What's Driving Texas Baseball?

Photo courtesy of Schoolly_D

Texas baseball is closing in on 2013's win total, but what's driving this apparent resurgence?

The Horns used a balanced attack on Tuesday night with all but one player (Tech hero Madison Carter) recording a hit and everybody reaching base safely thanks to eight walks on the night. Lukas Schiraldi had another solid midweek outing, throwing 6.2 innings while giving up five hits, two runs and walking three in the 5-2 victory.

Texas continued to have trouble with leaving men on base, stranding 14 men on the night bringing their grand total to over 56 by my count over the last four games.

The Horns are now 23-7, ranked #2 in ISR, #5 in RPI and in the top 12 of all major polls. It could certainly all unravel against solid though not spectacular Big 12 competition, but Texas only needs four wins to match last year's win total. Texas is performing better than they did a year ago and Jeff Haley's excellent post on the basketball team exceeding expectations inspired me to take a deeper look into the numbers to figure out why.

A couple of reasons jump out when comparing where we are in 2014 with where we were in 2013:

Batting Average

On the surface Texas is not hitting the ball noticeably better than they were a year ago at this time (.268 batting average both years). But while the 2013 Horns started below average and more or less stayed there over the course of the season, the 2014 Horns are exhibiting signs of growth after a slow start. Texas began the 2013 campaign hitting .256 as a team, peaked at .268 and finished the year at .259. Conversely, the 2014 Horns began the year well below average (.247 team average to begin March), dipped during the Kansas series and have come on strong over the last three weeks.

What has changed? Well, Tres Barrera was hitting .133 until mid-March and is now right around .300. Zane Gurwitz was struggling in right field and Andy McGuire was struggling at third base. Since then Barrera has turned on, Gurwitz moved to third and turned his hitting on and Collin Shaw and his .300 batting average replaced Gurwitz in right. Whereas last year's squad was top heavy, the 2014 team boasts seven guys hitting at or above the team batting average. As a result the Horns are vastly superior in total hits and runs in 2014 than they were in 2013.

What's cooler is that while the 2013 squad hit its ceiling by midyear, the 2014 Longhorns can still improve. Madison Carter may or may not (probably not) be the answer at DH, and solving that position would be fantastic.

Abram and I have complained over the years that the problem with Texas offensively has been an inability to develop hitters who didn't reach campus with prolific talent. Mark Payton just needed time to develop. But you look at guys that have been with the program for a few years and suddenly there is progress where before there was only frustration and raw potential. Ben Johnson, Collin Shaw and Brooks Marlow are all examples of guys who came into the program raw and are becoming top notch players. Take Johnson. Last year he flashed serious potential but also struck out in 26% of his plate appearances. This year he has struck out in only 11% and has drawn three more walks than strikeouts. Maybe it's the Tommy Nicholson effect, maybe not, but it's a refreshing thing to see regardless of the cause.

Approach at the Plate

So what are they doing different? Texas may not be dramatically better at the plate, but they have been able to employ their preferred offense thanks to dramatically better patience. A year ago the Horns were 157th nationally in walks at this time while this year they're 37th. A year ago the Horns were 232nd in sacrifice flies and 21st in sacrifice bunts. This year they're 82nd and 2nd respectively in those two categories. Cite the Gospel of Bill James and the inefficiency of bunting all you want, but Texas teams are built to win when they can manufacture runs by getting men on base and scoring them, not waiting for the three run homer. I won't argue that it's the best strategy, but I will argue that Texas is at its best when it is sacrificing a lot. Want proof? In the last six years Texas has finished 79th, 39th, 11th, 3rd, 1st and 1st nationally in sac bunts. Those bunt totals neatly correspond with how Texas did those years: barely above .500 (79th-2013), missed postseason (39th-2012), barely made postseasons as a 2-seed (11th-2008), super regional exit (2010-3rd), CWS (1st-2011) and CWS title series (1st-2009).

The flip side to walking more is that Texas has been dramatically better at avoiding the strikeout, the death knell to manufacturing runs. Texas struck out in an astounding 17.6% of at bats in 2013. Poor hitting plus not taking walks plus striking out a ton equals not many runs. This year, however, the Horns are only striking out in 12.9% of at bats (a number that was even lower a few weeks ago). A similar number of hits plus more walks plus more bunts plus fewer strikeouts equals scoring more runs, something the Horns have been able to do almost the entire year. Texas is averaging 4.6 runs per game right now, up almost a full run over last year's 3.9. There's no reason to believe that number won't continue to rise if the bats can stay sharp and the Horns can maintain their solid plate discipline. Texas doesn't need to score 7 runs a game to win, but it does have to regularly score 4 or 5.

Texas is also stealing bases at a higher frequency than it was a year ago. The Horns started 2013 out with a bang on the base paths, stealing 29 in the season's first 19 games (1.5 per game) before stopping with that strategy (.667 steals per game after that). Texas started slow on the bases this season but has slowly crept up to .9 per game. That's what Collin Shaw (7-10), Ben Johnson (6-6), Mark Payton (5-6) and Zane Gurwitz (4-4) in a lineup can do for you.

Pitching

Finally, we talked about how good Texas pitching was a year ago. The Horns finished seventh in the country when all was said and done, ranking 24th at this same time last year and getting better as the year concluded. They accomplished this largely by not giving up a ton of walks or hits, finishing in the top 25 nationally in both categories leading to the country's sixth best WHIP. The formula has changed a bit in 2014. Texas pitchers are walking more batters (100th nationally), but they are giving up fewer hits (14th nationally) and relying more on better defense (9th nationally in 2014 compared to 55th a year ago). The result is the country's fourth best ERA. What's remarkable is that Texas pitchers have room to improve if they'll cut down on their walk rate just a bit.

Overall

So there you have it right in the numbers. Texas is hitting a bit better, striking out less, walking more, scoring a few more runs, playing better defense and pitching better. There isn't one area that can be pointed to as the reason Texas is winning more games, the numbers suggest it's a combination of things.

The result though is a team that can match 2013's win total with just four more wins.

Things could certainly turn sour for the Horns. A year ago they were 16-11 before finishing the year 11-13 and missing the postseason. Less than a week ago Abram and I were wondering if a devastating Sunday loss might mean the end of the Garrido era in Austin.

But then Madison Carter happened and John Curtiss happened and now the outlook for the 2014 season looks as rosy as ever. Hopefully it stays that way this weekend against Baylor.

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