The Alabama Crimson Tide baseball team was picked to finish 14th in the 14 team SEC by league coaches in the preseason. The Tide lived up to that not so lofty prediction, but did show improvement in a number of areas. First year coach Brad Bohannon was brought in last June to replace the fired Greg Goff. Goff lasted only one season after replacing Mitch Gaspard and “led” the Tide to a 19-34-1, 5-24-1 record in his one disastrous season. Bohannon’s first squad finished 27-29 overall and 8-22 in the SEC.
Improvement was shown in several areas. The strength of schedule improved from 40 to 22, the RPI went from a dismal 175 to a respectable 82. The home record was 21-13 compared to 14-22 in 2017, while the midweek game record jumped from 6-5 to 10-4. The in-state opponents record was 7-7 in 2018, and 5-5 in 2017. However the 2017 team was 3-1 against Auburn, while the 2018 group finished 0-4 against their arch rivals. Bama was 6-8 in one run games in 2018 and 5-13 in 2017.
On offense the team batting average went down from .263 to .256, but runs per game improved from 5.19 to 5.54. Stolen bases remained a problem with 34-51 in 2018, matched again 27-51 in 2017. On base percentage improved from .351 to .369. The team had 44 home runs in 2018 and 46 in 2017.
Defensively, the fielding percentage improved to .969 from .966, but more errors (65-61) were committed. However, the 2018 team did play two more games than the 2017 team. The biggest improvement was in wild pitches and passed balls, with only 39 wild pitches against 88 in 2017, and six passed balls versus 21 last year. The reasons are probably two-fold: pitch calling and the emergence of freshman catcher Sam Praytor. Pitching coach Jason Jackson seemed to call more fastballs and a smoother game than his predecessor Terry Rooney did, and Praytor is just a very good young catcher, who blocked the ball well. In addition the 2017 team allowed 56 stolen bases in 74 attempts, while this season that number dropped to 36 out of 51.
The pitching staff improved their ERA from 4.83 to 4.11, while walking only 195 hitters, compared to 260 by last year’s staff. Strikeouts were down from 421 to 370, while opponents batting average was down in 2018 to .267 against .276 last year.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
The eight game improvement in wins to start with. The attitude and effort put out by the players was valuable as well.
- Jake Walters finishing the season, and his stellar career, with a bang. In his final two starts Walters threw eight innings of one run baseball at LSU to claim a win and saved his best for last against the 4th ranked Ole Miss Rebels. Walters fired his first career complete game, a four hit shutout, to give the team their last victory of the season. Walters finished his four years with a degree, and a page in the program’s media guide. Walters is now tied for first in career starts in school history with 52, tying Mike Sodders. Walters also moved up to third all time in strikeouts with 292, and fourth in innings pitched (295) and batters faced.
- The emergence of Keith Holcombe, who showed marked improvement in his first stint at being able to devote the whole spring to baseball. He became a clutch hitter and a much better outfielder.
- Cobie Vance moved with ease from second base to third base and played the hot corner as if he was born there. He was arguably the team’s most valuable player, setting the tone as the lead off hitter.
- Chandler Avant had a very good senior season, playing a new position, second base. The Troy native led the team in batting average and doubles, and moved into the top 10 in all time doubles and at bats at Alabama.
- Sam Praytor. The freshman from Helena came in and took over behind the plate immediately. His defense and throwing were strong all year, and he really turned things up at the plate once the SEC season started. The Tide is in good hands behind the plate for the next couple of years.
- Sam Finnerty took over the Friday night pitching duties, and went against the other teams’ best each week. Finnerty battled into the sixth or seventh inning in almost every game and typically left the game giving the Tide a chance to win.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Well, several things.
- The thin bullpen started off the season on fire, but as the season wore on the lack of depth showed up. The eighth inning became a nightmare, blowing an 11-5 eighth inning lead to Mississippi State, and a 5-1 eighth inning lead to LSU on back-to-back Friday nights.
- Clutch and situational hitting was another big problem. The team averaged leaving over 10 runners per game on base, and the times that they loaded the bases with no outs and didn't score was startling. There were numerous times when a ground ball or fly ball would have scored a run, but a pop up or strikeout ensued.
- Injuries. Chandler Taylor missed six games with an oblique injury. Jeaux Breaux missed nine games with various aliments. Keith Holcombe battled an ankle injury. Brock Love, coming back from Tommy John surgery, had elbow problems and was limited to eight innings on the year. Outfielder Gene Wood played in three games before missing the season with shoulder surgery. Left handed pitcher Sonny Potter missed the whole year after shoulder surgery. Cody Henry battled a wrist and hamstring issue, and Hunter Alexander had a couple of health problems throughout the season.
- Drop off in production from key players. Last season Taylor, Henry, and Alexander combined for 30 home runs. This season that number fell to 18. The trio all saw their batting averages drop considerably as well. Taylor went from .282 to .223, Henry fell from .294 to .218 and Alexander dipped from .282 to .242.
WHO DID WHAT?
(leaders in hitting and pitching)
Chandler Avant .295, Cobie Vance .293, Keith Holcombe .290, Sam Praytor .279
Vance 56, Avant 55, Jett Manning 53, Hunter Alexander 49
Vance 225, Avant 207, Manning 179, Holcombe 176, Chandler Taylor 166
Vance 43, Avant 37, Jeaux Breaux 34, Taylor 34.
Vance 66, Avant 61, Holcombe 51, Manning 45, Praytor 41
Avant 15, Alexander 12, Vance 11, John Trousdale 10
Breaux 2, six tied with 1 each
Taylor 13, Vance 6, Matt Malkin 4, Avant, Praytor, Alexander 3 each
Taylor 38, Vance 36, Breaux 32, Avant 29
Taylor .512, Vance .432, Malkin .432, Avant .411, Holcombe .386
On Base Percentage:
Breaux .420, Vance .401, Avant .401, Praytor .397
Breaux 7-8, Vance 7-11, Holcombe 6-8
Wins: Jake Walters 4, Sam Finnerty 4 Losses: Walters 5, Finnerty 4, Deacon Medders 4
Appearances: Dylan Duarte 26, Brock Guffey 21, Davis Vainer 21, Medders 20
Finnerty 87, Walters 82, Sam Gardner 46.2, Medders 39, Kyle Cameron 39
Walters 82, Vainer 40, Gardner 40
Big roster turnover. With six seniors graduating and some juniors most likely opting for the draft there are some holes to fill. Combined with the team only carrying 31 of the allowed 35 players, and some attrition from players that were eligible to return but won't, you will need a program next season. The Tide has 11 Junior College players and 10 high school players slotted to join the team this summer. Of course the MLB draft in early June may keep some of the higher rated players from showing up on campus. The coaches are working hard to give the players the information the need to make this life-altering decision. There are two to three of the new signees who have a chance to be picked fairly high, and they will have to weigh the option of pro ball against the college experience.
WHERE ARE WE HEADED?
I don't think you can find an Alabama baseball fan that doesn't feel better about the program on May 24, 2018 then they did on May 24, 2017. Coach Brad Bohannon is a proven recruiter everywhere he has been, and his staff of Jason Jackson and Jerry Zulli are also well thought of in the recruiting circles. This was Bohannon’s first season as a head man and with a year under his belt he learned a lot of things about running a program, which should bode well for the future. An eight win improvement with a tougher schedule is a step in the right direction, and three more SEC wins were as well. Next season, the team should show incremental improvement, and by year three should be moving toward the top of the conference. Times have been bleak, but the future is bright.
Alabama Baseball Fever, Catch It