clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Auburn Baseball Preview: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, the "Florida Formula", and the Nail

New, 18 comments

Auburn faces another tough task and another rebuilding campaign in 2015. Still, there's always optimism on the Plains

Chris Fuhrmeister

I swear I’ve started this preview a half a dozen times. I’ve filled notepads, bar napkins, gas receipts, and other such scraps of paper with notes and ideas and thoughts about the upcoming 2015 Auburn baseball season. I’ve pieced together lineups, counted fall practice starts, read message board posts, and read as many early previews as I could to come to this undeniable conclusion about the Tigers and how they’ll do in 2015: ¯\_()_/¯

That’s it. That’s the best I could come up with. A "shruggie". The internet equivalent of, "Who Knows?"

That’s because Auburn baseball in 2015 is this sweet and maddening combination of eternal hope, reliable returners, highly-touted newcomers, and unbridled optimism. Just like last year.

Yet last year, Auburn limped to a 28-28 finish, a 10-20 SEC mark, and by all accounts a regression in Coach Sunny Golloway’s first season on the Plains. It was a disappointing end to a season that started with so much enthusiasm and optimism.

So how does that change for 2015 and how can Auburn avoid being stuck on .500 Hamster Wheel?

When I was looking for answers, I looked at last year as a guidebook.   I wanted to find a team that was similar to Auburn statistically but succeeded better in the end. I knew I’d have my work cut out for me because 2014 came down to just being average for Auburn: the Tigers were merely average at offense, above average in pitching, and below average at defense. There really wasn’t one part of the game that Auburn did exceptionally well. It was that lack of above-average play that really doomed the Tigers. Because Auburn was average across the board, it had nothing to cover up mistakes. I knew this going in. So, I didn’t want to go down a false rabbit hole by chasing a team like Kentucky who had pitching/defensive numbers similar or worse than Auburn but had an offense that could cover up those mistakes (and then some). After searching for a while I found my team:

Category


Team A


Team B


Batting Average

.270

.267

Earned Run Avg

3.34

3.27

Fielding

.970

.975

Slugging Pct

.340

.350

On Base pct

.360

.351

Runs scored

235

289

Hits

497

554

RBIs

212

260

SAC Bunts

51

60

SAC Flies

19

34

Stolen Bases

80

57

Steal %

67%

67%

Opposing Batting Avg

.254

.253

Batters Struck Out

333

435

Saves

8

20

Runners Picked Off

1

11

Assists

592

719

Errors

65

62

Grounded into DP

36

54

Pretty similar across the board; yet Team B ended up with 40 wins and hosted a Regional, while Team A didn’t even make the SEC Tournament. Team B, by the way, is Florida.

THE FLORIDA FORMULA

So what was the difference between Auburn and Florida? Three things stick out most of all to me: Saves, the OPS, and Batters K’d.

Florida struck out nearly 100 more hitters than Auburn. That’s almost 100 outs that didn’t require a fielder; 100 outs that didn’t have the potential to be an error; 100 outs that could end scoring threats. That’s a big difference.

The Saves were another factor (and one I’ll get in to later). But for now, I wanted to see if I could figure out just how Auburn and Florida could be so similar in so many offensive categories, but so dissimilar in the money categories (Runs Scored/RBIs)

It’s no secret that Auburn had trouble scoring runs last year. So how did Florida manage more 50 more runs in 2014? We can break it down Sabermetrically. Both Auburn and Florida have similar OPS (On-Base plus Slugging %): Auburn is .701 and Florida was .700. That puts both teams in the Average range (but just barely).

Even their Gross Production Average ([{OBP*1.8}+SLG]/4)  is similar. Florida ends up at .247 and Auburn is at .245.

So where is the answer? I tried to break out the OPS to the extremes and to the full formula which is: OPS={[AB*(H+BB+HBP)]+[TB*(AB+BB+SF+HBP)]}/ [AB*(AB+BB+SF+HBP)]

Meaning, we need to look at the difference in the elements of the formula

STAT


AUBURN


FLORIDA


At Bats

1838

2077

Hits

497

554

Walks

192

229

Hit By Pitch

76

60

Total Bases

625

726

Sac Flies

19

34

The At-Bats are causing a discrepancy in the numbers and making it hard to compare by eyesight alone. So let’s try to adjust them slightly and see what we get. If we average the number of hits, walks, hbp, total bases and sac flies and then multiply it by the number of At-Bats for Florida (2077) then we get an adjusted table that looks like this

STAT


AUBURN


FLORIDA


At Bats

2077

2077

Hits

561

554

Walks

216

229

Hit By Pitch

85

60

Total Bases

706

726

Sac Flies

21

34

Everything starts to look a little bit closer.  However, nothing is really jumping out at me. The OPS and its components were showing me that Auburn and Florida were fairly close to same in hitting, but Florida (somehow) was miles ahead of Auburn. I knew that Florida was creating more runs, I just couldn’t tell how.

I tried to use the basic Runs Created Formula. That pegged Auburn at 212 and Florida around 246. In reality, Auburn scored 235 runs and Florida scored 289. A difference of 23 for Auburn and 43 for Florida.

So I thought I would try one more Sabermetric to see just HOW Florida was creating more runs: RC or Runs Created. Now, I wanted to use the "Technical" version of Runs Created.

Kind of a mess isn’t it? Still, I had the numbers I needed to compare:

STAT


AUBURN


FLORIDA


Hits

497

554

Walks

192

229

Caught Stealing

38

27

Hit By Pitch

76

60

Ground Into Double Play

36

54

Total Bases

625

726

Intentional Walks

4

15

Sac Hits

51

60

Sac Flies

19

34

Stolen Bases

80

57

At Bats

1838

2077

But again, the numbers were similar. Auburn was at 220 and Florida was at 259. I had one more hypothesis to test out. Would Auburn’s RC still be so low if the At-Bats were even? I tried to recalculate the table to adjust for the extra at-bats from Florida and got here:

STAT


AUBURN


FLORIDA


Hits

561

554

Walks

216

229

Caught Stealing

43

27

Hit By Pitch

85

60

Ground Into Double Play

40

54

Total Bases

706

726

Intentional Walks

5

15

Sac Hits

57

60

Sac Flies

21

34

Stolen Bases

90

57

At Bats

2077

2077

Instead of doing the entire math again, I just wanted to see if the basic formula would hold true. I got 239 as my number.  That narrowed the gap slightly on Florida. So where was I? Did anything jump out at me? Was there anything I could gather from my own personal "A Beautiful Mind"?

The answer, plain and simple? ¯\_()_/¯

Yep. That’s it. I tried everything I could think of to crack the code. In hindsight, I probably went in with a flawed theory and spent a few nights just wasting away on a false positive.  I was probably using Sabermetrics incorrectly.  I was probably wrong about a lot of the math. I was probably wrong in trying to use a metric for individual performance and extrapolate it to encompass an entire team. Still, after ALL of that, I came to one conclusion. One major difference between Florida and Auburn last year. One feeling that I couldn’t shake. Sitting right there under Sac Flies. (Oddly enough, I went in thinking that the SAC Flies were what Auburn was missing from the "Florida Formula"). What’s something that Auburn was actually good at compared to Florida even with all these numbers. Even with the original numbers. What’s a category that the Tigers excelled at; yet didn’t make a difference?

Stolen Bases.

Auburn had 80. Florida had 57. Yet both teams were successful only around 67% of the time. That told me something very simply. Last year, Auburn tried to steal as aggressively as it could. It tried to create runs and get runners into position and honestly? It didn’t make a difference. The stolen bases were well and good but nothing could compare to just timely hits. That’s what Auburn lacked last year. I didn’t need all that math to figure out something that simple. As you’ll see below, the clutch hits (or lack thereof) were evident in the won-loss record.

Auburn is a team that can learn from the mistakes and failings in 2014 and try to build on whatever few positives there were to succeed in 2015. 2014 has to be the barometer. That brings up 3 things that Auburn needs to do to win in 2015.

1. Score Last and Late.

Last year, Auburn was 1-18 when trailing after 6 innings; 0-18 when trailing after 7; and 0-21 when trailing after 8. When Auburn was tied late, it wasn’t much better: 1-6 after 4 innings, 0-7 after 5, 1-2 after 6, 1-5 after 7, and 1-5 after 8. The Tigers had no problem scoring runs early. In fact, they outscored opponents 195-142 over the first 6 innings. However, they were outscored 40-80 in the final 3 innings.

Normally you’d say that was a product of having an unreliable bullpen. However, Auburn was 26-8 when leading after 6; 27-5 after 7; and 27-2 when leading after 8. I originally hypothesized that Auburn needed a dominant closer to preserve more wins. This seemed to be another difference between Auburn and the "Florida Formula". However, now that I look back, it wasn’t an issue with the pitching and bullpen. It was an issue with the offense. When Auburn was put in Save and Hold situations, they did pretty well. When they had to rely on the offense to bail them out and give them a lead? They failed.

Florida was able to score a remarkable 63 runs in innings 8 and 9. Auburn? 19 runs.

2. Score First.

That’s pretty simple. Auburn’s offense was built to play with a lead. It loosened them up and allowed them to keep pressure and force mistakes rather than have the pressure on themselves to produce clutch runs. Auburn was 21-8 when scoring first last year. It’s a trend that needs to continue.

3. Find the sweet spot for runs.

Early in the season, Golloway mentioned that his magic number for runs needed was 5 or more. The numbers back that up. Auburn was 8-10 when scoring 3 to 5 runs but a solid 13-3 when scoring 6 or more runs. On the other side, when Auburn held an opponent to less than 6 runs they were 28-14 and 0-14 when the opponent scored more than 6. That’s how Auburn won last year. It held their opponent to under 6.

There is a Sabermetric that evaluates "Clutch Hits" but it’s not needed here. Instead, again, we’ll compare Auburn to Florida and look at the record when tied late in the game.

Situation


Auburn


Florida


Tied after 4

1-6

11-3

Tied after 5

0-7

6-1

Tied after 6

1-2

10-2

Tied after 7

1-5

7-2

Tied after 8

1-5

5-1

That’s a marked difference. Florida was able to produce runs late in a game (and prevent additional runs). Auburn was not.

That’s the "Florida Formula". It’s just the ability to produce runs late in a ballgame. That’s what Auburn needs in 2015.

POSITION PREVIEW


But Kevin, how are these Tigers in 2015. Where is the actual PREVIEW here? Well, unfortunately, figuring out the starting lineup for Auburn and who’s going to play where can be summed up like this: ¯\_()_/¯

Take most of these predictions with a grain of salt. These are my predictions based on radio interviews from Golloway, early preview pieces, and other side-readings. However, a lot can change from now until Friday. Still, you came for a preview and here it is:

Starting Pitching

Auburn will go into 2015 with a ton of options for starting pitching. Keegan Thompson is a lock and will begin as the Friday starter and possibly transition to a Saturday role as the season progresses. The other two slots are down to a handful of guys: Rocky McCord, Trey Wingenter, Cole Lipscomb, and Kevin Davis. My best guess is that McCord and Wingenter fill the other two roles. Davis will be a solid option, but I think he’d do better in a midweek role. He’s Auburn’s biggest strikeout threat but his consistency has been an issue so far. In the midweek, he’ll face tough competition that could help Auburn down the stretch. It will give him a chance to develop and better prepare him if he’s needed in a spot start or long relief on the weekend. Auburn needs midweek wins and having a reliable guy in that position and facing teams like Georgia Tech, Alabama, etc will mean being able to preserve some of the bullpen for the weekend. McCord and Wingenter present two of Auburn’s more developed arms and Wingenter, in particular, is a guy who has been steadily developing over the past two summers. It’s going to be a battle, but the good news is that Auburn has very solid and exciting options.

BULLPEN

Here’s a difference between 2014 and 2015. Auburn actually has depth in the bullpen this year. It also has a day-one closer (Justin Camp). The Tigers will have four LHPs to turn to utilize. The key to that group will be Izaac Yarbrough who is still returning from Tommy John surgery. If Yarbrough can excel, then Auburn could have a formidable bullpen. The RHPs are mainly JUCO transfers who will bring experience to an otherwise young unit. Young LHPs and experience RHPs should be a solid combination. Camp is the lynchpin here. From all accounts, he’s been solid and reliable. If he has a chance to close games, it means the Auburn offense is doing their job and Camp will be the difference in Auburn remaining at .500 or stealing a few wins as the season progresses.

1B/DH


Here’s the position that will probably see the most flux as the season goes on. It would be better to know what Auburn really needs from these positions. To put it bluntly, Auburn needs to develop power at this spot. It needs a bopper. For now, the position is Daniel Robert’s to lose but he may (according to some message board chatter) miss a few games to start the season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it will give the Tigers a chance to "trial-by-fire" a few guys like Dylan Smith, Ben Craft, Kyler Deese and Bo Decker. Keegan Thompson may be another option but he brings up one of my bigger struggles as the season progresses. Keegan can be a two-way player, but does he really need to be? Is it best for Auburn to have him pitch/dh on day and the play 1B the next? Thompson is Auburn’s most valuable commodity and risking the possibility of fatigue and injury is not something I’m sure Auburn should try and risk. There’s depth at this position this year. There are guys who could step up and develop. They may just need the chance to do so. However, if they are road blocked by Auburn wedging Thompson into an offensive role, then we may never know.

2B


This is Damon Haecker’s position to lose at this point and that’s good for Auburn on an offensive perspective. Haecker is both a high on-base guy and a high steal guy. Two things needed for Auburn’s offense. His defense should improve by remaining and settling in a 2B. He has the range and athleticism to cover any ground lost by 1B. Melvin Gray will present a good back-up and good competition for Haecker and could be a good fill-in or late-inning replacement if need be.

SS


Now we’re starting to get into some of the impact transfers that Golloway has been excited about. Auburn fans will get quickly acquainted with Cody Nulph. Nulph is a transfer from Orange Coast Community College and Pepperdine University. Here’s a guy who started at Pepperdine as a Freshman, but decided to go to JUCO to develop into a better hitter and, well, he did just that. After hitting only .167 as a Freshman with the Waves, Nulph batter .414 in JUCO and .322 over the Summer for the Alaska Gold Panners. But his offense isn’t why Auburn shouldn’t be excited. Instead, Nulph will bring outstanding defense and will hopefully fix an issue that Auburn has had for YEARS, not just last season. Auburn has struggled finding a good defender and error-free shortstops since Casey McElroy. Nulph, hopefully, is that solution.

3B


Another new face, but hopefully a big impact will be at third: Alex Polston. Polston is a bigger body guy (6-0/203) and is probably more of a natural shortstop. However, he has a plus arm and can develop into an outstanding third baseman. Polston’s biggest addition will be his bat and his consistency to produce extra base hits. If he can slot as a 3rd or 5th guy in the lineup and produce runs, then Auburn can feel pretty confident in the season.

OF


Auburn will actually bring a bit of experience into the outfield. Jordan Ebert will move to Right Field which will give him a bit more freedom to move around and loosen him up a bit defensively. Anfernee Grier will slot at his more natural CF position and Sam Gillikin will bring some athleticism and leadership to LF. Gillikin has the range and talent to cover a lot ground. He may be a more natural at CF, but with his speed and range, he’s better suited to handle the duties of the Green Monster and the Canyon in Left-Center. Outfield will be a position of strength both defensively and offensively for Auburn and the Tigers will also be trying to break in two highly touted freshmen: Hunter Tackett and Austin Murphy.

CATCHER


This is all Blake Logan. Logan will have big shoes to fill to replace Blake Austin, but Logan did an admirable job with that last year. Logan’s biggest challenge this year will be calling a game and communicating with new Pitching Coach Tom Holliday. A new pitching coach means new strategies and new ways of attacking hitters. Logan’s job will be relaying that information. Thankfully, Logan will also be rest when need be with Ben Craft and Kyler Deese serving as backups.

THE NAIL


One of my favorite proverbial rhymes is "For Want of Nail". It’s a simple rhyme showing how small actions can result in large consequences. Here’s the "Knight Variation" from the DC Comic: JLA: The Nail:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.


For Auburn, the key to 2015 will be to avoid the "Nails". Little things that may not seem like big deals at the time, but could have long reaching effects on the rest of the season. Here are the four biggest "nails" for Auburn to avoid:

An Uptick in Strikeouts

Auburn has to have productive at-bats and strikeouts are the opposite of that. Auburn’s goal on offense will be to advance runners and to set up scoring opportunities. The problem is that, for Auburn, an uptick in strikeouts isn’t necessarily a sign that Auburn is struggling at the plate, it’s a sign that Auburn is struggling to make contact and is forcing offense too much. I would have to go back and look, but I imagine a good number of Auburn’s strikeouts in 2014 were the result of the Tigers failing to make contact on called hit-and-runs or trying too hard to protect a runner who is trying to steal. Strikeouts, for me, will be the first sign that Auburn isn’t clicking on offense and that the Tigers are trying to force runs instead of manufacturing them.

A Shuffle in the Rotation

Maybe I’m pigheaded in this regard, but I think any good baseball team should have a clearly defined rotation that they stick with throughout the year. Yes, a guy may have a bad outing and the tendency would be to move him around or replace him immediately. However, I think that’s more counterproductive. People are creatures of habits. They thrive on routines. When you upset that routine then you upset the balance. A shuffle in the rotation means Auburn is going to start abandoning strategy and gameplan going in to the season. I use last year as an example. Keegan was a stellar starter, but when the bullpen started to falter, then Auburn decided to move him to closer. It disrupted anything and the Tigers were plugging dykes for the remainder of the season. Auburn will go into 2015 with guys in clearly defined roles. If there needs to be tinkering then it can be done early and not later. If Auburn’s rotation against Texas A&M to start the season is markedly different from their rotation against Florida at the end? Then Auburn has had a bad season. Something didn’t work. It may be injury. It may be fatigue. Whatever it is, it will show that Auburn didn’t have a solid gameplan going into 2015. I’m not saying a guy won’t (or shouldn’t) lose a spot if he struggles. What I’m saying is that there is time in the pre-SEC schedule to work out those kinks and set Auburn up for consistency in the season that actually matters: the conference slate. The inverse is true. If Justin Camp is being solid at closer, and then Auburn gets a wild-hair and wants to start him (and not in a tournament situation?). It’s not going to work.

Batting Grier 9th

This one is more specific. Anfernee Grier should be a leadoff guy or at the very least, a two hole hitter. I understand the strategy of slotting him 9th and letting him set Auburn up as the lineup turns over later in the game. However, it will rob Grier of a handful at-bats. I feel I’ve shown that Auburn needs to start hot and keeping one of the biggest runs threats buried at the bottom of the lineup means that Tigers are worried about not producing 6 runs…but producing any runs. I really feel that the small-ball strategy that Auburn is employing does better when you load up speed at the top of the lineup. Even batting second should work here because Grier can advance runners with his speed/bunting.

Rock LOBsters

This one is more immediate, but I think will also have longer reaching effects on Auburn. At the start of the season, pay attention to the number of men Left-On-Base by Auburn. (LOB). Auburn needs productive at-bats and needs to quit stranding runners. There’s no magic number to know how many LOBsters are too many in a game. I’d rather look at how many Auburn begins to average from week to week. If that number trends upward? Auburn is struggling. If that number trends downward? Auburn is improving.

ALMOST HERE


I get a little wistful when it comes to Auburn baseball. When I’m there, at the deck or in the stands, and watching a game? It’s home. Another baseball season is here and with it comes optimism and hope. I suppose that’s why I love baseball so much. Every game is winnable. Every game presents a chance. No matter the opponent, Auburn can beat anyone. All it takes are the right bounces, the right combination, and the right mindset. Auburn baseball is still in flux. Last season’s disappointment will probably still sting a little bit. However, it’s a new season. New faces. New challenges. One thing that won’t change is that the boys will still be in the Orange and Blue and I will still support them every chance I can. War Eagle.