We may have mentioned once or twice that "we," 40AS, are two guys who went to Texas together and now write under the same author handle together. We disagree on some stuff sometimes, so this is a conversation between the pair of us about this Texas baseball season and where the program stands now.
JA: Ok, AO, lets get this started with a simple statement.
Right now, you are feeling _______ about Texas baseball.
AO: I think the word has to be "impatient." Look, I understand that baseball is a finicky game, where you can get out-hit significantly and still win a game; crush a ball and have it be an out, or hit a dinker that gets you on base; or lose to a team you're a lot better than because their pitcher had a career night. I get all that, and that's why MLB plays 162 games and college teams play over 50. It takes a lot of games for things to normalize and for the cream to rise to the top.
The problem is, Texas has not risen to the top, or even the middle, these last couple of years. A bad season can happen, sure--but there are two problems with being an apologist and just assuming Augie will get it fixed. First is that a "bad season" in Austin ought to be getting a 3 seed at someone else's regional. Second is that missing the NCAA Tournament two years in a row is bad, but being the only team in the Big 12--not exactly a baseball power conference--to miss the conference tournament as a result of winning zero conference series on the season is the absolute nadir of Texas baseball's possible outcomes. You could seriously make the argument that, in context, this was the worst baseball team in UT history. So I just have very little patience for any excuses about how baseball is a tough game to predict, or about guys going pro instead of enrolling, or whatever. I'm impatient, not for some pie-in-the-sky expectation of contending for a national title next year, but for the team to simply look like it has a clue. And, with the coaching staff's track record of taking promising hitters as freshmen and turning them into sub-.250 head cases by their junior years, I no longer think Augie is the guy to deliver what I'm looking for.
So that leads me to my first question of you, and I will paraphrase Stephen Colbert. 2013: awful Texas baseball team or the worst Texas baseball team?
JA: I'll go with the worst Texas baseball team. Maybe the 1956 (5-13) or 1998 (23-32-1 in Augie's first year) were worse, but I'll interpret your question as asking if Texas baseball has hit rock bottom and I've got to believe that's the case. What cinches it for me is how simplistically close this team was to being a pretty good team. All it needed was a competent offense.
Consider that five of the top six teams in the country in ERA made it to the Super Regional round. Texas ranked seventh. A year ago Texas went 14-10 in conference and hit .272. Both are fairly mediocre numbers for a fairly mediocre team. Had Texas done that in 2013 they would've been 34-17 in the regular season. Not great but good enough for a 2-seed somewhere. Instead they hit .234, scored just 71 runs in 24 games (59 in 23 games if you take out the 12-0 drubbing of WVU) and went 7-17. Hell, Nathan Thornhill had a 1.98 ERA and two complete games in 8 conference starts and still managed to go 1-5 in conference play. If the offense hadn't been so anemic and Corey Knebel hadn't imploded (1-3, 7.53 ERA) then things wouldn't be looking so gloomy.
We both know I'm the crazily optimistic of the two of us, and maybe my answer would have been different if the draft hadn't gone so well for us, but the return of Payton/Weiss and the addition of several offensively talented freshman gives me hope for the future. Throw in Texas having the strongest starting pitching staff it has had since 2010 and I don't think there's a problem with thinking of 2013 as rock bottom.
I guess before we talk about how things get turned around I'll ask: why do you think things got so bad? People blaming Augieball seems like such an oversimplification as it's hard to blame a strategy that can't be employed because you've got the 2003 Detroit Tigers on offense.
AO: Well there are a couple of things to unpack here. First is your implicit defense of "Augieball" against its many critics. I've always thought "Augieball" was kind of a silly term, considering the man did not invent small ball and an offensive strategy based on bunting and stealing bases is not exactly new to the game. But, in any event, I do think some of the displeasure with Augie's strategic approach can be chalked up to some fans taking the principles of "Moneyball" and sabermetrics, which I think are provably correct at the Major League level, and applying them directly to the college game. The reason bunting and stealing bases is an ok approach in college, whereas it's pretty stupid in the Majors, is that putting pressure on college defenses has proven effective time and again; they're less sure fielders and will make some mistakes. The trouble, as you alluded to, is that it only works if you can get guys on base--preferably with no outs, but at the very least with one out. Texas can't even get that far lately, so the strategy is a moot point.
BUT, I do think there's some validity in criticizing the recruiting process that has apparently been built around fielding a team that plays small ball. I think it's funny that you're way of saying it might not be as bad as it seems is to state that, to be a decent team, "all it needed was a competent offense." Really? All it needed was for one of the game's three phases to not be completely in the gutter? That's kind of like saying the Texas football team was really close to beating Oklahoma last year, all it needed was to score 50 more points. But I digress.
When you get commitments from only two kinds of hitters--guys who can mash so well they'll be drafted too early to justifiably come to college, and guys who can barely hit but "do the little things well"--and only the latter kind ends up on campus, what you have is a team teetering on the edge of offensive impotence at all times. It can't be terribly surprising that the 2013 squad finally fell off the precipice, especially considering that guys who hit like a house afire as freshmen--Weiss and Cohl Walla come to mind--appear to have lost their strokes. I can't tell you the extent to which the coaching staff is to blame for that, but it's happened.
As you know, and have often enjoyed giving me hell for, I grew up an LSU fan and still love the Tigers as my "1B" to Texas' "1A." The comparison between what Paul Mainieri has done in terms of accumulating offensive talent at LSU and what Augie has done at Texas illustrates the first point. LSU's top hitters, in order of where they hit in the lineup, are: freshman shortstop Alex Bregman, who has Major League ability but scared off some scouts with a high school injury; senior Mason Katz, who was drafted late this week and will likely never see significant action at the MLB level because he is a serviceable but not great fielder; senior Raph Rhymes, who didn't make the team as a freshman walk-on, went to JuCo to hone his swing, and came back to provoide two hugely productive years (including hovering around the .500 mark for much of last season); Christian Ibarra, a JuCo transfer who is a little small for pro scouts' liking; and Jacoby Jones, a junior from the great state of Mississippi who was drafted in the third round last week, and who was largely responsible for ending OU's season in the super regional. Of the group, only Jones can be said to be a "good-luck" guy who could have gone pro right out of high school but chose to enroll in college instead. The key to getting big bats on campus is to scour the earth for those diamonds in the rough, the guys who have provn they can hit the ball but, for whatever reason, are not immediately attractive in the draft.
Texas has failed to do that lately, and I have to imagine there are plenty of guys like that right in the Longhorns' backyard. How many great high school hitters who aren't yet considered pro material must come out of Texas prep schools every year? Those are the guys Augie and his staff need to start targeting. If he starts making them bunt once they get to campus, fine; it'll only work if somebody is already standing on first or second base. And, ultimately, if they don't start soon then I don't know how long they can keep convincing elite pitchers to come wear the burnt orange. It can't be too attractive a proposition to know you and your fellow pitchers will have to carry the entire load for your team because you'll get zero run support.
Where do we go from here?
AO: So I guess it's time to start thinking about wrapping this up. With all this said and considered, my question is: does Augies deserve the chance to right the ship in 2014? And, if so, what is the benchmark for success that would justify keeping him in 2015? You know that my answers are "No, because he came in ninth place out of nine teams and didn't win a single conference series at the conference's most successful baseball program after missing the Tournament the year before, so this year WAS his opportunity to start turning it around and he failed," and "N/A." What do you say?
JA: You are of course correct. Suggesting that adding a few bats to an anemic offense with an incredible pitching staff would've made a big difference over the course of conference play IS the equivalent of saying a ridiculous offensive output (70 points) would have made the difference in a 40 point loss where the offense, defense and special teams were annihilated by a sucky Sooner team.
But I digress.
The answer to your first question of whether Augie deserves to return is a 100% yes and not only because he is returning. Your rule about firing a coach when they don't win a conference series is valid, but you forgot the "when you're the winningest coach in college baseball history and have won two titles with two other championship series appearances it doesn't matter what angry Texas fans think you deserve because you've earned every second and you can go out on your own damn time " corollary.
LSU baseball has a good thing going right now and they're going to be really tough to beat in Omaha, no doubt. But let's not pretend as though Paul Mainieri has done this every year. The Tigers were fantastic in 2008, 2009 and 2013, but LSU went 12-17, 14-16 and 13-17 in the SEC in 2007, 2010 and 2011 respectively while failing to make the NCAA tourney in two of those three years.
My point is that things can turn around so quickly in college baseball that you'd be a fool to fire a coach with a winning pedigree after one or two bad years. And when that coach is also the winningest coach in NCAA history then I begin to question the quality of your parentage, and your parents are good people who don't deserve this kind of shoddy treatment, dammit.
What your question really should have been is "should Augie choose to return for 2014" and I think the answer is still yes. Considering the returning pitching staff, the possibility of progress in year two under Nicholson (check out what happened in his second year at Sacramento State) and the likelihood that a strong offensive freshman class makes it to the 40 Acres, I'd say there's at least reason for optimism next year. That having been said, I'll grant you that I probably would've been the guy feeling good about Custer's chances just before Little Big Horn.
I don't know how to define success in 2014 but I feel like we'll know it when we see it. If the program does rebound then I have no reservations about Augie being the coach until he doesn't want. I still don't see how you can ever reasonably fire a coach like Augie Garrido if the program struggles again in 2014, but I would definitely want him to develop a plan for leaving on his own accord, possibly at the end of the 2014 season.
AO: Look, you can characterize your "all we lacked was one third of the game!" argument however you want; it's silly no matter what lipstick you put on it. And your corollary to the "when you lead the program to rock bottom, you get fired" rule is nonsensical. It's wonderful that Augie Garrido is the winningest coach of all time. It's wonderful that he has won a pair of national titles and come close another couple of times while at Texas. And those factors are the only things that make this a tough question; I think he ought to go, either of his own accord or forcibly, before next season; but, I think it's valid to think he deserves to see it though for another year with a strong freshman class and the second year of Nicholson as hitting coach. It's not a 100% definite question.
But, your devotion to the status quo has gotten laughable. You basically said: "If we improve next year, Augie should get to define his own terms for leaving. If we don't, he should still get to define his own terms for leaving but I'll hope he does that at some point." What? Buddy, I love how much you love Augie, and believe it or not I am equally appreciative of what he's done in his career. He revived the Texas program from the doldrums and brought it back to where it belongs. But now he's in danger of putting his successor in the exact same position. No matter how accomplished a coach is, he is still a coach--an employee of the athletic department who does not make his own decisions about his employment status. This idea that no matter what, Augie gets to go out on his own terms is ludicrous. Obviously he is coming back for 2014, and while it's not the decision I would've made I'm fine with that. But if we don't improve dramatically (winning two conference series won't do it), he ought to be offered the chance to remain in the athletic department in some capacity, but told in no uncertain terms that he is no longer the baseball coach.
You're obviously right that things can turn around in a hurry, and I'm hoping that will happen next year. But if it doesn't, and that makes three straight years of disappointing baseball? There are plenty of exciting, proven young coaches out there that would likely jump at the chance to come to Austin--Dan McDonnell of Louisville comes to mind. So I can respect your position on 2014; your thinking with regard to the long-term future makes you a disgrace to your family name, to your alma mater, and to this great country of ours.
JA: I hear ya, and I applaud your hyperbolic statements and total disregard for the concept of loyalty. You're gonna be a good lawyer. But I think suggesting any coach with a good track record deserves to be fired after two bad years is absurd.
Sticking by your coach doesn't mean anyone is rooting for the status quo, I think we all want to see the Horns dogpile every June. Can Augie get us back there? I hope he can and think he can, but neither of us knows for sure. If this were random winning coach Johnson I'd say he still deserves another shot, maybe that's just who I am.
Three years in college baseball is a generation of players running through a program. Three straight years of failure would say something to me about Augie's ability to recover. Let's say the status quo persists next year. In that case I'd say Augie should resign. I'd support Augie saying 2015 is his swan song. Hell, I'd support the athletic department strongly encouraging his retirement. Your support for a Soviet-style purge and Gulagging makes my skin crawl though. This isn't some random coach we are talking about and let's not pretend this is a Fortune 500 company where you're only as secure in your job as your last profit margin. Loyalty and career accomplishments matter in sports more than business and calling those concepts nonsensical and silly doesn't make them so. My point is that I'll reserve judgment on 2015 until we cross that bridge.
There's a point where Augie's goodwill would be used up, I'll grant you that. But going 7-17 in conference two years after going to Omaha isn't that point.
I look forward to writing the same column with you again next year for Augie, Mack and Rick.