Welcome to part two of the Big 12 Baseball Primer. Here's a link to Part One in case you missed it. Just a few notes before I get into breakdowns of Oklahoma State, Kansas State, and Missouri.
Baylor Baseball is in the midst of an 8 game win streak at the moment, the team's longest such streak since 2003. Tuesday's game at Houston was a beauty, with Joey Hainsfurther and Tyler Bremer doing the heavy lifting on the mound and Josh Ludy (4-5, 2 Runs, 4 RBI, HR) and Jake Miller (3-5, 2 Runs, RBI, Double) going off at the plate. This current streak has thrust the Bears into the Top 25 in most Rankings, including Collegiate Baseball (#18), Baseball America (#21), and the USA Today Coaches Poll (#23).
I was looking at the Bears' schedule today and noticed something really interesting. The first two Conference series were against Kansas and Texas Tech, generally thought of as two of the weakest teams in the league. The next three series are against OSU, Mizzou, and Kansas State, the three teams I'll be talking about today as the middle tier of the Big 12. The final three series of the season will be against A&M, Oklahoma, and UT - three teams that are on par with Baylor at the top of the league. Whoever set up the schedule was very generous to Baylor, essentially allowing them to play their conference foes in order of difficulty. It should help the Bears build a solid record and become NCAA Tournament worthy before they ever play in-conference teams with elite talent. Thank you, Big 12 scheduling committee!
With that, on to the Big 12's middle tier!
Oklahoma State was picked to come in 6th in the conference in the preseason coaches' poll, and they haven't done much to make people believe they'll be better than that. They currently sit at 14-11 and have played only four games against 2011 NCAA Tournament Teams, going 2-2 (1-2 to TCU and 1-0 against Dallas Baptist). According to WarrenNolan, they are 209th in Strength of Schedule, and they are only 2-8 in away games.
Needless to say, no one is very high on their chances to compete for the conference title. They do have a few things going for them, however. The first is Andrew Heaney. Heaney is a true ace who currently has a 1.12 ERA, 5-1 Record, and 65 Ks in 48 Innings Pitched. He's only allowed 8 walks and 1 Homerun in that span. More advanced Sabremetric stats like FIP love Heaney too (1.26). I'm not sure there's a single team in the conference that wouldn't trade their Friday starter for this guy. He's that good.
So why doesn't OSU win more games? They have some other effective pitchers, but no one else is on Heaney's level. They also don't score enough runs. Thus far, they've scored 4.8 Runs per game. Baylor scores 6.2. That's a big difference.
Missouri is in a similar situation to OSU as far as their schedule is concerned. They haven't played anyone of note, and they are ranked 173rd in Strength of Schedule. They're 2-4 in away games and 15-9 overall. Unlike OSU, it's not the Tigers' offense that is holding them back. They have 6 starters hitting over .295 with a nice blend of power and speed. 6.1 runs per game is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
For the Tigers, pitching is their weakness. It looks like they've had trouble finding consistent starters, as many different pitchers have (ineffectively) started games. The only consistent starter they have is Rob Zastryzny who is sporting a 3.93 ERA and has allowed 35 hits and 11 walks in only 34 innings.
In looking at their team, I'd call Mizzou the best of the middle tier. Their weakness is far less glaring than either OSU or Kansas State, and, although they haven't played anyone, they coud certainly sneak into the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas State is a really interesting case this year. The Wildcats have a lot going for them on paper, in spite of their 13-11 overall record. They are 6-7 in games on the road, which is not bad at all and better than Baylor's 3-4 road record, they have been to the NCAA Tournament for the last three years in a row, and they are scoring 6.9 runs a game. These are all good things.
Even better than all that, Kansas State has five batters hitting over .300, and four of those guys are hitting over .342! Each of those four has a has an on-base percentage well over .400. This team can rake in an almost scary way. So why are they performing so poorly? Pitching, pitching, pitching. When a team doesn't have a single starting pitcher with an ERA under 4.00 and opposing teams are hitting almost .300 against all of them, things are definitely not going well.
Kind of makes you appreciate Josh Turley, Trent Blank, Max Garner, Joey Hainsfurther, and Brad Kuntz even more, huh? This is why Baylor is better than all of these teams I've gone over to this point: balance. With 6.8 runs per game and only 3.6 runs allowed per game, both our offense and pitching/defense are doing their jobs well. Baylor may not dominate these three teams the way they did Kansas and Tech, but they should certainly take each series against them.