Fun With Small Sample Sizes, College Baseball’s First Weekend

(Photo via the Arkansas Razorbacks website, seen here)

The beginning of any baseball season always brings excitement and hope for fans, players, and coaches alike. The weather warms up, the sun peeks out a little more often, and the possibility of this year being the year is always there. No matter how the previous year ended, every team and player is handed a fresh start and the opportunity to accomplish any goal they set in the offseason. While the nature of the game leaves most goals unrealized, each beginning teems with the possibility of a perfect ending.

With college and professional baseball seasons being more of a marathon than a sprint, teams and players experience a great number of peaks and valleys as the year goes on. Hitters can go from seemingly never able to make an out to not making contact for a week. Pitchers can go from painting the corners like Picasso one outing then throwing batting practice the next. Eventually, these extremes tend to even out and the end results typically reflect each team and player’s true talent level. However, in the beginning of the season, these large deviations from the norm give us some pretty interesting statistics.

After four games, the Arkansas Razorbacks looked like one of the most impressive teams in the country and more than deserving of their #6 ranking. They were 4-0 and had outscored their opponents 50-7, punctuated by a 32-4 blasting of Bucknell. Their +43 through four games run differential would roughly amount to a +602 scoring differential over the rest of the regular season, which would easily top the MLB record of +411 by the 1939 Yankees. Unfortunately for Arkansas, their explosive start was quickly ground to a halt, as the Razorbacks dropped two of their next three games against unranked opponents.

A club that has yet to return to earth has been the Oregon State Beavers. Although the team certainly has lofty expectations after a 56-6 regular season in 2017 and potentially the most talented roster in the country, it’s tough to ask for a better start. The Beavers have roared out of the gate (or dam?) to an 8-0 record while outscoring their opponents 77-28. Even more impressive is the fact that their pitching hasn’t really gotten going the way they did in 2017 and it’s largely been the bats carrying them to their fast start. As a team, they’re batting .365/.436/.521 with Nick Madrigal and Trevor Larnach off to torrid starts, combining to slash .558/.634/1.000 over 52 at bats. While the Beavers are due to lose and these two superstars will cool down at some point, it’ll be interesting to see how long these gaudy numbers will remain intact (get well soon, Madrigal).

Pitchers, and relievers in particular, are vulnerable to wild swings in their statistics due to one or two great or catastrophic outings. Pittsburgh’s RJ Freure has been the perfect example of what a couple electric appearances can look like in a season in its infancy. In bullpen appearances, the sophomore Panther from Ontario has amassed 7.2 innings with 1 earned run and 15 strikeouts, giving him a 17.6 K/9 for the short season. While that ratio isn’t completely unfathomable, it’s impressive when you consider he registered 46 strikeouts in 38 innings in 2017, meaning he has 1/3 of the strikeouts he recorded last year in 30.1 less innings.

Even with his impressive start, Freure doesn’t even lead DI baseball in K/9. That distinction goes to Ole Miss starting pitcher Ryan Rolison, who has fanned 21 batters in 10 innings for a ratio of 21.6 K/9. Unlike Freure, this sophomore sensation was more or less expected to shine this year after being named a freshman All-American in 2017. However, mowing down hitters via the strikeout is largely a new feature of Rolison’s game, as he struck out just over one batter per inning as a freshman.

The performances put up by these players and teams are fun to watch while the season is young, but we assuredly will see these numbers “regress to the mean,” as a statistician would say. Barring a historic performance, the pitcher who leads the country in K/9 will likely have a ratio around 15-16.5, and even the best offensive teams won’t end up with video-game numbers. Throughout the year, there will definitely be incredible runs by players and teams that defy even our greatest expectations. These remarkable highs are balanced out by humbling lows, giving us season where the unexpected can be expected on any given day.

Peter Sitaras

Staff Writer with CBBSN. Former St. Joseph's University Baseball Player.

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