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Cal Baseball Preview: Bears to embrace analytics and use openers, bat Vaughn leadoff

Bears and head coach Mike Neu are open to “neu” baseball ideas for the 2019 season.

College Baseball season is upon us!
Cal Baseball Twitter

Baseball is back!

And I don’t just mean that Spring Training is starting in Arizona and Florida with the pitchers and catchers reporting. Meaningful College Baseball games will start this weekend. Cal Baseball will open the highly anticipated 2019 season from Tempe, Arizona from the Spring Training home of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in the Angels College Classic this weekend.

2019 is going to be a very interesting season for Cal Baseball, seeking a return to the postseason despite plenty of question marks thanks to losing several key players to the MLB draft.

Beyond having the reigning Golden Spikes winner in junior 1st baseman Andrew Vaughn back to potentially replicate (if not improve) his video game-like numbers, Golden Bears are also planning to try some new strategies in this year 2 of the Mike Neu era by embracing the somewhat controversial baseball analytics.

Cal to use “openers” in lieu of starters in most games

If you watched the 2018 NLCS between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers, you may recall that Wade Miley started both game 5 and game 6. In NLCS game 5, Miley, in fact, only faced one pitcher before being lifted for another pitcher. Miley was an example of a new baseball innovation known as an “opener”.

For those not familiar with the concept of an opener, it’s apparently enough of a thing in the 2018 MLB season to warrant its own wikipedia page.

The Tampa Bay Rays in MLB has had the most success with openers. In fact, they saw their makeshift pitching staff post some great numbers since implementing the opener. Yes, some baseball purists hate it, but the idea is essentially to neutralize the top of the opposing starting lineup, which the opposing managers painstakingly made to exploit the typical starter.

An opener will also officially “open” the season for Cal Baseball on Friday. One of only three returning pitchers with experience, senior reliever Arman Sabouri will take the mound first for the Golden Bears against CSU Bakersfield on Friday. He will likely also open for another game or two in the weekend. Sabouri had a team best 0.81 WHIP last year with a solid ERA of 3.07. He struck out 48 guys in 44 innings.

While it does not necessarily mean a true bullpen game, using an opener allows the Bears to start the game with a pitcher with plenty of experiences.

This is actually a sound strategy for the Golden Bears, in my opinion, particularly early in the 2019 season. Bears only have one reliable starter back in junior Jared Horn (and one can argue that this MLB prospect has been maddeningly inconsistent in his two Cal seasons as the penciled in ace). Horn will get the ball on Saturday - to hopefully go deep in games so that the Cal pen can rest between the Friday and Sunday games.

Following Sabouri on Friday (and possibly Sunday and Monday of this opening weekend) will be some new faces. Head coach Mike Neu may opt to ride the hot hand if someone is pitching well; he may also play a lot more matchups. The main point here is that the opponents won’t quite know what to expect - thus giving the Bears an edge.

Of course, the main argument against the opener is that a team is relying on multiple pitchers to all be “on” that game. The opener idea may work better in the pro because those pitchers are professional. At the college level, this may be a disaster given the wider variance of performances of the players.

Then again, Mike Neu is training his young pitching staff for this kind of usage. If the opener idea is the future of baseball, Cal pitchers will have that mental edge for being used to only find out about their game usage pending game situations.

One final note here, Pac-12 Baseball fans know that college coaches have long love to play games with their lineup. Now retired Stanford coach Mark Marquess love to start the game with his previous night’s starting pitcher listed as the DH (even in years when it was clear who his DH will be) just to throw the opponent off (or allow him to use a pinch hitter in certain situations). I don’t think it has given Stanford an advantage on most games other than to annoy those fans who love to keep score by hand.

Andrew Vaughn to hit leadoff?

Andrew Vaughn had a special 2018 season. If you like the traditional counting numbers, Vaughn posted a batting average of .402 with 23 home runs and 63 RBI. The averages are even more impressive. In addition to batting over 0.400 for the full season, Vaughn posted a 0.530 on base percentage (getting on base significantly more than half of the time) and a slugging percentage of 0.820 as the top slugger in all of college baseball.

Vaughn was on pace to hit more than 30 homers (which is a special plateau in college), but his pace slowed down as teams opt to pitch around him more and more (understandably). Vaughn also did not get more ABs when the 32-22 Cal team (with a solid 16-14 Pac-12 record) did not get chosen for the postseason. Without enough pitching depth, Bears had some bad losses (on paper) during the midweek games to other local universities (some of whom started their aces against the Bears).

D1Baseball has ranked Andrew Vaughn as the top overall hitter based on their analytics. Vaughn has the best score of 93.7 with the highest grades of 92.1 in Hit Ability, 94.1 in Plate Discipline, and 96.8 in Game Power.

Vaughn is the best hitter on the Cal team, which would traditionally mean that he should bat 3rd in the order.

But this is baseball in 2019.

At the Bay Area Baseball press conference in late January, Mike Neu talked about the possibility of batting Andrew Vaughn at leadoff. The new thinking here is that you want to give your best bat as many At Bats as possible - thus bat him at the top of the lineup.

We might see Andrew Vaughn as the unconventional leadoff hitter for the Bears thank to his great skill at getting on base. Vaughn is expected to get even fewer good pitches to hit in 2019, particularly with his protections in the lineup from last year now playing minor league baseball.

We also saw quite a bit of this moving the best hitter out of the 3-hole in the Major League in recent year. SB Nation’s Beyond the Box Score has a nice article on this topic. Angels batted Mike Trout (yes, Trout has more speed than Vaughn) in the 2-spot for the most part.

Neu had an unconventional leadoff guy in 2018 with catcher Tyrus Greene (also drafted last summer) as the leadoff guy for the most part. After Vaughn, the next three best On Base guy from 2018 in Jonah Davis, Tanner Dodson, and Greene are all gone. If someone doesn’t step up (maybe Darren Baker in his sophomore year can raise his OBP up from 0.302), Vaughn might be the best bet to bat 1st.

The top returning OBP behind Vaughn is OF Max Flower at 0.331, but he is probably better suited to bat behind Vaughn to provide protection as more of a power (more doubles than homers) threat.

Expect Neu to experiment with his lineups, particularly in the early non-conference games.

More on Andrew Vaughn

Fangraphs has recently released their updated 2019 MLB Draft board - coming in at No.3 is Andrew Vaughn. As much as they might want to knock Vaughn down for things that the Cal 1st baseman cannot control, his numbers are simply too good.

Dreaded R/R first baseman without physical projection or plus-plus raw power, but he had a cartoonish sophomore year (.400/.530/.820) and no one doubts he’ll hit.

Vaughn is also the 3rd best prospect according to MLB Pipeline and went 3rd in their December 2018 mock draft. In case you’re wondering, the woeful Chicago White Sox has the 3rd overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft.

Andrew Vaughn did show during the summer, playing in the Cape Cod league and with Team USA, that his power is there even with the wooden bat (the modern aluminum bat might actually have less power than wood bat now).

Depending on whether pro (but non-MLB) players will be allowed next summer, there is also a decent chance that Vaughn could be a future Calympian and represent USA in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games which will see the return of baseball and softball.

One new baseball trend that Mike Neu will not explore with Andrew Vaughn in 2019 is having him as a two-way player like Shohei Ohtani or former Cal closer/CF Tanner Dodson (who is continuing as a two-way player for now in the Tampa Bay Rays system alongside 2017 Golden Spikes winner Brandon McKay who is a LHP/1B). Vaughn pitched some in his freshman year and tossed one inning last year in relief. Despite the obvious lack of experience, Neu will let Andrew Vaughn concentrate on what he does best - hitting.

Of course, Vaughn is already on the watchlist for another Golden Spikes. Since the inception of the award in 1978, there has not been a two-time winner. Most guys turn pro after winning the Golden Spikes, but Vaughn is too young to turn pro after his sophomore season after choosing college.

This is yet another way for Andrew Vaughn to make more college baseball history.

More on Analytics - No more bunting?

Nope, I am not referring to former Cal Bears Chad Bunting here (by the way, Bunting, who led the Bears in homer in 2011 was a guy that joined the team as a walk-on and went from the bullpen catcher to star outfielder). Baseball analytics say that giving up an out is a dumb strategy in almost all situations. However, college baseball coaches (such as a certain former Cal head coach and now Stanford honcho David Esquer) love to bunt.

The counter argument here, particularly for college, is that the college defense is less sure handed than MLB. Bunting and putting the ball in play (not to mention having a runner in scoring position) may mean something different to college defenders. Plenty of college coaches love to employ bunt, hit-and-run, double steal, etc. to varying degrees of success.

What will Mike Neu do in 2019?

This will be one of the more interesting subplot of this season to track for me going forward.

More on the Rest of the Team

This post was meant to be a general preview of the whole team.

Like I wrote earlier, the entire pitching staff is a huge question mark outside of RHP Jared Horn.

Horn, projected to be a 1st day draft pick out of high school (but he was drafted later as teams were sure of his Cal commitment), is still trying to figure things out as the potential staff ace in his 3rd year. Consistency has plagued the righty with great stuff as he regressed from a 4.64 ERA in his freshman year to an ugly 6.15 ERA (WHIP of 1.71) in his sophomore year (a challenging season that also saw his family members die from a car accident in the fall caused by a drunk driver - Jared was the one driving and only one in the car that survived).

Nonetheless, Horn has the talent to turn things around drastically in 2019, particularly with head coach Mike Neu’s background as a former major league pitcher. Horn needs to cut down on his walks from 44 in 77.1 IP last year and increase his strikeouts from only 53 (even though that was good enough for 2nd on the team last year behind the drafted Aaron Shortridge).

Outside of Horn and Sabouri, the other returning pitcher with experience is junior Rogelio Reyes. Unfortunately, Reyes’ ineffectiveness as the midweek starter last year was probably why the Bears did not make the postseason despite a very good team. Reyes had an ERA of 8.26 (WHIP of 1.96) in 28.1 innings of action. Hopefully, he was able to figure something out this offseason.

Out of the newcomers, Bears lost potential ace Dom Pipkin to the Philadelphia Phillies when he was drafted in the 9th round and eventually signed. For the Golden Bears that are in Berkeley, RHP Ian Villers (19th round as a 1st baseman) and RHP Sam Stoutenborough (40th round) were both drafted in the 2018 MLB draft late. That pedigree probably means that they are the best bet to be in the mix (especially since I don’t have any fall ball results).

There are more sure things in the lineup, particularly in the infield.

Sophomore Darren (son of Dusty) Baker (0.273/0.303/0.326) at 2nd and junior Cameron Eden (0.247/0.306/0.292) at short stop are both reliable on the field but would need to improve their bats. Sophomore Sam Wezniak will probably man 3rd and will look to build upon his 0.240/0.343/0.403 and 6 homers debut. Also capable of playing the infield is Ripken Reyes who is a solid glove but has not hit that well (0.252/0.368/0.339) despite one of the better plate discipline on the team in drawing 17 walks. Junior Korey Lee (0.238/0.328/0.426, 5 homers) played all over last year but should be the starter behind the plate for the Bears.

Outfield will see some new faces. QB/OF Brandon McIlwain will man one of the outfield spot for the Bears that lost both CF Tanner Dodson and RF Jonah Davis to the 2018 MLB Draft. McIlwain is finally eligible to play, after being with the team last year, after transferring from South Carolina. While McIlwain was a part of the Cal football QB disappointment this past fall, maybe he will fare better on the baseball diamonds. I am not exactly sure what to expect here but will make a lazy comparison to Kyler Murray, the famous duel threat in football and baseball who is also an athletic guy. I am sure that Cal fans will be really glad if McIlwain come close to be either a 1st round MLB draft talent or a Heisman trophy winner in football.

Max Flower is arguably the most reliable returning bat not named Andrew Vaughn. Flower hit 0.287/0.331/0.380 but also was clutch as a RBI guy, particularly in Pac-12 play.

There are also a bunch of Cal freshman position players who are in the mix for some at bats.

Preview Video from Cal Baseball

Hear what Jared Horn, Andrew Vaughn, and Cameron Eden have to say about the new season. There are 13 freshman arms ready to contribute.

Quick Glance at the Schedule

Outside opening the season in Angels’ spring training, Cal will also make an interesting road trip in non-conference to SEC baseball power house LSU in early March. Pac-12 season starts with a visit from the Oregon State Beavers in late March where fans can see Andrew Vaughn on the same field as potential top overall 2019 MLB Draft pick in the Beavers’ catcher Adley Rutschman (I wonder if there will be room at Evans Diamonds for fans with all the scouts that may be there).

Since the Pac-12 has an even number of teams, Bears’ non-conference weekend series during the conference play will be a trip to Long Beach State in late March. David Esquer’s Stanford team will visit in late May.

For the 2019 Cal Baseball season, CGB is planning to bring you more extensive coverage than past season. One of our newer writer Attila LS Gero will be attending all the home games and provide recaps.

I really hope that the young Cal team will find its footing early and Andrew Vaughn will get the postseason experience/exposure that he deserved in what is almost guaranteed to be his last year with the program. I also hope that Bay Area fans flock to Evans Diamond where the game experience has transformed to that of a minor league game (it’s essentially the only Cal sporting events where you can buy an adult beverage while enjoying the game). With the Cal financial issues, Cal Baseball is still trying to build that endowment and can use more revenues.

What do you think about these potentially very progressive baseball strategies? How many games are you planning to attend? Let us know in the comments below.