school. Of course there are a couple of exceptions (LSU and South Carolina) and scheduling plays a major role but regardless.
You can try to blame the coaching all you want but then you’d be overlooking the results. As much as Auburn has struggled pitching, Scott Foxhall (the pitching coach) has a proven track record and Auburn does actually have some good things going for it. Auburn is in the middle of the SEC for staff strikeouts (192) and last year had 394 as a staff. It took Auburn all of March and February combined to reach 196 last year. It also leads the SEC in Strike Outs looking. Doing all this without a power arm in the rotation either.
Matt Heath’s (the hitting coach) impact is already being felt.
I won’t go into a lot of riggermarolling about our players. It’s not my place to criticize and second guess them. These are amateur athletes and not MLB players. All I can do is just point out a couple of facts. Fact is, we’re young. Almost too young. Look at the SEC standings, and the number of UpperClass Position Starters (UC/PS) for each team. These are the position players (not including the DH) who are Juniors and Seniors. Also, we’ll look at rotations and see the number of Upper Class Starters (UC/S)
The only upperclass position players are Ben Jones (SR) and Joe Sanders (JR). No SEC team has fewer and Auburn is tied with Vandy and UT for the fewest.
I know these numbers can be misleading (it doesn’t include/factor player who played last year) but still, it shows just how young Auburn is.
It also doesn’t help that Auburn lost two of its better players before the season even started (Cory Luckie and Catcher Ryan Jenkins). You can play the coulda-woulda-shoulda game all season but having Luckie out for the year, and Jenkins out to-be-determined didn’t bode well for the Tigers to start the season.
Also, you’ll never know just who will be coming back for Auburn next season. Hunter Morris is probably gone, Sanders could also make the jump.
But sometimes the youth can be a good thing, because it gives you hope for next season when things get rough. We’ve got some good young arms (Blatt, Dexter Price, and Jon Luke Jacobs) and still haven’t seen Adam Purdy (who was the highest MLB draft choice of the incoming freshman). So even if Grant Dayton jumps, then we’ll still more than likely have Luckie, Price, and Jacobs. Three guys who could make up our 2010 weekend rotation.
THE FUTURE (IMMEDIATE)
So should we panic? Hardly. The season is still young and it’s not like Arkansas was the worst team in the league. It just means that crunch time is coming a bit earlier than usually for Auburn.
Our next three SEC series (Vandy, Mississippi State, Florida) are all winnable (not sweepable) series. I’d go so far as to say they are each must win series. Also sandwiched in there are mid week games that should be good tune ups.
Currently Auburn has a better ISR (47) than each of these teams (51,61,54) and should be the favorite.
So, best case? We take each series. and go 8-3 for the trip. That moves us to 10-6 in the league. We take care of business midweek wise and we move our record to 26-11 overall.
So Auburn needs to buckle down and take care of business this weekend.