In the post-Aaron Judge era, a long, winding road awaits the Fresno State baseball team.
After finishing 23-33 (14-16 in the Mountain West) in 2013, the Bulldogs are looking to bounce back. In fact, Fresno State has not had a winning intraconference season since 2010.
But let’s focus on what happened last year: first, its problem was pitching. The ‘Dogs were third in the conference in total ERA (4.94), with 5.08 during the regular season.
That means the Bulldogs allowed an average of five runs in every regular-season game. In losses, their average deficit was 4.5. Add the fact that 13 of their 31 losses were by two runs or fewer, and you have an idea of just how much pitching matters in games.
Here’s how much: let’s say Fresno State allowed an average of one fewer run each game (an ERA of 4.08). That would take 50 away from its total earned-run count. If we keep everything else proportional, Fresno State’s average deficit would be 3.6. That means they would have lost six fewer games last season.
Considering the fact that the Bulldogs were 12-14 in conference regular-season play, we can assume that the six extra wins would have been in those games. With a record of 16-10, Fresno State would have finished in second place and possibly could have been runners-up in the Mountain West baseball tournament.
Of course, that’s just manipulating with numbers.
Fresno State coach Mike Batesole also realized that pitching was a problem for his team last year. For 2014, his goal is to change that.
“What we do have, finally, is pitching,” Batesole said. “I think we’re going to pitch really well. It’s going to be nice to go to the park not thinking that you have to get to eight or nine [runs] to win that day.
“That’s going to take a lot of pressure off our offense, and I bet you it’ll respond well to it. What carries us as far as we can go determines on what we do on the mound.”
That’s good news. Here comes the bad news:
Pitching up, offense down?
Now, let’s go back to Judge. The New York Yankees drafted the 6-foot-7-inch junior outfielder in the first round last year. He definitely had a strong resume: 12 home runs, 36 RBIs and a .369 batting average – all in the 2013 season.
But here’s the kicker: he led the team in almost every offensive statistic. He added 12 stolen bases, 76 hits and 45 runs scored. That means he alone was responsible for 30 percent of Fresno State’s total runs last year.
Ideally, when a player of that magnitude leaves, he should be replaced. Whether it is a standout player, or a couple of clutch hitters, there needs to be a certain level of offensive production to complement the new pitching.
But ”we don’t have any of that returning,” Batesole said. “Nobody who put up really big numbers returns offensively.”
So, how will Fresno State have its bounce-back season?
Batesole’s response to that is one word: experience. He mentions that although 17 new Bulldogs were signed during the offseason, he is relying on his core of juniors and sophomores to lead the team in 2014.
“These guys will be another year older and another year wiser,” he said. “We’ve played so many young guys the past few years. Finally, they’re going to be the older guys.
“At the top level of Division-I baseball, there are not a lot of seniors. In fact, we only have one on our team this year. The championship teams are always the older teams.”
Although there is no large power-hitter such as Judge on the squad this year, Batesole says that Fresno State has that balance of improved pitching and experienced hitting to give it a couple of more games in the win column.
“We haven’t had an answer-back year in eight years,” Batesole said. “Maybe some of these guys have forgotten how to do that. We all have a feeling inside that we have to change that and get back to playing Bulldog baseball.”
And the Bulldogs will be tested on that. Their first opponent will be UC Irvine. Since 2000, Fresno State is 3-5 against the Anteaters and has not beat them since April 15, 2003.
“We want to get back to the postseason,” Batesole said. “[The Anteaters] are going to be in that same position. They didn’t get to go last year, and they had the Big West Pitcher of the Year and Big West Player of the Year.
“They are going to feel the same way about [this season] as we are.”