Is Texas baseball still on track?
The Horns swept Missouri this weekend, coming from behind for the first time on Friday and dominating Saturday and Sunday. The sweep brings Texas to 21-7 overall (7-2 Big XII) at roughly the midpoint of the 2011 regular season. Despite being ranked in the top 10 by every major poll in the country, a lot of the talk we've heard has been bearish about the postseason potential of the 2011 Horns. Of course the record is nearly identical to Texas' record in both 2009 and 2010 (20-8 and 21-7 respectively), but fans point to the batting average being a relatively anemic .254 exiting this weekend as the compelling evidence that Texas baseball is failing this season.
At this point in the season the NCAA national statistics are available and a more thorough review of how the Horns are doing is possible. Pay no attention to the raw numbers in comparison to previous years, the new NCAA bat rules have so thoroughly changed the game that a team's stats with respect to years past seems to say virtually nothing. For instance, two years ago Texas led the nation in ERA at this point with an extremely impressive 2.26 after 28 games. With weaker bats this year, it's our (very underrated in our opinion) little brothers in College Station leading the pack nationally with an absurd 1.56 ERA entering the weekend and 1.94 after taking two of three from KSU.
Comparing this year to the last two, the results are exactly as you'd expect. Relative to the rest of the country, Texas is hitting better and scoring more this year while pitching worse than the previous two Longhorn squads.
Yup, exactly as you'd expect.
Texas's team batting average may be down a quarter point from a year ago, but their national ranking entering the week was 12 and 14 spots better than 2010 and 2009 respectively. The 5.3 runs per contest may be down half a run from the 2010 midway average, but Texas right now is scoring half a run more than the 2009 squad that very nearly won a title. Texas ranks 167th nationally in runs per game, far healthier than 2010's 219th and 2009's 271st through 28 games.
Want proof that power numbers are down nationally? With four homers on the year entering the weekend Texas ranks 245th nationally, which is 20 spots ahead of where the Horns ranked in 2009 at this point when they had 10 homers. Bottom line is Texas's hitting is worse in an absolute sense from previous years but better in a relative sense. And that was before adding in this weekend's performance which saw improvements in runs per game, batting average and home runs.
What about the pitching and defense, though?
Well, there's no shame in the 2.55 ERA entering the weekend (2.41 after the sweep), which is better in an absolute sense than 2010's ERA and worse than 2009's. Texas's strikeout and walk numbers are roughly the same and the fielding percentage is down. But with the new bats, an ERA in the 2.5 range is not nearly as impressive as it was a year or two ago. Texas's 2.57 ERA was good for second nationally at this point last year, but it is 16th in the country this season.
Looking at the individual players, Texas didn't have an ace like Taylor Jungmann at any point during the last two years. Sam Stafford and Hoby Milner have been solid and steady starters, and Corey Knebel has been a revelation in the closer role akin to Chance Ruffin a year ago. Should Cole Green's slow climb back to respectability continue, there's no reason to believe Texas can't be as good on the mound as it has been the last two years. On offense, Erich Weiss is clearly the team's best hitter but Lucas Kephart could be an incredibly important cog. There's also a very good chance that one of Dex Kjerstad or Christian Summers will be given a chance to step in offensively if the Montalbano-Lusson-Walsh-Maitland combination continues to struggle.
Where does that leave us at the midway mark? Pointing at the batting average as proof that the team is going nowhere is shortsighted as these struggles are nothing new when compared to past Texas teams and the national norm. Much like in 2009 and 2010 (and similar to Texas basketball), a lot of the future will be decided by luck of the draw. The Horns got lucky to get a TCU squad that was a year away in 2009 and was equally screwed to be forced to play a more mature and prepared TCU squad a year later.
There's certainly no reason this Texas team can't win one game more than the 2009 squad won. Whether that happens is yet to be seen, but Texas baseball fans should be happy with a team sitting 21-7 and very much in contention to win the conference.
Speaking of which...here's how we see the conference after the first three series:
1. Texas A&M (7-2) - Ags gain the #1 spot thanks to three conference victories and a slightly tougher overall schedule than the Horns.
2. Texas (7-2) - The Horns have two nice sweeps over current bottom feeders Missouri and Kansas State and continue to face the conferences weaker squads before finishing with OU, Nebraska and Aggy.
3. Oklahoma State (5-4) - A series win over Texas puts the Cowboys a fraction ahead of the Sooners in our book. The Cowboys can flat out pitch.
4. Oklahoma (5-3) - OU played a laughable nonconference schedule leading to a 16-0 record. Since then, however, the Sooners are a measly 6-6.
5. Kansas (4-5) - The Jayhawks have nice series wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State on the resume sandwiched around being swept by the Agroids. KU has also played the country's 16th toughest schedule.
6. Texas Tech (4-5) - Tech took two of three from Baylor and Nebraska but got swept by Oklahoma this past weekend. That makes them #6 in this power poll.
7. Baylor (4-5) - The Bears are third in the list of 4-5 teams thanks to having lost series to the other two. The series victory over Kansas State wasn't bad though.
8. Nebraska (2-4) - Good riddance to bad Huskers, Nebraska has series losses to Okie State and Texas Tech. Things may not get easier with Oklahoma, Texas and Aggy left on the schedule.
9. Kansas State (2-7) - Three series losses including a sweep by the Horns (huzzah). The series losses to Aggy and Baylor were close at least, and the Wildcats did take Texas to extra innings on Saturday and Sunday.
10. Missouri (1-4) - Mizzou got swept by the Horns this weekend (huzzah) but have only played two other games this season (a split with Oklahoma). The Tigers haven't faced enough competition to truly see how they're doing.