In a year when the NCAA adopted new bats to put a damper on hitting, Clemson had a banner season offensively in 2011. The Tigers finished in the top 25 nationally in eight offensive categories, and finished in the top 10 in four of them.
The Tigers had a deep and versatile lineup, with tough outs one through nine. When the season ended, however, the Tigers lost five key cogs from that offensive machine.
Shortstop and ACC Player of the Year Brad Miller (.395, 11 doubles, 5 home runs, 50 RBIs, and 21 steals), center fielder Will Lamb (.348, 11 doubles, 3 homers, 39 RBIs, 13 steals), left fielder Jeff Schaus (.323, 20 doubles, 43 RBIs, 10 steals), third baseman John Hinson (.331, 12 doubles, 9 homers, 41 RBIs, 62 runs scored, 23 steals) and right fielder Chris Epps (.292, 10 homers, 42 RBIs, 11 steals) all were drafted, although Schaus and Epps were seniors. Miller and Lamb went in the second round, to the Mariners and Rangers, respectively.
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Those five combined for 60 of Clemson's 127 doubles, 27 of its 48 homers, 215 of its 401 RBIs and 78 of its 106 stolen bases a year ago. That's a big chunk of offense gone from a 43-20 club, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the Tigers probably won't be the same kind of team in 2012.
In 32 years as head coach, 18 of them at Clemson, Jack Leggett has demonstrated as much a claim to rocket science as any coach in the game. A three-time ACC Coach of the Year, Leggett enters 2012 with 1189 career victories, 812 of them in 18 seasons with the Tigers, an average of 45.1 per season. He's taken the Tigers to six College World Series and 17 NCAA regionals in 18 years. His teams have won 50 or more games in a season six times, and he's won 65 NCAA Tournament games. He's won with hitting, defense and pitching. If Clemson is going to win again this year, as expected, Leggett knows better than anyone that the Tigers will have to have a different approach to offense.
"In order for us to score some runs, we're going to have to be very good at execution," Leggett said. "We're going to have to be able to move runners around, get our bunts down, hit behind runners when we can, and everyone is going to have to be very unselfish. We have a few guys who have some power, but at the same time, we don't want to build our game totally around that. If you're sitting around waiting for that to happen with these bats, it's not going to happen."
"These bats" are the BBCOR bats that college baseball adopted a year ago. They were introduced with the intention of reducing the wild and escalating offensive numbers that the college game was producing, especially the home runs. Mission accomplished.
The Tigers hit 48 home runs a year ago, down from 93 in 2010. Grand slams fell from nine to two. Their run total dropped from 600 to 449, and their runs per game fell from 8.6 to 7.1. Those are dramatic drops in production, yet if anything, judging by the national leaders, Clemson adjusted well to the new bats, much better than many teams.
Leggett has always tailored his offensive strategy to his team's strengths, but even his most power-laden teams could manufacture runs. Leggett stresses the importance of getting a leadoff hitter on base, stealing a base, hitting-and-running, hitting behind the runner, whatever it takes to get that one run home in the late innings of a close game.
"We have a few guys who are going to take care of some home runs for us, but it's important for us to stick to our game this year," Leggett said. "We're going to have to do what we've been working on in the batting cages and take our fundamentals out to the baseball field. If we do that, we'll have a chance to be a very good offensive team."
Despite the losses from a year ago, Clemson still has some firepower on the roster, starting with junior Richie Shaffer, a preseason All-American who batted .315, slugged 13 homers and drove in 55 runs in '11. Phil Pohl (.333, 22 doubles, 4 homers, 33 RBIs) and Spencer Kieboom (.282, 10 doubles, 31 RBIs) are back behind the plate, and second baseman Jason Stolz (.285, 10 doubles, 27 RBIs) returns as well.
Shaffer and Stolz will switch positions this season, allowing some younger players to move from the bench to the lineup. Stolz moves to shortstop, allowing sophomore Steve Wilkerson to take over at second base. Shaffer moves from first base to third, opening a spot in the lineup for power-hitting first baseman Jon McGibbon (.339, 4 doubles, 1 homer, 14 RBIs, 14 walks in 81 plate appearances). That settles the infield with a combination of youth and experience.
While half the infield is back, the entire outfield is gone from 2011, allowing two more reserves, sophomores Dominic Attanasio (.367 in 60 at-bats) and Joe Costigan (.250 in 8 at-bats), to fight for a starting job. They'll have company. Thomas Brittle, a junior who batted .265 in limited action at College of Charleston in 2010, could start in center field. Brad Felder, a graduate student who batted .274 with six home runs, 32 RBIs and 14 steals a year ago at The Citadel, will compete for a corner outfield spot.
Garrett Boulware, Tyler Slaton and Mike Triller are freshmen who are in the outfield mix. Boulware, a 42nd-round draft pick by the San Diego Padres a year ago, is a catcher by trade, but is being looked at in the outfield as a way to get his bat into the lineup. Phil Pohl and Jon McGibbon are versatile enough to play the outfield should the need arise.
"We have a lot of competition and it's going to work itself out in the next couple of weeks," Leggett said.
Clemson's strength will be on the mound. The Tigers fashioned a 3.32 staff ERA a year ago, and the bulk of that staff returns for another go-round. Junior righthander Kevin Brady, a 44th-round pick of the Orioles in 2008, battled injuries a year ago, but managed a 2-0 record and a 3.86 ERA in 10 appearances. With as much upside as anyone on the staff, Brady is healthy now and will compete for a spot in the weekend rotation with junior Dominic Leone (6-2, 3.70), senior David Haselden (6-1, 2.23), junior lefty Joseph Moorefield (2-1, 5.28), junior Jonathan Meyer (5-2, 3.31) and junior Scott Firth (5-1, 3.06). Those five combined to make 97 appearances and pitch 249 innings in 2011.
Leggett will have to replace closer Scott Weismann (3-5, 4.89, 7 saves), but he has hard-throwing sophomore Matt Campbell (1-0, 3.09 in 16 appearances) and freshman righthander Daniel Gossett, a 16th-round pick of the Red Sox, as candidates for the back end of the bullpen. Freshmen Brock Goodling and Patrick Andrews also could pitch innings out of the pen, and someone among those starter candidates will wind up pitching long relief and making the occasional spot start.
"I like our pitching," Leggett said. "I think our pitching is going to be one of our strong points. Kevin Brady is back, which is a huge plus. We also have some experience with Dominic Leone, Scott Firth, David Haselden, and Joseph Moorefield. We have some young guys coming in that are going to help us out. I'm excited about what we have a chance to do on the mound."
Thanks to the new bats, pitching is more important than ever in college baseball. Falling behind by three or four runs is no longer an option. Pitching, defense and manufacturing runs are essential to success, and Leggett's track record at Clemson speaks for itself. The 2012 Tigers seem to have all the necessary ingredients for success. Clemson will pitch and play defense, and Leggett's teams always manufacture runs.