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Are the Diamond Dogs Getting Better?

Yesterday, I quoted C&F for the proposition that it is "unbelievable to a baseball fan in the league that Georgia is this bad." A month ago, I expressed skepticism over the claim that injuries and inexperience are to blame, but it is time to revisit the Diamond Dogs in an effort to determine what ails the Red and Black.

Georgia is 11-21 overall, with losing ledgers at home (7-9), on the road (3-10), and at neutral sites (1-2). The Classic City Canines are below .500 in conference play (3-9) and in non-SEC action (8-12). The Bulldogs do not win when facing southpaw starters or when playing at night, having gone 1-10 under each of those circumstances (as opposed to 10-11 against right-handed starters and in day games).

Georgia does not win with small ball; the Athenians are 3-10 when held without a home run but 5-5 when going yard at least twice. Georgia does not come from behind; the Diamond Dogs are 1-13 when trailing after four frames, 0-14 when trailing after five, 0-17 when trailing after six, 0-16 when trailing after seven, and 0-19 when trailing after eight. That’s right . . . if the Red and Black were behind at the end of an inning from the fifth frame forward, the Classic City Canines did not win the game.

Even perfection has not served the Bulldogs well this season: Georgia is 0-7 in games in which the Red and Black were not charged with an error. Finally, it’s go big or go home, as the Athenians are 0-16 in games in which they scored five or fewer runs.

The need to put up runs in bunches to have a chance suggests a problem with what was expected to be a strength; viz., starting pitching. There, though, we may spot at least are some hopeful indicators. Justin Grimm has been much more solid in his eight starts than his 2-4 record suggests; the junior hurler has fanned 41 while walking 18 in a little over 42 innings’ worth of work. Grimm boasts a 4.04 ERA, the best by a member of the Bulldog staff who has been on the hill for more than three stanzas this season, and he has held opposing hitters to a .228 batting average.

Fellow starters Michael Palazzone and Jeff Walters, on the other hand, have struggled. Each has allowed 31 earned runs in 38 innings pitched for a 7.34 earned run average. Between them, Palazzone and Walters have thrown eight wild pitches (the same number Grimm has notched on his own) and hit five batters (fewer than the seven plunked by the Diamond Dogs’ Friday starter).

For all the Red and Black’s pitching woes, though, there are some small signs of improvement. Grimm (3.16), Palazzone (6.86), and Walters (6.20) all have better earned run averages in four SEC starts apiece than any of them has notched over the course of the season as a whole. Despite the Bulldogs’ 1-2 record against Ole Miss, the Georgia starters pitched well in all three outings.

Also in spite of last weekend’s results, there is reason to believe the improved health and increasing experience of the Red and Black have helped, or, at least, are on the verge of helping. Only three Georgia players (Zach Cone, Johnathan Taylor, and Peter Verdin) have taken the field in all 32 of the Diamond Dogs’ games, and only Cone and Verdin have started all 32. However, five Athenians have appeared in all twelve conference contests. Slowly but surely, David Perno is getting his preferred lineup on the diamond.

Does that matter? The only two Georgia players with at least 120 at-bats respectively rank first and second on the team in RBI and in home runs. (Remember the Classic City Canines’ 3-10 record when they don’t put at least one in the cheap seats; there is more reason to set store by the long ball than the mere fact that chicks dig it.) Just four Bulldogs have at least 82 at-bats, and that quartet collectively has batted in 92 runs; thirteen other players have combined to drive in 88 between them.

Perhaps the spring’s most glaring statistic is the Diamond Dogs’ maddening 1-8 record in games decided by a single run. The lone win was over Stetson on February 27, and, since that time, those eight one-run setbacks have come against Siena, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Furman, Mississippi State (twice), Louisiana State, and Ole Miss between March 14 and April 10. Half of those losses came at the hands of teams currently ranked in the Baseball America top 25. Georgia has come close to upending some good teams, but the Red and Black haven’t been able to card victories---note again the Athenians’ winless ledger when trailing after five innings or thereafter---and they have absorbed more than their fair share of drubbings, both early and late. There are encouraging signs, but the team is by no means following an obviously upward trajectory.

Other than in their April 7 outing at Clemson, the Bulldogs’ lineup generally has been stable since late March, with Johnathan Taylor batting first, Peter Verdin batting second, Levi Hyams batting third, Zach Cone batting fourth, and Robert Shipman batting fifth. One additional tweak that might be considered is moving Hyams back down in the order and letting Shipman take his place in the third spot in the order, right in front of cleanup hitter Cone. Consider the following season-long statistics:

Player OB% SLG% BB SO
Johnathan Taylor .419 .328 25 29
Peter Verdin .342 .507 7 22
Levi Hyams .373 .474 5 25
Zach Cone .414 .674 10 22
Robert Shipman .426 .493 16 20

From the time Hyams was moved into the third spot in the order on March 24 through April 4, the Georgia second baseman went 14 for 33 and batted in eleven runs. In the five games since, Hyams has gone four for 21 and driven in a lone run. Among the top five hitters in the order, Hyams ranks fourth both in on-base percentage and in slugging percentage, and he has tallied the second-most strikeouts despite having played in just 20 games.

Shipman, meanwhile, has the best on-base percentage among the first five batters in the lineup, trails only Cone and Verdin in slugging percentage, has drawn more walks than anyone other than leadoff hitter Taylor, and has struck out the fewest times. The Bulldog first baseman has started just 19 games and has just 75 at-bats to his credit, yet his 22 RBI lag but one behind the tally of 32-game starter Verdin. Why not put Shipman in front of Cone until Hyams’s bat heats up again?

Because runs are at such a premium with the Red and Black, one other critical component of Georgia’s success is the big inning. In the Classic City Canines’ last ten games, the Diamond Dogs have scored three or more runs in a single inning eight times. Four of those multiple-run frames have come in the Athenians’ three victories and the other four were spread out over seven losses.

In short, the Bulldogs have a number of problems, which may explain why Georgia has not won back-to-back baseball games since March 12 and March 13. Nevertheless, the starting pitching is improving, the young players are gaining experience, and the team is getting healthier. 2010 will be the rare even-numbered summer in which the Diamond Dogs are not bound for Omaha, and it would take an impressive turnaround even to make it to Hoover for a team that has yet to win an SEC series, but a few tweaks and a few breaks could get this team back to respectability and set the stage for a stellar 2011.

Go ‘Dawgs!