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A Casual Conversation on Texas Baseball

The old 40AS is back for a brief chat about the State of Texas Baseball and where we see the Horns going in 2014. First pitch is in just two days!

2013 Alumni Game
2013 Alumni Game
Photo courtesy of bandito

Jeff: Remember in 2006, 2007 and 2008 when people were calling for Augie's head because Texas didn't get out of its region? Well here are on the eve of another season coming off a pair of NCAA tourney misses. Eight months ago you said you were feeling impatient about Texas baseball. We're starting our seventh season writing about Texas baseball on BON, and the people are demanding you finish this sentence: the state of Texas baseball is ______?

Abram: Indeterminate. I know that's a non-answer, but like this year's hoops squad it would appear to be crossroads type season. There are reasons for pessimism, mostly reflected in recent history: the two straight failures to make NCAA Tournament, punctuated by last years' failure to even make the Big 12 Tournament. And I don't want to harp too much on the negative, but there are only nine teams in the Big 12 baseball conference and eight of them make the tournament. So the 2013 season was not just bad, but historically bad.

Still, though, the Longhorns have three things going for them that we have mentioned before: starting pitching that is somewhere between very good and dominant; a strong recruiting class that has some guys specifically brought in for their bats; and a weak conference that should offer a chance to rebound even if the team is not, by national standards, particularly strong. Of course, one of the issues over the last few years has been (and this makes me feel like a broken record after the football coach debate we just finished) the lack of development of players at the plate. In fact, there are a few examples of guys who got demonstrably worse at hitting the longer they took instruction from Texas' coaches. Not that there is inherently a correlation, but it's worrisome.

So I think this year we find ourselves wanting to see a couple of things: first, of course, to compete for the conference title--i.e., win a lot more games than last year. Second, though, I think it's important that the first goal be accomplished in a manner that includes competent offense. It has been a long time since Texas displayed that quality; I'm not asking for 8 runs a game, but basic competence from one of the premier baseball programs in the country shouldn't be too much to ask. St the end of the season, I'll be able to answer the question one of two ways: the state of Texas baseball will be either "recovering" or "in need of a painful but necessary coaching change."

Which brings me to a question for you: in your mind, what is success in 2014? And I'll break it into two questions: first, what is the minimum level of success you think Augie Garrido needs this team to achieve in order to keep his job? And note I am not asking what he needs to do for you to think he ought to keep his job; it is established that you think he deserves to stay until he wants to leave. What I mean is, objectively, what needs to happen for it to actually be likely that the University doesn't make a change? And, second, what would be the minimum for you personally to feel like the program is back on track?

Jeff: Remember the 2006-2008 teams? 2006 and 2007 were good clubs that got rough breaks in NCAA seeding but both hosted while the 2008 team was a disaster (2-seed) that had enough young talent to just miss on a title in 2009.

That's the level I'm looking for. Augie doesn't have to lead Texas to the CWS, but I don't think it's too much to set this year's goal as either hosting a regional or otherwise showing enough improvement to believe an Omaha run can happen in 2015. Texas may have to rebuild its pitching staff next year considering the age of the starters this year, but I trust in Augie and the depth he's built in that regard. But if the offense doesn't improve this year then I don't think it ever will under this regime.

I think you and I agree that the lack of hitting has never been a strategy issue but rather it has been a recruiting and coaching/teaching issue. The numbers tend to back this up as the Horns were 3rd nationally in sac bunts in 2010 (super regional), 1st in 2011 (CWS), 38th in 2012 (no postseason) and 79th in 2013 (no postseason). Augieball is easy to blame because professional teams playing a different game and 162 game schedule don't bunt, but blaming a strategy the Horns haven't been offensively good enough to implement the last two years is a lazy way to fixate on a single tree while the forest whizzes by. This time the recruiting has gone right for once, so if Texas still can't hit at all this year then that leaves the coaching staff's teaching methods solely to blame for the offensive struggles and suggests a change needs to happen.

If Texas fails to host a regional or be a dangerous 2-seed then I think convincing Augie to resign as Mack ultimately did would be the right thing to do for Texas baseball.

There's no reason to think Rick Barnes and the excellent job he has done can't be a better analogy for Augie's 2014 campaign than Mack though.

Since it was an excellent question, what are your minimum standards for 2014? On a different note, Augie spoke in January about how he saw the sense of entitlement as the most important issue to overcome between 2013 and 2014. You played low level high school baseball in Mississippi a decade ago, how much credence do you place in talk like that or is it just an easy way for a zen-master coach to deflect blame?

Abram: "Low level," huh? There's a plaque to our 2001 state runner-up finish that has beef with that characterization, sir. Particularly coming from a guy who can still recite with absolute clarity his most recent impressive baseball play--which took place when he was 12 years old.

In any event, I don't really know how to take Augie's statement. On one hand, winning at baseball is mostly about putting in hours of hard work away from the diamond: thousands of cuts in the cage, video review of your swing, more cuts, dry-swing drills, hitting off tees--and that's just on offense. So to the extent he is saying the guys were failing to put in the necessary off-season and between-game work to be excellent because they felt entitled? Sure, that could be true. But to the extent he meant that as some sort of statement about the way in which they played the actual games, I don't see it as having much value. Baseball is certainly very much a mental game, but if anything an abundance of confidence can help in that regard. Crash Davis in Bull Durham said it best: baseball must be played with "fear and arrogance." If entitlement gives them the arrogance part of that equation, I don't see how it hurts during the actual games.

As far as my minimum standard for 2014, I think I'm right there with you. Sneaking into the Tournament as a 3 seed after finishing outside the top 3 in the conference probably won't do it for me, barring some legitimate excuse like a rash of injuries. I'd agree we need to be at least on the sub-regional hosting bubble (i.e., somewhere between the 13 and 20 overall seed in the eyes of the committee), and honestly a two-and-out at the regional would strike me as a failure as well. And again, it has to be accompanied by visible strides at the plate.

OK, last question: If you had to pick one pitcher and one hitter to say "as they go, so go the Longhorns" in 2014, who are they?

Jeff: First off, I was 10. And second, let's not badmouth The Catch, a play that my dad assures me is the finest play made by a Carrolton Booster of any age in all of 1993.

But I digress.

I'm going to cheat on the hitter part of your question and say it's a tie between freshmen Andy McGuire and Tres Barrera. Those two being as good offensively as they're supposed to be is essential for the success of the Longhorns offense. If they're good, CJ Hinojosa makes a jump in his sophomore year and Mark Payton is anywhere near the hitter he was in 2013 then Texas should be at least mediocre offensively.

That happens and the pitching remains good then the Horns are hosting.

On the mound I'll go with Lukas Schiraldi only because I don't want to cheat and say all of last year's starters. Schiraldi was listed by Augie as one of the scrimmage's starters and I could see him as the midweek starter or even replacing Thornhill as the Sunday starter. If he's that good then the Horns have four legitimate weekend starters and a deep, strong bullpen. It won't make the difference between a .500 club and a CWS team but a fourth really good starter could be the difference between a regional loss and a super regional appearance.

Final question for me: where do the Horns end up? Predict their conference finish and postseason accomplishment. Since we're homer bloggers and this is a meaningless prediction I say winning the Big 12 and a super regional loss in Baton Rouge that annoys me to no end.

Abram: Well, the thing about the Big 12 being weak is it's a double-edged sword. On the good side, it presents an opportunity for Texas to go worst-to-first if they play well and the chips fall properly. But on the bad side, the conference is unlikely to get more than one hosting site for the sub-regionals. That means, unless there's a surprisingly high quality pair of teams at the top, Texas basically has to win the Big 12 in order to host. I'm not fully comfortable predicting a jump from 9th to 1st in the conference, but I am optimistic about the Horns' chances of finishing in the top three.

So I guess I'll say they end up a close second in the regular season to TCU, and go to OKC on the bubble to host. I think we will ultimately be disappointed as we watch Texas snag a two seed at a winnable regional--perhaps in Houston at a tournament hosted by Rice. With Texas' pitching depth, I like their chances of making it to the final two of that regional, where of course anything can happen. But we're predicting here, and there are no consequences, and optimism is more fun than pessimism, so I'll take Texas to beat Rice--maybe with a run through the losers' bracket and a delightful two-game sweep of the Owls to really crush their souls.

In my hypothetical universe I will send Texas to a different SEC school for the supers, and say they take a dramatic three-game win over Mississippi State in Starkville. (This prediction is purely selfish because it would mean Texas is in the super regional only two hours from me.) Having thus achieved a shocking return to Omaha, I'll give Texas a respectable 1-2 showing, with a first loss to eventual national champion Oregon State, an elimination-game victory over Vanderbilt, and being eliminated by 2014 Cinderella Louisiana Lafayette.

None of this is going to happen. But what will happen is baseball will soon be played at the Disch, and that's pretty great news.