Part 3: Looking At Bulldog Baseball

SEC baseball is on the TV right now. I’m watching it from home office instead of what would be my perch three floors overlooking Hoover’s home plate. Might have said ‘should be’ but since 2002 we’ve learned the Tournament cannot be assumed on our schedules.

Why that is so, and what it signals about the state of Mississippi State now and for the future, is tomorrow’s topic. But today’s is related to the other Tournament we won’t be working this June.

See, even had these Bulldogs scratched and clawed their way into Hoover, they had to win the automatic NCAA berth. No at-large bid was coming, and most realized that by end of April. It is not simply that Mississippi State lost too many non-conference games.

State played an out-of-league slate of such modest schedule strength, if that’s the word, that even winning most all the games would have cut the ratings power index too close for comfort. With any significant number of losses, the ratings sank precipitously. I did not track numbers all spring but best I recall in the NCAA’s weekly release was in the low 90s. Conventional wisdom is anything outside the 50s is perilous for picking, especially in seasons with upset conference tourney winners.

So. The point? Firstly, State must look seriously at upgrading the non-conference schedule for 2016 and every year after. It’s understandable John Cohen and staff cobbled together the ’15 slate with so many unknowns, and so many strong suspicions, about the team.

The laudable goal of building club confidence with a lot of early wins came to naught sadly and in every sense. State made no good use of their 13-0 start, and as things played out it might not have mattered anyway.

Fans, certainly season ticket-buying fans, likely will applaud any suggestion of seeing stronger opponents. It’s interesting, by the way, that compared to the obsession over football scheduling and scrutiny of basketball scheduling, baseball slates rarely get a lot of attention beyond any big February/March names.

Oh, and while speaking of football scheduling let me briefly digress. Thanks for the check Tulane, thanks for making clear you can never again be trusted to honor contracts. Soon enough you’re likely to add this one to the long list of spectacularly-bad decisions made by Green Wave sports since somebody suggested leaving the $EC was wise. But enjoy life sliding into gridiron Gehenna, and pay not notice to that CUSA specter leering over your left shoulder saying ‘baaack, you’ll be baaaaack…’

Back to Bulldog Baseball business. Boosting State schedules is something everyone can debate reasonably, either way. The second suggestion will be much more controversial.

Play several pre-league road games against good teams or in high-profile tournaments.

We’ll wait for the shock wave to settle.

Now. Why on earth would anyone suggest upgrading the schedule and leaving home more often? The simple answer is those three letters: R. P. And I.

The ratings value of good home games is obvious. What isn’t as appreciated is the extra point rewarded for leaving home, even neutral site contests. I mean just for playing those games; winning is a bonus. Even playing a relative lightweight on the road adds up, certainly more than hosting a SWAC squad. And imagine the blow of losing to anyone from that lea…wait, what? Oh. Right.

Naturally there will be fears of giving up home-field advantage. But really how much benefit has DNF been? Numbers time. In non-conference play from 2010, the first season Cohen had some of his own recruits to work with, through 2015 Bulldog teams are 100-23. So far, so good.

But looking at SEC results spoils the picture. For these six seasons State is exactly .500, 45-45, in league play at home. And if it is noted the 2010 season still showed rebuilding effects with a 4-11 record, the 2012 team went 11-4 to balance it out. Or for more recent perspective, in the three years since State is just 23-22 in home conference games. Which is not much advantage at all.

By the way, and of purely trivia interest, Mississippi State has not had a SEC game weathered-out in five full seasons now.

Even the fine non-conference record loses luster in recent context. In 2014 the Dogs were 14-5 against non-conference visitors; this year it was 16-4 but a dozen of those wins came in February. And from March-through-May the record in Tuesday/Wednesday play home or neutral site was 2-6 with five-straight losses. Of course the March losses alone assured State had no chance of hosting NCAA play; April meant only winning the SEC Tournament would get the Dogs into the national tourney.

There would be issues. Concessionaires would sell less hot coffee and chocolate in February. The storm troopers of Event Group would be bored without games to direct parking. It would also leave MSU marketing crew with fewer promotions to present. OK, so some we wouldn’t miss. Mike Bonner could handle losing ‘Is She Worth It?’ though as long as the ‘Ford Fifth Inning’ remains. Curiously since last month Bonner is now driving a Ford. By June so will I. Hmmm, maybe this marketing stuff really is working…

As for fans. I’m not at all sure even regulars would be that annoyed giving up a trip or two to DNF. Especially because, to raise an uncomfortable topic, the core season ticket audience is not getting younger. They have the time yes, and the resources usually. The endurance, that increasingly is another matter. Their State spirit is certainly willing, but faithful Bulldog bodies can get over-pushed.

And it is clear based on message board feedback that the most loyal of our fans, those who live hours out of town and still invest in full-ride season tickets, just cannot invest so many trips in one extended early-schedule stretch. They’d love to be in their seats. They can’t come to campus a score or so times in four weeks. Not winter weeks, anyway. Even a dozen day-trips is pushing their passion.

This season was particularly packed with 23 home games in 33 days. And a 24th was cancelled. I don’t care how devout a Dog is, that gets numbing of heart and body alike, fast. Maybe 2015’s team is not the best example but all that home play did not do much to prepare these Dogs for SEC road trips. Unfortunately March losses at home, and for that matter even several wins, exposed squad flaws that became glaring in road play.

Still it seems accurate to state better and certainly more experienced squads can benefit by leaving home for non-league tests. If nothing else, losing on the road still keeps the club together in a spot to themselves with no quick escape out the home locker room door to go individual ways.

Ahhh, comes the response about too many home games too early: if it’s a top-ten team on a tear they’ll find a way to be here. Well, without getting into the politically-touchy issue of the inflated ‘paid attendance’ figures which everyone uses now, February 2015 showed otherwise. Even during the 13-0 run actual crowds remained modest due to cold, to wet, to the grinding length of college baseball games—something only the NCAA can address.

There is a useful fact among the (very) few I learned in college Econ class. Making too much of something available at artificially low price diminishes the product’s perceived value. Hmmmm. Maybe I could apply that to writing…nah. Seriously though, too many home games in a relatively short period, against lower-profile opponents, may not be the best way to develop a team, or keep the home fans hungry. And losing some of those games, well…

Let me say quickly, this scheduling of so-called quality opponents is not so simple as it reads here. 2014 is a perfect example of worst-case. Based on pre-season projections the Bulldogs set themselves challenges, including an unplanned one with a Western Carolina club (due to the scheduled foe not being able to fly out on time with weather) that looked very good in person. UC Santa Barbara was supposed to be very good; Arizona was not so far removed from the national championship. Memphis was thought to be a conference contender.

As it all played out, in 2014 Mississippi State played just one non-conference team which went on to the NCAA Tournament; Jacksonville State, in late April, and MSU lost by a run at home. So the Dogs didn’t play nearly the RPI schedule anyone anticipated, and still lost too many of the games anyway.

By Monday we’ll know who of the ’15 foes won bids. Too late to do this team any good, but useful cues can always be found in evaluating opponents.

Again, there are obvious risks to a program suddenly short on confidence. With growing uncertainties on who all is returning from the current team, and how much of a top-flight signing class will escape the draft, and for that matter the fact that until new kids get in a real game you just don’t truly know if they can play… Yes, there are obvious risks.

There are also rewards. I dismiss entirely suggestions about easing a Bulldog team, any team, into a season. Better to see their talents and intangibles ASAP, and if anyone shies away from instant and tough testing…we should question whether they have what it takes to win in the SEC. Brutal? Probably. Unfair? Possibly.

But after the example of 2015 it’s also fair to suggest, what is there to lose?

ADDENDUM: Or whatever the plural is. In Monday’s piece two items were left out related to necessity for improved team talent level, primarily on offense. The phrase was ‘good ballplayers’ which is something going beyond numbers and average. It had to do with the ‘clutch’ intangible which doesn’t fit a stat sheet but is recognized in action.

Somewhat related is athleticism. And this is where Mississippi State has a truly strange situation in recent seasons. It’s baserunning. There have been a series of outstanding athletes playing the field the past several seasons; a few times I suggested, facetiously, that the outfield could make a heckuva relay squad. The infielders on the whole have been fine athletes with good speed, too, with one obvious exception…and if anyone tries to tell me they knew a big guy with better footwork on first base than Wes Rea, I will call them a liar.

The weird thing is that so many of the best athletes, i.e. runners, lacked the knack of getting around the paths cleanly and quickly. Most especially, first to second. There was no apparent reason for only 17 steals in 30 games last year, 21 in 30 games this year. The success-rate was good to be sure, but with all the Dogs making base and so many of them fast guys the ground game just seemed less-than-maximized.

So much like good 40 yard times don’t necessarily translate into rushing a football, running routes and covering receivers, good base-to-base clockings don’t translate into being able to get a good jump on the pitcher and slide in under the throw. It’s another aspect of the good ballplayer idea.

The other item is a bit risky to raise in the current climate. But I’m reminded of it watching the next SEC Tourney game begin. In Hoover. In that great big park, the sort which Mississippi State has claimed as a place Bulldog teams are ‘built for’. You know, with defensive speed, pitching, and occasional offense, much like Dudy Noble Field.

For a couple of years it sure seemed to work that way. The ’12 SEC Tournament is an epic event that ranks with my favorite any-State-sport experience. 2011 through ’14, Bulldog teams played well and usually won in Pearl’s Trustmark Park and Memphis’ AutoZone.

In another reminder of how different 2015 became, State not only was whipped twice in Pearl but scored one run in 18 total innings there. They scored one run in nine innings at AutoZone and lost also.

Point being, if anything should signal a wrong-turn in team offensive approach, this season just can’t be ignored. The margin of those three defeats (21 to 2) doesn’t matter so much as simple lack of State scoring.

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