The Alabama Crimson Tide entered the 2015 season with high expectations and a lofty preseason ranking. The Tide, picked by most as a top 25 team, was expected to finish in the top half of the SEC West. Instead the Tide stumbled to a 32-28 overall record, 12-18 in the SEC (14-20 when including the SEC Tournament). The team had a late season surge to qualify for the SEC Tournament as the 11-seed, but fell short of making a run for the NCAA Regionals
'Bama had many obstacles to overcome throughout the season, mainly the lack of a home stadium to practice in. With Sewell-Thomas Stadium undergoing a 42-million dollar face lift (virtually total rebuild), all games were played away from home, with most home games at The Hoover Met (and a few in Mobile and Huntsville as well.) The work on The Joe also made it difficult to undergo full practices during the season, with cranes, bulldozers, tractors and the sounds of jackhammers permeating throughout. The new park is scheduled for completion in October of this year. The new indoor facility was completed in January and the team was able to utilize it for some hitting and pitching drills.
Every game a road game
The next issue confronting the team dovetailed off of the stadium construction. The constant bus travel and hotel stays wore on the team in a way that wasn't expected by most. When the weekend series was in Hoover the team would bus up on Friday afternoon and back after Sunday's game. The team would stay in the Wynfrey Hotel on Friday and Saturday nights. Throw in a weekend "home" series in Mobile and a midweek "home" game in Huntsville along with the road games, and the travel took a toll on the team both physically and mentally. For home games alone the team traveled over 2500 miles this season.
Yes, the players are young and healthy. Yes, if many reach their goal of playing professionally, the bus rides will be longer, the hotels will become flea bag motels, and the meals will be whatever they can afford. However, these are student-athletes that still had school to deal with on top of practice, games, and some semblance of a social life. As nice as the Wynfrey's beds are, they still aren't home. The players were constantly out of their comfort zone, without their beds, their cars, their families and their girlfriends. The simple logistics of 60 road games was another difficult aspect for the coaches, players and staff. Trainer Joe Hoeffer and Director of Operations David Kindred did a masterful job of making sure the team always had what they needed.
Bad weather was another culprit, with many cold, rainy games. Rain-outs led to eight double headers. The combination of rain and cold, particularly in the early season, limited the crowds. As the weather improved many fans had lost interest, as the teams record was suffering. The Met never felt like a home field, with the crowds spread out in the expansive stadium. The great home field advantage provided last year with the addition of the Right Field Plaza was lost, as most of the students didn't make the 50 mile trip for a home game. Last season, 1,500-2,000 fans would crowd into the area and provided the atmosphere that the team had not had in a number of years.
The biggest problem on offense was an ability to consistently put the ball in play, as evident by the teams 485 strikeouts (second most in the league), the inability to draw walks (192, 11th in the league), and the lack of productive outs and clutch hits.The Tide finished eighth in the league with a .275 batting average. One example of a need for productive outs was in the teams 4-3 loss to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. The Tide had plated three runs and runners on second and third with no outs. With the infield playing back, all that was needed was a ground ball in the middle of the field or a fly ball, however the next two batters struck out, followed by a pop out to end the threat.
On the pitching side the team was eighth in ERA in the conference with a 4.12 mark. Tide pitchers did strike out 479 batters, good for fifth in the league, but walked the second most in the league with 248. The hurlers also allowed 510 hits, the third most allowed by an SEC member.
The defense was mostly good, finishing tied for fourth in fielding percentage at .976. The Tide turned the second most double plays in the SEC with 57, and threw out 28 runners trying to steal, the most in the league. However there were 62 successful steal attempts against the Tide, the second most allowed by a league team. 'Bama catchers were second in the league with 20 passed balls.
The bright spot of the season was definitely the sweep of Auburn on the Plains. A thrilling 1-0 victory over Vanderbilt on the last day of the regular season,with future first round pick Walker Bueller pitching, was another highlight. The Tide won only three of 10 SEC series, the aforementioned Auburn series, against Mississippi State and versus Georgia. MSU and Georgia were the only two SEC teams not to make the tournament (SEC) field. Defeating Ole Miss and Missouri in the tournament were other big wins for the team.
Overall no one was satisfied with the season record and not making the NCAA field. Next season will be a key one for the team and coaching staff as they move into their sparkling new stadium. With the asinine NCAA rule of 11.7 scholarships, and no state education lottery to help out, Alabama starts from behind before the first pitch each year. Other schools are able to utilize state lottery money for instate players, leaving them able to compete nationally for top players. Some schools also are able to waive out of state tuition, something that 'Bama does not do.
The issue of inferior facilities is now being addressed, so that will help level the playing field in impressing recruits. The state of the "Old Joe" has been a recruiting detriment over the last several years. Expectations will be high and victories will be expected. It remains to be seen if the coaching philosophy will be tweaked to address the issues that were prevalent this year.
Simply put— this team has to put the ball in play more often on offense and throw more strikes from the mound.
Regardless, Gaspard will be back for his seventh season to christen the New Joe. With expectations rising he will have a chance on a more level playing field in regards to facilities. The makeup of next years team will be predicated by what happens in the upcoming (June 8-10) MLB draft. Mikey White is assuredly gone, as he could go as high as Round One. Casey Hughston, a draft eligible sophomore, exploded this season and is a five tool guy that will also be a high pick. Georgie Salem, Kyle Overstreet, and Ray Castillo are also valuable members of the junior class that potentially could sign as well. Will Carter and Will Haynie are eligible players also.
The Tide has a highly-ranked class signed for the new season, but many of them could also get the call to the next level, making baseball recruiting one of the toughest things in sports. In addition the players will have into deep into the summer to decide to sign or come to school, leaving teams and coaches hanging until the last possible minute.
Bama Baseball Fever, Catch It!