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Will the Georgia Bulldogs' Pitching Improve in the 2011 Baseball Season?

I recently expressed the hope (though not the faith) that Brady Wiederhold would be able to turn the Diamond Dogs’ pitching staff around in 2011 (assuming, of course, that David Perno does not make a change in pitching coaches in the offseason, which, as we shall see, may or may not be a safe assumption). What will Georgia have to work with next year? Without making allowance for recruiting or defections to the professional ranks, here are the pitchers appearing on the Bulldogs’ 35-man active roster who have appeared in games this season:

Patrick Boling Fr. 12.27 0-0 0 3.2 6 5 5 6 3 0 .429
Malcolm Clapsaddle Fr. 13.94 0-0 0 10.1 19 16 16 3 7 5 .442
Blake Dieterich Fr. 11.51 0-2 3 22.2 31 31 29 15 23 5 .333
Zach Laughlin R. Fr. 10.80 0-0 0 5.0 11 7 6 1 3 2 .423
Cooper Moseley Fr. 6.10 0-2 0 20.2 23 14 14 8 18 3 .277
Alex Wood Fr. 0.00 0-0 0 0.2 1 0 0 1 1 0 .500
Chase Hawkins So. 7.22 1-3 4 28.2 42 28 23 13 17 2 .341
Michael Palazzone So. 8.26 4-4 10 44.2 70 43 41 16 33 5 .359
Cecil Tanner So. 12.00 1-2 0 18.0 19 25 24 33 19 5 .268
Evan Tieles So. 17.18 0-0 0 3.2 9 7 7 2 3 0 .474
Ben Cornwell Jr. 20.25 0-1 0 8.0 21 18 18 4 7 2 .512
Justin Grimm Jr. 6.00 2-6 10 54.0 57 42 36 29 50 9 .264
John Herman Jr. 13.50 0-0 0 2.0 4 3 3 1 0 1 .500
Eric Swegman Jr. 14.21 0-3 4 6.1 8 10 10 9 7 0 .320

Not included on that list, of course, are seniors Justin Earls, Steve Esmonde, Alex McRee, and Jeff Walters, who will not be with the Red and Black next year. The above numbers do not include Wednesday’s game against Western Carolina, which probably helps everyone listed in the foregoing chart. I have used the familiar conventions regarding innings pitched, even though an out is one-sixth of an inning, not one-third of an inning, and even though ".1" and ".2" respectively represent one-tenth and one-fifth rather than one-third and two-thirds.

Accordingly, the above chart is qualified by many caveats and contains a jumble of numbers, but a few things leap out at me from those figures. For one thing, the younger guys are, on the whole, getting their opportunities to contribute. Excluding regular weekend starters, juniors have pitched 16.1 innings, sophomores have pitched 50.1 innings, and freshmen have pitched 63.0 innings.

Outside of the three regular weekend starters, the wealth has been spread around pretty evenly among student-athletes of various academic years. Once again excluding last night’s affray with the Catamounts (about which more anon), freshman Blake Dieterich has started three games, sophomore Chase Hawkins has started four games, and junior Eric Swegman has started four games.

On paper, I don’t have much of a problem with that, but these decisions must be placed in context. I knew the Diamond Dogs were done on March 21. Quinton McDawg echoed that sentiment a day later. We’ve known for more than a month that this was what might delicately be described as a rebuilding year, so what has been done since March 21 to begin preparing a slumping staff for 2011?

Why was Alex McRee, a senior, given his first start of the season on April 28? Why was Blake Dieterich, a freshman, lifted five frames into a one-hit shutout against Georgia Tech on April 27 and succeeded on the mound by Georgia’s three regular weekend starters and senior Justin Earls? Notwithstanding the opponent or the situation (neither of which warranted pulling a pitcher who was performing well in a competitive rivalry game), what benefit was derived from denying a true freshman additional experience in the best performance of his collegiate career so the squad could send out its three most experienced starters and a reliever who won’t be wearing red and black next spring?

Following the sweep by Auburn in late March, the decision to start Dieterich against Furman on March 24 made sense, and the freshman responded by striking out four and walking none while conceding three runs in three innings. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a decent place to begin.

After that, though, logic went out the window. A junior drew the start against Clemson on April 6. He allowed three earned runs without securing a single out. The Red and Black fared at least a little better in the early going against the same squad the next night, when a sophomore starter made it into the fourth canto. A junior starter was on the mound to begin the meltdown that was the worst baseball game in Bulldog history, but, with an underclassman toeing the rubber versus Winthrop on April 21, Georgia emerged victorious and the win went to the sophomore starter who lasted three innings and allowed only two hits and just one earned run.

With all due respect to Eric Swegman, why weren’t younger players getting more starts? Quite apart from the fact that the underclassmen generally outperformed the upperclassmen in midweek starts, the moment at which it became apparent that this season was circling the drain, it was time to start preparing the next generation. Perhaps partly as a consequence of the failure of the coaching staff to do so, we have seen the emergence of some ugly trends:

Season Team ERA Team BAA Team BB Team SO Team Hits Team Runs
2007 4.66 .264 223 372 510 310
2008 5.05 .268 251 528 657 406
2009 4.86 .274 257 487 588 365
2010 8.45 .330 212 304 488 362

I don’t want to get all "Fire Willie Martinez!" on you, but those numbers from the four years of the Brady Wiederhold era are not encouraging. Coach Wiederhold’s first year was his best year in terms of his pitching staff’s overall earned run average, batting average against, and runs allowed. After hovering fairly consistently in the high fours for three years, the team’s ERA has ballooned this year; likewise, after hovering very consistently in the .270 range for three seasons, the squad’s batting average allowed his shot up to .330 this year, marking the largest increase yet in an average that has crept up every single spring.

Obviously, it’s harder to compare walks, strikeouts, hits, and runs, since the 2010 numbers run only through Tuesday---again, those numbers don’t even count the Catamounts’ sixteen-hit, ten-run performance at Foley Field on Wednesday---and there are thirteen games remaining between now and the end of the campaign.

However, walks have increased annually throughout Coach Wiederhold’s tenure, and it is probable that the Diamond Dogs will finish the 2010 season having surrendered four-year highs in walks and runs. Likewise, this year may see the lowest strikeout tally of the Georgia pitching coach’s service in Athens, and the four-year hit totals likely will show by the end of this spring that Coach Wiederhold’s first year was his best in that category, too.

There are, of course, some incongruities in the above chart; the last four columns make the 2007 season read better than it lived because that Georgia squad, like this Georgia squad, failed to make it into postseason play. The 2008 and 2009 teams were much better clubs than the 2007 and 2010 units, but, because the middle two teams on the foregoing chart made the NCAA tournament field, they played more games, and, hence, gave up more walks, more hits, and more runs. Consequently, the team earned run average and team batting average against columns provide a better basis for comparison.

Partly due to such incongruities, I’m not calling for Brady Wiederhold’s head to roll based on aggregate tallies that paint only a partial portrait of the Georgia pitching coach’s job performance. Nevertheless, David Perno (who, obviously, knows a lot more than I do) needs to review thoroughly the performance of his pitching staff and the reasons for its poor production. Maybe Coach Wiederhold is to blame, or maybe extenuating circumstances have made the situation worse through no fault of the pitching coach’s, but Coach Perno has some painstaking staff evaluations to perform this offseason.

At the end of the 2007 season, I openly questioned the direction of the Georgia baseball program under Coach Perno’s stewardship. A year later, Coach Perno had proven me wrong, and resoundingly so. That buys Coach Perno a lot of goodwill in my book, but the numbers tell a story that is not encouraging. We knew going in that the hitting would take a while to come around, but we thought the pitching staff would be an asset. Instead, it has become a liability, which is an effect of causes David Perno is paid to determine and correct. Last season ended badly, and this season has been awful throughout. It is time to reverse that trend, and fixing what’s broken with the Bulldogs’ oldest varsity sport begins 60 feet and six inches from home plate.

Go ‘Dawgs!