Texas Baseball Preview: Revisiting 2012's Failure

Photo courtesy of Tim Irby

Texas baseball failed to make the postseason in 2012 for the first time since 1998. Before looking ahead to the 2013 season this preview examines why things went south in 2012 and whether those mistakes can be corrected in the year to come.

Reliable, experienced starting pitching.

A well-balanced lineup featuring equal parts speed and power.

Playing superior defense while forcing the adversary to make mistakes in the field.

These are the hallmarks of Augieball.

When one looks at Texas baseball's most successful teams over the last decade (such as 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2009), one sees the same formula: good pitching deep into ballgames each and every weekend, well-balanced hitting, exceptional defense and good speed on the bases.

With the exception of Taylor Jungmann, Texas baseball's championship runs under Augie Garrido have come on the backs of good, albeit not exceptional, starting pitchers like Justin Simmons, Kyle McCulloch and Chance Ruffin. The championship-caliber Horns have been bolstered by good hitters like Seth Johnston and Brandon Belt who were never going to go in the first round of the MLB draft and scrappy guys like Nick Peoples, Travis Tucker and Connor Rowe whose excellent glovework and speed on the bases made them essential components to good teams.

Texas baseball in 2012 failed because its starting pitching collapsed under the weight of injury, youthful stupidity and just plain bad pitching, its offense was consistently inconsistent (at best), its defense was often horrific and it could not force defensive mistakes from opponents.

No one component led to last season's early end before the NCAA tournament and no one fix is going to make Texas a championship contender in 2013. In looking forward to the 2013 season, therefore, it would be helpful to first look at what went wrong in 2012.

The Pitching: To highlight just how inconsistent Texas' starting pitching was in 2012 consider two stats from the previous three years. In 2011 Texas had just five pitchers make two or more starts and its top three pitchers started 54 out of the team's 68 games. In 2010 there were six Longhorn pitchers who made two or more starts and the top three pitchers started 48 out of 63 games. Finally, 2009's championship run again featured five pitchers making two or more starts and the top three pitchers started 51 out of 67 games. In each of these three seasons the Horns had elite starting pitching and did not need to deep into the stable of pitchers to find effective starters.

The 2012 Texas squad, by comparison, had eight pitchers make multiple starts and the team's top three pitchers started just 31 of 52 games. The good news for Texas is that all three of those pitchers (Nathan Thornhill, Parker French and Dillon Peters) will be back. Sophomore John Curtiss is out for the year with an injury and Ricky Jacquez was kicked off the team, but another year of experience for Thornhill, French and Peters, a raw but talented freshman class and the development of Corey Knebel could turn pitching back into a team strength even if it is still a year away from being dominant.

The Hitting: Texas hit .263 in 2012 (226th in the country but somehow one spot ahead of Oklahoma) and that number came up in non-conference play thanks to mid-season hot streaks from Jonathan Walsh, Alex Silver, Mark Payton and Erich Weiss. Of the returning players, the Horns got good production from Weiss (.350 BA, .975 OPS, 5 HR, 10-12 stolen bases) and Payton (.322 BA, .913 OPS, 5 HR, 8-13 stolen bases) and acceptable production from Alex Silver and Jacob Felts (.267 and .280 batting averages respectively). In addition, Taylor Stell (.333 AB, .861 OPS, 6-6 stolen bases, 8 HBP in 60 ABs) flashed real potential in injury-shortened playing time. Those five players could form the backbone of an acceptable offense if they're able to show even minimal improvement over their 2012 campaigns.

But Texas was bad offensively in 2012 and the main culprit was an over-reliance on a handful of players. While Jordan Etier brought down his strikeout totals, he only hit .241 in his senior season and made 15 errors at shortstop. Brooks Marlow and Tim Maitland were excellent defensively but hit .214 and .204 respectively (.193 and .136 respectively in conference play!) , leaving gaping offensive holes in CF, 2B and SS. Another major problem came from the combination of Landon Steinhagen, Kevin Lusson, Collin Shaw, Kirby Bellows and Christian Summers who took 234 at-bats (roughly a season and a half of a starter's ABs) and combined to hit an appalling .171 with 10 doubles and a pair of homers. Those five players at various points saw playing time at SS, 1B, CF and DH and all five were abject failures offensively.

Not only was the bottom of the Texas lineup soft but the Horns also had no other options for improvement throughout the season. The 2010 and 2011 Horns, never models of offensive dominance, only had to overcome a pair of sub-.250 hitting starters and the 2009 Texas team didn't have any starters hitting below .250.

2012, by contrast, tried to get by with four starters hitting below .250 and no realistic alternative options. Without 2010 and 2011's elite starting pitching this became a recipe for disaster.

The arrival of CJ Hinojosa, more at-bats from Stell, the possibility of big junior years from Weiss, Payton and Felts and the arrival of several possible offensive alternatives should Marlow and others struggle will hopefully lead to an improved Texas offense in 2013.

The Defense: Texas baseball's defense was bad in 2012. Texas football bad (zing!)(note this joke was written before the Alamo Bowl, but we've all soured on the football team so it still works, right?). Texas made 70 errors a year ago, up significantly from 47 and 49 errors committed in 2011 and 2010 respectively despite both of those teams making deep postseason runs. We say this every year, but, though errors are an imperfect measurement of defensive effectiveness, it'll have to suffice as an indicator of the Horns' ineptitude in the field lacking better advanced metrics in the defensive game.

Weiss had a bad year a third base, contributing 16 errors (he made 7 in 2011). The transition from Brandon Loy to Etier at the shortstop position led to a rise in errors from 7 to 15. Lusson and Bellows were also failures at first base before Alex Silver arrived to stabilize the position.

Hinojosa taking over at SS and a return to 2011 form from Weiss may be all the improvement Texas needs to turn defense from a liability to a team strength in 2013. Should Weiss struggle at third he may be moved to 2B making way for other options at the hot corner. The speed in the outfield should also make outfield defense a real team strength going forward.

Speed: As an inverse to avoiding defensive errors, Augie Garrido's Texas teams have always relied on forcing the opponent to make errors which leads to an easier time scoring runs in the spacious Disch-Falk Field. Typically this has required Texas hitters to get on base, bunt and steal bases in order to force inferior collegiate defenders to make difficult plays.

In 2009 the Horns forced opponents into 79 errors. In 2010 they forced 75. In 2011 they forced 78. Last year, however, Texas opponents only made 49 errors. The Horns weren't hitting particularly well, they weren't pitching particularly well, they weren't playing defense particularly well and they weren't forcing opponents to make tough plays.

This problem at least partly came about because the Horns in 2012 weren't stealing bases.

From 2002 to 2005 the Horns attempted to steal 144 bases per year on average. Those teams won two titles and made four CWS appearances. Between 2006 and 2011 that number fell to 102 attempts per year as Texas baseball made two CWS appearances.

2012's squad attempted only 73 steals, successfully converting 56 of them, owed in large part to a lack of speedsters on the roster.

Each Texas team since the 2002 championship squad has had at least one excellent base stealer. Tim Moss stole 61 bases on 78 attempts between 2002 and 2003. Texas got 104 steal attempts from Drew Stubbs from 2004 to 2006. Travis Tucker and Brandon Loy attempted a combined 121 steals between 2007 and 2011. The 2012 Horns got 6 steals in Stell's limited appearances but nobody on the team was able to consistently steal bases and scare defenses. In fact, the team's leading base stealer was 6'2" 220 lbs outfielder Jonathan Walsh.

Fortunately, the 2013 Texas team will have plenty of options for stealing bases. Stell is tall and lightning fast. Fellow sophomore Collin Shaw and addition JUCO players Weston Hall and Madison Carter should also be dangerous on the base paths. Texas should have more team speed in 2013 than it has had since who knows when. As pitching coach Skip Johnson noted to Baseball America, "(Texas) can really run" this year.

Looking to 2013: The failure of Texas baseball in 2012 was surprising on all levels. We did not see the pitching, hitting and defense falling so far, so fast. Texas should be improved in all three facets in 2013, but will they be good enough to get back to Omaha? Here's what we know about the year ahead:

  • CJ Hinojosa will be the starting shortstop at the University of Texas from day one. Hinojosa could be one of the best players on the team by the end of the season if he is able to live up to the hype. His poor decision in the Alumni Game to attempt to barehand a hard hit grounder suggests Hinojosa still has room to grow.
  • If Fall Ball is any indication, Texas will hit a lot of singles and attempt to use its team speed to beat out bunts and grounders. We have a hard time seeing Texas moving away from smallball; rather we'd expect to see more bunts when the Horns have the opportunity.
  • Texas will probably use several pitchers before (hopefully) settling on a weekend rotation.
  • Is that all we know for sure? Yup, that's about it.

Everything else is unknown right now. How effectively Texas answers the below questions will spell the difference between

  • Pitchers - Will the starting pitching improve? Who are the weekend starters? Augie says Knebel will be the closer to start the year, but will he still be closing by the end of the year? Which freshman pitchers will contribute in 2013?
  • Fielders - Can Jacob Felts make the leap offensively in 2013? Will Brooks Marlow contribute offensively or will Texas go another direction at 2B? Where will Erich Weiss play? How much time will Cohl Walla see? Is Hinojosa as good as advertised? What impact will the addition of Tommy Nicholson have? Is Taylor Stell as good a player as he seemed in limited at bats last year?

That's it for our rehash of the 2012 season. Next up we'll take a look ahead to the 2013 roster and what the schedule looks like for the season to come.

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