Giving some time for the dust to settle on a disappointing loss against Texas A&M to end to the season, now we can delve into what went right and wrong for Texas this season.
We have already seen some big coaching changes replacing Sean Allen with San Jacinto’s Woody Williams, as well as hiring batting coach, Steve Rodriguez. Combined with some new talent, Texas can most likely continue to be a top 25 team next season.
First baseman Ivan Melendez finished his incredible season with 32 home runs, the most in the nation, and earned the Golden Spikes award. He undoubtedly improved his draft stock as he was taken 99th by the Diamondbacks and will be difficult to replace in the batting rotation along with the rest of the usual starters.
Looking at the end of the season batting numbers, we can see how impactful Melendez was for the rotation, leading in slugging percentage, and on base percentage (for those with a large enough sample size of at bats), and walk rates. Catcher Silas Ardoin also played a key role in the batting order as he boasted one of the better strikeout rates; he and Douglas Hodo III will be able to continue together with the Orioles. Trey Faltine’s high strikeout rate was justified for his phenomenal slugging percentage at one point during the season, however his performance tapered off towards the end bringing his averages down. The Cubs clearly saw that he is a true slugger when he can make contact and they are taking the risk on his upside. Hodo’s lead off consistency was a true x-factor for the Longhorns this past year and will also leave the coaching staff struggling to find someone with the same caliber of reliability.
The only other Longhorns to hit above a .900 OPS were Murphy Stehly, drafted by Washington, and Skyler Messinger, taken by Colorado. Both have astoundingly low walk rates but that can primarily be attributed to them being in the middle of the batting order for the bulk of the season; if Melendez, Hodo, and Kennedy are getting on base, the opposing team doesn’t want to walk in free runs. With most of the rotation heading for the draft, it leaves very little of the current team with enough at bats and experience from this season.
Thinking about next season, returning batters Jack O’Dowd and Dylan Campbell will be the cornerstone. Campbell hasn’t produced eye popping numbers yet, and O’Dowd hasn’t seen much playing time for us to really make a verdict. Mitchell Daly and Austin Todd were draft eligible but not selected. If they do not sign with professional team this summer, they would retain their eligibility with Texas as well. Kennedy has earned his spot in the order and will undoubtedly be an asset for Texas if he chooses to return. Daly is in line to take over the second-base position and has displayed consistency through all of his starts. Todd exhibited a top-tier strikeout rate and would probably be pushed into a full-time leadoff hitting position.
Catcher Garret Guillemette transferred from USC where he had a SLG of .429 and OBP of .354, a combined OPS of .783 this past season. His OPS isn’t anything spectacular and he strikes out twice as much as he walks; however, he has more experience over Kimble Schuessler, and that might be what gets him the starting position. Long Beach State transfer Tanner Carlson produced a SLG of .466 and an OBP of .397, giving a combined OPS of .863. He has a decently low strikeout rate at .121 and could easily grab a spot in the starting rotation with his reliable at bats.
Individually, Texas seemed to possess an abundance of slugging talent, so maybe the fault lied in the strategy. The four most common lineups Texas used are tabled below with their average OPS and opponents faced during that stretch.
Parsing through all the different permutations of batters we had throughout the season, we tended to experiment with the 2 spot most of the time but ultimately concluded that a lead off consisting of Hodo, Kennedy, and Melendez produced a better OPS. There is actually a general correlation between how many runs were created by that trio and the number of runs scored in the game. It generated an R-squared value of 0.599 which doesn’t prove a direct causation. However, the P-values for Hodo and Melendez were both miniscule, almost zero, so we can conclude that their good and bad games were good indicators of overall Texas batting performance that day.
There were a couple other standout batting orders that mixed up the rotation in the 5-9 spots. They succeeded with high OPS rates but were used infrequently and against middle-of-the-pack teams, so we can’t really say these were missed opportunities for the golden rotation.
Next is a graph of how Texas batted in each game based on OPS relative to the rank of their opponent throughout the season. To start with the obvious, we should hope that the majority of Texas losses are coming against top ranked teams in the nation if we are aiming for a CWS title, and furthermore, we want to see that we are still able to put up decent numbers against those teams too. For the most part, Texas follows that general trend but it’s the small things that added up to inconsistent performances in the post season.
Texas got out to an amazing 13-2 start before losing three straight games during their road trip to South Carolina. Over the course of this season, we saw the slow tally of losing games to below average teams. These are represented with the red points floating towards the middle of the graph with poor batting performances that started with South Carolina & Charleston and continued through Kansas State, Air Force, and West Virginia. These were games in which we were not only hitting below average OPS relative to the Horns’ usual performance but also in comparison to the league.
Another focus point is the cluster of three red points towards the top left where batting was phenomenal, but Texas still fell short. These games included a 12-16 10th inning showdown to Texas Tech, an 8-10 loss to Oklahoma State during the regular season and a 7-13 conclusion from game 1 against East Carolina.
So, let’s explore the other side of this story. Pitching coach Sean Allen has already been replaced with Woody Williams. We know left hand pitchers Lucas Gordon and Pete Hansen succeeded in their roles throughout the season and losing Hansen and right hander Tristan Stevens to the draft means their needs to be some serious talent digging this off season. Hansen was taken 127th by the Cardinals and will be a sure-fire value-add to their bullpen. The table below shows the entire bullpen’s numbers, looking at ERA, WHIP, their strike-walk differential (I explained in a previous article why this is a better metric than the K/BB ratio) and lastly their ground-out to fly-out ratio.
Lucas Gordon will surely be the number one option for Texas for the 2023 season. Tristan Stevens was able to develop and improved his numbers throughout the course of the season, but he was not a starting pitcher to turn to for a deep postseason run. Jared Southard was the only relief pitcher to be drafted, taken by the Angels. The two issues Texas needs to solve is finding depth at the starting position as well as having a solid core of relief pitchers. Aaron Nixon will be transferring to Ole Miss, leaving right handers Zane Morehouse and Travis Sthele and lefty Luke Harrison as our guys with the most experience. Harrison and Travis seemed to struggle with line drives and grounders flying past infield, easily loading the bases, and making them vulnerable to three or four runs on a homer. Right hander Marcus Olivarez possesses some promising numbers though most of his innings and he was playing during marquee games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State during the regular season. In the postseason, he pitched a combined 6.1 innings only giving up one run. We can also hope for a right hander Tanner Witt comeback next spring as he had missed most of the season due to Tommy John surgery. Before the injury, he helped the Horns secure some wins against tough opponents early on utilizing some nasty curveballs and could revitalize pitching next year if he is cleared to play.
Texas also has two new relief pitching transfers. Right hander Heston Tole came from Arkansas and posted some incredible numbers last season. Right hander Charlie Hurley from USC and left hander David Shaw both didn’t get much quality playing time last season, but the possess large frames capable of producing MLB-level fastballs. Hurley does have an issue with zoning in some of his heaters, having 12 HBP on the season along with 32 walks, which would mean 44 bases given up against his 45 strikeouts. Having a proven player along with some new raw talent could help new hire Woody Williams form a remarkable rotation of pitchers.
So, who do we point the finger at? We’ve analyzed batting and pitching performance throughout the season and both sides have had standout games as well as crumbled under pressure on multiple occasions. We had the leading batter in home runs, we had a pair of amazing starting pitchers, what went wrong? To help compare, the graph below plots both OPS and WHIP performance of every game along with some guiding percentiles of what numbers Texas tended to produce.
The disparity seems to be that Texas batting did a better job stepping up against the Goliaths we faced throughout the year than the pitching did. Their batting numbers were amongst the best in the nation, in both traditional and advanced metrics. However, they got complacent and were frequently upset by teams with below average pitching. The pitching rotation had more of a lock on playing lower ranked teams, but severely struggled as opponent batting became more talented.
At the end of the day, we have said goodbye to some phenomenal batters and wish them well on their journey in the MLB. Hansen played a vital role in keeping Texas in the CWS race this year. While Texas will most likely be a top 25 team next season, it will take some work to figure out how it can claim back its top 5 status. New coaching, transfers, and youngsters with some big shoes to fill will dictate how the Longhorns choose to bounce back in 2023.