May 30, 2013
By Scott Gierman
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Being shut out in its final two games of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament was a fitting end to a frustrating 2013 season for the Saluki baseball team. Following a 2012 campaign that ended with a 31-28 record and an unexpected run to the conference title game, many observers expected this year's team to be a serious contender for the Valley title.
At first glance, it's difficult to isolate one area that led to a 25-33 final record this year. I think a deeper analysis of the statistics could provide some interesting answers, however. I admit drawing inspiration from the movie Moneyball, which we watched on the bus ride to the conference tournament.
The beginning of Moneyball shows the Oakland Athletics in a similar position to the Salukis entering the 2013 season. A's General Manager Billy Beane, portrayed by Brad Pitt, had the task of replacing three free agents, including Jason Giambi, who was at the time the best offensive first baseman in baseball. Similarly, Coach Henderson and SIU had to replace two starting seniors and first baseman Chris Serritella after he was selected in the fourth round of last summer's draft.
Bean recognized that it was impossible to replace his star. However, by viewing the players as a combination of their on-base percentages, it could be done. The Salukis couldn't replace Serritella's .461 on-base percentage, one of the highest in school history. Instead they needed to replace the total on-base percentage of the three non-returning starters, catcher Brian Bajer, outfielder Jordan Sivertsen and Serritella. Those three had a combined on-base percentage of roughly 1.155 in 2012. That averages to .385 for each hitter.
To remain as successful on offense this season, SIU needed first baseman Ryan Casillas, catcher Matt Jones and a combination of Donny Duschinsky, Brock Harding, Nick Johnson and Wes Neece in the outfield to put together a combined on-base percentage in the realm of 1.155. Jones and Casillas posted nearly identical on-base percentages of .375 and .374, respectively. However, the aforementioned senior outfielders combined for a .311 on-base percentage. That gap in on-base percentage equaled less runners and, in turn, less runs this season.
This year's SIU team was outscored by its opponents by a margin of 285-283 runs in the regular season. The Pythagorean formula calculates that those run totals should've translated to a 27-28 record. Instead, SIU finished the regular season with a 24-31 mark. That suggests bad breaks cost SIU roughly three wins this year. Statistically speaking, Evansville was the only team in the Valley with worse luck, as the Aces' win total was four wins fewer than its Pythagorean prediction.
SIU got off to a 9-11 start despite outscoring its opponents by a margin of 103-91 in those games. During that stretch, Southern's pitchers had a 3.55 ERA compared to its opponents' 4.23 ERA and also batted 30 points higher than its opponents. After 20 games, the Salukis were already two wins below their Pythagorean prediction. The inability to turn those solid stats into wins seemed to set the tone for the rest of the season.
I should point out that what a statistician refers to as "luck" is not necessarily the wind blowing the wrong way or a ball taking a bad hop. In this case, bad luck means losing close games. SIU was 12-18 in games decided by two runs or less. However, in the case of close games, as the saying goes, you create your own luck. It comes down to things like moving runners over and producing a clutch hit with runners in scoring position. Those are two areas where Southern struggled this spring.
The Salukis will have to replace Austin Montgomery's .416 on-base percentage next year.
Looking ahead to next season, Southern started a junior at every infield position as well as catcher in 2013, so the Salukis will again return an experienced team. SIU will again need to replace three starting position players as the entire starting outfield graduates. Of the six outfielders who started at least one game this spring, five were seniors. Rising senior Donny Duschinsky is the only returner from that group. He started 16 games in right field. This time it will be Austin Montgomery's .416 on-base percentage as the big number that the Salukis need to replace. But for now, we can wait until next season to crunch those numbers.