Up-and-down pitching parallels baseball team’s success

| Staff Writer

The great baseball statistician Bill James gained fame for debunking the sport’s old cliche that pitching is 90 percent of the game. But for Washington University, as the team’s pitching goes, so do the Bears.

As Wash. U.’s offense has churned out steady runs and as its lineup generated steady production, it’s been up to the pitching staff to deliver wins to the NCAA tournament hopeful. When Wash. U. (20-12 record) has allowed five runs or fewer, the team has 17 wins to just four losses; when allowing six or more runs, the team owns a substandard 3-8 record.

Junior Brad Margolin delivers a pitch against Fontbonne University this past weekend. Margolin has a 4-1 record thus far this season and has a 3.81 ERA over 52 innings pitched.

Junior Brad Margolin delivers a pitch against Fontbonne University this past weekend. Margolin has a 4-1 record thus far this season and has a 3.81 ERA over 52 innings pitched.

The Bears’ results have followed a sinusoidal path on the season so far: a strong start followed by a scuffle around the spring break bloat on the schedule followed by an upward turn in the April sun.

It was the team’s pitching that captured the Bears’ first outright conference title since 2005, and it was the team’s pitching that propelled the Bears into the top 25 nationally for the first time since 2012.

Through 16 games, Wash. U. boasted a 12-4 record and was allowing just over two runs per game—compared to the almost six per game that its opponents averaged against non-Bear staffs. In the University Athletic Association tournament, Wash. U. even outpaced Emory University’s second-best-in-the-country staff, allowing 18 runs over the eight-game slate to Emory’s 25.

“We started off really, really strong,” senior starter Julian Clarke said. “Both the starting pitching and our bullpen—there was a period of time where our bullpen literally did not surrender a run. I don’t know how long that lasted, but it was pretty impressive while it was happening.”

Clarke might not have known the streak lasted a robust 18 innings, but the sentiment was there: Wash. U. pitching wasn’t allowing runs. And as the old saying goes, it’s hard to lose when the other team doesn’t score.

With that philosophy in mind, the Bears hoisted the UAA trophy in Sarasota, Fla., over spring break, but in a twist of usual college tropes, the players might have wished they fled the Sunshine State before break ended.

In a second week of play in Florida against a fleet of tougher teams, the Bears stumbled and instead came back to St. Louis on a sour note.

First came a 13-3 drubbing at the hands of No. 25 Rutgers University-Camden, then a pair of losses to No. 12 Ramapo College – the latter team is now ranked No. 1 in the nation. Two days later, the Bears experienced their most lopsided defeat of the season, a 13-0 loss to No. 7 Southern Maine University.

In those four games combined, Wash. U. allowed 43 total runs—after allowing 34, total, in the first 16 games. It would take another three weeks for the Bears’ staff to settle down.

Head coach Pat Bloom noted that those raw numbers don’t tell the full story of the Bears’ mound exploits, though.

“Just looking at the box scores without knowing the level of team or the park they’re playing at or the way the wind is blowing, you might be missing out on some important components that reflect and contribute to either better-looking numbers on the pitching end of things or some inflated ERAs,” Bloom said.

In a weekend series in Iowa against Grinnell College, for instance, the Bears’ pitchers had to contend with wind gusts regularly exceeding 30 miles per hour and a short fence in left field. Fast-forward to the end of that Sunday, and Wash. U. had surrendered 31 runs in three games—including nine home runs, after the Bears had allowed just four homers in their first 24 games of the season.

“If you would’ve watched balls come off the right-handed hitters’ bats to the pull side, you would [have seen] why our pitchers would’ve had a tough time,” Bloom said.

After competing in eight games in as many days during the UAA championship, fatigue also might have played a factor in the Bears’ struggles during their second week in Florida. Whereas starting pitchers usually have five or six days between games during the majority of the season, they threw with only three or four days of rest during that span.

“People had misses that were up and over the plate, as opposed to missing down and missing in the bottom of the strike zone,” junior swingman Bill Heisler said. That meant those misses were easier for opposing hitters to hit—and to drive a long way.

“That was really the first week where, when we made mistakes, it wasn’t just fouled off or it wasn’t just a base hit,” Heisler said. “All the mistakes were getting hit for doubles and home runs and triples.”

Heisler had his worst outing of the season in that stretch, allowing four runs (three earned) in just 3.1 innings in his most recent start. Junior Scott Nelson saw his ERA rise nearly three runs—from an ace-level 2.92 to 4.82 over that span. Clarke had given up only three earned runs in his first 25-plus innings of the season, only to add 16 earned runs to his ledger in half the innings post-UAAs.

Clarke credited his unusually poor performances to a mechanical issue with his delivery and improperly opening up his front side toward the plate. Having since discovered the flaw, he said, he should be back to normal in future appearances on the mound.

That plan goes for the rotation as a whole. Since the wind-aided scoreboard fireworks at Grinnell, the staff has returned to the basics: reducing walks, inducing soft contact and ultimately keeping crooked numbers off the scoreboard.

Junior Brad Margolin pitched a complete-game, one-hit gem in a 2-1 win over Fontbonne University, and Nelson followed with a complete-game four-hitter of his own later that day. On Tuesday, Clarke returned to form with a sturdy six innings, albeit in a loss against Webster University.

Much of the team’s success results from its command of the strike zone. Rather than pop off the page, the staff’s biggest strength exists in a binary row of muted 1s and 0s, representing the walk totals the Bears allowed in each game outside their slump.

Clarke has thrown just nine bases on balls in 48.1 innings, and Margolin has a mere four in 52 frames, giving him the second-best ratio in the country (minimum 40 innings pitched).

Overall, through last weekend’s games, Wash. U. ranks 12th out of 375 teams in Division III in walks allowed per nine innings (2.32).

In Clarke’s telling, the two largest points of emphasis for the rotation both involve command: being able to throw fastballs for strikes and having at least one off-speed offering they can make dance around the strike zone.

Throwing strikes can mean fewer strikeouts, ironically, because the Bears are pitching with the goal of inducing weak contact rather than nibbling around the corners of the strike zone trying to make batters flail. Fittingly, Wash. U. ranks just 249th in the country with 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

“A lot of people look at the strikeout as a sexy stat or whatever, but more than anything else…a lot of our success comes when we generate a lot of ground balls and let the defense work,” junior Bill Heisler said.

The lanky left-hander adds three off-speed pitches to his repertoire alongside the typical fastball, and for him, “It’s really all about establishing my fastball and then letting my off-speed keep hitters off balance and generate a lot of ground balls,” Heisler said.

Bloom dove more into the nuanced analysis behind the team’s approach.

“I’ve told our guys before that throwing strikes is what high school pitchers need to do,” the coach said. “College pitchers need to be able to command counts, and they need to be able to throw quality strikes.”

Part of the nuance involves not just using the existing strike zone—the one over the plate between the batter’s knees and letters—but also by manipulating hitters and umpires into visually expanding the “K” area.

“The bigger that you can make the strike zone or that space of pitch-ability appear, obviously, the harder it is for the hitter to have to cover all [of] that territory,” Bloom said.

And with a staff full of players who might not have a traditionally electric fastball or “wipeout secondary pitch,” Bloom said, the importance of pitching intelligently amplifies even further.

“You have to be able to change eye level—you have to be able to throw the ball to both sides of the plate and you have to change timing,” he said. “The guys that do all three really well and don’t throw hard are the ones that are the true pitchers, in my opinion.”

Wash. U. returns to the field with a trio of home games against the University of Chicago over Alumni Weekend. First pitch is Saturday at noon.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.