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Season Report Card: Rutgers baseball fails to qualify for B1G tournament

Disappointing final week heavily influences grades.

photo from Bob Cancro

In our midseason report card, it appeared Rutgers baseball had a chance to up their game and earn a B1G tournament berth. Heading into the final week of the season that still seemed like a possibility. After walking off Illinois in dramatic fashion, the Scarlet Knights put themselves in position to control their own destiny. They would not win another game.

On Tuesday the team dropped both ends of a doubleheader at third place Minnesota, 6-2 and 6-0, as the offense never got going. They still had a mathematical chance if they could sweep Northwestern. They were embarrassed in the opener 14-0 and the series ended up as a sweep in the wrong direction. Rutgers finishes in 12th place in the Big Ten ahead of only cellar-dwelling Penn State.

What are the final grades and how do those compare to midseason?

Offense: B, Trending slightly down.

They STILL can hit. The team finished with a .357 on-base percentage (up from .346) and added 20 homers since B1G play began compared to the 17 they had preceding it. Those numbers are skewed by the school record 28 run outburst at Lafayette. In that non-conference game they had 24 hits which included 6 home runs. Overall, the numbers were down in Big Ten play.

The top of the lineup’s decrease from virtually unsustainable production was the catalyst for this drop. Mike Carter ended as the only offensive player hitting over .300 at .329 but that was significantly down from his torrid .402 start that led the B1G. Juwuan Harris only added one more homer to his total and finished at .269 with 23 stolen bases as he was banged up at the end of the year. Nick Matera (.293, 5 HR) turned it on late as well as Tom Marcinczyk (.274, 7 HR, 29 RBI). Mike Martinez really came on as well (.273, 11 SB) a much needed improvement from an underclassmen.

Though they didn’t set any records in stolen bases in 2017 (down from 121 to 74), the offense was solid and occasionally spectacular this season. In conference play, the pitching staff never really won a game for the club putting tremendous pressure on the offense every inning, virtually every at-bat. The team’s batting average was a few ticks up but the slugging percentage jumped from .361 in 2016 to .400 in 2017, but the run total was actually lower. Overall, the offense earns a straight B.

Harris cooled off, but still had a solid season.
Bob Cancro

Defense: C-, Trending down.

Defensively, the second half was much of the same and the team’s errors per game actually went up from 1.71 per game to a final 1.79 a contest. It seemed they stabilized the infield alignment with Milo Freeman at first, Kevin Welsh at short, Chris Campbell at third, and Carmen Sclafani at 2nd. I hedged earlier because the pitchers walked too many people, but the defense never really settled in any more after that. 2017 saw 95 errors, WAY up from the 59 in 2016.

The one counter example was turning 26 double plays in the final 30 games compared to only 12 in the first 23. There is reason for optimism heading into 2018 as Welsh should improve after his freshman season and Sclafani still has two seasons left. If someone else emerges in the middle infield that would be a bonus. They will also return both catchers (Folinusz and Matera) with Harris in center field so the team will have some stability up the middle going into next year.

Starting pitching: D-, Trending down.

Pitching was an absolute mess early in the season as expected, showed some improvement and then regressed once again late in the year. Serafino Brito’s ERA dropped (5.09 to 4.84) but John O’Reilly’s went up (5.23 to 5.87). The combination of two position players turned emergency starters Chris Campbell (6.65) and Gaby Rosa (6.98) did not come close to replacing Howie Brey (3.5). Campbell and Rosa continued to throw strikes but just gave up a lot more runs. The most telling statistic in B1G play is that in only three of the 23 Big Ten games did the pitching staff allow three runs or less. (Two 3 run efforts and one game with two runs allowed).

James Torres and Dante Scafidi were awful, but will be back alongside Brito and O’Reilly. This is a spot where a true freshman could really help, it can’t get any worse, can it?

Bullpen: C, Trending even.

Again, coming into the season this would have been considered a strength of the team. Max Herrmann tallied 6 saves and lowered his ERA to 3.31 to lead the team in both categories other than Joe Neglia at 1.64 in only 11 innings. Ryan Fleming trended the opposite way. A team ERA of 6.11 was of course not entirely on the starters and will need a huge boost next season. When starters are going three or four innings, a bullpen gets taxed and the extra work did not help in any way.

Coaching strategy: B-, Trending up.

The staff got a lot out of the offense and impressed by changing tactics from 2016 utilizing the threat of stolen bases effectively more than stealing them. They were able to offset the loss of star catcher R.J. Devish and at times got more than the sum of their offensive parts.

Defensively, they tinkered a lot earlier in the season before settling on an alignment. At the end of the day, players make fielding errors not coaches so I think the staff did what they could with the defensive limitations of the team. They had to accept defensive risks to have the necessary offense in the lineup. Sclafani and Welsh ended up hitting enough to make the staff’s decision appear correct.

With the pitching staff, it was much the same as the defense. They opted for Rosa and Campbell to throw strikes to go along with O’Reilly and Brito who took the ball on their turn each time no matter what. Piecing together outs to get to Herrmann was a struggle, but there’s not much you could say as virtually every middle reliever struggled even more than the starters. Neglia, Kyle Gerace, and Kevin Romero were the only relievers other than Herrmann to have an ERA under 5, ouch.

Overall the team had goals of being .500 and qualifying for the B1G tournament. Despite a poor overall record of 19-34 and obvious limitations preventing runs from scoring, they somehow still had a chance to reach the second goal with just one week left in the season. The staff gave the squad a chance but were completely outgunned by a solid Minnesota club. Then the team got whooped in the opener at Northwestern, not much a staff can do when the entire team doesn’t show up to end their postseason hopes.

Player Development: D+, Trending slightly up.

This continues to be the most concerning area. Chris Folinusz and Nick Matera had nice seasons. Mike Martinez and Sclafani improved offensively as well.

Defensively, they didn’t show much improvement. It would be interesting to see what just one star defender, perhaps a shortstop or catcher could do to the overall stability of the club. Coaching catching and throwing the ball is tough once players reach the college level.

Pitching of course may be the product of talent, but the staff has to figure out a way to get more out of their players. Sacrificing the long term growth of many pitchers by throwing Campbell and Rosa so many innings was either a symptom that none of the young guys could throw strikes or the staff was trying to save their jobs. Regardless, the staff didn’t build confidence that we will see much improvement from the pitchers going into or during next season.

Recruiting: D+.

The jury never came back to truly asses the 2017 freshmen class as only Welsh truly played enough to be assessed. Coach Litterio has an opportunity to grow players between year one and year two. It wasn’t until late in the season the 2016 recruiting class of true sophomores really started contributing other than Juwuan Harris. Brito, Sclafani, Martinez, and Matera showed marked improvement by the end.

The job of recruiting is tough in the coldest power conference in America, the Big Ten. By sheer baseball playing population, Rutgers should be at least middle of the road so the opportunity is there to be competitive in their league if done right.

Overall assessment: D+, trending down

This grade I struggled the most with, trying to decide how much I should factor in the final five losses. All else being equal, if the team went 4-1 in its last five games I would have given them a B at minimum for taking a huge step in the right direction and qualifying for the B1G tournament. Instead they finished in 12th place. What makes it more disappointing is the series ended against Northwestern who was horrible halfway through the year, but truly turned things around.

The wide range on what is and what might have been in a span of 6 days sounds extreme. On the other hand, putting it all together the final week would have hid many of the issues that plagued the team all year. If you added up the individual grades, they ended up regressing to the team’s final mark.

The schedule ended up being very tough but as the old adage goes, you are what your record says you are. The Knights were one game below .500 in 2016 overall but fell to 19-34 in 2017. The team won two less games in the B1G than a year ago as well, so they are trending the wrong way.

What’s next?

Pat Hobbs has focused on the biggest revenue sports so far, but it will be interesting to see how much more time he gives this coaching staff. From afar it seems they need to think B1Gger but the staff doesn’t truly have the facilities and exposure to act like other Big Ten clubs. With the new practice facility they are trending up, but the play on the field is not quite yet.

The graduation losses are heavy with two way players Campbell and Rosa, the top two relievers (Herrmann and Fleming), and two 200-hit men (Marcinczyk and Carter) all departing. The steady production of the hitters will likely not be matched, but the bigger loss may be Herrmann who was able to shut the door when called upon. Baseball can be a funny game so it’s possible other players will step up, the reason there’s always room for optimism. It’s the only sport you fail 7 out of 10 times and can still be an All-Star. And the team still boasts (for now) its most talented athlete in Harris.

Matera and Folinusz were adequate at the plate and behind it.
Bob Cancro

What do you think? Let the Scarlet Knight community know in the comments below.

For my list of superlatives for Rutgers baseball this season, click here.