Wednesday, April 7, 2010

baseball at the halfway point

Yeah, it's about halfway through the season already, and that's including the ACC tournament which I'm expecting will include Virginia. I don't think that's too presumptuous of me, as this is a team that's gotten a nice taste of life at the top, having been ranked #1 for about a month and a half by a couple different publications. I'm content with top-5 for now, since the main point is to host not just a regional but a super-regional. I don't even mind if the team doesn't finish #1 in the ACC standings; in fact, I'd prefer they didn't, because there are five really good teams in the ACC and three of them will be on the 1-4-5-8 side of the tournament.

Plan of action is simple today: the good and the bad of the first half. No ugly. Teams that spend most of the first half ranked #1 get to skip the ugly. Also, bad first. So you get to leave on a high note.


- Walks. Especially Tyler Wilson's.

I mean, he's issued a lot of them. Last year he was a very, very dependable pitcher in long relief. This year he's unhittable - opposing batters are hitting .181 - but they get on base via free pass almost more often than by hitting their way there. Against NC State on Sunday, he walked two batters, let them both score, took the loss, and saw his ERA skyrocket north of four.

And against JMU, the team combined to walk 14 hitters. Yikes.

This hasn't been an all-season thing, only a late trend. But it's got to stop before this weekend, because Georgia Tech bombs home runs like they're hitting fungos. And Wilson's been too inconsistent in general this year.

- Franco Valdes.

His light hitting is edging him out of the lineup. Ideally he would hit well enough to lock down the catching duties, letting John Hicks play more first base, and give us that extra flexibility at the DH and with pinch hitters. When Hicks catches, it robs us of a pinch hitter. Unfortunately, Valdes has just 11 hits in 15 games all season.

- Starting pitching on days other than Friday or Saturday.

Cody Winiarski earned himself a reprieve, I think, by locking down Boston College and Clemson, but returned to his excessively hittable ways last Sunday against NC State. He has a team-worst - and that's also including non-eligible pitchers - opposing BA of .315, and carries a 1.67 WHIP. Half a season is a very small sample size for a pitcher, but at this point I'll be genuinely surprised if a future Sunday doesn't see a different starter.

Not that Will Roberts or Branden Kline have been otherwordly and impressive either; in fact, Roberts didn't even get out of the first inning against JMU yesterday. If they had been, one of them would likely already be starting Sundays. But they're slowly improving - Kline, I believe, faster than Roberts - and one of them is likely to get a later-season chance. And they're definitely going to have to step up and face some ACC competition come tournament time.

- Jarrett Parker's bat.

Solid....ish. But solid is way below last year's performance when he missed the team Triple Crown by .001 worth of BA and led every other hitting category imaginable.

- Shane Halley's injury.

Argh. Halley missed a lot of the season after separating a shoulder warming up for the very first game. Now that he's back, hopefully it'll settle the bullpen down a bit.


- Danny Hultzen.

OK, we knew he'd be a monster on the mound, but this damn good? I could maybe rattle off a bunch of stats (1.57 ERA, .161 opponents' BA, 55 Ks against 8 walks, that sort of thing) but then again we could do that all day. Against Florida State, he struck out six and allowed two hits and no runs in six innings - that's when you knew he was legit. GT looms as an even bigger challenge, but it's safe to say now that Hultzen belongs in the conversation with the best pitchers in the country.

- The non-everyday hitters.

We're talking Werman, Swab, Bruno here. John Barr, too, and even Reed Gragnani. These guys platoon and pinch-hit their way to at-bats, and they're a terror on bullpens. Championship teams don't have holes in the lineup, and these are the guys ensuring that we don't. Not only have they hit everything they're put in front of, but they give Brian O'Connor a remarkable amount of lineup flexibility, because they're spread all over the field and in that bunch there are both lefties and righties.

- Branden Kline's improvement.

OK, there was a little hiccup against Towson last week. But the trend here has been one of game-to-game improvement for Kline, one of the biggest recruits we've had in a while. His first appearance and first start were awful. Since then he's shown every sign of figuring out the college game, and if (or more likely, when) O'Connor decides to look for a new third weekend starter, my money's on Kline to get the call. Continued improvement would be one of the best developments we could have for tournament play.

Of course, there's a lot more good than that going on. The hitting is as good as ever. So are the gloves. Terrific hitting, top-notch defense, and mostly-good pitching is a recipe for tournament success. Now, if I had one wish, it'd be for a solid third starter, and if I had another, it'd be for consistency out of the bullpen. And yes, the top two issues with this team are pitching, and no, that's not good, but the important thing is we have the talent to make them both happen, and we're moving in that direction. There's not a single ACC team we can't take 2 of 3 from. And if things go the way they should, and Tim Weiser is given a one-way plane ticket to Botswana around selection time, we'll play the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at friendly Davenport.

Final note, having nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with new football uniforms: Look for them on Friday. Please oh please oh please do not be ugly. A lot of folks say "it doesn't matter what they look like as long as they play well while wearing them." To that I say: would you replace all the brick buildings on Central Grounds with modern, Frank Gehry steel? Tear down Old Dorms and put up a high-rise? Would you ever get away with saying, "it doesn't matter what the buildings look like as long as the teaching and learning is first-class?" UVA's not UVA if it doesn't look like UVA; and no, I'm not saying the current unis have the historical cachet of the Grounds themselves, but I'd rather not look like a clown show. Again.

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