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. This week Coach Ward talks about opening the season, previews their opponent New Orleans, talks about the starting rotation, starting lineups and the importance of opening up at home.
bleedCrimson.net: This week you open up the season with New Orleans, the defending Sun Belt Champions, what can you tell us about New Orleans
Rocky Ward: They have five returning pitchers and their entire starting rotation so they've got some maturity on the mound. They don't have anybody that's just dominant but they have a solid pitching staff through five. And they've got five returning position players including [Johnny] Giavotella as their starting 2B, he's a preseason All-American that can really play. Along with Baxter and Butler, all three of these kids were actually kids on that team that practiced here two years ago right after hurricane Katrina. It's kind of unique that three or four of the key players that they have are also kids that benefitted from the time that they spent here so it'll be kind of an emotional thing for them I think. It'll make it interesting in that regard.
They're pretty mature, they selected this year to finish second in their league (Sun Belt Conference) which is the highest preseason they've been picked that I'm aware of at least in the last 10 or 11 years. When we were in the league they were always picked in the top four or five but never as high as first or second. It's a really good solid team and it'll be a real good challenge to open the year with.
bc.net: Can you talk about their second baseman Johnny Giavotella and third basemen T.J Baxter? They were named to the Sun Belt All-Conference Preseason team and Giavotella was also named Sun Belt Preseason Player of the Year.
RW: He's [Giovatella] a special kid. The neat thing about him, I remember him real well from when they were here, he was only a freshman then. He's a small kid that's a bundle of dynamite. The kid has surprisingly good power. Watching him practice here, I said "Well he's a good player but not the way they kind of talked about him." They talked about him as being an All-American. "The kid's a good player but I don't really see it." But he hit a ball out against us at New Orleans last year on a pitch out over the plate that he hit out easy to right center, opposite field. Then I realized, you know there's something special. There's not a lot of players that have the ability to hit the ball for real power the other way. We actually have a few but this ball was really struck and they've got a big field and it went out of there easy. He's really a plus offensive 2B, he can really hit. You're always looking for the traditional positions of middle infield, catcher, center fielder. To have a good offensive player in those holes really make you pretty good. This is a kid a year ago that hit .385 with 19 doubles and 15 home runs and 65 RBIs and he walked 54 times and only struck out 25. And he only made seven errors, in the infield. He had a .978 fielding percentage, when you put all that together... it's just that when I first saw him you don't see that. We didn't watch each other practice much when they were here. When we left the yard we left them alone and they waited until we were off. We were really careful, we tried to stay out of each other's way the best we could. He's a real special player.
Baxter is a kid I got to know pretty well, he's the 3B. He put up fairly similar numbers, they put up fairly similar numbers, he had 12 doubles and 11 home runs the problem with T.J. Baxter is he made 27 errors as a 3B. But he's one of those kids that every time he errors you forgive him because you know he's going to get it back for you plus some with the bat. I really like the kid, he was one of my favorite guys. He was very appreciative of the fact that we took them in. Most of their players were, but this kid kind of separated himself out and wanted to make sure face to face that I knew how much he appreciated the opportunity. That's unusual for 18 or 20 year old kids to be mature enough and want to do that. I have a lot of respect for the kid.
Those two kids are real players and they served integral parts on that team a year ago in their conference championship year.
It's going to be a lot of fun, most of their kids were not here two years ago but there's enough of them, there a base. I think that's what got them to the Sun Belt title. These kids went through a lot together and I think they're pretty tight as a team. That's the one thing that I know Tom Walter will be a little bit concerned about this year, is the fact that I think they rode through that a year ago and that leadership was important and they lost a couple of those kids. This is kind of the year that you've gotta prove to people that last year wasn't a fluke. I think they'll start the season off with a little more pressure than what they've had on them to perform the last couple years. That's the only thing I can see that might be an advantage to us.
bc.net: What will your rotation be for this weekend's series?
RW: We're going to start with Sebastian Vendette on Friday. Jason Connor will start on Saturday and Heath Goin will start on Sunday. [Tyler] Sturdevant, at least right now, we plan on using him in relief as the closer/set up guy for this weekend. We expect that he'll be in the starting rotation by next weekend against Ball State as the fourth guy. We really had a lot of choices.
College baseball, starting pitching is less important than in pro ball. It's important to have but really the guy that pitches the last four innings in college baseball is more important than the guy that pitches the first four. At least that's the way I've always viewed it. You try and develop a starting rotation that are mature kids, that have the ability to start a game and set the tone. But we feel like we have four or five other kids that will start some. [Caleb] Hunsaker and [Jeremy] Joustra, [Oliver] Webster, [Jacob] Wilson and [Kent] Williamson, those five guys along with Dylan Smith who's a returning guy, are guys that we feel really confident that they're going to be able to pitch, at least this weekend, the last three or four innings.
The advantage to starting the season later is the fact that our pitching staff is in much better physical condition than they normally are. Usually in college baseball the two weekends, you really pay attention to how many pitches a guy throws. We've been able to play three weekends of four games per weekend where basically we've been able to get eight starters to the mound and we feel like that guys are in condition to pitch a full outing.
In pro ball, spring training, starters go two or three innings. Even sometimes early in the season you wouldn't expect guys to pitch into the seventh or eighth inning in the first few weeks. But I think we're in a position with the conditioning that we've been able to get the past two or three weeks, we're past that. We're going to be careful, in particular, with Connor and Sturdevant because they're coming off injuries. They're in good shape but we're going to have to be a bit more conservative in how many innings they throw and how many pitches they throw.
bc.net: In college baseball, how interchangeable are your starters and your middle/long relief guys and your closers vs. pro ball?
RW: Well pro ball, for a long time it was just starters, there was no such thing as closers. The starters just went as long as they could go. Then 20 years ago the closer became a factor but in the last 10 years they've added the set up guy. So now the starters are kind of designed to go six or seven [innings] and then you have the set up guys for a couple and the closer for one. That's great for them but they also have a lot more to pick from. In college baseball to pitch with the philosophies, you're trying to get to that, but it's pretty difficult to be able to get that done. Really what we're looking for is five starters and five set up men. If you have a closer in college, then you're pretty lucky. Not many people have true closers, what they have in the major leagues what you would consider a power closer, the guy who can throw in the upper 90's and throw it by people for an inning. Not all major league teams have that either. What we're really looking for, you try to get your starters five or six innings and so you need four or five starters and four or five guys who are designed to pitch the last three or four innings so they'd be what we'd kind of consider set up guys. Our better years with our pitching staff, we had that in '02 and '03 and we had solid starters but we had two or three guys who could come out of the bullpen and win games for us. Our offense is designed around discipline and building innings and building pitch count against an opponent. As a result we're designed around scoring a lot of runs in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. Normally starters are the guys that get the wins and losses, in our style of baseball most of the guys that end up with the wins are the guys that come in and finish the last three or four innings. If we can get people that can pitch three or four innings at a high level and you can put a couple of zeroes up on the opponent during that time, we have always scored and scored at a pretty hefty clip in those innings. That's kind of what we've missed in the last year or two. It's the simple fact that the pitching depth hasn't been good enough to do that. We've had to use most of our talent as starters and there hasn't been a whole lot to come to in the bullpen.
College baseball, it isn't realistic to believe that you can play straight up to where you have one closer that you're just trying to get to the seventh inning and let him finish the game. You just don't get to the seventh that often with one, two run leads. Most college baseball games are won or lost in the fifth, sixth and seventh. You don't get to the eighth and ninth to the close situations at least not as often. The average score in major leagues I would guess to be about 5-3 as a normal major league score. College baseball score is more 7-5 or 8-6, so there's more scoring and when you have more scoring you have more likelihood of the margins being bigger when you get in the seventh and eight inning. I think college coaches that have a real legitimate arm as a closer, when you look up at the end of the year and your best arm, velocity arm, throws 20 innings because that's all the innings that were available in close roles, I don't think that works. What you're really trying to develop is a core of relief staff that you plan on getting 25 to 30 appearances and 60 to 80 innings which the number of innings is very similar to what a starter would get. We feel like we have that type of depth this year based on performance to this point. We have the ten guys we can do that with. We'll be a stretched a little bit thin on a couple occasions like everybody else will because we have a couple weeks where we have six games in a week and you have to make a decision whether you're going to establish a sixth starter or you're gonna roll guys through and maybe have four starters that start those six games but they're going to start those six games on a shorter outings. You plan on them being 80 pitch outings rather than 100 pitch outings.
We'll see when we get there. The first weekend is a normal three game non-conference weekend. Then we get to Ball State and we get a four game weekend. Then off of Ball State we have a weekend off then we go into Fresno and play six straight games. So you go from a three game series to a four game series to a six game series. Once we get into Fresno, we come of that and pretty much from that point on we're playing five or six games a week.
You have starters, everybody has to have starters but they're not as important as they would be in the major leagues. You don't expect them to go and throw shutouts our complete games and instead of having one setup guy or one closer, you're looking for four who can serve those roles interchangeably.
bc.net: We know that historically NMSU has been an offensive juggernaut but what type of pitchers do you have on your staff? Are they ground ball pitchers or fly ball pitchers?
RW: Desert baseball is kind of difficult. The ball carries better here than say in Fresno or at Long Beach State or University of Pacific, a couple of places we used to play, South Alabama, that are at sea level, high humidity areas. A lot of people want to talk a lot about elevation, we're at 4000 feet give or take. We're not Denver but everybody wants to talk about how elevation makes the ball carry. What I've found is that's really not it. The reason why desert baseball is a little more difficult on pitchers is twofold. One the humidity levels are low. The Colorado Rockies take their baseballs and store them in a humidor and they got it figured out. People talked about it when the Rockies first started, everybody's going gosh they're gonna play up in Denver, there's going to be thousands of home runs hit, all these records are going to be broken, there was a lot of talk about that and it was all about elevation. The thing you concern yourself about is humidity levels. The lower humidity, the ball responds in a different way. What you'd like to have a few more ground ball type pitchers. Here's the double-edged sword of desert infields. Because you don't have a whole lot of rain and our grass it's hard to get it to grow thick. We have a bermuda based infield that has to be overseeded with rye which is a thin bladed grass in order to give it color, it's hard to get our infields thick enough to hold the ball up. As a result and the combination that there's not much water in the dirt, makes it hard and the ball flies through desert infields pretty quick. They play faster in a lot of cases than astroturf.
We've really worked hard in the last couple of years to find guys that are more sinkerball guys. Ground ball still hurts you less than the home run. Ground ball can turn into the double play, a ball hit over the wall doesn't turn into anything except a run. Chase Tidwell the pitching coach has really done a good job of teaching our existing guys the sinker. Guys like Hunsaker and Joustra are guys that are projected to be set up type guys, ground ball pitchers. Joustra threw yesterday as a matter of fact threw three innings of no hit baseball and got eight ground balls out of nine outs. I haven't had a guy do that here. One of the other problems that you deal with with the sinker is the lighter the air, the lower the humidity, the hard it is to make the ball sink. It's the biggest advantage we have here when other pitching staffs come in when they come out of higher humidity, lower elevation places and they come here, the breaking ball doesn't break as much and so it's an adjustment that has to be made.
The sinker itself is a subtle pitch. It's thrown with near the same velocity as the fastball but it's designed to have a different spin so the last few feet the ball sinks or drops three or four inches. It's not like the curveball that may drop two or three feet. Chase has done a good job with the staff of developing that. In fact, Sturdevant is a power pitcher. He's a got a mid 90's fastball and a big time slider and he's developed a sinker that's made him kid that instead of having to beat people with power. Power pitchers give up home runs. When the hitter gets it, the pitcher has provided the energy for the ball to leave and to be able have a pitch that you can use and get a few more ground balls is a value that both Connor and Sturdevant have caught on and developed pretty good sinkers along with Vendette. Vendette's more of a power type pitcher. We've done a pretty good job in developing the ability to go get a few ground balls out of some guys. We really don't have any true fly ball pitchers. I don't think in the desert you can survive with guys that give up a lot of fly balls because there just going to be days where those fly balls because of the wind or low humidity is going to let them carry out of the park. The staff has been designed more around the ground ball.
bc.net: What will your starting lineups be on Friday?
RW: Right now the project starting lineup will be [Richard] Stout (11) at shortstop leading off, [Marcus] Quade (25) at 3B in the two hole, [Joe] Scaperotta (28) at center field in the three hole, [Chris] Auten (26) at 1B in the four hole, [Colin] Crouthamel (21) as the DH in the five hole, [Tyler] Hart as the left fielder in the six hole, Hart injured his knee a little a week ago and we're trying to get MRI results but he's been doing pretty good so he may or may not be ready to go this weekend. [Byran] Marquez (31) in the seven hole at 2B, [Joe] Leghorn (22) in the eight hole at catcher and [Marcos] Rosales (2) in the nine hole as the right fielder.
That's the first defensive setup, we feel like that's our best defensive ball club. Day two, Saturday, it will be somewhat different. There'll be two or three other types of guys. The thing about New Orleans from what we understand is they're bringing in three right handed starters, we won't face any left handed starters and the left handed lineup would be significantly different from this one.
The one thing for returning fans, they're probably a little bit surprised with Leghorn in the eight hole but one thing you try to do with your catching corp with a four game series, he's not going to catch them all. Last year he hit in the two hole most of last year but it means that if he doesn't catch a game and you have your backup catcher catching, you have to restructure your whole entire lineup to adjust to one guy. To be honest, the two hole and eight hole are not very different. They both have the same type of responsibilities. They're generally good fastball hitters who have discipline that can get on base and turn the lineup over. The two hole's job is to basically advance runners, get on base and get it to the three, four, five, get it to the middle of the lineup guys with something going in the inning. Same thing applies, not to the level of the two hole, but the eight hole's job is to do the same thing, get the lineup turned over, get it to the top of the lineup with an opportunity to score. Whether or not he sits there in the eight hole we'll see but I'd like to feel that if the guys at the top of the lineup do what I think they're going to do, having Joe Leghorn hit in the eight hole should just show people how much better we are offensively than a year ago.
bc.net: What are you looking to evaluate this weekend and beyond wins, what would make this a successful opening weekend for your team?
RW: In any opening weekend the first thing you're looking for as coach is you're looking for everybody's first hits and first plays. For some reason in the world at large it's always difficult to do it the first time for anything you do in life. I ignored it a lot of my coaching career, you know this isn't the first time a guy's gotten a base hit, so I just kind of ignored those concepts but the more I looked at and the more years you coach, you've got a four hole hitter who opens the season 0 for 12 and you're going, yeah it is important to get that first one. All athletes carry fear and stress, I don't care who they are or who they present themselves, all of them carry that fear. No matter what they've done in the past, especially in baseball, they know they can go hit 10 line drives in a row and go 0 for 10. The game does that to you. That'll be the most important thing, for guys to make the first plays and get the first base hits.
Secondly more than anything the new players, Stout, Quade, Scaperotta, Hart, Leghorn and Rosales, that six of my nine guys in my starting lineup all have Division I baseball experience. They've all been there and done it. That's part of the reason that lineup is set that way.
You feel like it's a successful weekend if each of your 15 or 16 position players, maybe not their first hits but their first experiences where they're proving to themselves and everybody around them that they belong at this level. Then you'll figure out how good they can be. That's the only disappointment with the way the schedule is set up is we just have a three game series. So we're going to have some guys going into the Ball State weekend who haven't pitched yet. No matter how we manage this weekend. We can't completely get that done where you get guys to their first appearances.
I think that this ball club right now is very very confident. We know we're a lot better than what we've been the last couple of years but we have to take the field and you want to open the year with winning the home series. You can talk all you want about sweeping somebody but baseball is about winning series. If you win every series you play, you'll end up in a regional somewhere. That would be the team goal. You win the series, win two out of three as the minimum. If you lose two out of three it's not a death sentence but a lot of it comes down to how you play. If you play poorly in a couple games and get hammered it's not real good. If you play well and you get beat then okay, the ball bounces a certain way some times. But I really think it's a nice early challenge. They've got a mature club, the people we're going to go to the field with are equally mature and I think that nobody is going to dominate either one. It's my feeling that if anybody is going to dominate the series, we have the best chance to do it because of what I think the potential that we have offensively. Baseball is a unique game, if you go out and score 20 runs everybody thinks that's dominant but if you only give up three runs in a weekend series, only good baseball people look at that as dominance. Realistically it is easier to score runs than it is to keep people from scoring runs. We just hope we go out and establish ourselves as the type of offense that we are and our starting pitching and the relievers that we have set to go replicate what they've done to this point. Then you feel like you have a nice base to start with regardless of what the wins and losses end up.
bc.net: How much of an advantage of it is it opening up at home?
RW: There have been years that I'm not sure that it was but this year I think it's a very big advantage. Just because of the quality of opponent we're playing. I'd be much more concerned if we were at New Orleans to open the year. I think that teams that open the season at home against good opponents have a pretty big advantage. Here's the reason why, the first time you travel with the team, kids carry a lot of stress the first time through, they just do, it's just part of traveling and coaches do as well. When you've got guys here at home, they've been doing the same thing every day. They go to class, do what they're supposed to do and then they come back out to the field and practice. On the road it's a little bit different. You're in hotels and you have a different schedule. You really don't quite have a daily schedule set yet, you do the best you can as coaches to get it all organized and we do a good job of that. But I think it's important this year in particular that we open up at home with the type of opponent we have.