After a series as disappointing as that one against LSU, there is going to be some groaning surrounding a team that had previously been dominant. That being the case, we’re going to address what is real and what is not, and we’re only doing two of each (as opposed to three of one and two of the other) just to be fair.
Two Places to Be Disappointed
Seven errors in a weekend just ain’t good. The team was already in the lower half of the SEC in fielding percentage (.970) going into that Saturday game in which it added three more errors; Vanderbilt had 15 errors all season entering Saturday, and MSU almost had half of that in three games.
For a team with aspirations as high as this one’s, the defensive performance we saw this weekend — if sustained for any significant period of time — can prevent them from reaching those goals, and they know that. It’s likely to be a big emphasis for them going forward, but I’m stopping short of a full-on crisis, for reasons we’ll get into later in this post.
That awesome opening weekend was quite the moment, but it’s a distant memory at this point. Since then he’s hit .211 and his doubles per at-bat pace in that span is slightly below what it was for his entire freshman season. It’s not like he’s disappeared entirely — he did have two hits with two RBI in the Southern Miss rubber match, plus 2-for-5 in both of the wins at Florida — but the large sample size is clearly not kind.
Here’s where I use the same refrain from Rowdey Jordan’s slump to start the year. Tanner Allen is not suddenly a bad hitter, he just has something to figure out, and I think he will. (On the optimistic side, it’s worth pointing out his strikeouts are way, way down. He struck out in 22.5 percent of his at-bats last year; this year, that number is 13.6 percent. Contact will eventually lead to hits for Allen.)
Two Places To Relax
One bad weekend does not make a bullpen bad. Yes, the entire pitching staff allowing 13 walks over the weekend and seeing the ERA climb nearly half a run (2.92 to 3.34) is not desirable, but even after that, the top four relievers in innings pitched (Jared Liebelt, Brandon Smith, Cole Gordon and Trysten Barlow, in that order) still have a combined ERA of 3.36 and a WHIP of 1.076. The numbers may not be as dominant as they once were, but they’re not objectively bad, either.
If you take this weekend appearance by appearance, there were actually some good moments for the bullpen. Each of the Thursday relievers got MSU out of jams: Barlow inherited runners on first and second with no outs and retired three straight; Liebelt inherited the bases loaded with one out and ended the inning without allowing a run; Gordon came in after LSU scored three runs and recorded the final out of the inning to stop the bleeding.
All of them were stretched beyond the initial heroics to results not as strong, but that’s kind of a no-win situation for a coach. If you ride the hot hand but they give up hits, you’re criticized for not going to someone new to start a fresh inning; if you give someone else the clean inning and they struggle, you’re criticized for taking a hot hand off the mound. Plus, all three of those guys have shown the ability to go more than three outs strong this season, so I still find the ideology to be strong.
Now, I won’t pump sunshine forever. The next two opponents, Tennessee and Alabama, have team batting averages slightly worse than LSU’s — solely because LSU skyrocketed over the weekend. If runs continue pouring in against those two teams, then I’ll join in on the conversation of a subpar bullpen and what to do about it. But folks, the time for that conversation is not now.
Massive Defensive Overhaul
I’ve seen a lot of fans propose radical defensive shifts, personnel changes and both as ways to fix what the defense was this weekend, and I don’t think it’s quite time for that. Let’s go through some reasons why.
First, this kind of weekend does happen to teams sometimes. Last year’s Bulldogs committed eight errors in being swept by Vanderbilt, committed six in losing the series to Texas A&M and even committed six in the first three games of the Tallahassee Regional — you know, the regional they won on the way to Omaha.
Other teams of similar excellence also had stretches like this. Texas committed four errors in a two-game set with Arkansas, Washington committed eight in a four-game stint with Illinois State and Arkansas committed seven in the three-game Tony Gwynn Classic; all three of those teams made it to Omaha. Most teams have stretches like this, so I think it’s important to make sure this is more than just that bad stretch before they smash the reset button on the entire lineup.
The change I often see from fans on Twitter is getting Jordan Westburg out of shortstop in favor of Gunner Halter. Yeah, Westburg did not have a good weekend defensively, by his own admission, but hold your horses here folks. Halter said in the fall defense was not his strong suit, and frankly his defense at second base has not been as good as Hunter Stovall’s was. Yes, that’s probably an unfair standard to hold someone to, but if you’re going to unseat a shortstop for someone, wouldn’t you want them to exhibit that level of defense at their current position?
Furthermore, not all of this is simply misplaying balls. Two plays stick out in my mind: the two run-ins Rowdey Jordan was involved in, one collision with Jake Mangum and the one where his glove and Westburg’s hit each other, causing the ball to come out. That’s not a skill or misalignment thing, that’s a communication thing, and that’s exactly what Westburg said after the game. That can be fixed without going through all the potential fallout of a reboot.
If this kind of performance continues, then yes, there will be some moves that need to be made. Maybe my take of Tanner Allen providing more defensive value somewhere other than first base can finally be tested, among others. But I don’t think this weekend merits that yet. This needs to become more than a one weekend problem before it’s treated as a more than one weekend problem.