"All this happened, more or less."
"Call me Ishmael."
All great stories start with a single line. A line determined to grab your attention, to intrigue you, to keep you hooked.
The 2016 Auburn Baseball story begins like this:
"The Butch Thompson Era Begins."
And everything that had lead up to that line can be summed up by L.P. Hartley’s opener from "The Go-Between":
"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."
This is Auburn Baseball in 2016. It is, hopefully, the start of a great new chapter in Auburn Baseball. A sport I continue to love more and more each day. It doesn’t matter how we got to this point. It doesn’t matter about past coaches, mistimed hires and fires, and public circuses. This is where we are now. The future of Auburn Baseball is Butch Thompson and it is time to embrace that future.
On paper, here is what Auburn baseball is, according to most experts and prognosticators:
Auburn is a 2015 Regional Team that returns around 85% of their roster and is still picked to finish dead last in the SEC West.
However, when you look at it, what actually changed from 2015 to 2016?
If anything Auburn significantly upgraded in the Head Coaching department.
The loss of Keegan Thompson ( injury) is assuredly a big knock; but thankfully Auburn has a core group of returners (Lipscomb, Camp, Clements, etc) and a very impressive set of newcomers (Mize, Braymer, Klobosits, etc) to not only balance out the losses of Thompson, Rocky McCord, Dalton Rentz and others; but to possibly improve the unit.
Position-wise, it’s pretty much the same thing: A solid core group returning with a sprinkling of newcomers.
Discounting Auburn baseball this year, despite all that it achieved last year and what it (perceivably) lost, seems a bit of a disservice to me.
But again, the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
SETTLING THE DUST
Here is the good and bad of Butch Thompson’s hiring.
The good is that Thompson is our Head Coach and in the short-time he’s been here, he’s been selling the program more and more. He’s been leaning on his role (and strengths) as a teacher to both drum up and re-affirm interest in the program.
He’s been more involved in the student and fan support: re-establishing Section 111 as the Student Section, holding an open house for students, being the celebrity letter at basketball games, etc.
He’s spoken at Coaches’ Clinics, local First-Pitch Dinners, Diamond Club Events, statewide sports radio, and to pretty much anyone who would listen. He’s been humble, thankful, and has yet to stray from his biggest selling points as being a teacher and leader.
Honestly, even before the Season has begun, his biggest task and biggest win has been to slowly but surely shine and improve the public image of Auburn baseball that had become a bit scuffed and faded.
The bad part? When it happened.
Thompson hasn’t had the luxury to fully recruit. He hasn’t been able to properly evaluate. He didn’t get a full fall to install any systems he wanted to install.
Because of essentially having his offseason cut in half, there is still a ton of dust that hasn’t settled. There will still be a good deal of learning, experimenting, and growing into positions and roles.
Because of that dust-settling and that learning, Auburn will have to take advantage of the Pre-SEC schedule as a de-facto learning period. I guess the best way to learn is through experience and Auburn will probably use those early games to experiment and tweak with little things such as position changes, pitching roles, and lineups.
You could see a guy like Daniel Robert play First Base one game and then Right Field the next.
You may see a starter like Cole Lipscomb pitch two innings and then it gets switched to Johnny Wholestaff the rest of the game.
It could legitimately mean that the opening lineup against Sacramento State this weekend could look markedly different from the Texas A&M lineup at the start of SEC Play.
It’s also that dust settling that will lead Thompson (and he’s mentioned as much in interviews) to skew a little older when it comes to rotation and lineup at the very beginning.
The main goal of the "Preseason" besides the obvious (winning games) will be to establish an identity. An identity for not only this season but a foundation for seasons to come under Thompson.
ESTABLISHING AN IDENTITY
Auburn hired one of the best pitching coaches in College Baseball in Butch Thompson so it would stand to reason that pitching would be a strength and that pitching would be the core of his identity.
The Thompson method may be a bit of a culture shock for some baseball fans; especially casual baseball fans. Thompson is a Coach who uses data, metrics, and situations to better determine his course of actions during a game.
There are no "rules" when Thompson coaches and molds, and in a game of "unwritten rules" like baseball, it can take some getting used to.
Butch Thompson has no problem front loading a game with "relievers" pitching an inning a piece and leaving his "starter" in the back end of the game to finish everything up with a multi inning outing. Our normal baseball brains view this as backwards. Starters start. Relievers relieve. For Thompson, those definitions are no existent.
The focus for Thompson is using the best tool at the best time. Collegiate Baseball Newspaper explained it pretty well here:
No philosophy is more progressive than what renowned Mississippi State pitching coach Butch Thompson does with Bulldog pitchers.
He utilizes two starting pitchers each game (one to start the game and another a few innings later) which is followed by a setup man and closer. If needed, he will insert another pitcher or two in games if he needs ground balls or strikeouts. He has specialists for every occasion in a game.
Under his system, Mississippi State averages 4-5 pitchers a game with unbelievable success and less stress on pitchers’ arms since they don’t overextend themselves in games. The Bulldogs finished second in the nation last year.
It’s really a fascinating approach. For Thompson at Mississippi State, there was no "Number One" or ACE pitcher. Everyone had a role. The most important pitch was the next pitch and the most important pitcher was the next pitcher. It’s a total team approach.
Basically, you will see a ton of pitchers for Auburn and you will see them often as those roles and identities are better established.
That will be the identity Auburn will try to establish. A team that can continually get outs; a team that can hold on to leads; a team that won’t need to rely on an offense that can sputter from time to time.
That was the biggest issue with Auburn baseball last year. The pitching was solid to decent most of the season but when the offense struggled, it took its toll on the pitching. The situations got tighter and the stakes got a bit higher and Auburn in 2015 would be more likely to crack. Auburn in 2015 also relied on the same group of pitchers. Day In. Day Out. No matter the situation. That reliance on only 4 or 5 guys showed as the season progressed. It wasn’t able to erase mistakes. It lead to injuries and dead arms and ineffectiveness. Thompson would be (or would hope to be) the opposite of that.
Butch Thompson doesn’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Instead, Thompson brings a knife, a bazooka, brass knuckles, a gun, a bayonet, and a whip.
Part 2: Schedule and On-Field Predictions will come tomorrow!