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Alabama Baseball: What’s Going On?

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The wheels have fallen off in Tuscaloosa

NCAA Baseball Regional - New Orleans
Jim Wells was the most successful coach in Alabama baseball history
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

How did we get here?

After a 32-26 season with a 15-15 SEC record in 2016 Alabama baseball coach Mitch Gaspard decided to resign after failing to reach the NCAA Tournament for two straight seasons.

Gaspard was head coach for seven seasons, and had a record of 234-193 overall for the Tide and a 94-114 SEC mark. In 2017 Gaspard, one of the finest gentlemen in the game, is the associate head coach at Kansas State University. Gaspard was 42-25 and one pitch away from the College World Series in his first season, and reached regional play in four out of seven seasons. His 2012 team was his least successful with a 21-34 overall record and 9-21 in the SEC. In all the other years his teams won between 32-37 games each year, and were typically right about .500 in SEC play. The 2017 is headed toward a historically bad season, with a 15-26 overall record and a 2-16 SEC record through 41 games. Through 41 games in 2016 the team was 24-17 and 9-9 in conference.

Athletics Director Bill Battle choose Greg Goff from Louisiana Tech to replace Gaspard for the 2017 season. Goff spent two season at La Tech, seven seasons at Campbell and four years at Montevallo as head coach. His 2016 team won 42 games and lost to Mississippi State in Starkville in the regional final. Goff also spent time as an assistant at Kentucky, Southeast Missouri State and Delta State. As a player Goff was a pitcher who played for Jackson State Community College in JUCO for two years and at Delta State for his final two seasons.

Greg Goff’s contract is for $450,000 a year, while Mitch Gaspard was earning $320,000 per year before he stepped down.

Some key players from the 2016 season moved on, either via graduation or the MLB draft. Thomas Burrows was a 4th round draft pick by the Seattle Mariners (since traded to the Atlanta Braves), and left after his junior year as the career saves leader at Alabama with 30. Geoffrey Bramblett, Matt Foster, and Colton Freeman were all junior pitchers that were drafted and choose to leave. Nick Eicholtz was a 13th round draft pick by the Miami Marlins, but decided to come back for his senior season. Catcher Will Haynie was taken in the 18th round by the Colorado Rockies and also left after his junior campaign. Jon Keller, Jake Hubbard and Ray Castillo were senior pitchers that used up their eligibility. Center fielder Georgie Salem graduated as did infielder Daniel Cujen, outfielder Ryan Blanchard and infielder Chance Vincent.

Despite some key departures, the Tide’s pantry wasn’t completely empty: The team returned returned 18 players, including five full-time starters in the field, three starting pitchers and six bullpen arms. Six reserve players also returned.

What Has Gone Right?

To be blunt, very little.

Some improvement in power & average

The hitting has improved somewhat overall. In 2016 the team hit .249 for the season with 30 home runs, 205 walks (3.5 per game), and 446 strikeouts(7.68 per game.) The 2016 group actually hit better in the SEC, with a .253 average and 20 of their 30 home runs. The 2017 is hitting .274 through 41 games with 35 home runs with 158 walks (3.85 per game) and 292 strikeouts (7.12 per game.) In the SEC the 2017 group falls to an average of .233.

Individual improvement

Individually Cody Henry, Chandler Avant and Cobie Vance are having much better seasons this year. Henry, a junior with zero career home runs entering the season, has hit eight long balls this year so far. Henry hit .223 in 2016 but has a .300 batting average with 30 runs driven in 2017 after driving in only 24 in 2016. Vance has improved from .258 as a freshman to a team leading .325 so far in 2017. Avant was hitting .278 in 2016 when he was lost with a broken ankle on April 23rd, and has improved to .306 in 2017 with a team leading 13 doubles. Chandler Taylor was a .274 hitter with nine home runs in 2016, and his hitting .257 with 11 home runs and 26 RBI so far in 2017. Hunter Alexander came in as a junior college transfer and has been a mainstay in the middle of the order until injuring his hand two weeks ago. Alexander is a .298 hitter with four home runs and 25 RBI. Tanner DeVinny has taken over as the primary catcher and leads the team with 24 walks and has four home runs. Kyle Kaufman has played catcher and DH (after hurting his thumb) and is second on the team with a .313 average and has added two home runs.

Some improvement in OBP & scoring

On base percentage has improved to .362 from .337 and slugging is up from .350 to .406. The 2016 team averaged 4.41 runs per game, while the 2017 team scored 5.36 per game.

Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium

What Has Gone Wrong?

Well, almost everything else.

Pitching

Pitching, long a strong suit for the Tide, is significantly worse in 2017. The 2016 team had a 3.46 team ERA, good enough for fifth in the SEC, while the 2017 staff has an overall ERA of 4.31. Nick Eicholtz was second in the SEC in ERA in 2016 at 2.30. Jake Walters was seventh in the league at 2.67. In 84 innings in 2016 Walters allowed 79 hits, walked 35 and struck out 84 while allowing opponents to hit .247. Eicholtz tossed 66 innings in 2016 and allowed 57 hits with 22 walks and 38 strikeouts and a .227 batting average allowed. Compare to 2017, Walters has 49 innings with 51 hits, 27 walks and 45 strikeouts. Eicholtz, in 41 innings has allowed 45 hits and has walked 25 with 25 strikeouts. Walters 2017 ERA is 4.04 and Eicholtz sits at 5.49, a major difference for two of top returning pitchers in the SEC.

The 2016 staff had a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 1.30 while the 2017 team has a 1.52 WHIP. In 2016 the pitchers walked 3.25 batters per nine innings, compared to 4.6 per nine innings in 2017. Strikeouts have a small up tick in 2017, 8.24 per nine innings, compared to 7.79 in 2016. The 2016 team allowed 484 hits in 514 innings. In 2017 the opposition has 365 hits in 363 innings.

The base running has struggled, with only 21 successful stolen bases in 41 attempts. The 2016 squad was 43-59 on the season. That’s a percentage difference of 72% to 52%. In 2016, with Haynie has the main back stop, opponents stole only 36 out of 55 attempts against the Tide. This season opponents have successfully stolen 40 out of 52 bases. The 2016 team had a total of 45 wild pitches and eight passed balls in 58 games. So far in 41 games the 2017 team has 65 wild pitches and 18 passed balls.

The defense, on paper is showing about the same by fielding percentage. However the loss of Salem in center field and Haynie at catcher has been noticeable. Salem was the latest in a long line of outstanding defensive center fielders from ‘Bama, stretching from Scott McClanahan to Emeel Salem to Alex Kubal to Taylor Dugas to Georgie Salem. Haynie was outstanding and had a cannon for a arm. Vance has been outstanding at second base, and Henry has been a very good first baseman, after moving from DH about half way through the year.

Part of the struggle with the pitching could possibly be a change in philosophy and the way pitches are called. There seems to be a lot more breaking balls and off speed pitches being called, making it harder to throw runners out as well as throw strikes.

Injuries

Sophomore right handed pitcher Brock Love and freshman lefty Garret Rukes were both lost very early in the season to Tommy John surgery. Sophomore pitcher Kyle Cameron was lost early in the year to a medical situation. Freshman catcher Will Lumpkin was lost before the season started to a hand injury. Freshman infielder Camden Bauer had shoulder surgery and was lost for the season. Sophomore outfielder-line backer,Keith Holcombe had a shoulder issue and also football practice, so has been gone from the team for the last month. Senior outfielder Hunter Webb was in line to be a starter, but decided to give up the sport after fall practice. Starting center fielder Gene Wood dislocated his knee cap on April 9th, and has been lost for the remainder of the year. Freshman left handed pitcher Nathan Altstadt has had a hip problem. Alexander tore ligaments in his finger diving into first base on a pick off attempt and has missed the last two weeks, but should be back, possibly next week.

All teams have injuries, including the 2016 addition. All American closer Thomas Burrows missed three weeks with an oblique injury, Eicholtz missed three starts at the first of the year, and Avant missed half the year after breaking his ankle. Those injuries likely cost the 2016 team 3-5 wins and a regional bid.

Losses aren’t just coming from the SEC

The 2016 team played an out of conference schedule that include three game series with Maryland, Houston, and North Dakota as well as games with NC State, Notre Dame, Brown, Southern Miss, South Alabama, Brown, Troy, Samford, Birmingham U, Nicholas State and Alcorn State, which lead to a good RPI.

In 2017, the schedule included the likes of Presbyterian, Oral Roberts, Louisiana Monroe, Arkansas Pine-Bluff, Eastern Illinois, Troy, Southern Miss, Troy, Birmingham, Jacksonville State, Alcorn State and Grambling, of which only Southern Miss was an RPI booster.

Despite that friendly scheduling, the Tide was only able to reach 11-10 in a 21-game season-opening homestand. Alabama has lost to every in-state opponent it has played, except UAB. Still ahead, Alabama travels to Samford and the No. 9 Auburn Tigers. Both of those squads are high-scoring units that devour average pitching. Auburn will make a regional appearance, and Samford is fighting for one.

Alabama has been swept in four SEC series, five overall including Oral Roberts. It has not won a conference series this season and has not notched an SEC win since April 1st. The schedule does not get easier down the stretch: The Tide host the No. 11 LSU Tigers, travel to Samford (a team they lost to 10-3 earlier this season, travel to No. 9 Auburn, host the No. 8 Florida Gators and end their season on the road against Vanderbilt.

The season has been a disaster record-wise, and is on pace to be one of the worse in Alabama’s long, distinguished baseball history. The Tide has an all-time record of 2,561-1,571 a .619 winning percentage. The SEC mark is 936-776, .547%. The 1994 team was 4-22 in the SEC and had an overall record of 21-35. This year’s team will be hard pressed to win 21 games. The lowest winning percentage belongs to the 1906 team at .214- a 4-16-1 record. This year’s team has a winning percentage of .366, the 1994 team’s was .375, a mark that is also in play.

RTR

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Follow Roger on Twitter at @RogerPatMyers for in-game analysis and beach pictures.