After over 8,000 games this season we have now reached the Championship Series of college baseball. Unlike last year's final, this year features two consensus Top 5 teams. And while this matchup of the 2009 versions of Texas and LSU baseball may seem at first glance to be exactly what you'd expect with Texas fielding defense and pitching and LSU mashing their way to wins, the differences aren't as pronounced as you may think.
When LSU is Hitting:
LSU brings in the #4 offensive team in the nation with a rating of 9.6 runs per game against an average defensive team. Texas counters with the #5 defensive group, averaging a little over 3.7 runs per game prevented. These numbers are park-adjusted, something that will be important to remember as both LSU and Texas played their home games in significantly pitcher-friendly parks this year. The Tigers are led offensively by Ryan Schimpf, Jared Mitchell, and Blake Dean. In addition to producing at the plate with .376 and .349 GPAs respectively, Schimpf and Mitchell are also threats to steal. Mitchell leads LSU with 35 steals in 44 attempts and Schimpf has 18 in 25 of his own. The Tigers' offensive capabilities do not end with this trio, of course, as they have good hitters throughout the lineup. Only defensive stud Austin Nola should see significant action in this series with a GPA under .295 for the season. As expected, LSU doesn't bunt - they have only 26 sacrifices on the year. They are far more likely to try to take the base for free and have attempted 154 stolen bases as a team this year, succeeding on 112 of those efforts for a 72.7% rate. Their overall team GPA is .314, a very good number for a team playing in a pitcher's park.
Texas' pitching staff does not feature any single dominant star but instead relies on a very deep pool of high-quality arms. Chance Ruffin has been considered the ace this season and will likely take the mound in Game One of the series. He has a 10-2 record with a 3.27 ERA, and his peripherals are perhaps better. Ruffin has a 1.07 WHIP and a 4.3 strikeouts-to-walks ratio on the season but has given up 14 homers in 118.3 innings pitched. If he's locating his slider he can be a very tough pitcher and that will be perhaps the most important thing to watch early in the game. He got in trouble against Arizona State by elevating too many pitches and the Sun Devils took advantage. After Ruffin the Longhorns will likely throw Cole Green in Game Two. Green's ERA is lower than Ruffin's on the season at 3.07 but his peripherals lag just slightly at a 1.17 WHIP and 2.5 K/BB ratio. However, Green has thrown well in his two CWS starts so far, including an 8 strikeout, 1 walk performance against Southern Miss. If not called on to start Game Two or in extended relief, Taylor Jungmann should start a Game Three if the series goes that far. Jungmann has thrown extremely well in his last few postseason outings and has a 2.10 ERA to go with his 1.07 WHIP and 2.9 K/BB ratio. Jungmann's arm is not showing any signs of fatigue at this point of the season and all of his pitches had excellent movement in his last appearance. If the situation dictates, Garrido is clearly comfortable bringing Jungmann out of the bullpen as Texas' primary long reliever. If faced with a one game to zero hole and needing a reliever to hold off LSU in Game Two, there's little doubt that Jungmann will get the call. This would leave the Longhorns' fourth starter, Brandon Workman, as the primary possibility to take the mound in Game Three. Workman was in the main rotation at the beginning of the year but has been surpassed by Jungmann. Workman sports a 3.45 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 3.1 K/BB ratio for 2009. Joining Workman as another possible starting option and certainly available for long relief is Austin Dicharry, who has a 2.34 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 2.4 K/BB ratio. Dicharry has started 5 games this year for Texas and has compiled an 8-2 record. Austin Wood is the closer and after a few spotty outings after his Hall of Fame effort against Boston College looked very good against Arizona State on Friday night. Wood has a microscopic .96 WHIP and a 4.2 K/BB ratio to go with his 2.30 ERA and 15 saves. Hopefully the Longhorns won't need to go more than 7 deep into the staff, but Keith Shinaberry is a situational lefty and Stayton Thomas and Kendal Carrillo are the other two pitchers who have appeared for Texas in the postseason (both against Army in the final game of the Austin Regional).
This matchup is strength against strength but given the hitter-friendly park in Omaha it should be noted that a wash, meaning an LSU run total that should be expected, is in the 6-7 run range. Anything under 6 runs in a game for LSU should be considered a good performance by the Texas staff and that will then put the pressure on the other half of the matchup for Texas. That being said, LSU's offense, while very powerful, rates less than a half-run higher than TCU's. The differences here are small and the Texas staff has the capability of stepping up and holding the Tiger offense down. It won't be easy, but it can be done.
When Texas is Hitting:
In looking at this matchup from the Texas side, I think this is really where the series will be decided. Clearly Texas has to have good pitching and their defense has to play much better than they did in the double-elimination portion of the CWS. But in order to put themselves over the top against LSU they are going to need some more timely hitting and offensive output from their batters. For the year the Texas offense ranks only #62 in the nation with an 8.62 runs per game number. LSU counters with the surprisingly good, at least if you haven't been paying attention this year, #13 defensive unit in the country that prevents 3.06 runs per game on average. Whereas LSU will likely fill their lineup with 8 hitters with GPAs of .295 or higher, Texas has only 3 such players on the roster. Brandon Belt leads the way at .331, Kevin Keyes is at .310, and Cameron Rupp comes in at .300 for the year. Coming into the CWS, Texas had no players with double digit home runs on the year. That's changed with Rupp's power display and the park influence should not be taken lightly. Texas had only 39 home runs in 61 games coming into Omaha but has blasted 6 in 3 games once arriving. The Longhorns are well-known for their bunting game and have sacrificed 102 times this season. My feelings regarding this strategy are also well-known, but it needs to be pointed out that it probably makes even less sense when playing at Rosenblatt. Texas has been successful on 71 of their 95 steal attempts this year (74.7%), but LSU has thrown out 36.7% of attempts against them this year. Hopefully Texas can find a way to put pressure on the LSU defense without giving up too many outs against a very good frontline of the Tiger staff.
Louis Coleman is LSU's ace and he has been fantastic this year running up a 14-2 record with a 2.68 ERA. His WHIP is only .99 and it goes along with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 6.0 as he averages nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings. He will start Game One tonight for the Tigers as they look to take the series lead. LSU's second starter, Anthony Ranaudo, is also extremely talented. He is even nastier than Coleman, averaging 11.7 strikeouts per nine. He has a 2.87 ERA and 1.09 WHIP to go with his 11-3 record for the Tigers. LSU's options for their third starter, though, are not nearly as appealing as Texas'. Austin Ross would seem likely to get the call and he has a 6-7 record with a 5.09 ERA on the season. His WHIP is a very high 1.45 and his respectable 3.6 K/BB ratio indicates that he gets hard when he's in the strike zone. Out of the bullpen the Tigers feature stud Matty Ott, who while he may have given up a gopher ball to Arkansas has been outstanding on the year. Ott has a ridiculous 13.2 K/BB ratio thanks to 66 Ks and only 5 walks in over 47 innings this year. He has 16 saves, a 2.85 ERA, and a 1.08 WHIP. The Tigers' first option for longer relief is Daniel Bradshaw (4-0, 3.23 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.0 K/BB). Behind Bradshaw, though, the bullpen is fairly thin as LSU has no other options with a WHIP under 1.32 or an ERA under 4.00 for the year.
The new Alex Box Stadium played to a park factor of around 0.89 compared to the Disch's historical 0.86 (I haven't run Texas' numbers for this year). For comparison, in the 12 games played so far, Rosenblatt is playing to a 1.19 park factor. Obviously 12 games isn't enough to draw any definitive conclusions, but there is no doubt that the Tigers and Longhorns will be playing in a more hitter-friendly stadium than either of their homefields. By the numbers we should expect to see 3-4 more total runs per game than if the championship series were at LSU or Texas. There may have been concerns before regarding Texas' ability to score runs in bunches as may be required in this series, but those have certainly been eased after the 10 run explosion against ASU in the first matchup and the 2 run bottom of the ninth when they had to have it in the second tilt. Will Garrido change his strategy early in games given that more runs are likely in this series? I think that has to depend on what our staff is looking like on the mound. If we're showing any signs of scuffling while pitching I think we have to sit back and play more for the big inning. This isn't Disch-Falk and our team is clearly capable of hitting it out of Rosenblatt.
The key against LSU will be the same as it was against Southern Miss on offense: be patient and try to get deep into their bullpen. First pitch outs are not what the Longhorns will be looking for and will really help the Tigers in the long run, especially if Game Three is necessary. Stretch the games out and test their pitching depth if at all possible. On defense, Texas has to play up to their expectation in the field and fix whatever the issues were in double-elimination.
Well, before the CWS opened I was looking for Virginia to come out of the other bracket in an upset. That didn't happen and the Longhorns are left with a tougher matchup. I think the teams split the first two games, with Texas more likely to win Game Two. Look for the Longhorns' superior pitching depth to take over in Game Three as Texas wins their 7th national championship and keeps the Tigers from pulling into a tie for second-most titles in history.