South Carolina came in 2nd place (behind Florida) in the SEC East a year ago. They finished fifth overall in the conference. They concluded the SEC regular season schedule with a .567 winning percentage; an improvement over the 50% winning percentage that they ended with in 2008. In fact, the Yardcock in-conference winning percentage has fluctuated dramatically over the past six years:
'09 - .567, 2nd SECe; 5th overall.
'08 - .500, 5th SECe; 7th overall.
'07 - .567, 2nd SECe; 3rd overall.
'06 - .500, 4th SECe; 7th overall.
'05 - .533, 3rd SECe; 6th overall.
'04 - .500, 5th SECe; 7th overall.
Keep in mind, sometimes you "can't see the forest because of the trees," meaning batting averages are best summed up over the complete season (forest), not just during SEC regular season games (trees). But you definitely need to have a core of reliable hitters to get you to post season play in a tough baseball conference like the SEC. Hitting has to be good in this conference because the pitchers you will face are some of the best in the nation. Make no mistake, SEC teams that make it to Omaha find new hitters that contribute, new ways to fabricate runs as pitchers get tougher to face, and great coaching efforts exist during regular season play.
So, is South Carolina headed for another 50% winning percentage in the conference in 2010, to keep the streak alive for even numbered years (starting in 2004)? Not likely. You need to take a look at a pretty good hitting team in '09, find out what you lose from '09-'10 and go from there. Last year USC had seven players to hit over .300, one of which was not a regular in the batting order - Parker Bangs with 119 at bats (half as many at bats as those playing in 63 games).
Bangs split duties between DH/OF (40 games played, 31 started) and relief pitcher (15 games, one start as a pitcher). Due to the inconsistencies of USC's DH position, the Gamecocks were placed in a position to get as much as they could from Parker in as many positions as he could play. His batting average of .328 was the fourth strongest on the team. Imagine if USC could've had the luxury of using him as a DH in 63 games, as was done with the batters ranking first, second and third in highest batting averages? His value to the team as a batter cannot be denied.
My gut tells me he will have that chance this year as there will be plenty of options out of the bullpen in '10, and he will contribute there as well. I would love to see him focus on his hitting, because he is a natural at the plate. Here are the other six hitters (playing a minimum of 50 games) that hit for +.300's and were employed as regulars on the team. Their total runs, hits, RBI and slugging percentage follow their batting averages:
DeAngelo Mack - .361, 57r, 92h, 60 rbi, .604
Jackie Bradley, Jr. - .349, 69r, 89h, 46 rbi, .537
Whit Merrifield - .340, 67r, 91h, 49 rbi, .545
Justin Dalles - .324, 39r, 60h, 47 rbi, .605
Nick Ebert - .321, 60r, 67h, 72 rbi, .713
Andrew Crisp - .313, 39r, 82h, 53 rbi, .515
Subtract the hitters that left the team, including Nick Ebert, until he is officially back on the team, and label them "Gone". Add Parker Bang's numbers to the ".300 club returning" and take a look at what you've got...
"Gone" - .330, 195r, 301h, 232rbi, .609
".300 club returning" .339, 155r, 219h, 131rbi, .546
One would expect that the numbers from those gone and those returning to be in the favor of the "Gone" Squad, and they are. But considering that four players make up the "Gone Squad" (Mack, Dalles, Ebert, Crisp), the "+.300 club returning" total numbers (three returning players, excluding Ebert) are not entirely decimated. Returners have a batting average that is slightly better than those that have gone. Returners accounted for 47% of last year's runs, 45% of last year's hits and 40% of last year's RBI. They (returners) are 20% short of ("gone's") runs, 27% short of their hits and 44% short of rbi.
If you include Nick Ebert's numbers with the returning team (subtracting his numbers from the "gone" group), the "returning" team numbers (.335, 215r, 286h, 203rbi, .587) are stronger than those that have left the team (.333, 135r, 234h, 160rbi, .575). The difference, of course, is the return of Nick Ebert.
USC's on-base percentage is something the coaching staff would like to develop. If you look at last year's on-base percentages for "gone" and "returning" players, it will reflect similar results. Players "gone" (including Ebert) total an on-base percentage of .418; "returners" (excluding Ebert) have an on-base percentage of .406; .05 better than Mack, Dalles and Crisp's combined (.401). Ebert's average, if included in the "returners" column, gives USC's returners a .421 on-base percentage. Statistical numbers prove Ebert's value as a hitter to this team. If Ebert is unavailable, can the nucleus of Bradley, Jr., Merrifield and Bangs do the job in 2010?
Bradley, Merrifield and Bangs continue to lead in hits during scrimmages in Fall and Winter ball, honing their hitting skills. Such is the case when your second (Bradley), third (Merrifield) and fourth (Bangs) best +.300 hitters return from last year's team to form the nucleus of this year's "+.300 Club." It is a strong nucleus that should improve. There are others that you most definitely can add to the "club" of +.300 and some hitters that can improve the Gamecocks' on-base percentage as a team. Let's take a look at them and the numbers they bring with them from their experiences last year. Their statistical data included, along with some rationale as to why they will be members of the +.300 club in '10, starting with returners from last year's team.
Bobby Haney (.291, 45r, 66h, 30rbi, .414) Bobby started and played in all 63 games last year. He had shoulder surgery after the season and was not hampered a bit by it while batting in the Fall and thus far in Winter scrimmages. In fact, he consistently puts the ball in play with singles. Bobby started off really slow last year, batting in the mid-.220s, but picked it up as he saw more SEC calibre starters, ending with a strong .291 for the season. I look for Bobby Haney to continue the trend, hitting over .300 by getting on-base hits and producing RBI during the 2010 season.
Adam Matthews (.290, 19r, 20h, 11rbi, .580) Playing behind DeAngelo Mack in left field was a great challenge for Adam and he got alot out of every at-bat he saw in '09. He has come back pretty strong from his knee surgery and has taken the challenge of starting in left field pretty seriously. In order to start, he knows he needs to be a productive cog in the team wheel by producing hits. He had a good Fall (was able to play in the last two weeks of Fall ball) and he has hit well in the first set of Winter scrimmages. As Coach Tanner said, Matthews is "just learning how to become an excellent ball player... he brings great skills to the table." In my opinion, he has the build to be a solid hitter and I think he will become one (+.300 hitter).
Newbies to keep an eye on:
Robert Beary (.387, 43h, 27rbi) Robert Beary was limited in what he could do last year by an injured wrist, which required post-season surgery (screws inserted in his wrist). He is 100%. His 2008 season as a Freshman at Pensacola J.C. was one for the records - Panhandle Conf. Player of the Year; hit .426 w/16 homers, 76 rbi. His numbers as a Sophomore at Pensacola (above) are not bad either and he did it with some pain in his wrist. He has been hitting pretty well as a Gamecock and will be hard to keep off the field either as a catcher or "utility player" (much like Merrifield). Has been getting looks at 1st base, his bat is that good.
Adrian Morales (.341, 57h, 46rbi) Morales could be the big time sleeper on this team as far as hitting. Has to try to get 2b away from Scott Wingo, but Scott has had the better pre-season bat to this point. Wingo may not be a +.300 hitter, but he is a hitter that improved his batting average from .196 post season with the Gamecocks to .279 post season in Summer league (Columbia Blowfish). A shift in his grip on the bat (moving his left hand down to the base of the bat)... bringing the bat cylinder into a more horizontal position... led to better hitting production with the Blowfish. Wingo could get around on pitches much better and hit really, really well in Summer ball. He has continued to hit well and has been a tad better than Morales at the plate. This is actually a competition for position which will spill into hitting between the two. Competition is a very good thing. Morales will get a shot at offensive production for this year's team with the way he can hit and needs to take full advantage of his time at the plate, starting today. But the potential is there.
Christian Walker - Everything you've heard about him is true concerning hitting. Possibly the best pure hitter to play for the Yardcocks since Justin Smoak (Smoak hit .315 as a Freshman). The difference between Walker and Smoak (as freshmen) was Smoak could switch-hit; Walker can hit to any place on the field, just tell him where you want him to park it. Both have power and both have the batter's eye with plenty of strength. Walker can be a finesse hitter, hitting for on-base percentage or hitting it out of the park. He may be a little more versatile (in that sense) than Smoak at the plate. One thing I am pretty sure of is he will hit well beyond the .300s and will do it as a freshman. Here is Christian Walker's highlight on YouTube, at the 2009 IPS HR Derby World Challenge: Christian Walker
Those are some hitters that have legitimate shots at becoming better hitters (+.250). Let's take a look at a few players that will contribute to our hitting needs in '10.
Kyle Enders (.261, 12r, 18h, 9rbi, .464) A 5th year player, Kyle Enders has always found himself playing behind other catchers that had talent and could hit the ball (Phil Disher, Justin Dalles). Kyle Enders made a decision for himself after last season; he decided he would return to play his 5th year and also decided he would do everything he could to start. The goal for his Fall workouts? He wanted to become a better on-base percentage hitter and strike out less than walk. All indications are that he has become the hitter he wanted to be; he only struck out twice in Fall ball and was one of the better, consistent hitters on the team. His hitting has continued through Winter scrimmages and he is hitting better than he ever has while at Carolina. He will be improved and will do it the hard way this year.
Jeffrey Jones (.228, 9r, 18h, 12rbi, .354) A longshot to enter this year's +.300 club, but I will give him honorable mention, as he has the capacity to give you what you need when you need it from him. Jones spent the Summer in Columbia lifting and working on his conditioning and wants to try to get some opportunities as a Senior. He hit the ball pretty well in Fall and was obviously much stronger at the plate. His hitting has continued in Winter ball and I project that he will hit below .300 as consistency at the plate is his biggest concern, which led to Nick Ebert taking the 1b position from him last year.
Brison Celek Brison has really taken positive steps to contribute to the Yardcock team in '10. Listed as a catcher, he is currently getting a look at 1st base as well. He has been a consistent hitter in the latter part of Fall practice and has pulled his weight as a hitter in Winter ball. Brison is one of those players that will make an impact as a hitter only after he steps up to the plate and he is my surprise hitter for us out of our Freshman class (excluding Walker; he is no surprise). He is an on-base percentage hitter and has hit well against our transfer, freshman and some of our starting pitchers thus far in scrimmages. That trend will continue as the young man expects to win and will contribute to make it happen.
Scott Wingo (.196, 27r, 30h, 17rbi, .340) Wingo's hitting improvements during Summer ball are documented with Adrian Morales (notes above). I look for Scott Wingo to take the lead at 2B and his hitting will have a lot to do with it. We need a .260-.270 hitter at the bottom of the order to set up for the top, which has been a weakness for the Yardcocks in seasons past. He has the experience and the eye at the plate to provide some pop (or a walk) for the Yardcocks. Scott has done a fine job working on his hitting; he knows it is a weakness and has worked to make it a strength. He has done this from last Summer to the present time in scrimmages. I look for continued improvement in hitting from Scott as the schedule develops.
Hitting will need to be key for the 2010 Yardcocks. Fans need to be patient with it as we start the season because there are certain positions (1B, 2B, 3B) that need to be filled by the best qualified hitter that can provide defensive play. I feel this will be resolved before we start SEC regular season play as the level of talent competing for those positions is very good.
We will get a good indication of who those players will be when we go to Greenville (North Carolina and South Carolina) to play ECU and Clempson. I am pretty confident that close to the end of the season we will see (on our team) some similarities of what top calibre teams that played in the '09 CWS did, and what this year's Yardcock team will do... rotate players at positions to keep our bats alive and opposing pitchers honest.
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