By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- What a great day to be a Kentucky Wildcat.
On the very day that the fabled Kentucky men's basketball team captured the University's eighth National Championship, the Wildcat baseball team made some history of its own. After a promising start filled with a litany of program firsts, the 2012 baseball team reached another pinnacle Monday. UK's baseball team soared to No. 1 in the country in the Collegiate Baseball poll, giving the commonwealth's flagship university a one-two punch NEVER seen before.
The timing of this dual achievement seems to be fate, with the two squads visiting the same rarefied air within a matter of hours. If you were scripting a movie about Big Blue Nation's dreams of spring, this is how it would end. The convergence of a storied program (men's hoops) and an upstart hopeful (baseball) make Lexington a place to be in SEC athletics.
The wins keep on coming, either in walk-off fashion from Cliff Hagan Stadium or over in-state rivals (Louisville) and national powerhouses (Kansas) in the Superdome in New Orleans. However they continue to pile up, there is no doubt that this stretch of Kentucky athletics history will be remembered, as it should. There are no true numbers to examine (except the number one), just a feeling of greatness emerging from two programs at the exact same time. I'd be remiss if I didn't spotlight this amazing accomplishment to start our sixth version of the "Numbers Game", seeing as how moments like this don't happen often....or EVER.
As we switch to the rest of the programs in SEC baseball, it feels eerily similar to men's (and women's for that matter) basketball season. As of right now, everyone is chasing Kentucky.
Will it continue? Let's see what the numbers say.
1. Florida Hits "The Wahl"
The Number: 0
He's a sports editor's dream, with a last name made for headlines. Anytime he does well on the mound, the writing pretty much does itself. With the way he's been pitching lately, Ole Miss hurler Bobby Wahl better get used to the attention...and the corny headlines. Consider this the first of many.
Truth be told, if anyone should have hit the "Wahl" this past Friday night, it should have been the sophomore himself. The Springfield, Va., product was facing the nation's number one team in Florida. As described in this space last week, the Gators are one of the country's most prolific offenses, complete with a three-four punch that is Major League worthy (Mike Zunino, Preston Tucker). Wahl was coming off his worst start of the season, giving up four earned runs against an Alabama team that is struggling to find victories. It was a defining moment for the Ole Miss Friday-night starter, almost as if the right hander's back was against the "Wahl".
Ok, I'll stop.
But Wahl didn't, throwing a gem that stands as one of the best performances on the mound this season. Over eight strong innings, Wahl dominated, allowing no runs and just two hits. He punched out six Gator hitters, and was the key cog in Ole Miss picking up a huge 3-0 win over the SEC's best team to date. That “W” spring boarded the Rebels to a series victory, vaulting them back up the Western Division standings.
Wahl's basic stat line is strong enough, but the deeper you dig into his outing the more you walk away impressed.
First off, consider the obstacles. As I previously mentioned, Florida leads the SEC in home runs. The Gators averaged over six runs per game, and had scored at least eight runs in 12 of their contests prior to traveling to Oxford. They had already won five of six against two teams that were in the College World Series a year ago (Vanderbilt, South Carolina). To top it all off, Kevin O'Sullivan's team was sending ace Hudson Randall to the mound, he of the undefeated 2012 and career 22-7 record.
No problem right?
That's how Wahl approached it, masterfully out dueling Randall and making light work of the Florida offense. In his eight innings on the bump, only once did Florida have a runner advance past first, and not only did Wahl pitch impeccably, but he was never even in trouble at any point during the night. If a shutout against Florida seems rare, it’s because it is. Wahl's outing was the first time the Gators had been blanked in over a year (March 8, 2011). That's a span of 85 games, or just over half a Major League Baseball season.
This isn't the first time Wahl has shown Friday night ability, as he's already crafted shutout performances against UNC-Wilmington, Houston and now Florida. He's given up more than three earned runs just once, and appears to be settling in as the Ole Miss ace this season. The Friday night starter position holds recent greatness in Ole Miss history (Drew Pomeranz), and I'm sure Rebel faithful are hoping their sophomore can be a "Wahl" for them for the rest of the season.
Ok, last time...I promise.
2. Trying To Explain Luck
The Number: BABIP
Ever heard the phrase, "I'd rather be lucky than good"? Of course you have. How many times during a baseball game have you seen a "blooper" fall for a hit, while a hard line drive ends up going right to a fielder?
Analyzing luck's role in the game of baseball has always been a clichéd experience, with people saying things like "it all evens out in the end" or "just hit them where they ain't". While there have been attempts to numerically account for luck’s role in baseball at the major league level, when it comes to the college game that’s not the case.
As we explain numbers here at the SEC Digital Network, I'd like to introduce to a new stat that many of you might not be familiar with. I promise not to turn this into an algebra class, but through a simple formula we can do a better job of explaining just how "lucky" some teams have been during the season.
We all know hits that shouldn't fall in sometimes do, and hard hit balls that should count sometimes don't. That's all this is, an attempt to assign a statistic to something we already know exists. Don't get overwhelmed. We are just explaining what we see.
Enter BABIP (Batting Average On Balls In Play). Despite sounding like an acronym you'd find on a military base, it is a way of averaging the total balls put in play during a game. It only factors balls in between the white lines, so home runs and strikeouts are removed from the equation. Homers can’t be caught, and strikeouts aren’t put in play, hence their omission.
Similar to batting average, this statistic takes into account an entire team's contact rate, and helps to formulate an average number that can help put into perspective how they fare against each other. Here are the SEC’s BABIP averages so far in 2012.
Ole Miss- .305
Mississippi State- .331
South Carolina- .252
Remember, the lower your average is on this list, the better your pitching staff is doing...or perhaps the more "lucky" they are. The average for the entire group is .306, so you'll see most squads fall within that range. The two "outliers", or teams that stand out, are Alabama and South Carolina, in that they are almost 50 points from the middle.
Perhaps South Carolina has been both “good” and “lucky” in the early going. The Gamecock numbers are really low, which usually means their average will rise as the season continues. It looks like that has already begun, as USC has given up more earned runs since conference play began (5.09 SEC-Only ERA). That can also be a factor of playing great competition too, as Ray Tanner's bunch has played Florida, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to open their league slate.
Alabama perhaps has been the most "unlucky" team in the SEC, with hits finding the grass against them at a .346 clip. While this is a small sample size, it looks as if Crimson Tide fans can hope for a turn in the Tide so to speak in this department.
This stat list isn't the end all be all, just a tool to help further explain what we see on the field of play. Flipping a coin is a 50/50 chance, but that doesn't stop a coin from landing on heads 10 times in a row on occasion. We are at the halfway point, so averages will continue to fluctuate. A simple way to remember is that low numbers will likely go up, and high numbers will likely come down.
Now that we have a baseline to start with, it will be interesting to follow the teams BABIP during the rest of the year. Who will get the “lucky” bounces this year? Let’s find out.
3. Let’s Play Two…Almost
The Number: 13 innings
So what did you do on Sunday?
If you were at Hawkins Field in Nashville, you watched the SEC’s longest conference game, a 13-inning affair that ended up in a 6-4 win for the South Carolina Gamecocks. The contest was a tie for the longest matchup this season (with earlier MSU and UT games) and shattered game highs all over the SEC stats database.
A total of 404 pitches were thrown in the three hours and 48 minutes of play, with 93 combined at-bats for both teams. South Carolina’s Joey Pankake (great name) had seven at-bats himself, with five other players getting six trips to the dish. Gamecock first baseman Christian Walker took the biggest advantage of the extra ABs, picking up a game-high three hits.
South Carolina used four pitchers in the win, while Vanderbilt sent five to the mound. The term “Johnny Wholestaff” applies (that means everyone is available), as USC’s Matt Price pitched six innings on Sunday after coming in to close Friday’s game. Not only did pitchers throw overtime, but in some cases they ran too, with Michael Roth (USC’s Friday starter) hitting the field as a pinch runner.
While play was sloppy at time (combined eight errors), the teams had 78 putouts during the 13 frames. That’s a lie, play was sloppy. Six different players recorded errors, leading to that eight total that is an SEC high this year.
Christian Walker put an end to the fun though, as he connected for a two-run homer to send South Carolina home victorious. The game now holds 10 SEC game-highs for 2012, and was five innings away from being a doubleheader.
These two teams are known for producing nail biters when they get together, as all three games in 2011 were separated by two runs or less. This game was another in that long line, providing a ton of “numbers” that will likely leave their mark on the conference all season long.
*Special thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus and Bill Bunting of Ole Miss Sports Information