Clemson Baseball: Where do they go from here?
|Monday, June 4, 2018, 1:18 PM- -|
CLEMSON – Clemson baseball players stood along the first base line following Sunday’s blowout loss to Vanderbilt, tears streaming down many faces, and sang the alma mater acapella with the few fans left in the stands. It was a poignant moment, showing that college athletics goes above and beyond simple wins and losses.
Sunday’s loss to Vanderbilt, however, wasn’t a simple loss. It was a blowout loss of record proportions. A shortstop who had homered just four times in his previous three SEASONS hit three homers in seven innings against Clemson’s beleaguered pitching staff.
As head coach Monte Lee said after the game, the Tigers simply ran out of arms.
Message boards and social media is on fire after yet another loss in a home regional – Clemson hasn’t escaped a regional since 2010 (also the last time the program went to Omaha), an eight-year lapse that is almost unthinkable for one of the game’s top-tier programs.
So, where do the Tigers go from here? Let’s start by looking back first. This Clemson baseball team was picked to finish third in the ACC Atlantic Division, behind Florida St. and Louisville. In terms of votes garnered, Clemson was picked fifth overall in the ACC. There were questions galore, and most of them centered on the pitching staff. Lee and pitching coach Andrew See lost pitchers who started 63 of 63 games in 2017 and lost over 400 innings pitched.
In their place? A couple of kids who were trying to make the transition from relievers to starters (Jacob Hennessy and Brooks Crawford) and another that was making his way back from an arm injury (Jake Higginbotham).
Those three grew up a little bit and the Tigers won the ACC Atlantic Division title, won 47 games and had the Clemson in the conversation for a national seed. Two games against Vanderbilt, however, seemed to have skewed everyone’s perception of how this season went. It went better than any of us expected if you’re honest with yourself. Because of the pitching concerns, this team overachieved in my opinion. But that last loss – or last two – is all anyone will focus on, and that’s a shame.
After taking some time to think about it, and reach out to an old college coach I know, Clemson’s pitching staff finally hit the proverbial wall. Guys who weren’t used to pitching with a heavy workload – starters and relievers - wore down over the course of the season.
And that, finally, gets me to my first point on how this team and program needs to improve heading into 2019. It would be a tremendous help if Crawford and Higginbotham return next season and build off of what they did in 2018.
Next season, regardless of who starts, the starters have to go deeper into games. Higginbotham was monitored carefully after his arm trouble, which explains his low inning totals for a starter. Lee also believes in baseball metrics and told us a few weeks ago that he doesn’t like for his starters to go through a lineup more than twice. Once a hitter faces a pitcher for the third time, the hitter’s chances of success go up. As a result, Clemson’s starters didn’t make it past the fifth inning very often.
Crawford went seven innings twice and pitched into the sixth four times. Higginbotham went seven innings once and 7 1/3 once but pitched into the sixth inning just three times. Hennessy went seven innings once and 7 1/3 just once but did pitch into the sixth seven different times.
In six starts, Spencer Strider went into the sixth just once, pitching 6 2/3. Holt Jones had a few starts and went into the sixth once, while Sam Weatherly had five starts and went 4 1/3 innings as his longest outing. When you watch the College World Series, take a long look at how many times teams ride a starter in that big ballpark in Omaha. You see guys who take the ball and throw as many as 120 pitches. Why? To save the bullpen for shorter stints. I would like to see the starters take another big step next season and go longer into games, metrics be damned.
And no, I am not contradicting myself by saying that the starters went less innings yet wore out - these are guys who simply had never had the workload they faced this season, and it was telling.
I go back to my days of covering professional baseball. A pitcher told me that when he was in Double-A, he was getting smacked around pretty good early on. He had given up a few hits and a few walks and was laboring into his fourth inning. He kept glancing into the dugout, hoping to see the manager pop his head out and come and get him. Finally, the manager made the walk to the mound and the young pitcher held out the baseball.
The manager told him to take it. The pitcher was told he had to learn to work out of troubles of his own making or he would never be an asset to the organization or himself. With his point made, the manager walked back into the dugout. The kid learned a valuable lesson that day, and I was happy to see him enshrined in Cooperstown a few years ago.
As far as other things that need to improve, no one needs to tell Lee or the coaching staff. Despite what those on the message boards might think, they do practice baserunning and fielding and bunting. The defense was better this season, but the baserunning has to get better. There were times when the Tigers were TOO aggressive in sending runners, especially from third base home.
This is now the point where you have to trust Lee and the coaching staff to make the needed changes, and they will. It’s also the point where you realize 47 wins is pretty dang good and needs to be appreciated, but making it to Omaha and winning it all is always the ultimate goal at Clemson and that hasn’t happened in nearly a decade.
Next year needs to see the next steps taken in many areas. The good news? The steps are short.