It has now been four seasons since the USC baseball team has eclipsed .500 or qualified for the NCAA Tournament. For a program with 12 national titles, that’s absolutely unacceptable.
Though the stars of the Trojan offense underperformed this year, in order for the team to generate significant improvement, the pitching staff needs to step it up. That falls largely on manager Dan Hubbs, a former College World Series champion pitcher as a Trojan and later a pitching coach at Cal, Berkeley.
Hubbs made some strong midseason moves, bringing Solomon Bates and John Beller among others from the bullpen into the rotation, and the Trojans as a team graduated just one senior, so there’s reason for promise heading into 2019.
These are three things the team needs to do next season.
Cut Down on Walks
The Trojan pitchers shot themselves in the foot time after time. They’ve led the Pac-12 in walks with 269 in each of the last two seasons, and led the league in wild pitches in 2018 as well. Free bases, regardless of whether they’re provided to hitters or baserunners, do just as much damage.
Ironically, USC batters saw the ball pretty well at the plate—power hitters Lars Nootbaar and Dillon Paulsen were near the top of the conference in the category for much of the season, and the team tied the second-most walks in an inning in NCAA history with 10 against Villanova early in the year. The staff needs to learn from those examples.
If the walks don’t significantly improve, it’d be pretty unsurprising to see the Trojans suffer the same fate next spring. Pac-12 baseball presents some of the toughest matchups in the country, with teams like Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA, who the Trojans went a combined 2-8 against in 2018. They can’t afford to give those teams any free help.
Small Ball Execution and Defense
Kaleb Murphy is a strong defensive catcher, but with the inaccuracy from the other half of the battery, there’s only so much he can do. If the Trojan arms fix their control issues, small ball defense can follow suit.
USC’s opponents were nearly 20 percent more successful on the base paths than Trojan runners, but that’s not just the pitching staff or Murphy’s fault. The Trojans swiped the fewest bags in the Pac-12, along with the worst success rate at 56 percent.
That said, Hubbs needs to be more aggressive on the small ball front. The Trojans tied for last in the conference in stolen base attempts.
It’s not like they’re slow or incapable, either. Blake Sabol, Chase Bushor and Brandon Perez, who all saw plenty of at-bats at or near the top of the lineup, were a combined 13 for 14 on steal attempts, led by Sabol’s perfect 8 for 8.
Additionally, the offense needs to do a better job laying down bunts and executing hit-and-runs. Great teams don’t make those small mistakes.
Starting Pitchers Working Deeper Into Games
It’s no surprise bullpen workhorse Brad Wegman went down injured midway through the season. Before Bates and Beller joined the rotation, only three times did a Trojan starter not named Kyle Hurt get through six innings in a loss, and none went seven.
In USC’s defeats this year, the starter threw an average of just 4 1-3 innings. The bullpen, as good as it was, got overworked. Wegman and closer Connor Lunn were great at the back end, but they and the rest of the relievers need more support.
Again, this goes hand in hand with the pitching staff reducing its walk totals. Perhaps the clarity in the rotation heading into next season will help.
CJ Stubbs, who has 18 career starts under his belt, missed the entire year after Tommy John surgery. Bates meanwhile was selected in the eighth round of the MLB Draft and is unlikely to return to school. If Stubbs can effectively replace Bates, and the rest of the pitching staff settles down, USC can make massive strides in 2019.