Baseball falls short of ninth bid to Ivy Championship Series

by Alexander Agadjanian | 5/8/16 5:01pm

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Less than two weeks ago, the Dartmouth baseball team’s chances of representing the Red Rolfe Division in the Ivy League championship — for the eighth straight year — looked slimmer than ever. Tied atop its section with Yale University entering a four-game series against the Bulldogs at home, the Big Green dropped three consecutive games before salvaging the fourth. Plunging two games back in the loss column with only one weekend of regular season baseball left, Dartmouth had no choice but to hope to receive some extra help.

And that it did, from one of the worst teams in the conference, Brown University, which unexpectedly took three of four in its series against Yale, infusing the Big Green with new life. Sweeping its first two at Harvard University, the team tensely waited through a rainout for two days back home. Yet Dartmouth managed to only split a Tuesday afternoon doubleheader when play resumed, meaning a one-game playoff in New Haven, Connecticut lay ahead later that week.

After battling through an excruciatingly close ball game that featured four lead changes and no side leading by more than two runs at any point, the Big Green (18-25) finally fell by a score of 5-4 to Yale (18-26-1) this past Saturday. For the first time in nearly a decade, Dartmouth has yielded its claim to Red Rolfe supremacy.

“We just didn’t make enough plays in the moments we needed to,” Joe Purritano ’16 said. “That’s baseball, it really is a game of inches and timing. When we needed it the most we couldn’t pull through.”

Sending out pitching staff ace Duncan Robinson ’16 nearly sealed the team’s most important fixture of the season, but the senior couldn’t survive Yale’s comeback push in the bottom of the eighth inning. A single and double from Bulldog hitters paved the way for a definitive two-run inning, despite not collecting any strong hits that left the infield to drive in those runners.

In 7.1 innings of pitching, Robinson struck out eight and walked none, though suffered from allowing three extra-base hits. Bulldog third baseman Richard Slenker particularly foiled the pitcher. Going 3-3 with 2 RBIs and 2 runs, the junior smacked a solo home run off Robinson to score Yale’s first run in the fourth inning and started the eighth inning rally with a single and eventually scored the tying run.

Nevertheless, having played his last game as a senior, Robinson now leaves the program with a decorated career behind him. Entering the season as the reigning Ivy League Pitcher of the Year, the senior continued to thrive in 2016. Among all Ivy League regular starters — those with at least five starts on the season — Robinson posted the highest strikeout percentage at 25.6 and lowest walk percentage at 2.8 in the conference. Moreover, his numbers stand out substantially from the pack. The closest another regular starter comes to his 9.29 strikeout to walk ratio is with a 5.57, and the average among all conference pitchers is 1.68.

Tendencies to succumb to the long ball caused pains — captured in a 0.59 HR/9 innings rate, only the 20th best among conference starters — but by the end of the year, Robinson still sported the best fielding-independent pitching statistic among all Ivy League starters. His 73-strikeout total through the season also marked the most made by a Dartmouth hurler in 16 years. It would not be a stretch to conclude Robinson merits back-to-back conference pitcher of the year recognition.

Offensive struggles, on the other hand, hampered Dartmouth throughout the season. Despite tying for the second best Ivy League record, the Big Green only scored the fifth most runs within conference play. More specifically, the team suffered from a dearth of power in its lineup, posting the lowest isolated power — a stat that measures hitting power in emphasizing extra-base hits — among all league teams. Despite the Big Green showing great plate discipline in having the lowest strikeout percentage, the catch-all offensive metric OPS also pointed to Dartmouth as the worst hitting team, with a conference-worst .673 mark.

The great irony in Dartmouth being forced to play in a one-game division playoff and eventually lose comes from the fact that over the course of the conference season, the Big Green proved the strongest team in its section. A simple win-loss record undermines that notion, but the more useful run differential statistic supports it. Within Ivy League play, Dartmouth easily posted the best run differential, +17, of any Red Rolfe club — the next closest was Harvard, with +1.

Using those numbers, we can then derive a Pythagorean expectation — the winning percentage for a team we should expect based on runs scored and allowed. At the Major League level, this has been established as a more accurate indicator of team ability than actual win percentage. For Ivy League games — those that matter most for season success — Dartmouth had the highest expected win percentage among Red Rolfe teams, but also the largest deviation from its observed one.

In other words, the Big Green underperformed and, had it played over a larger sample of games, the team would likely have an improved actual win percentage. Yale, on the other hand, overachieved by nearly 10 percentage points.

Regardless of this season’s outcome, Big Green players — and in particular senior ones — remain proud of their club’s performance and that the team managed to push its divisional rival to the brink.

“You work for eight, nine months to have it all come down to a three-hour game,” Purritano said. “It’s still hard to swallow. As far as performance, some things didn’t go our way but we never gave up and that’s something this team should be really proud of. We needed a miracle to even continue the season after the regular season. With our backs against the wall we played some great baseball against Harvard. At the end we just came up a little short.”

Dartmouth co-captain Thomas Roulis ’15 expressed similar sentiments as his career in Hanover came to a close.

“You never realize until you’re a senior, you finish that last game, and that’s it, you’re done,” he said. “There’s no more next year. It’s tough for us, but I wouldn’t trade playing here for anything in the world. The guys that I’ve met here, the guys that I’ve played with, to be part of Dartmouth is something I’ll cherish forever. It’s something special. Unfortunately this season didn’t go our way, but we had a good group of guys who went out, just tried to play baseball and left it all on the field. At the end of the day, if that’s [what] we did, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”