Baseball is a team sport, but not the way football and basketball are team sports. More than any other game in the "team" category, one guy can absolutely control the baseball game. In baseball, the guy who stands on a hill above everyone else on the field is by far more important than any other player. We have often stated our belief that wins and losses for a pitcher is the most useless statistic in baseball, but there is a reason why it came into being in the first place. A bad game by a pitcher can make his teammates irrelevant, and conversely a great game by a pitcher can make his opponents irrelevant.
Texas fans should get ready for a lot of irrelevant hitters wearing opposing colors this spring. Two Longhorn hurlers are preseason All-Americans and a third has been an All-American in the past. If Texas is once again to paint Omaha in burnt orange, it will be largely on the shoulders of this very strong pitching staff.
Let's Start at the End. Of the Baseball Game.
One of the keys to Texas' immense success over the past decade has been that Augie Garrido has frequently had enough depth to classify one of the team's best pitchers as the designated closer. This is generally a luxury for college teams, but it's instructive to note that the two squads in last season's national championship series both had extremely talented pitchers who focused entirely on closing games: Austin Wood for Texas and Mattie Ott for LSU. Before Wood, Garrido had J. Brent Cox and Huston Street as full-time closers and that worked out pretty well. This year, it appears that Junior Chance Ruffin is going to be the man whom Texas entrusts with the late leads.
Ruffin was a starter in 2008 and 2009. As a freshman he was an absolute phenom, and while last season could reasonably described as a disappointment that's only because he set the bar so high the year before. Forget the ridiculous expectations for the kid going into last season, though, and the stats look pretty stellar: a 3.32 ERA, a 10-2 record (I know, I know), 115 punchouts and a 1:4.5 K to BB ratio. He also held opponents to a .230 batting average while serving as the staff workhorse, throwing 124.2 innings--the most on the team by more than a dozen. The major knock on Ruffin last year was his penchant for giving up the long ball: 15 of the 109 hits he allowed on the season were homers.
The stats speak well to both the reasons to be excited about Chance in his new role and the reason to be concerned. First, the good news: you want your closer to be able to get the big strikeout, to be durable, and to avoid giving out many free passes. Ruffin has all of those traits, plus the biggest intangible for closers: he is a fierce competitor. You can see from his number of innings pitched and from the fact that he never wants to come out of a game that Ruffin loves to be on the mound trying to get people out. So it's clear that he's going to love the opportunity to have a hand in far more games than he would as a starter and to shut opponents down when it matters most. Of course, the homeruns should give slight pause to Longhorn fans. It's much easier for a team to overcome a bomb given up early in the game by the starter than in the eighth or ninth inning by the guy who's supposed to close the door. So if Ruffin can keep the ball down in the zone so that his mistakes don't turn into dingers, he has the potential to make the rest of the conference--and the country--feel like they had better be leading after eight if they want to beat Texas.
Now, On to the MIddle.
Stayton Thomas will assume the mantle of "stopper" for this years Diamond Longhorns. The thing about a stopper is, if he's doing his job you are often both happy and unhappy to see him at the same time. You're happy to see him because you know he can stop the bleeding, but you're unhappy because his appearance probably means there is bleeding in the first place. Obviously Thomas will get some innings with leads, but he will largely take on the role of keeping close games close when the opponent has gotten to the starter. Luckily he has shown the ability to do just that. In only 12 appearances and 21.1 innings last season, Thomas put up an impressive 2.11 ERA. However, opponents hit a respectable .291 against him. Those stats show that Thomas let some guys on base early in innings but did a great job of regrouping to strand guys on the base paths. The problem with that, of course, is that this season Augie will ask him to come into ballgames when there are people on base already. The good news is that Thomas struck out 13 of the 79 batters he faces last season, and putting up K's is huge in middle relief. So if he can start as well as he finishes, the stopper role will suit Thomas well.
Elsewhere in middle relief, keep your eyes on Austin Dicharry. Dicharry's freshman campaign was overshadowed by Superman Freshman of the Century and All-American Boy Taylor Jungmann, but Austin had a pretty amazing debut season in his own right. Opponents hit .189 against Dicharry in 2009. That's one-eighty-nine, as in eleven points below the Mendoza line. So why, you may ask, is the young man going to be buried in middle relief? Good question, inquisitive BONizen. The answer is that he may not be for long. Look for Dicharry to get plenty of mid-week starts and to be Garrido's first choice to step into the weekend rotation if one of the regular weekend starters struggles. If there's any knock on Dicharry it's got to be his postseason struggles. After a brilliant 5.2 IP with 1 hit against Army in the 25 inning game, Dicharry gave up: 1 hit against TCU with no outs, 4 walks against ASU, and then 2 hits and 3 walks against LSU in 1 IP. For a freshman though he had a brilliant season.
Last among the major returning pitchers in the bullpen we'll mention is sophomore Sam Stafford. There is no reason to dredge up stats from last season (let's just say that the ERA has double digits before the decimal) because he only had three appearances and faced nine batters. However, Stafford went from Omaha to the Santa Barbara Foresters of the California Collegiate League last season and there he gave Longhorn fans something to be psyched about. Playing with Texas teammates Brandon Loy and Tim Maitland, Stafford put up impressive numbers in nine appearances (eight starts) for the 'Sters. He had a 2.74 ERA in 46 innings, giving up a batting average of only .201. The bad news: his control issues continued in the summer with six wild pitches and five hit batsmen. Good news: when he did control it, he was lethal, striking out 62 batters in those 46 innings. (Excited face).
A couple of newcomers also figure to see plenty of innings in between the starters and Ruffin Time. Paul Montalbano transferred in from JuCo and Josh Urban is straight out of high school. Both are highly touted and have great natural stuff; but the fact is, you never really know how a kid is going to adjust to the big time until you see it.
Ending at the Beginning
The weekend starters, at least at the beginning of the season, will be Taylor Jungmann (almost certainly pitching on Fridays), Cole Green, and likely (as of right now) 2010 first-round MLB draft pick Brandon Workman.
There's not a whole lot left to say about Jungmann. The kid stepped up big-time in Game Two of last year's national championship series, absolutely shutting down an extremely potent LSU lineup. As a freshman, he became a regular starter late in the season--he took the hill for the Sunday games against Baylor and A&M and then served as a starter for the postseason. In the postseason prior to LSU, Jungmann shut down TCU (6 IP, no runs) and Arizona State (5.2 IP, no runs). And before that, he impressed in relief and as a weekday starter (are you listening, Austin Dicharry?). Jungmann posted a ERA of 2 even, giving up only one homerun in 337 at-bats. That statistic in particular speaks to Jungmann's ability as a leader and a mature athlete. One of the most common freshman issues is to leave a lot of pitches up in the zone--most high school hitters can't make you pay for it, and it takes awhile for most guys to learn that in major college ball you have to make your mistakes low instead of high. Jungmann came in already having mastered that art, and there's no reason to believe that he won't keep rolling in 2010.
Cole Green and Brandon Workman both went from the CWS to the extremely prestigious Cape Cod League, playing as teammates for the Wareham Gatemen. (We were [yes, both of us. Seriously.] on Cape Cod this weekend, and it seems like a lovely place to play ball for a summer.) Green pitched 26 innings for the Gatemen and allowed only a .215 aggregate batting average and no homeruns. Green spent almost the entire 2009 season as a weekend starter and returns to that role in 2010. He had what can only be described as an up-and-down year, pitching masterfully at times, including some clutch postseason performances, and fighting through some tough outings as well. If Green can find some consistency he can be dangerous for the 'Horns; if not, and if Dicharry looks strong, he could end up in the bullpen at some point this season.
Meanwhile, Workman is listed by most prognosticators as one of the top few prospects in this year's Major League draft. Workman is universally projected as a first-rounder, and that's really saying something. Unlike football and basketball, the baseball draft includes some of the top high school talent in the country and has up to 50 rounds of selections. So if you're a first-round pick, you have some serious talent. Workman has that kind of talent. His numbers, though, did not always bear that out either for the Longhorns or the Gatemen. Workman has some absolutely nasty stuff and throws a biting fastball when he's on. He'll certainly be inspired to maintain his current draft stick and this could be the season he puts it all together. Workman doesn't give up a lot of hits, but his control caused him to get pulled early in several starts last year and is the major concern heading into this year. If he can find the zone more often this season, Workman is a dark horse for staff ace.
We're less than a week away from Opening Day. Part III will talk about the defense.