Three Strikes: Stanford Flips the Script, Southland Chaos, Filby Walks
No team has truly flipped the script from where they were in 2020 to where they are in 2021 as decisively as Stanford.
A 5-11 team last season, the Cardinal go into an important home series with UCLA this weekend sitting at 17-5 and 4-2 in the early going in Pac-12 play.
It’s a turnaround that coach David Esquer saw coming on two fronts. First, he knew there was a chance that last season was going to be rough.
When Esquer and his staff took over the program after the 2017 season, they took a step back from recruiting in that cycle at the expense of that class of players but for the long-term benefit of Stanford baseball. The 2020 season was the negative implications of that decision arriving at Stanford’s doorstep.
“We took our time,” Esquer said. “We backed away from the recruiting and said ‘hey, we’re going to wait back a year and we’re going to get the players that we need to have in order to continue the Stanford baseball tradition.' We knew last year was going to be a challenge year. We were going to be painfully young and inexperienced and we knew we were going to have to weather the storm with some freshmen and last year we started as many as seven freshmen on a given weekend.”
But on the flip side of that, he and his staff also believed in the players they were recruiting and knew the page would turn. And now, 2021 looks like the season when the positive implications of the decision made back in 2017 will start to come around.
Stanford has also flipped the script in the way in which it’s winning games. Last season, the games it did win were coming thanks in large part to the pitching staff. Meanwhile, the offense struggled to a .207 team batting average.
This year, however, the offense has been excellent. It’s hitting .288/.384/.476 as a group, marked by sharp improvement from key individual players year over year.
One such player is hyper-athletic second-year freshman outfielder Brock Jones, who is hitting .329/.481/.772 with a team-leading 10 home runs one year after hitting .228/.323/.316. Last season, Jones was splitting his time on the baseball diamond with time on the football field as a defensive back, which added a degree of difficulty to being a full-time player as a freshman at Stanford.
Jones has since decided to focus solely on baseball, and while that undoubtedly has lightened his load mentally and physically, a breakout performance was very likely to come for him either way. In fact, that’s precisely why Esquer and his staff played him every day last season despite his struggles. They knew what was on the horizon once they could get Jones past the adjustment period to Division I baseball.
“Just knowing what the payoff was going to be down the line, as a freshman who just came out after football, I said ‘Brock, you’re going to play every game and unless you need a mental day off, you’re never coming out of the lineup, regardless of what the results are,’ ” Esquer said. “Because we knew inside of him was a really special player.”
Another key piece of the puzzle is fourth-year junior utilityman Tim Tawa, who is hitting .363/.452/.613 and is on pace to break a whole host of personal-best marks on the stat sheet. His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage far and away eclipse any of his full-season numbers to this point of his career. His four home runs are halfway to his career high of eight in 2019 and his eight stolen bases are already more than the seven he swiped as a freshman in 2018.
But the single most important stat for Tawa’s improvement is his strikeout-to-walk ratio. He came into the season with career totals of 127 strikeouts compared to just 26 walks. This season, he’s struck out 13 times and walked 10, which is five short of his career high for free passes in a season.
“That’s the difference,” Esquer said. “That’s what the maturity has brought him is the confidence to hit deep in the count and be successful. That’s 100% what his maturation has (done). He’s worked really hard at it. It’s not a surprise (with) as diligent and as hard a worker as he is. He just had to stay at it.”
The lineup has been better than the pitching staff (which has a 4.51 ERA) over the first half of the season, but that’s not necessarily a fair comparison, because that unit really hasn’t been healthy.
Lefthander Jacob Palisch, the team’s best prospect coming into the season, and righthander Alex Williams, the 2020 team’s most effective starting pitcher, have both missed significant time this season, and righthander Cody Jensen, a steady reliever on the 2019 super regional team, has yet to pitch.
But that only serves as a reason for optimism about this group overall as the season goes on. Palisch and Williams have both returned in the last couple of weeks and the expectation is that Jensen will be back as well.
“If they can shorten our weekend needs by four, six (or) nine innings, that’s nine innings of pitching we haven’t had in the first 21 games,” Esquer said. “So that’s going to be a welcome addition to our team this year.”
As it is, Stanford has gotten good work from the likes of fourth-year junior righthander Brendan Beck (4-0, 3.63) and second-year freshman lefthander Quinn Mathews (3-0, 3.19) in the rotation, and fifth-year senior righthander Zach Grech (1.40, 25.2 IP, 8 SV) and freshman righthander Brandt Pancer (2.59, 24.1 IP) in the bullpen. If the likes of Palisch, Williams and Jensen end up being anywhere near as effective as they have been in the past, suddenly Stanford is in a really good place on the mound as well.
The Pac-12 looks tough this season, and perhaps as deep as it’s been in years, so the biggest tests await the Cardinal, starting with that UCLA series this weekend. But this team is a very long way removed from the one that struggled so mightily in 2020.
“I think a lot of people are surprised (with a hot start) based on how we started last year, (but) I’m not surprised one bit,” Esquer said. “As a matter of fact, I would have been really disappointed if we weren’t back to form this year.”
Notoriously Jumbled Southland at it Again
Rare is the season when the Southland Conference standings feature multiple well-defined tiers of more than a couple of teams, and that’s pretty unique for a conference as big as the SLC, which currently has 13 baseball members.
In most cases in leagues that big, you would expect to see some great teams at the top, a handful more that are clearly good but not great, some hovering around .500, perhaps a few that are below-average but competitive and then some teams at the bottom that just simply aren’t very good.
In the Southland, things are typically much more compact than that. At most, you get three tiers—the cream of the crop, one giant middle tier and then a couple of teams clearly a cut below the rest.
2021 NCAA Baseball Tournament Projected Field Of 64 (4/21/21)
Updating our projected NCAA Tournament field with Selection Monday under six weeks away.
Take 2019, for example. Sam Houston State won the regular-season title with a 20-10 record. Southeastern Louisiana and Central Arkansas were right behind the Bearkats with 19-11 marks. But the next eight teams in the standings were all between 18-12 and 13-17, with just Houston Baptist (10-20) and Lamar (9-21) lagging behind.
The 2018 season was similar. SHSU at 24-6 and Southeastern Louisiana at 21-9 were at the top, with Stephen F. Austin (9-21) and Abilene Christian (5-25) at the bottom. The nine teams in the middle were between 18-12 and 13-17.
This season, the SLC is playing a 40-game conference schedule that began four weekends ago for most teams, so we already have a good sample of games. Here’s how things stand coming out of last weekend.
|Sam Houston State||9-7|
|Stephen F. Austin||9-7|
|Texas A&M-Corpus Christi||2-9|
Because teams have played a different number of games depending on how the schedule shook out in a league with an odd number of teams, it’s not the cleanest standings table to look at, but it once again shows how compact things are likely to be.
Look at the loss column for evidence. Of the 13 teams, nine of them have between five and eight losses, and the team that has four, Nicholls State, is one of the teams that has played three series instead of four, suggesting that it, too, would have five to eight losses had it played 16 conference games instead of 12.
We’ve arrived in this place in the SLC once again this season for a number of reasons. Chiefly, McNeese State hasn’t played like the conference favorite we saw it being at the start of the year and Sam Houston State has taken a step back from being the best team in the league, as it so often has been in recent years.
Maybe Southeastern Louisiana ends up being the clear frontrunner and wins 80% of its conference games, as SHSU did in 2018, but it seems more likely that it ends up in a group with one or two other teams vying to capture the regular-season title by winning two-thirds of its games or so.
What’s a virtual lock, though, is that the more competitive race in this league is the race for the eight conference tournament spots. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider recent history.
In 2019, A&M-Corpus Christi was in the eight spot at 14-16, with three teams just one game behind it at 13-17. In 2018, there was a three-way tie for seven through nine at 14-16 between A&M-Corpus Christi, New Orleans and Nicholls State.
In short, the Southland Conference season so far has been very on-brand for the conference, and nothing, not even a 40-game schedule, seems to be able to keep this from just being an extremely compact league when it’s all said and done.
The Many Walks of Jack Filby
UCLA utilityman Jack Filby is hitting .167 on the season in a part-time role, and yet, he’s one of the Bruins’ most effective offense players on a rate basis. Why? He’s walked 21 times in his 59 plate appearances, good for a .483 on-base percentage.
That’s the most walks on the team despite appearing in just 18 of the team’s 24 games and starting just 11 of them. Coming out of last weekend, it also put him in a tie for 30th in the country. Through Sunday’s games, only North Carolina Central’s Nick Fajardo had walked more times (22) and played in as few games (he’s also played 18), but he has started all 18 contests and therefore has more plate appearances than Filby.
A walk rate as high as Filby’s is fascinating and can’t just be a simple matter of pitchers losing command when he comes to the plate, especially when you consider that he’s never going to be the most feared hitter in the UCLA order.
So, after a video review of all 21 of Filby’s walks, here’s a breakdown of the context and results that led to each free pass.
|Walk No.||Date||No. of Pitches||Context|
|1||2/19/2021||6||San Francisco 3 UCLA 1, bottom 5, bases empty, no outs|
|2||2/19/2021||5||San Francisco 4 UCLA 2, bottom 8, runner on 1st, two outs|
|3||2/20/2021||5||UCLA 8 San Francisco 1, bottom 8, runners on 1st and 2nd, two outs|
|4||2/21/2021||5||UCLA 1 San Francisco 1, bottom 2, runner on 1st, no outs|
|5||2/26/2021||6||UCLA 1 UC Irvine 1, bottom 3, bases empty, one out|
|6||2/26/2021||4||UCLA 3 UC Irvine 3, bottom 9, bases loaded, one out|
|7||2/27/2021||4||UCLA 0 UC Irvine 0, top 1, bases empty, one out|
|8||2/27/2021||6||UC Irvine 7 UCLA 1, top 5, runner on 2nd, one out|
|9||2/27/2021||4||UC Irvine 7 UCLA 2, top 7, bases empty, one out|
|10||2/28/2021||Intentional||UCLA 2 UC Irvine 0, bottom 7, runner on 2nd, two outs|
|11||3/2/2021||7||UCLA 2 CSUF 0, bottom 2, runners on 2nd and 3rd, two outs|
|12||3/2/2021||5||UCLA 8 CSUF 0, bottom 3, runner on 3rd, two outs|
|13||3/5/2021||5||Pepperdine 3 UCLA 2, bottom 3, bases empty, one out|
|14||3/5/2021||5||UCLA 15 Pepperdine 8, bottom 8, bases loaded, two outs|
|15||3/6/2021||6||UCLA 0 CSUF 0, bottom 3, bases empty, no outs|
|16||3/7/2021||5||UCLA 5 USC 0, bottom 8, bases empty, one out|
|17||3/9/2021||5||UCLA 1 CSUF 0, top 3, bases empty, two outs|
|18||3/9/2021||5||UCLA 2 CSUF 0, top 4, bases loaded, one out|
|19||3/19/2021||4||UCLA 2 Arizona 2, bottom 9, bases loaded, one out|
|20||3/28/2021||4||UCLA 10 USC 1, top 6, runners on 1st and 2nd, two outs|
|21||4/1/2021||5||Washington 7 UCLA 5, bottom 8, bases loaded, two outs|
A few things stand out right away. First off, Filby has drawn five bases-loaded walks, including two that resulted in walk-off wins for UCLA. Digging deeper, you’ll also see that his last two walks were with the bases loaded, and in each of those cases, he was pinch hitting. It suggests that UCLA is weaponizing his plate discipline late in games, and he’s a good fit for that. Not only is he a good bet to work a bases-loaded walk, but he’s also all but guaranteed to either take a free pass or put the ball in play, as he's struck out just six times this season.
It’s also a bit surprising that there weren't any true marathon plate appearances. The most pitches he’s seen in any one plate appearance leading to a walk is seven and that happened just once. Everything else was between four and six pitches.
After watching the plate appearances and looking at this data, there are a couple of things made clear. Filby is not the type of hitter who is up there fouling off pitches left and right, but at the same time, it’s not as if he’s drawing four- and five-pitch walks because pitchers suddenly lose command the minute he steps up to the plate or because he’s being pitched around for some reason.
Perhaps helped by being a fourth-year player, Filby looks the part of a confident hitter at the plate who is not afraid to have to hit from behind in the count. As a result, he takes a lot of borderline pitches that less confident hitters might feel the need to swing at simply because they might be strikes. And that mindset has made him one of the quietest extremely effective offensive players in the country.