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Cal Baseball Weekly Watch: Questions Answered

After a solid sweep of the woeful Washington Huskies the Bears are almost halfway through the Pac-10 schedule.  That means it’s the right time to take a look at what Cal has accomplished, how they have accomplished it, and what they face going forward.  Simply put, the Bears have been spectacular this year, exceeding nearly everybody’s expectations.  And they’ve done it a bit differently than one might expect.

There were a few things we knew about this team entering the season.  The Bears would have three solid returning starting pitchers in Erik Johnson, Justin Jones and Dixon Anderson.  Tony Renda, Chadd Krist and Marcus Semien would form a dependable heart of the lineup.  Matt Flemer would be a reliable closer.  But after that question marks filled the roster.  So far, Cal has answered every one of those questions emphatically, and it’s why they are ranked #15 in the country and tied for 2nd in arguably the best, deepest conference in the country.  Let’s take a look at each question and how it was answered:

Is there a 4th starter on this team?

It’s tough to succeed in college baseball without a decent 4th starter.  Frankly, the Bears were in better shape than many teams coming in to the season with three trustworthy starting arms.  But without a reliable 4th starter you’re forced to play musical chairs with mid-week games or have your entire bullpen eat a game once a week.

So the emergence of senior Kevin Miller has been huge for Cal.  In fact, you could make the argument that Miller has been the best pitcher on the staff, a player very worthy of starting a weekend game against Pac-10 competition.  He’s leading the team in strikeouts and ERA and has an absurd 7.25/1 K/BB ratio.  He’s been downright dominant.  In fact, he’s been too good lately to save entirely for Tuesday non-conference starts, which means he’s also been a big solution to our next problem:

Is there anybody reliable in the bullpen?

Last year, Cal’s bullpen was ugly, and one of the few reliable arms (Brian Diemer) graduated. Even Matt Flemer seemed tired by the end of the year, which was characterized by a number of crushing late game defeats.

That hasn’t been the case so far.  Flemer has taken his game to the next level, raising his K rate from .72 an inning to 1.26 (!).  Freshman Kyle Porter has been more than just a situational lefty and is also striking out more than one batter an inning.  And the aforementioned Kevin Miller has been everywhere, from short to long relief.

Those three have gotten the bulk of the innings in relief, raising some moderate concern about depth.  But I’m not too concern about bullpen fatigue in part because Cal’s starters are fully capable of pitching deep into games and giving the bullpen a break.  It will be something to watch going forward as Cal’s schedule is filled with dangerous teams with strong offenses.

Who’s going to step up on defense?

There’s no getting around it.  Last year, Cal’s defense was bad.  And it wasn’t just errors, it also seemed to be questionable range at many positions.  Defensive miscues played a huge role in many close losses at the end of the year, and probably played a part in tiring out Cal’s pitching staff.  Even worse, one of Cal’s few reliable defenders, shortstop Brian Guinn, graduated and was drafted by the Padres.  This would require Marcus Semien and Tony Renda to team up in middle infield, with both moving to hypothetically tougher defensive positions.  After they combined for 30 errors in 2010, this seemed like a potential disaster.

And it’s been anything but.  The duo have combined for just 8 errors so far despite many more chances, and both have shown range, solid hands and strong arms.  I don’t know if last year was bad luck, sample-size flukiness, or young player jitters, or if the pair worked tirelessly over the offseason, but from every account I’ve heard the pair have been plus defenders.

Cal’s defensive improvement can also likely extend to the outfield. I have a tough time making comparisons because I wasn’t able to watch last year’s outfield defense enough to make a judgment.  However, the additions of speedy Vince Bruno, Austin Booker and Darrell Matthews to the regular lineup have seemingly resulted in more balls hit into the outfield converted into outs.  Matthews in particular is a burner in centerfield and he’s showed good range the few chances I’ve had to watch.  The defense has been good enough that Cal has had the luxury of benching slumping Danny Oh, an excellent right fielder.

If you’re wondering how this improved defense is impacting the team, just take a look at the following stats:

Erik Johnson:  ERA 2010 – 4.09 ; ERA 2011 – 2.05
Justin Jones: ERA 2010 – 4.22 ; ERA 2011 – 3.13
Dixon Anderson: ERA 2010 – 5.17 ; ERA 2011 – 3.40

Now, some of that improvement is no doubt due to each pitcher being a year older, a year more experienced, and a year better.  But when more balls in play turn into outs, fewer runners are scoring.  Don’t underestimate defense.

Who will replace the offensive production of Mark Canha, Jimmy Bosco and Brian Guinn?

The simple answer to this question is that Tony Renda and Marcus Semien would move into more important positions in the lineup.  And both have done so admirably.  But Cal has been successful this year because they’ve gotten solid production up and down the lineup, and that’s Vince Bruno has stepped up as a prototypical leadoff hitter (leading the team in on-base-percentage), Devon Rodriguez has been a solid 5th hitter, and Mitch Delfino, Austin Booker and Darrell Matthews have all produced towards the bottom of the lineup.  Cal hasn’t been hitting for much power (in part because of new bat regulations that have clearly suppressed power numbers across the nation) but they’ve compensated by creating a very balanced lineup without an easy out.  The Bears seemingly have at least one inning every game in which they string together a series of long at bats ending in singles and walks.

This Week

But.  There is a big but to everything you’ve just read, and that is Cal’s schedule.  The Bears didn’t play the most challenging non-conference schedule, and they’ve been given by far the easiest early season Pac-10 schedule.  They have only played one of the Pac-10’s ranked teams, and they lost two of three in Arizona when they did.  Cal hasn’t truly proven themselves as an elite team yet, though they have proven they have the tools to do it.

They will get that chance many times over the rest of the regular season, and it begins with a visit from national power Arizona St.  The Sun Devils actually are behind Cal in the standings in part because they were swept in three close games on the road against red-hot Oregon St.  But they are still ranked #9 in the country and carry a .318 team batting average and 3.37 team ERA into the series.

The teams will play three straight afternoon games, with Thursday and Friday contests starting at 2:30 before a 1:00 start on Saturday.  Taking two of three would be a great weekend, and it will be fun having a marquee series at Evans Diamond – something that hasn’t been the case often over the last few years.