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How good was WSU baseball in 2014, really?

In Part One of our season recap, we looked back at what went wrong in a 2014 season that fell short of the postseason again. In Part Two, we try to get a handle on how good the team actually was before we examine how good the team could be in 2015.

Ian Hamilton was one of the reasons WSU was so successful in close games. But does that explain all of it?
Ian Hamilton was one of the reasons WSU was so successful in close games. But does that explain all of it?
WSU Athletic Communications

Four years ago, everyone associated with WSU baseball was all smiles.

The team had just made its second consecutive NCAA tournament, coach Donnie Marbut got a big extension, and athletics director Bill Moos was optimistic enough about the direction of the program that he decided to pour some money into Bailey-Brayton Field so the program could host what surely were going to be some NCAA regionals in the near future.

There aren't as many smiles these days. Marbut certainly is relieved to have had the roll over in his contract activated, but the competitor in him likely is seething about the fact that we're in "so, how's next year looking?" mode. Again. For the fourth consecutive May.

We know what went wrong in 2014, because we covered that in Part One. But that doesn't really get to the heart of the question, which is this: Where is the program at? Let's start by evaluating just how good the Cougars really were in 2014 to establish a baseline of expectation for 2015.

A bleaker picture

A tried and true method of evaluating any team is scoring differential. Bill James discovered a long time ago that run differential was a pretty accurate predictor of wins and losses in baseball, and that principle has been applied to all sorts of evaluative tools in sports, including any collegiate ranking system worth its salt.

One thing Bill Moos mentioned in extending Marbut is that he liked the direction of the program, feeling that the program had improved and was heading in the right direction.

True? For a crude measure, let's see what scoring margin says. One thing I've done is removed the results of the Brown series from the 2013 data -- WSU outscored the vastly overmatched Bears 45-4 over a four-game set. When a team only plays 55 games, that can skew the results too much. Everything else is the same:

Runs For Runs Against Expected Wins Actual Wins Difference
2013 245 280 22 23 +1
2014 216 271 21 24 +3
Pac-12 Play
Runs For Runs Against Expected Wins Actual Wins Difference
2013 125 161 12 9 -3
2014 108 143 11 14 +3

If you're having trouble making sense of the "difference" column, this is the basic interpretation: Overall, the 2013 Cougs' results were about in line with their production, and they either underachieved and/or were a bit unlucky in conference play, while the 2014 Cougs either overachieved and/or were a bit lucky both overall and in conference play. That's an oversimplification, as other factors can come into play -- such as series like Brown with outlier scores -- that are magnified when the sample size is about one third of a major league-length season. I'm not really inclined to do that kind of deep analysis, because I don't think it will add much here.

Instead, I think we can simply look at those expected win totals and get a pretty clear takeaway: In terms of on-the-field performance, I don't think you can really make a solid case that WSU was any better in 2014.

I recognize it's a bottom-line business, and to steal a line from my friend Mark Sandritter in a chat the other day, Bill Moos seems like a bottom-line type of guy. These numbers won't interest him, as the team won five more conference games than a year ago, and I'm guessing that was the main driver behind the extension, since the overall record was about the same.

The difference in WSU's Pac-12 record this year? WSU was 4-11 in games decided by two runs or less in 2013, including 3-8 in one-run games, but 9-5 in two-run games this year and 5-3 in one-run games.

One thing we know about sports is that over a big enough sample size, teams will tend to post records around .500 in close games (which you should recognize as a simple extension of James' theorem). The statistician would say WSU underperforming in close games one year and overperforming the next is just expected random variance over a couple of small sample sizes -- especially when the two year record combined is pretty close to .500 with largely the same players.

The old school among us, though, would say that something surely had to be different. Maybe WSU was grittier this year, or more clutch or wanted it more or something. Marbut often lamented that the 2013 team didn't seem to fight hard enough. Perhaps there's something to that. There's also the Ian Hamilton factor, as the freshman closer was more dependable in 2014 than J.D. Leckenby was in 2013.

But is clutchiness and a closer worth five wins over 30 conference games? I don't recall Leckenby blowing a ton of saves, and Hamilton had a few, so I don't think you can convince me of that. Especially not when the team was outscored by pretty much the same number of runs in a much weaker Pac-12.

If you buy the idea that WSU probably wasn't much (if at all) better in 2014 than it was in 2013, then this is the reality of the situation: If the Cougars are going to return to the postseason in 2015, they are going to need to either be vastly improved to overcome their close games regressing to .500; or, somewhat improved with the same dose of gritty/lucky/clutchy as 2014.

So how likely is that? We'll examine the roster in Part Three.