A week or so ago a few writers and I had an extended chat about the state of Texas baseball. This chat took place before last weekend's debacle against TCU, but I thought it was an excellent, informed discussion about the hardball team. Though Texas looked awful against TCU, the sense of cautious optimism revolving around the 2014 Horns should still remain.
Our participants were me, BON writers Curry Shoff, Michael Pelech and Abram Orlansky, and guest of BON/Barking Carnival baseball contributor Bitterwhiteguy (BWG). Without further adieu, therefore, I give you the Texas Baseball Writers Round Table and welcome your thoughts on the same topics in the comments.
After two years without sniffing the post season, do you trust this team yet or is this a fluke?
Curry: I don't know if trust is the right word, because Texas athletics has hardly earned my trust in the few years I've been on campus, but this is as promising a season as I would've expected from this Longhorn baseball team. The hitting, while not spectacular, has improved significantly. Mark Payton is playing like an All-American. Pitching has improved with experience.
I think a good way to look at it is the Payton walk-off double against Baylor. That is a game that Texas loses ten times out of ten in 2012 and 2013. This team has got some moxie. I am cautiously excited about what they can do.
I want to be wary of this squad, but I'm still in a post-coital bliss from the overachieving basketball team so I'm a little more prone to go full homer(/rimshot) over the baseball squad as well. We're ~60% of the way through the season and this team seems to be nearly everything Kevin Dunn hoped it would be in his preseason BC interview
. This has the look of an Augieball team so far & it doesn't seem like they're primed for any sort of collapse. So I'm going to answer that with a yes, but I may or may not have my fingers crossed behind my back.
Michael: I'll trust any team that pitches as well as this one does. If this team was winning a ton of 10-8 type games, I'd be far more skeptical. But good pitching is a replicable strategy. The team is hitting much more efficiently now, and I trust them to get 3 or 4 runs. This staff will hold teams under that mark.
Abram: The question is perfectly constructed. In a normal, pre-2012 Texas season, I'd have no problem brashly predicting to the SEC fans that surround me that no one should want anything to do with this Texas team in the postseason. Several players have found their strokes at the plate, there are now several guys who are capable of getting a big hit in a tense situation, and, as Michael alluded to, I'd put Lukas Schiraldi up against almost any other squad's second or third starter. Schiraldi throws on Tuesdays for us.
But the last two years have burned me pretty badly. I understand that all the indicators point to this team having the character and ability the last two have lacked, but I can't use the word "trust" yet. It would be equally inappropriate, though, to call the success thus far a "fluke." So my answer is that there just isn't an answer yet. It's too early to say one way or the other.
I wish I could say I trust Texas baseball again, but then I remember talking with Abram for the third time this season about a 'Fire Augie' column around the time Tech was stealing home.
Every time I've questioned this team though they've responded amazingly. I guess the first step to rebuilding trust is responding to adversity like they did at Cal, against Hawaii and at Tech. A few more series like the Baylor one where they don't even face adversity on Sunday and I may trust them.
I will say that I do believe in some sort of mystic quality to Mark Payton.
Mark Payton is the team's MVP. Who would be your Second MVP (choose one pitcher and one position player)?
Curry: I would say that my non-position player would be Brooks Marlow. He is top three in, runs scored, hits, and OBP. He is also the only guy I am confident can get on base outside of Mark Payton. For pitcher, like MP said, it has to be Thornhill. 5-0 and a .73 ERA is nothing to scoff at.
BWG: Can I choose Tommy Nicholson & Skip Johnson? I know they're coaches, but they're as responsible for this resurgence as anyone with the recruiting they've done the past 1-2 years. I'm going to pick Brooks Marlow as my non-Payton position player - though I really like Tres' work behind the plate lately - as I dig an infielder with a .994 fielding percentage & a BB/K ratio of nearly 2/1. I wouldn't argue with anybody that wanted to pick Ben Johnson either. As for the pitchers, Parker French seems like a pretty obvious choice to me. His K/BB ratio is better than 2/1 & he's pretty all-around salty when he's on(which is almost all the time).
Michael: For my non-position player, I'll scoop up Ben Johnson. Second on the team in RBIs and on-base percentage (what this team sorely needs) and doesn't strike out often. As for the pitchers, give me Nathan Thornhill. I love having an senior on Sunday put a weekend series to bed, and it's hard to argue with 5-0 and a 0.73 ERA.
BWG makes a great point that the youth movement from which I have to choose is due in large part to the coaches' having apparently figured out that fine line between recruiting the best players--who will usually go pro--and recruiting the best players likely to go to college. Still, the question is for players, and I just have to go with Barrera among the non-pitchers. This kid started the year very much down in terms of plate production, and for a freshman in a heavily mental sport that could have been fatal to his season. But he shortly caught fire and hasn't really slowed down. Add in the fact that he looks like a burgeoning Yadier Molina behind the plate, hosing fools who dare to try and run, and you have yourself Payton's obvious number two.
I almost went outside the box for the pitchers and picked Schiraldi, on the theory that having a very good fourth starter is a huge asset come tournament time. But the third Rice performance has me pumping the brakes on that (only slightly; everyone deserves an off day sometimes) (and, to be honest, I am more scared by the one measly hit Texas managed on Tuesday than the ten hits and seven earned runs Schiraldi gave up in 4.1 innings). So I'm with Michael on this one. A pitcher's job is to stop the other team from scoring runs. Thornhill allows well under a single run per nine innings. He's the man.
If this were a draft I'd be screwed, but since it's not I'm going to agree with Michael on Ben Johnson, though Barrera would be my second choice. Johnson is the team's second best base stealer, has completely remade himself as a hitter (28 strikeouts in under 100 plate appearances last year!) and sets the table for Payton and Barrera extremely well. He leads the team in sac flies and also is just about the only player on the team (other than Barrera) who can routinely crush a baseball with these craptastic bats. Plus, by voting for Johnson I'm more or less also taking the work Tommy Nicholson has done to dramatically transform his offensive game.
Much as it was for Mack and Rick, this was a make or break year for Augie. He's been in the 'make' category so far, but how do you see his situation playing out long term? Is this Augie's swan song? Will he be with us until the day he dies? Something in-between?
As far as pitchers go, I'm gonna go with John Curtiss. Curtiss has been lights out this year, aside from nearly killing me during the Tech game. He has been nearly unhittable (.138 opponent BA) and his ability to step into the closer role when Thornhill faltered has been essential. I like Curtiss as a freshman and, quite selfishly, hope he returns for another year to make up for the one he lost to injury. I also thought about Morgan Cooper, but his propensity for giving up extra base hits scares me.
Curry: Augie will be here until he wants to leave, and I am okay with that. College baseball is getting popular but not to the point that Texas donors are going to storm Bellmont with pitchforks when he and the Horns drop a regional. I also don't know if he deserves to be on the hot-seat just yet. Last year was rough but this year looks more promising than what I was expecting (deja-vu to my thinking on Rick Barnes, but Rick isn't the winningest college coach of all time with a national title.)
BWG: I've heard a rumor that this is Augie's last season regardless of the outcome, the only difference being a good season means he retires and a bad season means he 'retires'. I've heard some people close to the program shoot that rumor down so take the story with the appropriate grain of salt, but it wouldn't be impossible he hands the program off to one of the assistants(Skip) at the end of the season. As for how this season plays out, it seems like the bar should be at least making a Super Regional given what we've seen to this point. If they get to that point, Augie gets to make his own call. If they get bounced in a regional(especially one they're hosting) then I think his seat starts getting warm.
Michael: I think Augie is in a special spot. When UT Athletics went "under new management" I felt Mack Brown's large scale failures and visibility sealed his fate, Rick Barnes had a one year interview (that he nailed)...but Augie is different. He's in the same boat as Rick in that they mostly operate in the shadow of football, but Augie has two things working for him: 1) Steve Patterson is a basketball guy, so Barnes will be under extra scrutiny, and 2) Augie has been much more successful (in absolute terms) than Barnes. I think those factors means Augie's here for at the very least the near future. If Charlie Strong solidifies himself as a successful head coach for the next 10 years, and Rick Barnes reinvigorates the basketball program and gets them going, then things could get interesting for Augie.
That's a really interesting, macro take from Michael that I hadn't really been working into my thoughts on this question. I have been conceptualizing the fact that all three major men's sports were at a crossroads coming into the year as more of a coincidence, and am assuming that Augie's job security vel non has everything to do with baseball and nothing to do with the rest of the sports. Let's assume for a minute that my initial thought is accurate, because I am lazy.
Given that, if things continue down the path they were on as of the second straight conference series sweep against Oklahoma, I lean much more toward the "with us till he dies" end of the spectrum. As of this moment, he is on track not only to improve on the last two years' troubles but to restore Texas to contender status. That is the holy grail that eluded Mack Brown; he certainly didn't repeat the 5-7 disaster, but he never got Texas back to national relevance and that's what ultimately ended his tenure here. Much like Coach Brown with football, Texas' national relevance in baseball in the past decade and a half is due in large part to Augie's efforts when he first came to Austin.
Unlike the end of Mack's tenure, though, Augie is on track to re-establish that level of play after a down period. If he shows the ability to do that--i.e., if this remarkable run the team is on doesn't peter out down the stretch--he'll be damn near un-fireable. I have no sources or anything, but I've seen no indication that he wants to retire. I imagine Augie Garrido will end his time on earth exactly as he would want to: kicking up dirt (er, asphalt pellets) on an umpire at the Disch arguing a call.
I tend to agree with Abram, and I've have had a friend somewhat connected to college baseball tell me that Augie loves the lifestyle being the head man at Texas affords and would have to be dragged away kicking and screaming from this job. If you can't trust my unnamed friend telling me third-hand anecdotes about a man he's never met then what can you trust? Bottom line is that I don't foresee a Mack situation developing, Augie ain't doing a forced resignation. I think Augie leaves via three methods: dying in the dugout, retiring under his terms or being fired.
How surprised are you by the way the 2014 season has turned out, and how do you predict it will finish?
Final question is a two-parter:
I will say that I don't buy that the new AD or head football coach had anything to do with baseball's resurgence. The timing is a nice coincidence, but Texas is playing better because it recruited better players who made it to campus between 2013 and 2014 (Barrera, Gurwitz, Clemens, Cooper -- hopefully McGuire) and developed the raw guys with lots of potential (Shaw, Johnson, Marlow, Carter). These changes all happened before Patterson and crew came on board.
If all of this is a fluke and Texas reverts to 2012/2013 when Thornhill/French/Peters/Payton leave next year then I think Augie will probably be fired within the next few years. If it isn't a fluke and Augie has found his touch again then I think he's here for a long time to come.
My new expectations for this team are high, but if they fall behind to a good team by more than three runs it feels like they are screwed. The team just doesn't have a major offensive presence outside of Payton, and he can't do it all. I think if Texas traps another team into their game of small ball they will win convincingly. Depending on who visits in the Regional, I could see them making a postseason run. Keep the Rice Owls away from them, though. I'll say they win a nail-biting Super Regional and then are one of the first teams out of the door in Omaha. Texas fans are happy to be relevant in a mens sport again and the supposed heat on coach's tail subsides. Augie smiles and waves as he gets off of the plane before driving straight to LHN to demand more editorial control of his offseason cooking show. A statue is commissioned of Augie signaling "bunt" to his cleanup hitter with runners on first and second and this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jICvEEqOtEg
) disappears from the internet, forever.
I don't really have a word that covers just how surprised I am by this team. This team is SCRUMTRULESCENT, MAGNIFEROUS, ODONKULOUS! I mean, the pitching isn't really a surprise; even when the team was down last year, the pitching was pretty solid. The fielding by the underclassmen has been much better than I expected, and the plate discipline has been better than expected for most of them. It's been great watching this team roll through the conference, though a little of me suspects they're being aided by a conference that's down. This is also what gives me pause about any sort of concrete prediction, but I'd like to see them make the Super Regionals at the very least. A CWS appearance would be awesome and they seem like they're capable of it, I'm just gun-shy about predicting that at this point.
I didn't mean to imply that the baseball resurgence had to do with the environment, merely that Augie's job security had as much to do with the environment as the improved performance on the diamond (in my opinion).
My surprise level: pleasantly befuddled. I was cautiously optimistic that the bats would improve, but had nothing to support that. And silly me did not expect Mark Payton to live on the bases this year. I don't know where I expect this team to end up. I'm going to get gunshy and say a game short of Omaha. Prove me wrong, lads.
I am a little shocked by the team thus far just because of how quickly it seemed to click. I was lukewarm for the first half of the season, pleased they were winning games but not seeing evidence of real improvement at the dish and therefore skeptical it would last. I was also, for much of the opening month-plus of the season, not sure about the Sunday starter situation. Now look at us. Hitting the ball well, best Sunday starter in America, and for two of the last three weeks utterly dominating a so-so Big 12, as is our custom. So I'm really, really enjoying this resurgence that has taken place not just from last year to this year, but right before our eyes as the team has matured.
For a prediction, here's what I see. I think Texas finished somewhere from first to third in the league and is considered either a lock (if they win the regular season title) or a borderline national seed heading into the Big 12 Tournament. If they're borderline they'll need to win a game or two in OKC to get into that top eight. Regardless, though, it will take a major slide for Texas not to at least host a sub-regional in Austin. I don't know if they'll get out of that alive, but the interesting thing is I do feel confident that if they make a super regional, they'll win it. I'm not confident anyone can put three guys on the hill in what amounts to a weekend series who can hang with our combo of French/Peters/Thornhill.
Jeff: I have to say that I am completely shocked. I expected better than 2012 and 2013, I expected a team that could compete for a Big 12 title and a team that might luck into a regional host, but I didn't expect this. It's like all of this team's potential exploded with one Sunday win in Lubbock. It's strange to think that we're only a month removed from that steal of home in Lubbock. I'm trying to think of a lower moment as a Texas baseball fan that didn't occur in June and I'm coming up empty. And now to realistically see this team as a national seed with a chance at Omaha?
This team isn't 2013, 2012 or even 2011. The 2011 CWS squad had four guys that could hit and two guys who could pitch. Sure there's nobody quite like Taylor Jungmann on this squad, but this team has a depth we haven't seen in burnt orange in years. I agree with Abram. If the Horns can get over their nerves and make it out of a regional then I think they'll make it to Omaha. After that? Who knows. Preseason I predicted a super regional loss to LSU, but I'm switching things up to predict a super regional victory over LSU and at least one win in Omaha.
Many, many thanks to Curry, Michael, BWG and Abram for participating in the round table.
What say you, BONers?
1. Is this a fluke?
2. Non-Payton MVP?
3. Augie tenure?