A new format begins this year for the Division II NCAA West Region baseball tournament and sadly the Chico State Wildcats will not be part of it.
Last week’s 17-4 loss to Cal Poly Pomona ended what was a tumultuous Wildcat campaign that ultimately ended without them reaching their goal. Ironically, Pomona, a team that looked dead in the water for nearly two months, used the California Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament to find their mojo and win the tournament clinching the automatic bid to the regional.
Before we pick apart the 2019 season it should be noted how far this incarnation of the Wildcats came. The Cats got off to a terrible start, losing their first six conference games and sitting in last place before an improbable week on the road led to the resurrection of the season. In early March Chico won three games in one day at Cal State East Bay and then a few days later bussed down to Cal State San Bernardino and swept a four-game series to move from 0-6 to 7-6 and put themselves back in contention.
The Wildcats would proceed to play great baseball until things went sideways in the second game of a series in San Diego where Chico coughed up a 4-0 lead in the 7th at a game in La Jolla and would lose three-out-of-four in the series. Chico would play .500 baseball for a month before having a stellar final week of the year winning 7-of-8 including a thrilling four-game sweep of Sonoma State and an exciting final day sweep on the road of Stanislaus State vaulting into 3rd place in the CCAA.
Despite the strong finish the Cats success did not translate into a deep post-season run. Heading into the off-season there are more questions than answers and the Wildcat brain-trust have several issues that will need to be addressed if they want to get back to the NCAA West Regional
Head Coach Dave Taylor and his staff will be breaking down the season and roster to look at what went right and what went wrong. One thing we know from Coach T is he will do a full exam of the season and is not afraid to address trouble spots. This can be the tough part of coaching because in some cases you are dealing with good guys who are fun to be around, but in the grand scheme, if you don’t think the group can win a regional, changes are made. They have to be made, and in the nearly 25 years of Chico State Baseball, those changes can be swift.
There are specific areas where Chico State baseball came up short. Let’s see where they can improve…..
If you saw Chico State fans (or radio guys) with hands clasped this season it was probably because we were praying for Wildcat pitchers to throw the ball over the plate. No Chico State team in the last 24 years walked more batters per game than the 2019 Chico State Wildcats . These freebies haunted Chico State all season long. Chico pitchers issued 230 walks over 49 innings translating into 4.69 walks/per game. The most walks Chico had issued per game in a season before the 2019 season was in 2016 when they issued 3.14 walks per game. The precipitous jump was too much to overcome and these free base runners cost Chico probably 8-12 games. When you throw in the 53 batters that Chico hurlers plunked the Wildcats put 5.77 runners on per game in the 2019 season and that doesn’t include hits. 32 of these 53 hit batsmen where from the bullpen. Usually when pitchers come in from out of the pen they enter with traffic on the base-paths. If they are hitting batters with runners on base, that usually is a predictor of bad news.
The stunning statistic is that Chico pitchers had the 3rd best batting average against out of the twelve teams in the CCAA. When Wildcat arms threw strikes, they were able to utilize their solid defense, get outs and win games. But, when they issued these freebies, winning became tougher, much tougher. Coach T saw the problem early, tried to fix it, but in the end it was a season long problem. The Wildcats will certainly be looking to address the lack of command and become better strike throwers next season.
The Wildcats play in a beautiful ballpark that is picturesque but most importantly fair. Pitchers certainly get a fair shake at The Nett. The yard symmetric dimensions with 330 down the lines, 375 to the alleys and 405 to dead center. During many home dates the wind is blowing in from left, giving pitchers a huge advantage making the ballpark feel bigger than it is. The Wildcats know that small ball will win you ballgames, win you regionals and can win you a Division II College World Series, but you do need to have a little pop.
Chico hit 13 home runs in 2019. This number was the fewest in the CCAA and ranked 26th out of 27 teams in the West Region. But, its not just home runs. The Wildcats only managed 94 extra-base hits in 49 games. This ranks 25th out of 27 teams in the region. The Wildcats slugging percentage of .368 ranked 19th out of 27 teams. It should be noted, you can win with power numbers like this, but a team’s margin for error is very slim when that one swing that can get you back in the game, isn’t there. There have been Chico teams who didn’t have a lot of power, but you can’t walk nearly 5 batters a game. The formula doesn’t work when you give away so many freebies.
Its a tough problem to solve because a team’s need for power can not outweigh their need to be a good defensive team. The Wildcats had defensive issues in 2018 and they addressed that with some great defensive additions in 2019. How much defense do you sacrifice to bring in sluggers ? Not an easy answer to this one.
It should also be noted that with Cal Baptist and Dixie State moving to Division I and with UC San Diego making the jump in 2021, the west has the feel of being wide open, but when you take a closer look there are some massive impediments to west region dominance. Azusa Pacific has hosted the last two D-II West Regionals and they are the top-seed this year. Azusa plays in a tiny, hitter friendly ball-park. Power is rewarded. High fly balls in the gaps that would be routine outs, 20 feet from the track at Nettleton Stadium are home runs at Azusa. To win regionals you may need to win at Azusa. The game is just different at that ballpark. So, balance is most definitely needed. You may not need home run hitters, but guys who hit doubles in gaps would certainly help.
I do not envy the Wildcat brain trust this year. 2019 feels like an outlier. We have never seen a year like this in recent Chico State baseball history. When breaking down the numbers its amazing Chico State won 28 games. The Wildcat players and coaching staff did an amazing job of rescuing a season that was set adrift in late February. They scratched, they clawed, they fought.
With that said, Dave Taylor said it best, “we don’t play for conference tournaments. We play for regional championships.” The Wildcats have an off-season full of important decisions. At this time next year, they do not want to be conducting end of season interviews with their players, they want to be preparing for the 2020 West Regional
*Image courtesy of Chico State Athletics http://www.chicowildcats.com