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On Early Season Strategy and Trial by Ordeal

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Some preliminary thoughts following our narrow series victory against Santa Clara.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the single best advice toward leading an ethical life comes from one of Immanuel Kant's three standards: Don't make exceptions for yourself.  As such, let us not explain away our relatively poor performance during Saturday's double-header against Santa Clara due to inclement weather ("it reached below freezing temperatures before the end of game 2"), early-season jitters ("Ferguson and K-Chow lost the plate, but will improve their control throughout the season"), or worse yet, a combination of the two ("Ferguson and K-Chow couldn't grip the ball as well due to near-freezing temperatures").  Might any of these, or a combination of these factors be correct?  Sure, but what do these exceptions accomplish?  Didn't Santa Clara face precisely the same conditions we did?  Wasn't it equally early in the season for them?  Further, didn't they have it harder, as they were the road team?

No, let's not waste any time with excuses.  It's beneath us.  Rather, let's look at what we can take away from these opening three games: the good, the bad, and the absolutely confounding.

The Good:

1) Carson Fulmer is still the best pitcher in baseball.  His stat line in Friday's 4-0 win was pretty impressive (5 IP, 2 H, O R, O ER, 7 K, 3 BB, 88 pitches), but that doesn't begin to tell the story.  Fulmer never allowed Santa Clara to challenge him, as he opened by striking out 5 of the first 6 batters faced.  He could have gone longer, but there was no need to put any wear on his arm.  Pfeiffer was ready, and finished out the shut out.

2) Philip Pfeifer is back, with a renewed sense of purpose.  Pfeifer, the RS junior, missed out on last year's championship season for undisclosed personal reasons.  Rather than transfer or quit, Pfeifer used this as motivation to fix whatever Corbin had determined he was lacking.  I won't speculate as to what it was, but I will say this - his performance on Friday had all the markings of a man possessing singular focus.  He threw 4 innings of shut-out ball, allowing only one hit and one walk, while striking out 5.  There's still a lot of games left to determine our best rotation, but it looks like Pfeifer's making a case to be the mid-week starter, and might just push Ferguson to the pen when it's all said and done.

3) Dansby is still The Mansby.  As if this was ever in doubt.  Through the weekend, he's hitting .429/.500/.714 with 2 2B and 1 3B.  That's a mammoth three game set, especially considering he only went 1-5 in the opener.  In addition, he had the hit that advanced Jeren Kendall to 3rd in the bottom of the 10th.  Kendall would score shortly after on an error to the second baseman and clinch the series.

4) Rhett Wiseman is poised to finally have the year we all hoped he would.  Scream "small sample size" all you want, but what I saw from Wiseman this weekend was enough for me to push all my chips into the "This is his year" narrative.  It's not just the numbers, though tell me you're not giddy over his .333/.429/.917 slash from this weekend, especially after he hit 2 3B and a much needed 2 run HR in the 5th inning of game 2, with the Dores down 5-2 at the time, and opening the season with a losing record a distinct possibility.  The Natural hit 2nd in the order Friday, and 3rd in the order both games Saturday (as Bryan Reynolds was overcoming an illness).  He did not disappoint.  Further, other than one swing where he spun himself into the ground trying to hit it 500 feet, Rhett stayed within himself, kept his bat level and in the zone, and never lost focus.  That's maturity.  That's what I was looking for.  If he can keep this mindset all year, there's not much he can't do.

5) Tyler Campbell looks ready to fight off all comers and keep his job at 2nd base. The Soup Can Kid is a phenomenal athlete, and exhibited excellent plate discipline while going .385/.429/.385 this weekend.

6) Jordan Sheffield looks talented, albeit a little bit raw. He's going to force himself into the conversation for 3rd/4th starter before it's all said and done.  He went 3 and 2/3 innings of scoreless ball, allowing only 1 hit, while striking out 3.  He did walk 3 batters, but it was pretty easy to see why we were so excited he made it to campus.

7) Penn Murfee made the most of Will Toffey's struggles at the plate. In case you needed a reminder of our depth, and how many positions will be battled for all year, I submit RS freshman Penn Murfee's Saturday night.  After Toffee, the presumptive starter, went 0-7 with 4 Ks in the first two games of the series, Corbs gave Murfee the nod.  All he did was go 3-3 with 1 2B, 2 BB, 1 RBI,  and 1 R.  He did commit one error, but let this be a reminder to our starters - the theme of the year is "open competition" and nothing is written in stone.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Murfee get at least one start against Belmont on Wednesday or against UIC this weekend.  He looked solid at the plate.  Toffey looked nervous.

8) Walker Buehler should be back soon.  (Help me, Jebus!)

The Bad:

1) Jason Delay's continued problem with blocking balls in the dirt.  *More on this later.

2) Tyler Ferguson and John Kilichowski's inability to find the strike zone. The Turd walked 5 in 2 IP before being yanked.  Sure, he only allowed one hit, but they don't need to hit you if you keep putting them on for free.  K-Chow wasn't as bad as Ferguson, and was largely being squeezed by the ump, but he walked 3 and gave up 5 hits and 4 runs in 3 and 2/3 innings of pretty pedestrian pitching.

3) Ro Coleman getting fly-out happy.  Coleman ripped a triple in game one and knocked in 3 and scored two this series.  I'll take that every time.  However, the majority of Ro's outs came from fly outs to shallow-to-mid RF.  There are certain players who get drawn into the allure of being a power hitter, when their skill set screams "HIT IT ON THE GROUND AND LEG IT OUT!!!"  Unfortunately, Ro has this.  What Corbin does to correct for Ro's desire to win the ladies over by whacking dingers can have a massive effect on our season.  Drag bunts, slap singles, hitting behind the runner, and ONLY unleashing the dragon when they play you extremely shallow and the pitcher throws a fat one.  This is your prime directive, young Coleman.

The Confounding:

1) One unfortunate managerial decision. Clearly, Tim Corbin is a phenomenal manager, and has built this program far beyond what even the most irrationally optimistic Vandy fans can expect.  This doesn't make him infallible, though.  In the bottom of the 8th, after Vandy had battled back to plate 2 and take a 6-5 lead, Corbs subbed in Jeren Kendall for Karl Ellison as a pinch runner on 2nd.  Karl is slow, Jeren is fast.  Seems like a simple decision.  Oddly enough, this seemingly innocuous move lost them the game.

Let me explain.  With Hayden Stone warming up to close out the game, and us up one run, Karl Ellison was more valuable with his ability behind the plate than an additional run scored would have been.  Stone's main asset as a pitcher is a dirt-pounding slider that's nigh-on unhittable.  However, he requires a man behind the plate who is extremely skilled in blocking balls in the dirt to be successful.  Karl Ellison is that.  Jason Delay, as noted in the Catchers preview, has an impressive skill-set, but a pretty obvious Achilles heel w/r/t blocking balls in the dirt.  This deficiency led to Karl Ellison - Carson Fulmer's personal catcher - becoming our best option behind the plate.  Delay is the better hitter, better pitch framer, and has a better arm.  None of that matters if he can't keep the ball in front of him when noted dirt pounders such as Fulmer and Stone are on the mound.

Delay came in, Stone came in, and the uncatchable ball met the unblockable catcher.  Santa Clara scored 2 due largely to passed balls (though you'll only note one WP in the official stats, those who saw the game can attest to the fact that Delay muffed it, and many more).

Why Corbin Might Have Made That "Mistake":

There's a reason I'm putting mistake in quotes here, and that's because it's only a mistake if you value winning that particular game over potentially winning the title again.  This is purely speculative, but I wrote the following in the catcher's preview:

Coming into last season, The Rain (Delay) was the more heralded of the two catching prospects, and wrestled the starting job from Man-Mountain Chris Harvey pretty much right away.  Delay was sold as a catching savant - a wizard with the glove and a hose for an arm.  Delay's .994 fld% speaks to this ability.  However, Ellison sports a .995 fld %.  No clear winner there.  Delay was better with the bat, hitting .246/.374/.325 with 9 XBH (all 2Bs).  He's got a strong arm, but needs to speed up the transition between catching and throwing, as was evident by opponents' .711 stolen base success rate against him.  Sure his "stolen bases allowed to caught stealing" numbers were worlds better than Hot Karl's (11-27 as opposed to 1-11), but he's going to want that to dip below the .600 threshold before it's billed as an asset.  I still think Delay's the better prospect going forward, but he lost the trust of his pitchers and coaching staff a bit with a few passed balls in the tournament.  He'll have to fight that perception and regain the trust of his pitching staff to lock down this job.

In short, I expect this to be about as close to a 50-50 split w/r/t playing time between the two sophomore catchers, and fully expect Corbs to ride the hot hand.  I'd like the hand that gets hot to be Delay's, as he has more raw ability, but I wouldn't force it.  It should be an open competition all season long.  However, if Delay is given the nod today, that might represent that he's done enough in preseason practice to regain the trust of Fulmer and Corbs, as Hot Karl caught Fulmer exclusively down the stretch last year.

If Delay is the better catcher on all offensive and most defensive metrics, perhaps Corbs wanted to see if he could overcome his odd inability to block balls in the dirt.  Perhaps Corbin valued the knowledge gained by this potential baptism by fire over an OOC win in February.  He likely knew going into the series that he would play Delay in at least one game, and with the weather forcing them to play two on Saturday, this probability became definite.  As such, there's a distinct possibility Corbin wants Delay to steal the starting catcher job back from Ellison to give him a more potent offense and a better protector against teams that will look to beat us with small ball and base-stealing.  There's a Medieval concept known as "Trial by Ordeal," in which a knight must prove himself worthy through countless tests of his virtue and skill in battle.  Corbin likely knows Ellison can catch Fulmer, Stone, and other dirt-pounding pitchers, but also knows he offers less potential in other areas.  Was it better to lose and learn that Delay still has a mental block/problem with blocking balls in the dirt?

Tough to say.  I say no, but I understand.

Unless, of course, this is all moot and Corbs only pinch ran for Ellison because he is slow and Kendall is fast.  That... would anger me.