bleedCrimson.net will be conducting weekly interviews with Aggie baseball head coach Rocky Ward throughout the 2008 season as the Aggies open their third season in the WAC. In this week's interview Coach Ward talks about how the team is shaping up heading into the start of the season, players that have stood out in practice and what they'll be focusing on the next week and a half before the season starts.
bleedCrimson.net: It's been a couple weeks since we last talked with you and you've started practice, how is your team shaping up?
Rocky Ward: The early early spring, this preseason, has been outstanding. All three of the injured pitchers from a year ago, [Jason] Connor, [Tyler] Sturdevant and [Sebastien] Vendette have been outstanding to the point where all three look like they're gonna to put themselves right back into the starting rotation which is what you always hope for. But realistically from a coaching standpoint you kind of expect probably you'll get one of them back ready to go right away maybe two if you're lucky. If you get three it's a big deal. It takes the three or four guys that we busted our tail to bring in here to cover those guys if they didn't return from injury and it puts those guys at the four, five, six and seven and then all of the sudden our pitching staff, even with the condensed schedule the way it is, it looks like there are going to be plenty [of pitchers], so that's really good news.
The best news is that this offensive ballclub that we thought we were gonna have, has really materialized. Three or four of the returning players have come back in form and three or four of the new guys, actually about six or seven of the new guys, have started to make the moves that sometimes we don't get in our system until midseason. And we haven't played a game yet so that may still be the case but with our offensive system most of the new players, it takes them 20-25 games before they really understand what we're demanding of them. It's usually that many games before you know if they can handle it or not. But so far in this early spring, the unique thing about this is usually under the old schedule, you get back to school on January 15th and play ten days later. So as coach you kind of complain about the new stuff [rule changes] but I think that there's gonna be some significant benefit. I'm getting more work done than normally we'd get before the season starts. So I think my players are much further along than what they normally would have been for the start of the season. We're really pleased.
We still have a couple of concerns about how good our outfield defense will really be. Three or four guys can flat out hit that are out there but their coverage of ground is not as good as we'd like. It's probably going to be a bit of a weakness with the club. They're guys that it's not that they don't catch the ball when they get there, but they're not quite covering the ground that we need them to cover. A couple of the better defenders in the outfield have been the only couple of guys that haven't performed very well this spring with the bat. You kind of feel like today if we play, we either gonna have to play an offensive outfield that may give up an extra run a game because it can't get to a couple things or you play a defensive outfield that can't score that run. You'd kind of like to take a couple players and put them together as one but I think all of us as coaches end up with that on occasion.
Our interior defense, our catching depth is outstanding, our position players and infield have really played well.
bc.net: With the outfield defense and your guys not covering as much ground as initially hoped that they could, is that something that will improve as the season goes along?
RW: From a coaching standpoint, not likely. When you look at outfielders there are three things you evaluate. You look at how quickly they break on a ball when it's hit, what kind of path they take, if they take the correct angle, and of course if they catch it when they get there. These guys are gonna catch it when they get there, I've had some guys in the past that don't and those guys drive you crazy. I've had some guys that really break and really run but when they get there they can't finish the play and then it really doesn't make much difference. We can get some improvement, we've really put a lot of pressure on three or four of these guys that kind of come to the practice field every day offensive minded because that's what they're so good at. There may be some improvement if I can really do a good job from a standpoint of coaching them to maintain a very high defensive intensity. They're gonna have to give me a lot of their energy when they're on defense when they're used to doing it on the offensive side. It's a little bit like the basketball player that's a great offensive player that doesn't like to play defense. These guys are gonna have to figure out a way to like to defense but also to stay hooked up mentally for longer periods of time. Part of that we can cover to a certain extent.
We're very very good at defensive placement. It's something that's a real hidden part of the coaching part of the game. It's something that the fans don't really see. They see it when you bunt and hit and run but they don't really pay attention pitch to pitch on where you place outfielders. If we do a good job of evaluating an opponent's offense during BP (batting practice) and obviously hitting charts or what are called spray charts throughout the series and we get guys positioned better, then you can negate lack of range if a guy's positioned in the right place. So, can we get better? Yeah, we can but I don't believe we'll get to the point where we'll be considered one of the better defensive outfields but I think we can get to the point where we can be assured that we're gonna be adequate and whatever they give up defensively they're gonna gain twofold on the offensive side.
We've got a couple real quality defenders, if we handle them the right way and limit the number of at bats they get, that's the difficulty of baseball is it's not a free substitution game. Once you pull a guy out he's gone. If I start an offensive outfield and we go out in the fifth inning up 7-4 and then I move to my defense and the game gets tight or we give up the lead late, we're not going to want to be in that position very often. Or if I go the other way and play a defensive outfield, when do I have to go to my offense if I happen to be down 7-4 in the fifth? There will be some coaching decisions as to how we deal with those five or six guys that will play out there. It's just a problem that we know that we have.
bc.net: Who are a couple players who have stood out to you in the practices?
RW: There are two or three guys that have really helped themselves from their performance in fall. One is Bryan Marquez. Bryan looks to have moved from a number six infield spot where he may not have even traveled to the starting 2B. We went ahead and did what eventually thought we'd have to do and that is move [Richard] Stout from second to shortstop. All fall we worked with the idea that Stout would play at second all year at the full time starting 2B to the point where when we made nominations for preseason conference stuff, Stout was our nomination at second not at short. With the performance of Marquez as the second baseman, we really felt comfortable we'd go ahead and move Stout to short and play those two in the middle. So Bryan has been outstanding. He's hit .500 in the fall with a couple home runs.
The second guy is Chris Auten who was injured all fall. He's a big hitting lefthanded first baseman, he'd had arm surgery and was physically sound but the muscle deterioration after the surgery, he struggled with getting his muscle network back. He's back strong throwing the ball fine. We just weren't sure because he couldn't throw, whether he could play first or not. He has really played very well to the point where he shuffled some things around and he's the projected starting first baseman and we were hoping he would do that but we had no idea for sure that he could. He has been dominant as a hitter and we thought he would do that. He's a big strong guy that is a little stiff as a player. Sometimes when you watch him play just in short looks you think "I'm not sure this guy's got enough athletic ability" but after you watch him for a period of time like we have for the last couple weeks, he's a big guy that moves around the bag well, good receiver, he could be better on the ball in the dirt but you train your infielders. When I was playing I knew whether or not I could throw the ball in the dirt to my first baseman or not. So you either throw it to the big wingspan guy which is what Auten is or if you have a shorter first baseman like [Abe] Aguirre then you can't throw it high, you better throw it down. So the infield can make adjustments depending on who's playing there. It's a no brainer to understand that you want them to throw it to the chest every time but I've learned that by training the infielders who the first baseman is, if we're gonna make mistakes, we either make them up or down based on who the guy is. Auten has done a really nice job. Those are the two kids who have been real pleasant surprises both good offensive players and have played real good defensively.
Outside of that there are about five guys that are big right-handed hitters that aren't very good defenders, [Nick] Czeka, [Gavin] Heinemann, [Trevor] Bloom, [Colin] Crouthamel, those four in particular have absolutely annihilated the baseball. They are dominant hitters. But they're guys that you have difficulty getting them on the field. You can only play one left fielder which is really considered the easiest defensive position to play. And you only have one DH but the competition between those four guys as major power hitters has been fun to watch this fall. Who's going to materialize as the guy who can hit for enough average with his power and can play an adequate defense.
Then on the mound pitching wise Sturdevant, Connor and Vendette the three injured guys that returned, that's a big deal.
Then Anthony Murietta who was a freshman a year ago that got a lot of innings because off injuries that we had, really had a poor fall but he's been really outstanding so far in the spring which is good because at the end of the fall, our top 12 projected pitchers were all right handed, no left handers. Murietta is a left hander and it's important that you have somebody that you use. But we were really ready at the end of the fall to come into the season with no left handers available based on evaluation. But his early performance in the spring has brought him back to the middle pack and will help us.
bc.net: Being able to move Stout to shortstop and have Marquez at 2B, what has that done for you defensively? Is that an improvement over what you were originally thinking you might have?
RW: Yes, and in fact at the end of the fall we had concerns about our outfield but we also had concerns about the quality of our infield. Again Auten had been inured and a kid named [Geoff] Downing had been injured, [Marcus] Quade had been moved from first to third with the loss of [James] Lilley for the year at third base. So we had a little bit of concern about if we had quite enough. We thought that we had the pieces but they weren't fitting together real well.
The three defensive positions outside of first base are not always interchangeable. You've got guys that can't play short that are outstanding at second. Everybody always assumes that's just because of their throwing ability. People think that a guy that doesn't have a good enough arm to play short can move over to second and be fine, well it's not about that. It's about angles and some guys play the ball to the right better than they do to their left and there's guys that play second better than they do short. And shortstop's gotta be able to play the ball to the left consistently and the move is going to help that. Marquez played a lot early in the year at third and he didn't get much time at second because Stout is sitting over there as the guy who's gonna play there every day and we had two or three guys at shortstop trying to get the job done and really what came out is the three guys at short, we just decided were not going to be as good as they needed to be so we made the move to move Stout to short and then Marquez across the field to second and he's really played outstanding there. The other two kids that were competing at shortstop, one has been moved, [Geoff] Downing will play at third who has played very well at third. He's also shown the ability to play outfield and he's a good runner and a good athlete that may give me another defensive guy that's not going to be an out on the offensive side.
The pieces have come together to give us a pretty good combination. We feel comfortable with what my infield defense is going to do.
bc.net: What are you looking for in this last week and a half of practice before you hit the field to open the season on the 22nd?
RW: What we've done to this point, there's been a lot of shuffle and a lot of movement of people, playing a lot of different positions as I've already explained. The key to this next week is to solidify our lineup. We had a four game intra-squad series this weekend. At the end of the game Sunday we sat down as a staff and put together a depth chart. Normally you don't do that with baseball but with the number of moves that we've made, on Sunday after the game we posted the depth chart which more or less posted what we project the starting lineup will be a week from Friday when New Orleans comes in. So right now the next eight or ten days, we want to say here are the guys that have the jobs, here are the guys that don't have jobs here are your roles and try to establish that interconnection on a day to day basis. I've explained to these guys that just because you start on Friday doesn't mean you're gonna be the starter on Saturday and because of the number of games, we're going to be playing kind of like the hockey lines, the blue line and the red line and all that stuff, there will be combinations of players that will be put on the field over the course of a four game series that gives the player an idea of where he's going to fit. It's also going to give us a chance to make sure we keep guys fresh with the number of baseball games we're going to play on a weekly basis. That's really the big key to start establishing at least early season roles on the club so guys know how they're going to be used and so they can start working towards that.
I've noticed in coaching that sometimes when you demote a player he becomes better he finally wakes up and starts working hard for you or sometimes he goes away. Now is the time of the year to find out who's gonna go away when they don't get their way. When you establish guys and give them starting positions sometimes it's too much for some kids. You don't know how they're going to react. The kid that can go play when there's nothing expected of him all of the sudden when he's put in the starting position and expected to do what he's been doing recently that got him the job, to do it every day, some kids are prepared for that and some kids are not. These are the things that are internal to coaching that most fans don't see because the fans don't have the direct day to day contact with the player but those are all things that we're trying to get established right now.
So far we've done more of that, the mixing and matching, moving them from first team to second team than I've ever done in preparation for a season. That's mostly what we're going to be doing.
We've gotten most of our systems in. Signal systems, bunt coverages, hit and run coverages, all the things you have to do as kind of the final exam before the season, those systems are all in and we'll spend our typical mid-week practices reviewing that stuff and practicing on the small parts of the game. But more than anything it's about establishing guys in roles and trying to get them to the point of acceptance in some cases and comfort in others.
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