A strong start
Stanford sits at 19-11, 6-3 in Pac-10 play and high in the rankings (RPI: 9, Collegiate Baseball Newspaper: 14, Coaches: 16) on the eve of this weekend's series at UCLA. However you slice it, Stanford baseball is off to a surprisingly strong regular season, and the coaches and players are deservedly pleased.
Jekyll and Hyde
Last year, Stanford played like giant-killers in the postseason, after looking like, well, the Giants from February through mid-May. (Low blow? Sorry. My Tigers aren't doing so hot either.) This year, it's not when in the season, but when in the week that Stanford plays that makes all the difference.
The Cardinal are 16-6 in weekend contests and just 4-5-1 in mid-week games (and that mark was 2-5-1 a week ago). That's understating the contrast, as mid-week games are against much weaker opponents. Stanford's beating the likes of Texas, Oregon State and Arizona State on the weekends, but losing to Sacramento State, Hawaii, UC Davis and Saint Mary's during the working week.
Why is this happening? Stanford coaches and players alike are insistent it's not effort: the team's fighting as hard against the Nevadas (RPI: 121) of the baseball landscape as the Arizona States (RPI: 3).
Surprisingly, the pitching stats bear that out. My guess was that Stanford's B-list pitchers are getting hit hard in the mid-week games. That would be consistent with a theme we see across the Farm, especially in men's sports: Stanford's top athletes are as good as anyone's, but because of admissions restrictions, once you get past the first five or ten guys on the depth chart, the fall off is steep. (I remember Matt Squeri writing something to this effect in a post, and I think that's the best one-sentence explanation for football and basketball's struggles that I've heard.) But that out the window here. Stanford's giving up 5.3 runs per weekday contest, compared to 5.1 runs per weekend contest – a virtual heat that would explain a one-game discrepancy at most.
Coach Mark Marquess blames not his pitchers, but the sheer volume of games.
"I think we've played well at times and done a good job on the weekend," he said. "We've been inconsistent during the week for whatever reason. It's not the pitching depth, but that we're playing a lot of games – a stretch of five weeks with five games per week puts stress on a pitching staff."
Luck has something to do with it. Stanford's 3-4-1 midweek and 7-3 on the weekend in games decided by three runs or less. (The overall winning record in close games also suggests Stanford's gotten a little lucky, and is not likely to catch as many breaks the rest of the way.)
But, in my mind, the ultimate culprit is hitting. Stanford's scoring 7.6 runs per game against weekend opponents, facing top teams' aces. But during the weekday games (all but two of which have been at home, incidentally), Stanford's scoring just five runs per game – against backup pitchers from second-rate teams.
What does it mean? For one, Stanford's RPI of 9 would be a heck of a lot higher if they could beat Sisters of the Poor with any regularity. That could cost the Cardinal a seed line or a favorable location come postseason play. More importantly though, it sheds a bright light on Stanford's Achilles heel to-date: batting.
Hitting: Patience wanted. Inquire within.
Stanford finished the season .500 last year. They're 19-11-2 this year, but aren't hitting appreciably better:
Stanford hitting R AVG SLG HR BB SO
2006-07 (28-28) 359 .305 .442 43 177 375
2007-08 (19-11-2) 216 .293 .463 38 118 225
2007-08 (projected out to 56
games) 378 .293 .463 67 207 394
The first line is last year's numbers, the second line is this year's numbers and the third line projects this year's numbers over 56 games, for comparison to last year. The team is actually making worse contact (OBS has also fallen from .372 to .363), but is on-pace to score more runs because they're hitting so many more homers. However, plate patience has not improved, as Stanford could easily strikeout 400 times this season.
Coach Marquess is well aware of this. He said Wednesday night that the area where his team most needs to improve is its offense.
"I think the first 10 games were solid, but increasingly now, a couple guys are getting out of sync," he said. "Extra work or extra rest, one or the other, hopefully we can really improve offensively.
"It's a long season with a lot of ups and downs. Our freshman guys, Schlander and Jones, are really playing better off, and [Milleville's] picked us up now with his play."
Unfortunately, plate patience is not coming from Marquess' upperclassmen. Of the four guys with at least 20 strikeouts, three are juniors.
Defense: Worlds improved
The reason for Stanford's resurgence is undoubtedly on the other side of the ball. The team isn't doing anything pretty, with walk, strikeout and homerun numbers no better than last year, but they're just effective. The staff is giving up fewer hits and a lot fewer runs – 5.2 per game this year versus 6.9 last year.
Stanford pitching R AVG SLG HR BB SO
2006-07 (28-28) 386 .314 .452 41 211 356
2007-08 (19-11-2) 167 .276 .394 22 138 199
2007-08 (projected out to 56 games) 292 .276 .394 39 242 348
Coach Marquess is pleased with his pitchers, especially the young'uns, who have held up well in those mid-week starts. He's even prouder of his defense, which doesn't directly show up in any of the above columns, but has helped Stanford win several of those close games.
"I'm most pleased with our defense," Marquess said. "It's been really solid and has improved since last year. We're playing great D for the most part."
Stanford is fielding at a .975 rate, and has committed only 32 errors this season, compared to a .963 rate with 82 errors last season. Keep it up, cut down on the Ks and catch a few bounces come May, and maybe the Stanford men do have a deep Tournament run in it after all. (Just not in the sport we might have expected.)
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!