It has often been said that hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a round ball with a round bat. That dictum is supported by the fact that hitting a baseball is one of the very few endeavors in life wherein success in three out of ten attempts is considered solid, and success in four out of ten attempts is legendary.
Too often, though, baseball fans give in to the temptation of equating the words "hitting" and "offense." While hitting is certainly the most important piece of the offense puzzle, the big picture is simply scoring runs. It doesn't matter how you get around the bases; it only matters that you do it as frequently as possible.
With that in mind, we present Part III of our 2009 Texas baseball preview. The key this year will be replacing the two big bats that the Longhorns lose from last year's team: all-time program homerun leader Kyle Russell and veritable double machine Jordan Danks, who was incidentally 2-for-3 in Sunday's Alumni Game. There is good news, however: it looks as if there is enough talent on the 40 Acres to provide serious dog fights for playing time at several positions in the lineup. The only thing that seems certain is that the overall approach to putting runs on the board will have to be classic "Augieball," known elsewhere around the baseball world as "small ball." College baseball is best known to many fans for the "Gorillaball" tactic made famous by the dominant LSU teams of the late '90s who would simply sit back and wait for the three-run homer that inevitably came. Of course even that may not be certain now that the insanely fast astro turf has been replaced with field turf. We assume the field will play slower, but how much will that affect Augieball?
Details after the jump!
Battles for Jobs
The top two returning hitters from 2008 are junior Russell Moldenhauer (.355) and senior Michael Torres (.354). That distinction will not guarantee either one of them a spot in the starting lineup. Reports are that freshman Brandon Loy had an unbelievable fall and will thus challenge Torres for the starting role at third base. Torres left much to be desired on defense last season and will have to prove himself all over again to fight off the freshman nipping at his heels. Loy can also play shortstop, so even if Torres beats him out the freshman can challenge junior David Hernandez (.291 BA in '08) for some playing time--although the starting job at short is clearly Hernandez's heading into the season.
As for Moldenhauer, he will be fighting for a spot in a delightfully crowded outfield. This group is extremely deep. The only one who seems to be a lock for a starting job is sophomore Tant Shepherd in left field. Shepherd hit .357 last season (he did not have enough at-bats to qualify as the team leader) and slugged .536. The most exciting stat, though, is that he had an on-base percentage of .449. Getting on base is the name of the game in Augieball. The other two outfield spots will be up for grabs between Moldenhauer, freshmen Tim Maitland and Morgan Mickan, sophomores Connor Rowe and Kevin Keyes, and junior Kyle Lusson. For what it's worth, Lusson and Mickan started the Alumni Game in center and right, respectively. Rowe had only six at-bats in 2008, but made the most of them in hitting a single and a double for four total RBI. He may end up with the starting job in center field because he is one of the fastest runners on the team. Keyes, on the other hand, had more ABs than Shepherd (59) and hit .339 with four dingers and a .610 slugging percentage. Lusson had 36 ABs and only one extra-base hit, a double. He did hit for a .306 average, but with no power and a 2008 OBP of just .375, he has his work cut out for him. If you want a prediction from us, we'd guess it'll be the three sophomores out there because of Rowe's wheels and the fact that Shepherd and Keyes looked like The Future last year, and the future is now. Keyes also has an advantage because power hitters will be hard to come by in this lineup, and he has the potential to go for extra bases frequently. But if any of them slips up, Augie has plenty of options to step in.
More Secure Jobs
At catcher, senior Preston Clark is the clear favorite to start. Clark was very effective behind the plate as a junior but was somewhat disappointing offensively. He showed signs of life intermittently, but never quite put together any consistency as a hitter. He only hit .263, but finished 23 percentage points higher than that in the 2007 season. Clark showed as a sophomore that he can be a better hitter than he showed last year; if he can pull the average up to around .300, he can be one of the nation's elite players because of his defensive prowess.
Sophomore Cameron Rupp is likely to hang onto his job as the Longhorns' DH. Rupp hit .309 last season as a freshman, so it will be exciting to see what he can do with a year of experience under his belt. Rupp only managed to draw 16 walks in his first campaign, and his on-base percentage suffered a bit for it (although it was by no means terrible at .381). We will be looking for him to show a more disciplined approach at the plate now that he is no longer a freshman. Rupp will also spell Clark behind the plate occasionally.
The first baseman's job is all wrapped up for junior Mr. Everything Brandon Belt. Belt pitched quite a bit in 2008 as well, but Augie has expressed a clear interest in having him focus on being an everyday lineup player in 2009. Belt would not be considered a power hitter on most teams, but his six homers and .496 slugging percentage last year make him a power hitter on this team. We think that with all his attention on playing first and hitting the baseball, his numbers should only improve this year.
Second base will be an offensive liability for the 'Horns in 2009 as it was in 2008, with senior Travis Tucker back joining Hernandez in the double-play combo. Tucker is a great leader and a solid veteran to have in the lineup, but Torres, Moldenhauer, Shepherd, and Keyes all had batting averages higher than his slugging percentage of .323 last year. He did smack a double in the Alumni Game.
February 20 can't get here soon enough!