Interview with Larry Fall of Penn State blog Happy Valley Hardball

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Larry Fall blogs about sports at Penn State University and his blog, Happy Valley  Hardball covers the baseball team at PSU.  Happy Valley takes a unique look at the team as it is very stats-oriented and Larry even occasionally expands his coverage to the conference in general. 

In light of Illinois’ opening Big Ten series against Penn State this weekend, Larry was kind enough to answer a few questions about the PSU baseball team. 

Illinois Baseball Report:  Taking a quick look at the standings, the Penn State record of 8-12 (as of Saturday) doesn’t seem too impressive.  But looking closer at their schedule, they’ve played some tough teams.  For example, they’ve played ranked Texas A&M twice.  In the long run, will playing such competitive teams help PSU when the Big Ten season starts?  And given all that, just how good is Penn State?

Happy Valley Hardball:  One would hope so, but we’ve scheduled even tougher competition on our spring break trips in the past and it hasn’t seemed to help.  We got off to a very good start in the Big Ten/Big East challenge (wins over Cincy and Seton Hall and a one run extra inning loss to Notre Dame), which were followed up with a split in a four game weekend tournament in Texas (wins over McNeese State and Dallas Baptist, but two losses to Lamar).   At that point, I’d say things were looking pretty optimistic since, in the past, we’ve been notoriously slow starters.

Unfortunately, we then ran into a buzzsaw in the aforementioned Texas A&M and they whopped us pretty good (17-3, 7-0).  That led to a string of defeats, seven in all, and it wasn’t until this past weekend that we looked like we might come out of it.

If you dissect our 9-12 record, you find that we’ve 0-5 against top 50 RPI schools with our losses coming to #13 Texas A&M (2) and #40 Texas State (3).  So that makes us 9-7 against the rest of the world.  Given that the entire Big Ten only has three wins in forty four games against RPI top 50 schools, maybe we can hold our own in conference.

However, to be honest, I don’t expect us to.  I think our pitching is suspect, particularly the bullpen, and without good pitching, we’re going nowhere.  I see us struggling to play .500 ball in conference.

Just as a follow-up on the scheduling.  I think the Big East/Big Ten challenge has been a fantastic idea.  The Big East traditionally has some pretty decent teams (from a northern school perspective) so they provide a challenge for the Big Ten schools but, at the same time, don’t have the enormous early season weather advantage that the southern schools possess.

IBR:  Perhaps I’m reading too much into it but Penn State has a 0-9 record in opponent’s ballparks but a 8-3 record elsewhere.  Do you think there’s anything to that?

HVH:  Actually, I do.  Part of it is, of course, that we played the top 50 schools, Tex A&M and Texas State, on their campuses, so that’s likely to put us in a road hole to begin with.  The rest of it, though, I think is because of the make up of this team.  We have an ok offense and a bunch of kids who won’t quit, but we are handicapped with our pitching.  So in games where we get the last at-bat, we have a chance.  But with a weak bullpen, the same can be said for our opponents when they get the last shot.

Penn State has actually been involved in seven walk-off games.  We’ve won four and lost three.  Amazingly, when we have the last at bat, we are actually 7-1.  Of course, that also means we are 2-11 when the other guy bats last.

IBR:  Junior catcher Ben Heath seems to be Penn State’s big offensive threat this season.  At this point, he’s leading the team in homeruns and rbis.  Are there other Nittany Lion hitters that Illinois should be careful with?  Pitchers?

HVH:  Ben is having an outstanding season (.358 BA, 7 HR, 26 RBI); I’d actually call it an All Big Ten type of season to date.  He’s currently second in the conference with 7 home runs and, if he can continue to hit with power at Medlar Field, a not exactly power friendly park, he could have a shot at Penn State’s thirty plus year old home run record of 17.  His backup at catcher, Bobby Jacobs (.390 BA, 1 HR, 6 RBI), is someone else to keep an eye on since he’s recently taken over most of the DH role. 

But the big pleasant surprise of the season is sophomore and Illinois native Joey DeBernardis (.372 BA, 1 HR, 17 RBI) from Lake Zurich.  Joey played sparingly as a freshman last year but is having a breakout season this year.  He’s taken over the first baseman’s slot vacated by four year starter (and coach’s son) Cory Wine.  Joey is carrying a very hot bat right now with eight multi-hit games in his last 12.  He did have an eight game hitting streak come to an end last Friday but he has reached base in 19 of 21 games so far this season.  He’s also backed that up with an error-less performance in the field 

Another kid who has come on strong of late is freshman Elliot Searer (.341 BA).  Elliot is normally a middle infielder but coach Robbie Wine has moved him to the outfield to try and get some more offense into the lineup. 

Also, watch out for leadoff hitter Sean Deagan.  If he gets on, he’s going to run.  He’s currently 14-14 in stolen bases.  Unfortunately, he’s only batting .245 with an OBP of only .311, a little low for what you’d like at the top of the order.

As far as pitching goes, I’m having a hard time finding much good to say.  The ace of the staff should be Mike Wanamaker (1-2 W/L, 5.62 ERA), who missed all of last year with an injury and who still looks a little rusty.  The bullpen has really struggled but David Lutz (1-1 W/L,3.97 ERA) had a good week in long relief, putting up 7.1 consecutive scoreless innings. Starter Ryan Ignas (2-1 W/L, 5.34 ERA) had a good outing on Saturday with a seven inning complete game. 

IBR:  Tell us about your blog, Happy Valley Hardball.  It’s pretty unique college baseball blog in that you have a focus on sabermetrics. 

HVH:  The sabermetrics thing is probably something that I ought to remove from my tagline since I’m doing less and less of it all the time – not so much from a lack of interest as from a lack of time. If I could find a better way of automating the data collection and number crunching end of it I might do more. I’ve found myself doing far too much cutting and pasting into Excel spreadsheets when my automated web queries fail. 

One thing that I will do though is use Bill James’s Pythagorean Expectation formula to calculate what we might expect the Big Ten teams winning percentages to be.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, James says that a teams winning percentage can be expected to be equal to their runs scored squared divided by the sum of their runs scored squared and their runs allowed squared.  It’s called the Pythagorean Expectation because of its similarity to the familiar c squared equals a squared plus b squared.

I’ll publish my first expectation results sometime in the next couple of days. My experience with the Pythagorean Expectation highlights some of the problems I have with my sabermetrics stuff.  Ideally, I’d like to plot out the teams winning percentages based on Big Ten stats only.  I think the percentages are distorted by the different caliber of competition that the Big Ten teams have faced during the early non-conference play (Iowa has the toughest SOS at #89 while Purdue has the softest at #280 – that’s a pretty big disparity).  That all goes away if I just use conference results.  However, I have been unable to find a source that can provide me with the runs scored and runs allowed just in conference play (the conference provides conference game stats only for basketball, I don’t know why they don’t do it for baseball).  So to publish it the way that I’d prefer to do it, I’d have to go to every team’s website and pull out their conference numbers from the box scores.  Not going to do that so I have to settle for a non-conference Pythagorean Expectation.

One thing that I’ll also continue to do is experiment with ways of presenting data.  I want to see if I can find some new visualization techniques.  Things like this batting stats chart that I published last year (sometime before the weekend I should get a post up with this season’s data in it).  The chart is interactive and you can play around with it doing various comparisons.

I’ll look around the web other ideas that I can use.

IBR:  Finally, would you care to make a prediction on what teams will make the Big Ten Tournament in 2010? 

HVH:  To be honest, I have yet paid enough attention to the rest of the conference to make much of an educated guess.  I’ve been hard at work on my wrestling blog, Happy Valley Half Nelson, and it’s only now that wrestling season has ended that I can concentrate more on baseball.

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Thanks to Larry Fall for taking the time to inform us a bit on the Penn State baseball program.  If you want to check out his Penn State baseball blog, head on over to Happy Valley Hardball.

 


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