Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A look back on the 2008 season

As Tim Corbin said last week, the Vanderbilt baseball program has reached a point where it does not rebuild; it reloads. Looking ahead to next season (and beyond), there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Sure, the Commodores lose nearly all of their starting position players in catcher Shea Robin, second baseman Alex Feinberg, shortstop Ryan Flaherty, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, center fielder David Macias, right fielder Dominic de la Osa and possibly catcher/first baseman Andrew Giobbi, who is a draft-eligible sophomore.

However, with the exception of juniors Brett Jacobson and Nick Christiani (neither of whom ever lived up to the hype), Vanderbilt returns its entire pitching staff, including weekend starters Mike Minor and Caleb Cotham.

More importantly, Corbin and assistant coach Erik Bakich have assembled an absolutely loaded recruiting class. This summer will be pivotal as major league teams will attempt to pry a number of recruits away from their Vanderbilt commitments. Super-talented Sonny Gray has said he will follow David Price's route and enroll in school, but will others do the same? With the exception of a couple, it appears that they will.

But, before we get into the future (that will be tomorrow), here's my quick take on the 2008 season: nothing ever quite clicked. We kept waiting and waiting for everything to come together and it never did. Was it a disappointment? Most definitely. I think Corbin and his team would be the first to admit that they underachieved.

In February, we gushed at the potential of the offense. The Commodores, after all, had three potential first-team All-Americans in their lineup (Alvarez, de la Osa and Flaherty) along with a premier leadoff hitter (Macias), reliable seniors (Feinberg and Robin) and a few talented underclassmen (Steve Liddle, Giobbi and Curt Casali).

On paper, there are few teams in the nation that compare. Why, then, did Vanderbilt struggle to find any sort of consistency? Forget about the pitching for a second. This lineup had the potential to out-score every opponent, regardless of who was on the mound.

After comparing the numbers from 2007 to 2008, it appears as though Vanderbilt's stars let them down. I attribute a lot of this to Alvarez's injury, but facts are facts nonetheless.

2008: .356, 9 HR, 40 RBI, .943 OPS
2007: .300, 0 HR, 26 RBI, .790 OPS

2008: .312, 2 HR, 35 RBI, .832 OPS
2007: .317, 4 HR, 44 RBI, .815 OPS

2008 (40 games): .317, 9 HR, 30 RBI, 1.017 OPS
2007: .386, 18 HR, 68 RBI, 1.147 OPS

2008: .324, 14 HR, 63 RBI, .954 OPS
2007: .381, 4 HR, 57 RBI, .969 OPS

De la Osa
2008: .297, 10 HR, 50 RBI, .916 OPS
2007: .378, 20 HR, 62 RBI, 1.179 OPS

2008: .309, 4 HR, 33 RBI, .832 OPS
2007: .286, 2 HR, 35 RBI, .710 OPS

2008: .332, 3 HR, 42 RBI, .856 OPS
2007: .312, 1 HR, 25 RBI, .787 OPS

The Commodores got career years out of Macias, Robin and Giobbi, while Feinberg's numbers were nearly identical to 2007. Yet, take a look at the numbers for Alvarez, and particularly de la Osa. That's an 80-point drop in batting average, 10 less homers, 12 less RBI and dramatic 263-point drop in OPS for de la Osa. As for Flaherty, he saw a tremendous increase in power, yet his batting average was signficantly lower and his OPS actually decreased.

Put simply, Vanderbilt needed its three best players to duplicate or improve upon their 2007 seasons to make up for the thin and inexperienced pitching staff and they failed to do so. As a result, you end up with a very good, NCAA Tournament-qualifying team, instead of a great, Omaha-bound team.

As for the pitching staff, we knew that it wouldn't be as good as it was in 2007. That's why it should come as no surprise to learn that in 2007, only three pitchers had an ERA above 4.11 and none were key contributors (Rhoden, Shao, Zeid), while in 2008, only three pitchers had an ERA below 4.11 and none were starters (Hayes, Brewer, Lamm).

Of course, the Dores missed David Price and Casey Weathers, but don't overlook the losses of Cody Crowell (4.05 ERA in 66 IP) and Ty Davis (3.12 ERA in 49 IP). They were an integral part of the team's success in 2007, particularly in the SEC Tournament where depth is a must.

Still, I think the Commodores' young arms performed admirably considering the fact that many of them were thrown into the fire prematurely and given much larger roles than Corbin and pitching coach Derek Johnson would have liked. Furthermore, the experience they gained should pay dividends in the future.

But, like the offense, the reason the pitching staff underachieved slightly stems from the fact that its "stars" actually regressed from 2007.

2008: 4.28 ERA, 103 IP, 99 H, 28 BB, 101 K, 9 HR, .261 OBA
2007: 3.09 ERA, 90.1 IP, 76 H, 19 BB, 88 K, 6 HR, .226 OBA

2008: 4.97 ERA, 76 IP, 85 H, 25 BB, 65 K, 10 HR, .284 OBA
2007: 4.11 ERA, 70 IP, 71 H, 36 BB, 57 K, 6 HR, .271 OBA

2008: 5.09 ERA, 46 IP, 48 H, 20 BB, 42 K, 3 HR, .271 OBA
2007: 3.15 ERA, 74.1 IP, 83 H, 15 BB, 58 K, 4 HR, .283 OBA

After an outstanding freshman campaign, Minor went through somewhat of a sophomore slump. His ERA increased by more than a run, his WHIP went from 1.05 to 1.23 and opponents hit for a much higher average (35-point increase) against him.

But, even more discouraging was the performance of Jacobson, who was never as good as scouts expected him to be coming out of high school. Jacobson's stuff is so electric that he is still expected to be a high draft pick despite having mediocre numbers, although that's hardly a consolation for the Dores, who expected to him evolve into a weekend starter, or at least a dependable reliever. He was neither.

In 2008, his ERA was above 5, his WHIP was close to 1.50 and he pitched just 46 innings (one less than Taylor Hill) compared to 74 in 2007, further proof that Vandy could not count on him. With such a young staff, Johnson never should have had to waste time worrying about Jacobson. The sad thing about it all was that few worked harder than Jacobson to succeed. He cared so much about the team and wanted so badly to contribute, and it's unfortunate that he could never put it all together.

As for Christiani, it's hard to be too upset with the junior right-hander, who gave it his all every time out. Sure, his numbers weren't spectacular, but they weren't bad for a No. 3 starter.

Overall, Vanderbilt was probably one or two arms short. It also needed Minor to repeat or improve upon his 2007 performance (no easy task) and absoultely had to get quality innings out of Jacobson in order to become a serious contender. With that said, next year's staff looks extremely promising.

To wrap things up, the best way to describe the 2008 season is frustrating. It was frustrating for the players, who for one reason or another, couldn't recreate the magic of 2007. It was frustrating for the coaching staff, who watched as experienced players made inexcusable mental mistakes and generally underachieved. And it was frustrating for the fans, who have come to expect greatness from this program.

With that said, nothing should diminish the impact that these upperclassmen have had on this university. It is going to be awfully difficult to replace the likes of Flaherty and Feinberg and Macias and Alvarez, not only as athletes, but as people. It has been an absolute joy watching these guys for the past three seasons and it's going to be a strange feeling next March when I look out on Hawkins Field and see a new cast of characters. So, to every Commodore who has played his last game in the black & gold, I say thanks.

1 comment:

Tony Arnold said...

Great analysis. I too echo a great thanks from the heart to all our VU players who will be leaving. They were key in taking us to a new level of performance and raising expectations. Now we will see if Vanderbilt baseball can continue this great progress and move to the elite tier going forward.

There is no doubt that this is Coach Corbin's and his staff's expectation and plan.

One thing that baseball along with our basketball resurgence has done is that now all sports are expected to have winning seasons and play in the post season rather than just hope to. A big change from past generations at VU.

And a much needed change of attitude.