Hop's Musings of Truth (part 1)

It's time once again for Aggie Websider's David Sandhop to expound his many thoughts, insights, and words of wisdom on all things Aggie sports and beyond. In this installment of musings, Hop discusses Aggie baseball's recent struggles at the plate, a hoops official visitor, and the upcoming football junior day.

1) The Aggie baseball team is 5-3 heading into tonight's game with Northwestern State. Give Rob Childress credit (or blame), his teams have been consistent in recent years. First, nobody in college baseball develops his pitchers like Childress who is a pitching coach by trade. Just about every pitcher that enters the program improves in their years at Texas A&M. If you look at the numbers for the Aggies' starting pitchers over the past five years and it is truly amazing with ERA's not only under 3.00 but many times closer to 2.00. Defense for the most part has been solid for the collegiate level. If you ask most college coaches, .970 is the line of acceptability. A&M usually straddles that line. Fundamentals on cut offs and such are generally good.

However, the hitting has been the big elephant in the room with this staff, especially in the past 4-5 years. We've had some discussion about this on the boards. Is it a talent/recruiting issue, or is it a development issue? Could it be both?

I'll go with both and here's why. Coach Childress signed some very talented classes in his first 2-3 years at A&M. You may have heard of a couple of these guys like Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and starting third baseman for the Red Sox Will Middlebrooks. There are several more that signed pro instead of going to A&M where they would have made a huge difference on the field. Burned from that experience, Childress changed recruiting paths. He still signed the occasional draft risk, but he also made a conscious effort to find the good baseball players with high-end skills but low-end athletic ability that MLB teams pass on in June. He went with the gritty player from the Panhandle and the 5-foot-8 leading hitter from Orangefield. Tyler Naquin was a late signing that was his one big exception. Otherwise, it's hard to find a productive hitter at Texas A&M except for a couple of high profile transfers that came to A&M already developed as juniors.

I don't necessarily fault Childress for this strategy. He had to try something because he was losing all of his recruits to the draft going after the elite prospects. But what you have to be concerned about is the development factor once in the program. While you can see pitchers improving and getting better from their freshman season to their junior and senior campaigns, it's hard to see the same progress from young hitters at the plate going back years. It seems even Coach Childress realized the issue and he went out and hired Coach Sawyers away from Kansas State where his teams were hitting the ball well. However, you continue to see the same low-scoring, low efficiency results with the offense.

I don't pretend to be a baseball technician, but I do watch a lot of baseball….and a lot of college baseball and obviously Aggie baseball. The general approach at the plate seems to be the constant, which is to either be aggressive early in the count and guess fastball since most college pitchers want to get ahead in the count and tend to start with a fastball. Or, the hitters sit back and try to be patient and work the count into their favor at 2-0, 2-1, or 3-1….so then they can sit on a fastball and get a good pitch to hit. The common denominator is guessing fastballs and trying to stay as far away from off-speed pitches at almost any cost. And that strategy actually works against mediocre pitching or a hurler who struggles early to find the strike zone and must throw the fastball more than normal.

But come up against a pitcher who can throw breaking pitches for strikes and who is not afraid to open a pitch sequence with anything other than a fastball and most A&M hitters look lost and struggle. It then becomes a guessing game, and when you are behind in the count 0-2. 1-2, 0-1 then the odds aren't in your favor.

I don't know what the answer is, or if there is an answer. This team may just have to battle with what they know and hopefully the pitching and defense will keep them in the games. Maybe a couple of these freshmen who are highly-regarded and physically impressive will emerge as productive RBI men in the middle of the order. I don't know. But what I do know is they aren't the answer right now. Today's lineup card was just released and back-up catcher and .150 hitter Mitchell Nau is A&M's clean-up hitter tonight. Wait, he's not good enough to play in this weekend's Pepperdine series, but he's your No. 4 hole hitter on Tuesday? Hmmm…game day management discussion will need to be saved for another day.

2) New recruiting targets continue to emerge as we get closer to this weekend's second junior day. One interesting development this week is the staff inviting several more in-state linebacker prospects to the junior day and there's talk that a couple of these guys could be close to offers. Four-star LB Otaro Alaka was offered by Texas at their junior day last week and most recently he pulled an LSU offer. But he's going to A&M this weekend, and it sounds like the staff will eyeball him and if he passes he could receive an offer. If A&M wants to stay in the recruiting race they will need to offer now because Texas made a big impression last weekend and a quick decision is not out of the question.

The Aggies are also focusing in on LB Josh Mabin from Klein Oak and of course several out-of-state offers I mentioned last week (although the out-of-staters aren't making any decisions for months).

Just a few weeks ago, Texas A&M slow played a very good LB in Cameron Hampton who pops up on most early Top 25 lists in the state. And he promptly committed to Texas. That was fine because the Aggies already had committed Hoza Scott and Josh Walker, and it appeared that North Shore LB stud Zach Whitley was close to pulling the trigger after a successful junior day visit which would likely round out a LB class of three (possibly four if a stud dropped in their lap).

Now, Whitley still likes A&M but he's getting national offers and what was once thought to be a quick commitment now looks like a long process going against the who's-who of college football. We're also hearing whispers out of LaPorte that Scott didn't help his cause academically last semester. I must caution, that is more scuttlebutt than fact at this point although schools knew from day one he would need to get more focused with his work. Thus, I think you are seeing A&M go back out and actively recruit linebackers again.

Let's be clear though, Alaka and Mabin are pretty good four-star prospects in their own right so it's not like A&M is going down in talent just because they've opened up recruiting at the position. For all we know, on signing day they could still sign Scott, Walker, and Whitley. But as you know with the recruiting process, you have to be prepared for anything and have multiple options at each position.

3) This brings up a point I've briefly made on several threads ion the past month but it's worth mentioning. Just because your program has moved into the high rent district of recruiting doesn't mean you are guaranteed a great recruiting class that fulfills all of your needs. The issue with A&M is that they have moved into the Top 10 of programs in terms of recruiting perception pulling ahead of OU and slowly nosing ahead of Texas. However, while Texas and OU are competitors in recruiting, it's LSU and Alabama that will be competing with A&M for SEC titles. For A&M to win SEC Championships and thus national championships, they are compelled to go after these national caliber prospects. But, as you know these elite recruits don't make a decision until late in the process. Meanwhile, there are a lot of quality low four-star prospects in the state of Texas that would love to jump on-board the Sumlin train right now. So what do you do? Do you roll the dice with the high four-star/five-star studs and slow play the in-state kids (you see what happened to Hampton), or do you go ahead and take the plunge and lock up some of these Top 25-50 prospects that would otherwise come off the board to Texas, OU, Baylor, and TCU?

It sounds like the staff for now is trying to buy themselves more time by staying in contact and inviting these prospects to this weekend's junior day or the Friday Night Lights scrimmage in late March. But at some point, they are going to have to either pull the trigger or see them start committing elsewhere because these high three-star/low four-star kids simply won't hold off securing their spot with a Big 12 team…especially knowing how limited A&M's class will be in terms of size.

Just because you have more recruiting clout doesn't mean recruiting any easier. Just look to see what has happened with the Longhorns in the past four years to realize that fact. It was their burden to take certain players and turn down others. They decided to take Chris Whaley for their one running back and they turned down Christine Michael. They took David Ash and Case McCoy and turned away Johnny Manziel. If Sumlin isn't smart, he can fall into the same trap.

4) Here's a quick programming note for you hoops recruiting fans (yes, I know you are out there). If you are interested in getting a good look at your future wing/small forward, Davante Fitzgerald's playoff game tonight is being broadcast live in the Internet starting at 6:30 PM CT. He's No. 24. They are facing the best program in Georgia, Miller Grove, who have won something like five state titles in a row so Tucker HS will likely fall tonight which will end Fitzgerald's high school career. The game will be up on the Internet tomorrow so if you miss it you can still watch the game later.


FYI, there are quite a few full games of Fitzgerald on this "PlayonSports" production. I watched a couple of games yesterday to get a better feel for his game. My takeaway is that he's more of a fit at wing than he is a pure No. 4 in the paint. He's not that tough rebounding in the paint. He gets pushed around a little, although he's so long he can come over and block some shots. His biggest strength is his footwork for a 6-foot-7 athlete. He can stay with a shooting guard or wing on defense, and offense is the best part of his game. He has 3-point range and he can score off the dribble and he moves well in transition. The staff will need to clean up his defense and instill more focus (which is common in almost all high school players), but I think he can be a productive resource in 2013-2014. If they can get him stronger and fill out, in a couple of years he could be a special player.

5) It sounds like the Aggies will likely host JUCO guard Chad Frazier in an official visit this weekend when the Ags host South Carolina. It's a bit risky because ironically South Carolina is the stiffest competition for his services so I'm sure you'll see Frank Martin winking at him on Saturday. It still looks like Kendal Harris is a distinct possibility and should visit in a few weeks. Lines of communication are still open with point guard Trey Dickerson but he has not been extended an offer yet and probably won't until the staff figures out of they can get either one of the Fraziers (Keith and Chad). Keith should be visiting after the playoffs.

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