Texas entered 2022 hoping to top its 2021 run to the College World Series Semifinals, but its road hasn’t been quite as smooth as it had hoped.
The Longhorns (32-16, 9-9 Big 12) boast one of the best offenses in the country and in program history, leading the Big 12 in nearly every batting category. This statistical success, which has been powered by some of the best hitting talents in the nation, has not yet translated into success on the scoreboard, as they were knocked out of the D1Baseball top 25 after taking a sweep at home to put them a game-and-a-half behind West Virginia in the Big 12 standings.
Mountaineer bats catch fire before hosting No. 10 Texas – The Gold and Blue Nation Podcast
Still, Texas is one of the fiercest opponents in college baseball and holds a shot at hosting an NCAA Regional to start the postseason. The Longhorns will be one of the toughest teams WVU hosts at Monongalia County Ballpark in 2022, but they have proven to be a beatable one. In order to succeed, Randy Mazey wants his team to play a clean series.
“We just need to play a really, really clean game all-around. If we don’t play great on the mound, or at the plate or on defense, they can abuse you,” said the WVU skipper. “They can literally have a first-team all-conference player at each position. They’re that good.”
Meet the Texas Longhorns:
Can the Titanic at first base be sunk?
The Longhorns operate like a modern big league lineup — swing big for the fences and hope it translates to runs. The strategy has paid off, as they’ve knocked in 389 runs (11th in the country) with the help of 87 homers (third nationally and first in the Big 12).
The conversation starts with first baseman Ivan Melendez, who has established himself as arguably the best bat in the country after snubbing the Miami Marlins as a 17th-round pick in 2021. He leads the nation with a 1.448 OPS and has hit 22 home runs, just one behind the national lead, and knocked in 68 of Texas’s runs. Diving into the slugger’s numbers is a real treat for baseball numbers nerds. Melendez’s .906 slugging percentage is higher than most players’ OPS, and he is one of eight players in Division I with a batting average over .420.
“We’ve had success against him in the past, but I actually think he’s a better hitter this year than he has been in the past,” Mazey said.
Those stats give the impression of an indomitable presence in the batter’s box, but a deeper look into Melendez’s numbers shows some flaws. His batting average on balls in play (which measure’s a hitter’s success with the ball inside the ballpark) sits at .281. That’s a low mark and is well below both WVU’s (.325) and Texas’s (.354) BABIP, and shows that if he isn’t hitting the ball over the fence, he is liable to struggle.
This shows up in his box scores, as he hits just .292 when he doesn’t homer in a game — not a shabby mark by any means, but well below his season average of .421. Still, Melendez is one of (if not the) best home run hitters in the nation, so making him keep the ball in the park is a tall task.
No problem putting runs on the board…
The Texas offense doesn’t stop with Melendez. In fact, MLB ranked three of his teammates higher than him in its top 100 draft prospects ahead of the season, including two position players, shortstop Trey Faltine and catcher Silas Ardoin.
Both Faltine and Ardoin have boosted their professional prospects, producing massive jumps in their hitting numbers from 2021 to 2022. They each have an OPS over .900, and are two of five Longhorns with a number at least that high.
“You’d like to think you can pitch around [Melendez] but the guy behind him [Murphy Stehly] is just as good as he is, and the guy behind him [Ardoin] is just as good as those two, so you can’t afford to pitch around anybody in that lineup,” Mazey said. “You’ve just gotta hope that your pitches are throwing good pitches, and they’re not seeing the ball well that day.”
The emergence of Stehly has been a welcome sight for the Longhorns. The current redshirt senior was a high performer for them in 2021 with limited sample size. He made just 12 starts and took 51 at-bats, but made the most of them, recording 15 hits and seven RBIs. In 2022, he has 75 hits, 13 home runs, 43 RBIs and an OPS of 1.115.
The Melendez-Stehly one-two punch is very visible on the Big 12 stat leader lists, as either one tops seven of the league’s statistical categories. Douglas Hodo III, another Longhorn, leads another two — doubles (19) and at-bats (196).
…but trouble turning them into wins
The Longhorns have a lot to hang their 10-gallon hats on in regard to their defense. They lead the league in fielding percentage and caught stealing percentage, which will make it difficult for the Mountaineers to play their patented “Mazeyball” on the base paths.
But despite that high-powered offense and stout defense, there have been plenty of instances in which Texas’s bats have gone cold and left its team without proper run support. The Longhorns have scored more than five runs in only four of its 16 losses, while all but four of their wins have come with at least five runs on the board.
Texas does land in Morgantown with several questions surrounding its defense. Lefty starter Pete Hansen will start the Saturday doubleheader and is a surefire draft pick this summer, with a 7-1 record, a .94 WHIP, a 3.20 ERA and 82 strikeouts. Uncertainty follows Hansen, however, as it appears coach David Pearce will shake up the rotation after last week’s sweep in Stillwater.
The Longhorn bullpen especially had a tough time against the Cowboys — especially on Sunday. Lucas Gordon got off to a strong start, pitching six shutout innings before allowing his first two runs in the seventh. That was just the beginning, though, as the Longhorns would eventually make three pitching changes in that frame and allow 10 runs to blow a seven-run lead. Across the weekend, Texas relievers combined for an 18.36 ERA while allowing 11 hits, walking 10 batters and striking out seven.