"If we win regionals then it's straight on to sectionals and then a week later is semis, then semi-regionals, then regional-semis, then national lower-zone semis."
That quote is from S03E10 of 'Community' and it may or may not have been referring to the process of advancing through the College World Series. With those complexities already discussed, let's talk about what it takes to win the CWS and whether or not Indiana has the horses to go back to Omaha and finish what they started.
As of today, the Hoosiers have risen to 4th in RPI and continue the slow climb of the seven-hundred and thirty six different baseball polls, making them a lock to be one of the 64 teams in the CWS barring some sort of monumental collapse that would make the second half of our basketball games look like a spring picnic. In fact, given the Hoosiers' current and predicted RPI we can be reasonably confident that IU will be hosting a regional and firmly in the discussion to host a super regional as well. This would mean the Hoosiers wouldn't have to leave Bloomington for postseason play until and if they qualify as one of the eight teams to head to Omaha.
There's no question that IU has had some tough injuries to overcome. It began with stud reliever Ryan Halstead's torn ACL on some rotten luck while fielding a ground ball and continued with our second best starter Kyle Hart's Tommy John surgery, along with infielder extraordinaire Casey Smith's reactive arthritis prematurely ending his baseball career. Despite the rash of injuries, the offense remains mostly unscathed as Casey Smith's offense never came around this year like they did the previous season, no doubt due to his condition, but the pitching has certainly taken its fair share of punishment.
As we saw with the new bats, college baseball scoring has been down across the sport, and in conjunction with TD Ameritrade Park being notoriously pitcher-friendly, the premium on quality pitching has never been higher. In the Omaha portion of the 2013 College World Series, teams hit a grand total of THREE home runs. What does this mean? It means you can't rely on a lot of runs to save you from a bad outing by a pitcher, because they're likely not coming. IU, with it's prodigious offense of last season, scored six runs in their three games at TD Ameritrade last season. For those who watched the games, you can remember multiple moments of Hoosiers hitting a junk pitch on the screws and watching it fall harmlessly into the glove of an outfielder. It was maddening, and until the new ball debuts in 2015, it's the reality.
UCLA, last year's champion, small-balled their way to the title. They laid down more sacrifice bunts than any team in recent memory and relied on putting themselves in position where runners could be on third with less than two outs and using the park's penchant for holding flyballs to their advantage. One of the things I love about Tracy Smith has been his de-emphasis of the bunt and base stealing, but those are opinions I developed watching MLB and it's becoming apparent that it may not be a cut-and-dry comparison to college baseball. Perhaps small-ball is the way to go in a dying run environment, because well-hit 370 foot outs are still outs.
Without counting an 8 run outburst in the title-clinching game, UCLA averaged less than 3 runs per game in Omaha and 4 runs per game for the entire CWS. What got them to the title? Pitching and defense. Do you know how many times the Bruins allowed more than one run to be scored against them while in Omaha? Take a guess.
No, seriously, guess.
It was zero. UCLA's run prevention was the best of the best and it's no small wonder how they ended up 10-0 in CWS play. They manufactured enough runs and let their pitching and defense keep the other guys off the board. They didn't worry about giving away outs, probably because they knew the park was going to take them anyway. This goes completely against any kind of new-age analysis you'll read about MLB but it just goes to show that the sports are radically different.
Because this kind of analysis only exists for MLB, I'll use them as an example. Sacrifice bunting reduces an inning's total run-expectancy in every single situation, but it does raise the expectancy of scoring one-run in most situations and UCLA decided to play for one run as often as they could instead of hoping to string together hits in a park where teams hit .234 for the entire tournament.
So what does this mean for the Hoosiers? It means that Christian Morris, Will Coursen-Carr and the bullpen must step up and deliver quality performances when Joey DeNato physically can't be on the field. Obviously, DeNato pitching doesn't give us any guarantee of a victory, but as we've seen this season and last, we can be reasonably confident that we'll be victorious when the TorNato is dealing. Kyle Hart was having a stellar season, but he can't help us now.
Run prevention is not exclusively on the pitchers, however. The other eight guys on the field must defend at a high leve, as well. None of the regulars possess a fielding percentage under .926 and the lowest belongs to Nick Ramos and his ten errors at shortstop. That may seem high, but it's important to remember that SS is a position that gets a ton of chances, normally leading to higher error totals. Fielding percentage isn't the end-all, be-all of defensive evaluation either, as it fails to take into account balls that a fielder never got to. For example: if I played at SS, I might have a higher fielding percentage, but only because my slow feet couldn't even touch a ball that he would get to effortlessly. That goes 0-0 on my F% stat, whereas if Ramos gets to the ball and airmails the throw, he gets an 0-1. Either way, the runner is on first base, but in the latter example, Ramos gives you a shot at an out. In what I've seen of him with my own eyes, I think Ramos has been great for the Hoosiers. Sadly, advanced fielding metrics don't publicly exist for college baseball so I can't match the eye test to the numbers.
Simply put: we can't count on the towering home runs by Schwarber and DeMuth to come with us to Omaha, it's all about run prevention. I still think IU has the pitching and defense to get it done, despite the injuries, but some consistency from the starters not named Joey DeNato would take us a long way.