By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- On to volume two.
After our maiden voyage last week
, we return with a second look at some key numbers that are beginning to give shape to the 2012 campaign. A baseball season is much more of a marathon than a sprint, so it is important to keep perspective as each individual game gives way to the greater body of work that is an entire year.
Unlike football, where each game can mean life and death in the standings, baseball is a game of attrition, a way to judge a group of teams over a vast collection of contests. I'm not saying each game isn't important, because we all know they are, but I encourage you to try and keep the big picture in mind with your favorite team these first few weekends.
Remember, no one wins a National Championship in February.
That said the SEC isn't doing too shabby nationally. Monday's USA Today/Coaches Poll had six league squads among the top 25
, with one team (Vanderbilt) just outside of that group. Four of the nation's top 10 teams (Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Georgia) reside in the Southeastern Conference, with a future SEC team (Texas A&M) sitting at number five. Impressive.
Eleven of the 12 teams in the conference sit with a .500 record or better, with only Vanderbilt falling below that mark. The Commodores, who started the season as a top 10 team nationally, have started slow, facing arguably the nation's toughest schedule in the first three weeks of the year. That being said, anyone who knows anything about college baseball knows that Tim Corbin and his group will be right in the mix come SEC Tournament time. Again, there are over 50 games in a college season, so no one should panic just yet.
However, there are some surprises in the early season, and that is where we begin this week's "Numbers Game".
1. We Play, We Win...That's It
The Number: 0 losses
Ahhh, nothing like a Mariano Duncan reference to start off our first feature. Duncan, a 12-year veteran at the Major League level, was a top notch second baseman that played for five teams during the 1980s and 90s. The Dominican Republic product had a solid career, but is remembered more for a single phrase than the numbers he produced in 4988 at bats as a professional.
In 1996, Duncan was a New York Yankee, a member of a talented team bent on making a championship run. During that season, he coined a motivational sentence, a line that was uttered by the entire Yankee Universe as that squad moved toward the World Series.
It was simple, yet perfect.
He told his teammates, "we play today, we win today, that's it". That phrase is now etched in both Yankee and Major League history, and serves as the perfect backdrop to our first stat.
Wins and losses. That's why we keep score right?
The most basic element of a baseball game, or any athletic competition between two teams, is the result. All the stats accumulated, the practice hours put in and the great plays we root for are all in hopes of winning the game.
As of right now, three teams in the league are unblemished. While you might have guessed two of the three that are (preseason darlings South Carolina and Georgia) the other team on that list is somewhat of a surprise. Kentucky, facing an uphill climb in arguably the nation's toughest division (the SEC East, notice the teams I mentioned are all from there), is off to a strong start.
The Wildcats are off to their best mark since 2008, having dispatched of Buffalo this weekend by a combined 29-15 score. Led by SEC Player of the Week Zac Zellers, the Wildcats have the top offense in the league.
A closer look at UK’s numbers indicates that the Wildcats have done most of their damage with power, accumulating a .558 slugging percentage so far. Slugging in baseball is similar to the three-point line in basketball, in that it requires a higher degree of difficulty but gives an added bonus should you convert.
Same idea here.
Extra base hits, such as doubles, triples and homers are harder to come by, and speed up the scoring process because you are closer to the final destination.
Common sense tells you it is easier to score the closer you are to home plate. Add in Kentucky's three triples and nine homeruns, and this year's UK squad is swinging the sticks with lethal force.
Can they keep it up? We shall see.
2. Tucker Breaks Florida Record
The Number: 216 Career RBIs
Florida's Preston Tucker is in some rarefied air. A quick glance at the top three RBI (runs batted in) men in Gator history reads like a who's who of great SEC players.
Matt LaPorta, who occupies the third spot on the list, is now a regular in the starting lineup for the Cleveland Indians. One of the most powerful sluggers in the SEC history, LaPorta was the seventh overall pick in the 2007 MLB Draft. He was also the key prospect in a trade for All-Star hurler CC Sabathia. His RBI number? 206.
Brad Wilkerson, who NOW sits on the silver medal stand, is an SEC legend. Wilkerson, the only three-time All-American in Florida history, broke seven individual season batting records and tied/re-set seven individual performance marks during his time as a Gator. He is on the National College Hall of Fame ballot this year, and remains as one of the best to ever lace up a pair of spikes in Gainesville. His RBI number? 214.
As of this past Saturday, Florida has a new number one. In fitting fashion if you know anything about Tucker's game, he ascended to the top of the leader board on the strength of a two-run homer. After another RBI on Sunday, Tucker now sits with 216 in his career, a mark achieved in four years of play in a Gator uniform.
While RBI as a stat has come under fire by analysts over the past few years, it is still a good indicator of a player's ability to hit with runners on base. RBI numbers are fickle at times because they are solely dependent on the players in front you getting on base, and the number of opportunities a hitter can have vary wildly from player to player.
So while Tucker likely gets more chances for RBIs because he has great table setters hitting in front of him (like Nolan Fontana), the fact that he continues to convert those chances is an impressive feat. He topped the SEC in this very category last year (74) and appears primed to hold on to his RBI crown this year.
I can say this. He is definitely good at driving himself in, evidence by his league leading five round trippers. No other hitter in the SEC has more than two.
Tip of the cap to Tucker, who sits on the pedestal of one of the most impressive records in the league.
3. Speed, Speed And More Speed
The Number: 27 Stolen Bases
There are a million clichés you hear about speed. Ok, maybe not a million, but it sure feels like it.
Speed kills. Speed never goes in a slump. You've even heard the phrase "SEC Speed" used as a way to differentiate the level of competition in this conference from everyone else in the country.
I find it fitting on the week where the entire NFL world is obsessed with 40-yard dash times that we look at how speed is affecting SEC baseball. Today we are going to focus on the 90-foot dash, as one of the league's teams has stolen enough bases to make Rickey Henderson proud.
My college coach wasn't necessarily a fan of stealing bases. His philosophy was all about power hitting, and he didn't want to run out of fear of making outs. His focus was always the hitter, and he never wanted the bat taken out of his hands, so to speak.
Auburn disagrees, with the Tigers running more than any other team in the league by far. Auburn has 27 steals so far this season, a mark dwarfing everyone else in the SEC. Besides Auburn, only three other teams are even in double digits in the stolen base category. This isn't a case of one speedster representing a bulk of the team's total either, seeing as how eight players have swiped a bag for the Tigers.
With the introduction to college baseball's "new" bats last season, (less potent and more like professional wooden models) the collegiate game is beginning to change. Homeruns are down and teams are having to manufacture runs more than they've had to in decades. When I say "manufacture" runs, I mean trying to gain extra bases without getting a hit. Stolen bases fit into that equation perfectly, as you are effectively trying to turn a single into a double, getting closer to scoring without the benefit of a base knock.
If you can't rely on the home run, why not run more? Auburn is trying that strategy, and to date they are having success. The Tigers have scored 54 runs in 2012, good enough for third in the league. That is despite only hitting three home runs in their first eight games, a number that pales in comparison to the nation leading 131 homers Auburn hit in 2010.
Running is a two-fold endeavor. Not only does it involve the team trying to run, but it also affects the defense having to guard against it. Stealing bases puts pressure on the pitcher, catcher and the middle infielders that have to cover when the runner takes off.
Keeping an eye on the run game can divert a pitcher’s attention from the hitter; instead eyes are focused on the runner on base. It also quickens a pitcher's throwing pace, perhaps causing mistakes that Auburn's hitters can capitalize on. The motion can create holes in the infield, and in the end it can be tough to defend on a daily basis.
The best catchers in the world take slightly less than two seconds from the moment they catch a pitch to fire a throw down to the bag at second. That’s a snap of the fingers. Most people can’t get out of bed that fast. If Auburn is successful, they hope to cover 90 feet in that time. So far they are off to a “blazing” start.