The Kentucky Wildcats enter the midway point of conference play tied with LSU for first place in the SEC. I know that sentence sounds bizarre, especially when you consider the team has never had any real baseball success. The Wildcats have never made it to Omaha and has only won the SEC once (2006). Lets face it, did you really think at this point of the year LSU would have a chance to become the top team not only in the SEC, but the country? Allow me to take you on a tour inside the numbers of what makes Kentucky a difficult series.
Records and Interesting Numbers:
The Wildcats enter the weekend with an overall record of 33-5 and an 11-4 mark in conference play. Kentucky opened the season with a 22-game winning streak. Even though they played a weak out-of-conference schedule, running up a streak like that is impressive no matter who you play. Kentucky’s only OCC loss of the year was a 12-0 loss against its in-state rival Louisville.
Kentucky is the only SEC team that has won all of their weekend series. They opened play by sweeping reigning national champ South Carolina, then won two of three against Georgia, Ole Miss and Arkansas. The South Carolina win has big, but defeating Arkansas on the road was the series where all SEC fans had to start taking the Wildcats serious.
Kentucky is 23-2 at home, 29-0 when leading after the seventh inning and 11-2 in one run games. We have all made fun of LSU’s one-run game success, but the Tigers are only 9-3 in those games. Having success against Kentucky happens in two ways, play them at night and score first. Kentucky is 13-4 when they allow the opponent to score first and 6-4 at night. When looking at those records, remember Kentucky has only lost five games all year.
So what makes Kentucky so good? Lets start by looking at the Wildcat Offense.
Saying Kentucky’s offense is great is an understatement. Kentucky ranks first in the SEC in batting average (.317), slugging percentage (.483), on-base percentage (.406), runs scored (275), hits (402), RBIs (251) and doubles (88). They aren’t first in every thing, but are near the top in most including homeruns. Kentucky trails only Florida in that category with 43 big shots on the season.
The Wildcats’ offense is led by Austin Cousino, Luke Maile and Cameron Flynn. Cousino is near the top of every offensive category, except home runs, and leads the conference with 15 doubles. Maile is tied for the league lead in homer with 10 and is the first Wildcat since 1990 to have double-digit dingers. Cameron Flynn is second in the conference in home runs with nine and shows the depth that the Wildcat offense possesses. Want more proof about how good the offense is, well lets check out the projected lineup.
Just looking at those numbers alone looks intimidating, but when we compare the last two lines with LSU, it is down right scary. The Wildcats have six batters with a runs created average over 20, while LSU only has two, Raph Rhymes (38.58) and Austin Nola (20.74). In LSU’s defense they do have three other guys (Jacoby Jones, Ty Ross and Tyler Hanover) with a double-digit runs created average. More impressive is the disparity in ISO-power. In case you forgot or are new to the site, ISO-power is a metric that measure a players ability to gain extra base hits (look at it as you would a batting average, except only for extra-base hits). LSU only has three batters with a .100 or better average (Arby Fields, Jones and Nola), while Kentucky has three players alone over .200.
What does those stats mean? Simple put, Kentucky is more efficient with their hits. Instead on needing two or three runners on base to score a runs, they can do it with only one or two. Considering the pitching that Kentucky will be facing, that power numbers will certainly help out scratching in runs. It is hard to imagine that LSU would face a tougher offense that Florida, but they will. Kentucky has the rare ability, like Florida, to put pressure on the Tigers’ pitching and fielding with no one on base.
(Lets quietly walk away from this section in hopes of not disturbing it).
This Wildcat team reminds me on a smaller scale of the late 1990’s LSU teams, a whole lot of offense and just enough pitching to win. Kentucky currently ranks seventh in the SEC in ERA (3.53), fourth in strikeouts (320) and walks allowed (97) and are 10th in hits allowed (322). Unlike LSU, Kentucky’s strength is its bullpen. Like I stated earlier, Kentucky is 29-0 when leading after the seventh and has only lost two, one run games. Allow me to introduce you to the projected starting pitching. (Editor’s note, all pitching stats listed below are only SEC-game stats)
Like I said because of the offense, the pitching doesn’t have to be as dominate as LSUs. What is interesting is looking at the stats of Corey Littrell. He has the best line, but he is the Sunday starter. Look at how weak the Friday and Saturday’s starters look. If the LSU lineup can stay hot as they have over the last month, they should have a chance to jump out to an early lead.
If the Tigers fail to gain an early lead, the may not be able to comeback against a strong Wildcat bullpen.
The arms listed above all have at least three appearances in SEC games. It would not surprise me if Kentucky inserts Alex Phillips into the staring lineup this weekend. Phillips has the most appearances out of the pen with seven and his numbers speak for themselves. The Wildcats might have the best closer in the conference with Trevor Gott. Gott is second on the team with six appearances. He has faced 18 batters and no one has been able to scratch out a hit against him. When Gott is not available, Tim Peterson will fill in nicely. Just like the other two mentioned, Peterson has limited base runners as he also has a WHIP under 1.0. The rest of the staff haven’t put up numbers to brag about, but they are all respectable and will give the LSU lineup some interesting challenges.
For LSU to win the series, they will have to maximize what has gotten them to the top of the SEC standing. Solid pitching from all three starters, and excellent defense behind them will be a mandatory factor for LSU to win. The Tigers have an advantage in both categories, but Kentucky is better than LSU in one fielding category. The Wildcats are sixth in the conference in fielding percentage (.974) and errors (38), but are third in double-plays turned (32). LSU has only turned 19, and as well all know they have hit into a few double plays.
Motivation to win the series is simple. Win and that team is head and shoulders ahead in their division, lose and you are right back in the pack. No matter what this should be a great series for both.