Dartmouth baseball plays tough preseason slate in Florida

by Alexander Agadjanian | 3/27/16 6:16pm

After winning two consecutive Ivy League titles to end a 22-year drought, the Dartmouth baseball team has met an identical end-of-season fate each of the last five years: winning its own Red Rolfe Division, only to lose in the ensuing Ivy championship series each time. With the Ivy League portion of the 2016 schedule on the horizon, the Big Green will now gear towards recreating the same success as in years past but overcome this final hurdle. Intentionally designed to provide some challenges, the team’s preseason has brought many more defeats than victories with a 5-13 record — and a troubling Ivy-worst -60 run differential — but generally produced a mixed bag of results.

“I think the biggest think to take away from the start of the season is how we progressed from the first week up until this point,” co-captain Thomas Roulis ’15 said. “We’ve been stringing some hits together, our pitching and bats have gotten progressively better. And that’s really what we’re looking for in this part of the season, especially going into conference play [soon].”

Participating in various invitationals, tournaments and other individual games, Dartmouth has played its entire preseason slate in the state of Florida. The team floundered in its first trip south during the Snowbird Classic in late February, dropping all three of its first games of the season while only scoring two runs over that time, despite reaching nearly an average of eight total bases in each game. While two of these losses came by margins of three runs, the third against Villanova University was a more disappointing 14-1 blowout defeat.

The following weekend the team returned to the Sunshine State, only this time playing the most formidable opponent it will face all season in the University of Florida Gators, the unanimous No. 1 ranked team in the country. Despite getting swept in the three game series in Gainesville, Florida, the Big Green played the Gators very closely in the final two games of the set — barely faltering in 12 innings 4-3 after a ninth-inning rally to tie it up, followed by an 8-6 loss after surrendering an early-game lead.

“In terms of playing a tough out of conference schedule, I think it definitely helps,” star pitcher Duncan Robinson ’16 noted about playing a team like Florida. “You have guys who don’t have a ton of experience, you get out and play if front of large crowds and a great venue, it shakes off some of those nerves.”

A third return trip down south to Florida brought about more success, as Dartmouth snapped a six-game losing streak to start the year with a 6-4 victory over Bucknell University in its first game playing in the Russ Matt Invitational. With the game tied at four with two outs in the ninth inning, Dustin Shirley ’18 came through with a 2-RBI triple as Dartmouth stormed back in crossing the plate four times in the last two innings.

Three consecutive defeats would follow, but the Big Green responded with its most successful stretch of the season: three straight wins fueled by excellent pitching performances. First, Robinson went the distance for a complete game victory, allowing four runs but striking out 12 ­— the most by a Big Green player in over three years. Later in the same day, Michael Danielak ’16 capped off a brilliant Sunday of pitching, fanning nine with just one earned run en route to another win. Two days later, Ben Socher ’17 broke a deadlock in the top of the 10th with an RBI double to continue the team’s winning ways.

Those would end as quickly as they arrived however, as Dartmouth got thumped by the University of North Florida 17-3 and lost the rematch the next day 8-6.

“I thought down at the University of Florida, everybody pitched well,” Robinson said, reflecting back on the past games. “We knew going in it was going to be a good hitting team, and we stepped up to the challenge. We had a couple bad pitches here and there, but the weekend as a whole was a good one. At the beginning of the spring break tournament, I thought we struggled on the mound a little bit. In these last couple days [against Lehigh University, the University of Maine and Stetson University], the pitching has been phenomenal.”

The team played its final preseason series this past weekend against the University of South Florida, winning the second game 1-0 but dropping both the first and the third.

While the team as a whole has a poor ERA, some more meaningful peripheral stats confirm Robinson’s observation of his staff’s progress. As a team, Dartmouth’s 2.67 strikeout to walk ratio leads the Ivy League by a large margin, as pitchers have been able to keep men off base while retaining good pitching control. Yet the unit’s pitfall lies with respect to the long ball, as the Big Green has yielded 1.32 home runs per nine innings, far and away the worst mark in the conference. All of this has amounted to a Dartmouth pitching staff that stands as the second worst as a whole in the Ivy League, at least in terms of fielding independent pitching, a statistic that strips away defense in estimating run prevention and thus actual pitching ability.

Robinson, the reigning Ivy League Pitcher of the Year, has gotten off to a strong start this season. Yet traditional stats don’t properly reflect it, as pitchers have little control of where hits may fall in the field of play or the defense behind them, making a stat like ERA deceptive, while no control over the batting side makes win-loss records unhelpful. Strikeouts, walks and home runs yielded, on the other hand, give a better indication of a pitcher’s strength and signal of future success, and Robinson has excelled across the board in this aspect.

The senior has struck out 26.9 percent of batters he’s faced and posts 9.67 strikeouts per nine innings, both of which rank second among Ivy League pitchers who have started at least three games. Crucially, Robinson also keeps his walk rate low: a 2.6 walk percentage lands in the top five among the same group of regular starters in the conference. Summing it all up, Robinson has one of the best K/BB ratios in the conference, striking out 14.5 batters for every one walked, and a 10th best FIP among starters.

In terms of its hitting, Dartmouth has so far ranked as a middling team in the context of other Ivy clubs. A .623 OPS comes in at fifth in the conference, while the team’s isolated power — a stat the measures hitting power specifically — ranks a little better at fourth. The Big Green has also importantly kept its strikeouts low, with a second-best 19.1 strikeout percentage, a good patience at the plate indicative of more success to come in the near future.

“We were hitting some balls hard early in the season that weren’t falling, and now we’re putting some more barrel on the baseball and finding more grass in the outfield,” Roulis said about his team’s batting development as of late.

Michael Ketchmark ’17 in particular has provided a nice dose of power in the lineup. Tied for the second most total home runs in the league, the junior first baseman has the fourth best ISO among all Ivy players with at least 40 at-bats with a .212 mark, one that leads the team as well.

Joe Purritano ’16 — a 30th round selection of the Cincinnati Reds in last year’s MLB draft — has also batted well, posting a .386 OBP, the second best rate of getting on base among Dartmouth players. Though in a smaller sample of 31 at-bats, Matt Feinstein ’19 has posted the highest on-base percentage of .475 on the team.

Traveling to New Jersey to face Princeton University in a doubleheader, the Big Green will open up the Ivy League season this coming Saturday. A few out-of-conference schools such as College of the Holy Cross, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Boston College and Siena College remain interspersed throughout the rest of the schedule, but the season still begins in earnest once Dartmouth plays its first Ivy games.

“Ivy play is a little different than what we do on the spring trip,” Roulis said. “It’s a much quicker and condensed season where we don’t have time to fall behind in the standings. Once you fall behind early in the conference season, it puts you in a hole going down the stretch. Our focus is to come out strong, put those wins in the column early, and continue with that down the road.”