If there's one thing that can be said about Alabama head coach Mitch Gaspard, it's that he's consistent. Since coming to Tuscaloosa before the 2010 season, all but one of Gaspard's five teams have finished between one game above .500 and two games below .500 in SEC play. (The exception is the 2012 team, which went 9-21 in conference games.)
Not that there haven't been a few close calls with potential greatness. The last two years, the team has looked tantalizingly close to breaking through, before reality set in. Gaspard's team won its first three SEC series in 2013, then lost five of its last seven. Last year, the Tide jumped out to a 12-5 record in the SEC, then went 3-9 the rest of the way to finish at 15-14. Call it the Mitch Gaspard Median, college baseball's answer to Chan Gailey Equilibrium.
Of course, Alabama fans take nothing quite so seriously as they take their football. If Gaspard had racked up his current record in Baton Rouge, Columbia or Gainesville, for instance, he would probably already be gone. At some point, though, Alabama baseball fans might start to expect those fast starts to end with something more than a decent conference record and a berth in an NCAA regional -- and it's not at all clear that Gaspard is the man to get them there.
Winning the West
One of Gaspard's problems has come in his own division. He's 37-37 against the SEC West in regular season conference games over the last five years -- Auburn and Alabama play an extra "non-conference" game each year -- and that record is skewed at least a bit by beating up on Auburn and, the last couple of years, Texas A&M. (And the record against Auburn drops to 11-9 when those non-conference games are added in.) Gaspard does have a winning record against Ole Miss -- by one game -- but is downright dreadful against Arkansas and LSU.
|Mitch Gaspard vs. SEC West opponents at Alabama
Particularly in the post-expansion era, when there are six intradivision series and only four interdivision series, you have to win games in your division to do well. (I know, #analysis.) This year, Alabama travels to Florida and Missouri and gets Georgia and Vanderbilt at home out of the East. If the Tide doesn't do better than .500 in the division, it's hard to see them doing much better than .500 in the SEC overall.
Perhaps Alabama's best two starting pitchers from last year's team -- Spencer Turnbull and Justin Kamplain -- are gone. Turnbull didn't always have the best control -- he walked 47 batters, hit 13 more and had nine wild pitches in 93.1 innings last year -- but he struck out 61 and held opponents to a .192 average. (But ended the season with a 5-7 record. Judging starting pitchers by their won-loss record is a really bad way to evaluate them, part 537.) Kamplain had slightly better control, walking 31 and hitting 12 batters over 90.0 innings while striking out 69, but allowed batters to do a little bit better at the plate, with a .205 average.
And Jon Keller, the third member of Alabama's starting rotation, won't play in 2015 after undergoing surgery. So the Tide will have to build a starting rotation from scratch. JUCO pitcher Will Carter could help, and Nick Eicholtz started nine games last year, but Alabama will still have to find some starts somewhere -- either by throwing freshmen into the fire early or asking some of its bullpen guys to move into the rotation. A similar experiment with Ray Castillo last year did not go well.
That said, 10 of the 12 non-starters from 2014 are set to return this season. That includes Thomas Burrows, who was named a first team All-American after saving 11 games. (Of course, Castillo did something similar in 2013 and then got knocked around at times last year.) Overall, the staff remains a work in progress, even if there are some pieces to work with.
Where Will the Offense Come From?
The attrition is not just an issue on the mound, either. Alabama's top three regular hitters in terms of OPS in 2014 -- Austen Smith, Ben Moore and Wade Wass -- are gone. The three also take 20 of Alabama's 42 home runs last year and 12 of the Tide's 21 long balls during the SEC schedule.
The only other player with a significant number of at-bats and an OPS of more than .750 in 2014 was Mikey White, who's already getting some preseason recognition. And White's numbers fell off in SEC play (he had an OPS of .720 in conference games), something that he will have to avoid this season if he hopes to have an impact.
But here's where an oddity of the 2015 season might play in the Crimson Tide's favor. Because of work going on at Sewell-Thomas Stadium, Alabama will actually play the lion's share of its home schedule at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, otherwise known as "the field where offense goes to die." That's a slight exaggeration, and the fences will actually be moved in a touch for Alabama, but anything that minimizes the importance of the home run could help the Tide.
This looks like a tough year for Alabama. Every team loses a good chunk of its roster every year in college baseball, perhaps even more so than college football, but the losses for the Tide are rough across the board. The best news is that the draw from the SEC East could have been worse. There is a homestand against a still potentially dangerous Louisiana-Lafayette team, but nothing else on the non-conference schedule looks overly threatening. Still, it's hard to see Alabama getting off to another fast start in the SEC, with its first four conference series being at Mississippi State, vs. Texas A&M, at Florida and vs. LSU. Another year around .500 in the SEC and a berth in the NCAA regionals would probably represent a pretty good season for the Tide in 2015, even if it feels a bit too familiar.