WSU BASEBALL: What Went Wrong In 2011? Part 2 - It's Called Run Prevention

The Cougars' run prevention was awful in 2011, but you'd be hard pressed to blame Adam Conley and the other pitchers for that.

A week ago, we examined an objective way to compare the 2010 and 2011 WSU baseball seasons in an effort to determine just how the Cougars fell so far short of expectations this year.

Through our use of Weighted On Base Average, we were able to determine, with some degree of certainty, what it wasn't -- namely, the offense. Although the Cougs' run production was way down, that made them just like everyone else, thanks to the new NCAA-mandated bat standards.

In fact, a pretty good argument could be made that the 2011 offense was actually better than its predecessor. But even if you aren't willing to go that far, there's really no way to argue it was any worse than a version that was good enough to lead WSU to within a game of an NCAA Super Regional, meaning we just can't lay the blame at the feet of the bats. The offense was good enough.

Which leaves us looking at run prevention. And boy, was the run prevention awful.

You'll notice I didn't say "defense" or "pitching." Both work together to prevent the other team from scoring runs, and -- as you'll see in this post -- it's often not as easy to separate the two as a lot of people try to make it seem.

First, let's bring wOBA -- and its cousins wRAA, wRC and wRC+ -- back into the fold. If you didn't read Part 1 (or if you've already forgotten what they mean, go back and do that now). Here's how 2010 and 2011 compare; remember, these figures are adjusted for the respective offensive environments, so it's an apples-to-apples comparison:

wOBA wRAA wRC wRC+ Actual Runs
Scored
Actual Runs/
Game
Opponents 2011 0.335 12.5 315.7 104 308 5.7
Opponents 2010 0.308 -64.7 328 84 308 5.2

If you're wondering how the 2010 team was able to be so successful with such a decidedly below average offense, you can see it here. The pitching staff and defense combined to hold their opponents to an 84 wRC+, 16 percent better than average. Beyond that, in real life, they held their opponents to 20 runs less than what would have been expected -- which, on the flip side of what I explored in this digression, could be chalked up to the Cougar defense, poor base running or simple luck. Speculatively, I'll go with a little of 1 and a little of 3.

But 2011? This team was 20 percent worse (84 RC+ to 104) than its predecessor, going from an incredible run prevention unit to one that was slightly worse than average. When you combine that with an offense that was pretty much average, you get what you got: A team that was 26-28 overall.

It's worth noting, by the way, that when we say "average" we mean an average club when compared to all of Division I, which means both run scoring and run prevention were both decidedly below average when compared to the rest of the Pac-10. Of course, this showed in the 10-17 conference record. Imagine if the basketball team was ranked around 170 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies at Kenpom.com -- as Oregon State was this year. That's what we're talking about. And that's obviously not good.

The bigger question, however, is why the run prevention was so much worse in 2011.

First of all, let's look at the pitching. You'll not be surprised to find out we're going to do it a little differently than what you're used to. For example, you won't see us referring to the pitching staff's ERA. Why? I'll let Dave Cameron of USS Mariner explain:

ERA and WHIP group together a large string of individual events made by multiple players, making it extremely tough to separate out the credit for the pitcher, hitter, or defense. WHIP and ERA tell you there is no difference in an inning where three batters drive the ball to the fence and end up with three long flyouts or an inning where a pitcher strikes out the side. Clearly, they're drastically different, but WHIP and ERA fail to account for the actual contributions of the pitcher.

You can read the rest of the piece here, but the big idea is that there are a lot of factors that go into whether a batter reaches base safely and whether a run crosses the plate, and a lot of it is completely out of control of the pitcher.

So what can we look at? MLB writers have all sorts of cool stuff to analyze, such as what percentage of balls hit were line drives, fly balls or ground balls, and how often pitchers induced swinging strikes, etc. Unfortunately, college stats aren't that comprehensive. About the only data we have at our fingertips is the basic stuff.

There's not a heck of a lot we can do to look at peripherals, given that college stats don't have anything like line drive or ground ball percentages readily available. But we can look at key indicators of true outcomes such as strikeouts, walks and home runs -- the three things that remove the defense entirely -- and the rate at which they occur. Here's how the two staffs compared:

K/9 National
K/9
BB+HBP/9 National
BB+HBP/9
K:BB+HBP National
K:BB+HBP
HR% National
HR%
WSU 2011 6.06 6.68 4.28 4.78 1.42:1 1.40:1 1.4 1.5
WSU 2010 6.27 6.82 4.50 5.15 1.39:1 1.33:1 2.7 2.6

What do we see? The strikeouts are still worse than average, but the walks and HBP are much better than average. They still allowed home runs at a rate that was right in line with the national average. While it's still certainly possible the pitching staff wasn't as good in 2011, in lieu of batted ball data, there's just nothing here to suggest the pitching staff got significantly worse.

An interesting byproduct of this year's staff's peripherals, though -- something that was true around the country, whether due to the bats or some other unknown factor -- is that more balls were put in play to the defense this year than last year. In 2010, 70.7 percent of WSU opponent plate appearances resulted in a ball being put in play, but in 2011 that number jumped to 73.8 percent.

And when we start digging into just what the defense did with those opportunities, I think therein lies the lion's share of the blame.

Like pitching peripherals, we don't have any kind of advanced defensive metrics to measure the effectiveness of college defenses. What we do have is a rudimentary measure of defensive efficiency: What percentage of the balls put into play did the defense convert into outs? It's not a perfect measure of the quality of the defense; if the pitching staff is giving up piles of line drives, there's not a whole lot the defense can do. But it's a reasonable ballpark picture.

Here's how the two seasons stack up:

WSU National
Average
Defensive Efficiency 2011 67.4% 67.9%
Defensive Efficiency 2010 69.0% 66.1%


In a 2011 environment in which hitters were putting more balls into play but not with as much velocity because of the bats, the rest of Division I baseball is converting more balls in play into outs. But not the Cougars -- despite the external factors working in their favor, they actually converted 1.6 percent fewer of their opportunities into outs than they did the year before. Over the course of 30 balls being put into play in a given game, that's actually only one more base runner. But that one more hitter reaching base could have a range of outcomes -- from a simple single to an extra-base hit.

If you're thinking to yourself, "How much difference could one batter really make?", consider this. In the depressed offensive environment of 2011, the Cougars actually gave up more doubles -- 117 to 107 -- than the 2010 Cougars did. While the rest of the country was allowing 1.75 doubles per game, WSU was allowing 2.17. I suppose it's possible that's on the pitchers, but if that were the case, wouldn't you then expect the home run rate to be higher? Again, the finger points to the defense, and that one extra batter is more likely than average to end up with a double.

So, how did the defense get so much worse? This is where all the computations and permutations are supplanted by a really simple explanation: Personnel. Shortstop Shea Vucinich and outfielder Garry Kuykendall, considered superlative defenders, left. Michael Weber, while not considered gold glove material at third, was solid there; he graduated.

Cody Bartlett, last year's second baseman, wound up replacing Vucinich. Though he was solid, he would have been best served to stay at second. However, the poor play of freshman Trace Tam Sing, who came in with a reputation as a great fielder but went on to commit 12 errors in limited action, forced coach Donnie Marbut's hand. Then there was the circus show that was Matt Argyropoulos. A part-time third baseman in 2010, he replaced Weber at third full time in 2011, and it did not go well -- his fielding percentage was just .897. Finally, Kuykendall was replaced by a hodgepodge of outfielders, only one of whom -- Kyle Johnson -- approached his proficiency. But again, Marbut was limited by Johnson's .177 average.

Put it all together, and here's what you see: A team whose offense was a bit better, whose pitching staff was probably roughly the same, but whose defense was much worse. Throw in the fact that the Cougars probably didn't experience the same kind of good fortune as they did in 2010, and you get a team that dropped off considerably.

In the next day or two, in a brief Part 3, we'll take a look at how things are shaping up for next year, and whether there's hope for a rebound. The answer is yes. But then again, doesn't hope always reign supreme?

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