Conference coaches picked Stanford to win the Pac-12 title before the season began, so a lack of talent was not the culprit in the Cardinal's fall. In fact, a quick glance at the stat sheet confirms that a plethora of players all delivered solid individual seasons, but that was not enough.
Amongst the individual successes, Mark Appel's spectacular season obviously stands out. (The table below illustrates the steady progress he posted throughout his college career). Catcher Brant Whiting (.344/.422/.399), Justin Ringo (.323/.488/.400), Brian Ragira (.320, 8 HR, 42 RBI), Austin Wilson (.288/.475/.387), and Danny Diekroeger (.299, 67 hits) all delivered statistically legitimate seasons. Lonnie Kauppila (.271), Wayne Taylor (.270), Austin Slater (.269), and Alex Blandino (.268, 7 HR) suffered through cold spells, but all finished the year with acceptable stat lines, too.
Mark Appel: Four Years of Steady Improvement
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Coupled with the team's 3.38 ERA, Stanford's individual offensive components were sufficient to deliver a successful season. But the Cardinal's connective tissue was not nearly as strong as its singular pieces, and that's why this program will miss the NCAA Tournament for the third time in seven years after dancing in 24 of 26 seasons. Defense and situational hitting simply were not up to par, and that must change moving forward, especially since the Cardinal plays over half of its schedule in spacious Sunken Diamond.
Necessary Improvement: Defense
When viewed by itself, Stanford's aforementioned 3.38 ERA is a winning mark. The problem is that the number accounts for only 78 percent of the runs that the Cardinal surrendered in 2013. A remarkable 51 of the 232 runs (22 percent) opponents scored against the Farm Boys this season were unearned. That figure could have been worse too, had other sloppy defensive plays been ruled as errors. Compare Stanford's performance to UCLA, the Pac-12's best defensive team. The Bruins allowed only 24 unearned runs on the year, a figure which comprised only 13 percent of their total allowance. Now, the Baby Blue will host an NCAA Regional despite a league-worst .249 team batting average.
To be fair, injuries and early season offensive struggles caused Mark Marquess to optimize his lineup for run production, sparking moves which hampered defensive efficiency. Stanford played much of the season with a catcher (Wayne Taylor) in left field and an infielder (Austin Slater) in right field. Both gradually acclimated as the season progressed, but the Cardinal must use the offseason sharpen their defensive swords. Otherwise, more excellent pitching performances will be wasted. Nearly one third of the runs Appel surrendered in 2013 were, in fact, unearned.
Another summer of development for third baseman Alex Blandino (.901 fielding percentage) will be of paramount importance to this club at the hot corner. With the Wilson-Ragira power tandem likely gone from the middle of the lineup, Stanford's 2014 success will hinge on cleaner play in the field, particularly from one of the players talented enough offensively to give the ballclub much-needed pop at the plate.
The pitching staff isn't off the hook in regard to clean play, either: The Cardinal's 66 wild pitches led the Pac-12 by a wide margin. The bottom line is that this team can't just rely on overpowering the opposition anymore. Stanford must execute with precision in the field, especially in this weaker BBCOR bat era.
Necessary Improvement: Situational Hitting
A load of Stanford's offensive firepower departed to the professional ranks after the 2012 season, and more is expected to leave now. The 2013 squad's three leaders in slugging percentage, Ringo, Ragira, and Wilson will all be missed in the 2014 lineup. Manufacturing runs will be more important than ever, and that's a facet of the game that Stanford must improve after its lackluster 2013 performance.
Take this as a prime example: Despite collecting 22 fewer extra base hits than Stanford, Oregon State scored 28 more runs than the Cardinal, and better situational hitting was the primary reason for the Beavers' greater success. Stanford, a team which doesn't like to bunt, only laid down a conference-low 22 successful sacrifices this season. Given the relatively low run production in the context of the team's solid .406 slugging percentage, common sense dictates that Stanford's situational glue must become stronger, especially since many of the big bats that kept the lineup afloat will no longer be around in 2014.
It won't be necessary to go to the Quack Attack's extreme: George Horton's Oregon squad laid down 92 successful sacrifice bunts on the regular season. But the Cardinal will have to replicate some of what they started doing during their late-season six-game winning streak (Oregon State's formula was sound this season, laying down 49 sacrifices.) Good bunts, successful hit-and-runs, a pair of double steals, and well-placed hustle plays frequently earned the team crucial extra increments of 90 feet, particularly in the club's sweep at Berkeley. To become a postseason team again, Stanford must consistently deliver that type of effective situational offense moving forward.
There's plenty of legitimate worry about what will happen to the Cardinal now that Appel's career is finished, but 2013 did present at least a few other bright spots on the mound. Freshman Logan James, who struggled to harness his nasty left-handed stuff early in the season, closed the year out with 9.1 innings of one-run ball. Garrett Hughes posted an excellent 2013 campaign (2.08 ERA) and should be a candidate for a weekend starting spot should he return in 2014. Daniel Starwalt, Jordan Kutzer, and Marcus Brakeman all enjoyed bright spots, and their development will be essential if Stanford is to remain competitive on the mound in the post-Appel era.
Strong right-hander Sam Lindquist also provides legitimate hope moving forward: the junior's .195 opposing batting average was even better than Appel's, and his versatility (he started, closed, and provided middle relief) was invaluable to the Cardinal's staff. Lindquist's 2013 emergence was perhaps the most pleasant development for Stanford on the mound this year, and he will likely be heavily relied upon in 2014.
The Cardinal received important news from reliever Sahil Bloom, who announced that he will be returning for his fifth year shortly after the conclusion of the year. Bloom missed almost all of the 2013 season because of complications stemming from a cut on his throwing finger, but he'll be back to finish his Master's in Public Policy and fortify the Farm Boys' pitching staff with an accurate sinker who can eat up valuable innings.
A Critical Offseason
Again, development will be crucial to Stanford's future success. Since there's a strong possibility that 2014 will see no returning superstars, this offseason takes on critical importance. (The offseason will begin with the June MLB Draft, in which Appel, Wilson, Ragira, and A.J. Vanegas are considered top-100 prospects.)
On top of developing the "small skills," The team must also take the offseason to heal. Injuries to Bloom, Vanegas, freshman Freddy Avis, and Wilson undoubtedly hurt the program in 2013. But they only contributed to the existing struggles of Stanford's connective tissue. Pitching, defense, and situational hitting are three essential pillars for any championship baseball team in this new BBCOR era. Despite their excellent individual talent, the Farm Boys were too inconsistent in those parts of the game this season. Now, it's time for Stanford baseball to react and adapt.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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