Ronnie Dawson and Tanner Tully debuted in Columbus with decorated seasons. Tully, the 2014 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, was an All-Big Ten Second-Team selection next to his classmate outfielder, and both were unanimous All-Big Ten All-Freshman Team selections. While all-conference accolades alluded him, right-hander Travis Lakins kicked off his career in fine fashion as well, before bursting onto scout's radars over the summer, and entered his sophomore year as one of the Big Ten's top draft prospects.
The standout southpaw, electric-armed right-hander, and uber-athletic outfielder were expected to be driving forces heading into the 2015 season as Ohio State seeks its first Big Ten Championship since 2010. After three weeks the pitchers atop the weekend rotation and the Buckeyes three-hole batter have had less than expected results. Is it a matter of a small sample size? Come mid-April will the statistics have righted itself and reflect the trio's abilities?
A look back at recent standout Buckeyes in their second season tries to answer the question.
Dawson entered his second season as the Big Ten lead returning batter, coming off a freshman campaign where he hit at a .335 clip. Since 2005, Dawson became the 13th Buckeye to garner at least 120 at-bats in his true freshman season and return for a sophomore year.
While Dawson carries a .194 batting average and .589 OPS through nine games thus far, the performances of prior Buckeyes suggest the sophomore from Grove City, Ohio is caught in a spell of bad luck, his 36 at-bats captured by a small sample size.
Of the 12 former Buckeyes, nine improved their batting average as a sophomore, 10 saw their on-base percentage increase, another 10 bettered their slugging percentages and all but one saw their OPS tick up. Four did see their K%, the percentage of plate appearance ending in a strikeout, increase, but nine saw their BB%, the percentage of plate appearances ending in a base-on-balls, increase.
Breaking it down further, one can compare the players with a freshman season closest to Dawson. Angle, Fryer, Shuck, Burkhart and Dezse, impressive company with three future Major League Baseball players (Angle, Fryer, Shuck), a pair of Big Ten Freshmen of the Year (Dezse, Shuck) and a Player of the Year (Burkhart), debuted with a .300 or better season. All five hit at least .300 as a sophomore, in fact, all but Dezse batted at least .340, decreased their K% while increasing their BB% in their second season.
It makes sense for a player's performance, especially one who sees regular action as a freshman, to go up from his freshman to sophomore year. A second-year baseball player has a full year and one-half of collegiate strength and condition to make him stronger and faster. With increased physical ability, the player has a greater mental acumen. With a full season of at-bats under their belts, the players know what college pitchers are capable of, the type of movement an off-speed pitch can present, how much giddy up a fastball has, and in conference play, may have the first-hand knowledge of how specific teams and hitters will approach him.
Everything adds up for a player to avoid a sophomore slump at the plate, and if Dawson follows the lead of past prior diaper dandies, it's only a matter of time before his numbers trend up.
But does the same carry over to the mound?
In short, no.
Pitchers are more susceptible to injury, and an injury generally isn't discovered until performance suffers. Andrew Armstrong needed labrum surgery after the 2010 season, nobody knows if, and if so how long, he pitched through the season less than 100% as his performance went in reverse following a strong sophomore season. Also, for the same reason a hitter can improve in a second go against a pitcher; in a pitcher's second season the book is out on him. His stuff is known, his sequencing and put away pitches no longer unknown.
Be it injury, a known commodity, or other, history isn't quite as kind to Ohio State sophomores coming off a strong workload as a freshman.
Since 2005, there were nine Ohio State pitchers who logged at least 35 innings as a true freshman, as both Lakins and Tully did in 2014. Only three of the nine pitchers saw a decrease in ERA from their freshman to sophomore season and four decreased the amount of walls-per-nine-innings surrendered. But with only Armstrong as the exception, all others increased their strikeouts-per-nine-innings, and two-thirds saw a decline in hits-per-nine-innings. While it seems pitchers are better at missing bats, increasing strikeouts and decreasing hits, there hasn't been a consistent ability to improve upon keeping runs off the board.
That said, there are a few things to note.
First, both Lakins and Tully had exception seasons for a freshman, two of the best in recent history. With the introduction of the BBCOR, bat offense is suppressed in today's game. An ERA of the present, due to the decrease in runs across the board, cannot fairly compare to college baseball before 2011.
But Tully's pinpoint command, less than one walk per nine innings pitched, is incredible. Runs may be down, but there was no change to the strike zone; for Tully to limit walks in the fashion he did, trumps anything a Buckeye pitcher has done in several generations. Even if he ends up on the wrong side of a upward trend in walks issued, he already has issued three walks through three weeks after only seven all of last year, it shouldn't be the end of the world as he has a lot of spare room to operate, even more if he's the latest to see an increase in strikeouts. Tully appears on that track with 10 strikeouts in 16.2 innings, 5.4/9 IP, next to a 3.24 ERA.
For Lakins, only Wimmers debuted with a least one strikeout-per-inning as Lakins did. Wimmers, the 2009 and 2010 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, is one of the three pitchers to see a decrease in ERA in his second season, joining Luebke, the 2007 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, and McKinney.
If one were to grade the stuff presented, Luebke, McKinney and Wimmers are the pitchers most comparable to Lakins. While Luebke had a strong slider and Wimmers with a phenomenal change-up, the two added to a good secondary offering with an ability to pitch off a fastball which sat 91-93 miles-per-hour, a speed at which Lakins can easily pitch. McKinney may not have had the tantalizing secondary pitches or velocity the Lakins can reach, but he had a lively fastball, able to dial up to 95 MPH.
Carrying a 6.75 ERA over 16 innings, six walks with nine strikeouts, Lakins doesn't currently possess the polish of Luebke and Wimmers when they entered their draft eligible year. But by season's end, its expected he'll be the highest draft pick since. If he can follow the second-season success of the two, he may help Ohio State to the NCAA Tournament, something both Luebke and Wimmers were able to do before heading to the pro ranks.