Clemson Baseball

2018 Clemson Baseball Preview

February 9, 2018
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To say that the 2018 Clemson Tiger pitching staff will be "green" is quite an understatement, but that doesn't mean there aren't expectations.  Despite all the questions on the mound the ACC coaches picked the Tigers to finish 3rd in the ACC Atlantic behind Florida State and Louisville, two known ACC and national commodities.

Pitching coach Andrew See will manage a staff that returns 0 starts, only 136 innings and just 12 of the teams 42 wins from 2017 and See, for my money the best pitching coach in the nation, may be facing the biggest challenge of his time at Clemson.

There is talent on the staff, to be sure, but that talent lacks experience at the Division I and ACC level, leaving question marks from starters through middle relief.

Category Returning % Returning Lost % Lost
Starts 0 0.0 63 100.0
Innings Pitched 136 23.9 433 2/3 76.1
Wins 12 28.6 30 71.4

Heading into the final scrimmages this weekend 6 arms are vying for 4 starting roles: Jacob Hennessy, Ryan Miller, Brooks Crawford, Jake Higginbotham, Spencer Strider and Travis Marr.

Whoever takes the mound as the starters early in the season will likely be on a 60-70 pitch count and plenty of young arms will get a chance to impress.

Crawford leads the returnees with 4 wins, despite not starting a game and working through injuries in 2017. 

While 0 starts return from 2017, 7 return from 2016 in the left arm of Jake Higginbotham and that may end up being significant for the Tigers.  Higginbotham had a 3-0 record and 4.59 ERA in eight appearances (seven starts) across 33.1 innings pitched and Clemson had a 7-0 record in Higginbotham's starts.

Ranked as the number 58 freshman in the nation in the 2016 preseason by Perfect Game,  Higginbotham has electric stuff, but his workload and pitch count will be scruitinized due to his injury history.

At the back end of the bullpen Monte Lee and See are confident in Ryley Gilliam, who has been downright unhittable at times.  The hope is to use Gilliam 1 inning at a time in 2018, a luxury not available last season and perhaps one reason Gilliam struggled on occassion as innings and appearances piled up.

Sophomore Owen Griffith flashed at times last spring and finished with a 1.23 ERA, but only threw 14 2/3rds innings on the season.  An expanded role for Griffith could be a the key for the 2018 season for Lee's team and to that end Griffith could be used to spell Gilliam on occassion in an effort to keep the closer fresh over the course of a long season.

Complete Stats for Returning Pitchers

There are more knowns offensively and Lee is the envy of many a college baseball coach when he pencils Seth Beer, Logan Davidson and Chris Williams into the lineup. 

Beer is expected to take over at first base, which is a position to watch defensiviely.  Perhaps the most underated defensive player on the field last year was Andrew Cox, who made only 5 errors in in 553 chances at first. 

Five errors in 59 starts is fantasitic, but the more important number is the number of errors Cox saved teamates on errant throws, which I would put in the 20 (conservatively) range. 

Whether it's Beer fulltime or a combination of players at first, those are huge shoes to fill defensively at a position that gets an average of about 10 defensive chances per game and of utmost importance, moreso in the college game where throws across the diamond can be inconsistent.

WIlliams and Kyle Wilkie will start out sharing the catching duties, though Wilkie came on late at the plate and is someone I look to take a major step forward in 2018.

While the staff is confident in Wilkie's ability to handle the pitching staff, Williams will be in the lineup at catcher or in some other capacity, depending on his health.

Category

Returning % Returning Lost % Lost
Plate Appearances 1,555 60.2 1,026 39.8
Home Runs 46 63.0 27 37.0
RBI 214 61.5 134 38.5

While the metrics for returning batters is dominated by  Beer, Williams isn't far behind (14 homeruns and 51 RBI) despite 96 less plate appearances, hence the drive to find a place for him in the lineup outllined above.

Sophomore sensation Davidson is primed for a breakout season.  After a slow start, Davidson finished his freshman campaign batting .286 with 12 homeruns and 41 RBI, while stealing 10 bases.

Davidson is a slick fielding shortstop, but needs to improve the accuracy of his throws across the diamond, especially given the graduation of Cox.

Complete Stats for Returning Batters

Top Ranked Newcomers

It's always difficult to project success for true freshman as some exceed expectations (Seth Beer) and others take longer to develop into ACC caliber players.  I've listed the 3 highest ranked freshmen along with a few notes.

Player National Rank Position Notes
Kier Meredith 215 OF Left handed batter with plus speed, strong lower body, projects as centerfielder. Injured in fall, won't be ready for opener.
Spencer Strider 139 RHP

88-92 MPH fastball, reached 96, average changeup.

Sam Weatherly 350 LHP/OF/1B High 80s fastball, good spin on slider, developing changeup. Solid frame expected to fill out. Potential two-way player.

Merideth was injured in the fall and won't be ready on opening day while Strider and Weatherly are in the mix for a spot in the rotation, as mentioned above.

Expected Wins

For the baseball nerds and geeks I'll track the expected wins for Clemson using the Pythagorean Theorem, a well known and often used formula that projects a teams record based on runs scored and runs given up.

It's not a perfect measure and can provide wild flucuations early in the season when the schedule isn't as difficult as when conference play begins. On the other hand it often provides a "reality check" and provides a guideline for expectations moving forward.

Last season when Clemson was riding high at 30-6, I noted that the theorem projected a final regular season record of 38-18, mainly because to that point the Tigers were 7-0 in 1 run games and that was not likely to continue.   

In the end Clemson finished the regular season at 39-17 and 9-4 in one run games as the 1 run games regressed back towards the mean. 

Just remember, expected wins are based exclussively on math and not what I think will happen.

2017 Actual Record vs. Expected Record

Actual Record Expected Record +/-
42-21 41-22 +1

Including the postseason, the theorem came within 1 game of being excact, likely due to a better than expected record in 1 run games. 

By the Numbers

Most of the numbers below are to be expected, but actually seeing the importance of a lead - any lead - in the 7th inning or later is fascinating.  Even without the deepest bullpen and with all the injuries and other issues Clemson was still 35-2 when leading after 7 innings and undfeated when leading after 8.

The other numbers of note for me is the difference in outcomes between 1 and 2 run games and to see if those numbers hold steady in 2018.

Home Away Neutral 1 Run Games 2 Run Games Leading after 7 Leading after 8 Trailing after 7 Trailing after 8
29-11 11-8 2-2 9-4 5-8 35-2 36-0 3-16 3-20

 

Schedule

The Tigers have a 30 game ACC schedule, along with 26 scheduled non-conference games.  In this section I focus on the non-conference schedule because I believe this is where regional and/or super regional host spots are likely won/lost and if you listen to Monte Lee he places an importance on the midweek games that reinforces this belief.

Team (games)  2017  Notes
William & Mary (3)  32-25 Reached final of Colonial Athletic Association Tournament in 3 of last 5 seasons. 3 game season opening series in Clemson.
Furman (2) 33-28 February 20 in Clemson & March 27 at Fluor Field in Greenville.
Dallas Baptist (3) 42-21 #18 preseason, 16 returning lettermen, 4 straight 40 win seasons, Jameson Hannah #23 prospect per D1baseball. Series in Clemson.
Winthrop 34-24

February 27 in Clemson. Returns 8 of top 10 batters & All-Big South starting pitchers Nate Pawelczyk and Colton Rendon

South Carolina (3) 35-25 Mark Kingston takes over in Columbia. Coumbia/Greenville/Clemson March 2-4
Wofford 28-30 Single game in Clemson on March 6
Michigan State 29-23 Single game at Fluor Field March 7
Charleston Southern 22-29 Single game in Clemson on March 13
Coastal Carolina (2) 37-19-1 Home and Home: March 20 in Conway & April 6 in Clemson
Georgia (2) 25-32 April 10 in North Augusta and April 17 in Athens, Ga.
Kennesaw State (2) 25-32 Home and Home: April 24 in Clemson & May 15 in Kennesaw, Ga.
Presbyterian 32-29 Single game April 25th in Clemson
Western Carolina 28-28 Single game May 9 in Clemson
Austin Peay (3) 28-30 3 game non-conference series in Mid-May in Clemson

With the caveat that there's always a suprise team or two, the schedule looks to be manageable with a nice mix of games the Tigers will be heavily favored in and some challenging non-conference series. Personally, I love the addition of Dallas Baptist, a little known secret power of the college baseball world.

Couple that series with the annual 3 game South Carolina series and a home and home with Coastal Carolina and you have a solid 8 non-conference games that will challenge the Tigers.

An always difficult ACC schedule means that depending on the results of those 8, Clemson likely can ill-afford to lose many other non-conference games if the Tigers hope to remain in Tigertown through a Super Regional.

At first, that sounds like a stretch, but when the math is done it turns out to be realistic.  A 17 win ACC season (the Tigers had 16 ACC wins in 2016 and 17 in 2017) along with  5-3 in the biggest 8 non-conference games means the Tigers would need to go 16-2 in the other non-conference games to reach 38 regular season wins. 

The post-season begins with the ACC Baseball Tournament which is scheduled for May 22-27 in Durham, N.C.

 
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