Fill it up again!

After the Illini’s 27-game winning streak ended last night/this morning, I (Ben) felt like Will Ferrell aka Frank the Tank after his wife and her friends have happened upon him streaking in the film “Old School.”

“We were streaking. Everybody was doing it.

“Frank, get in the car.”

“Ok. Honey, is KFC still open?”

(Side note: Why is the No. 1 seed playing in a game SCHEDULED for a 9 p.m. start? Come on B1G Conference. If anything, you start the loser’s bracket at 9 a.m. That’s your punishment for losing. That way you’ve got games scheduled for 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. And then, when you get the inevitable overruns in time, your top seed is still starting at 7:30 or 8 p.m. INSTEAD OF 9:54 P.M.?!?!?!? I can’t imagine how Dan Hartleb and his staff tried to prepare those kids for an entire day off before a late start.)

Neverthless, like Frank the Tank, the Illini baseball team perseveres. The Orange and Blue 9 must avoid Frank’s flirtation with the abyss brought on by a tranquilizer dart to the neck and instead find that zen-like blackout when Frank debated political consultant James Carville as they move through the loser’s bracket.

Of course, the question is, how does this affect Illinois’ postseason chances? As long as they don’t lose tonight’s 7:30 p.m. start against Michigan State, they should be fine. Of course, Michigan State was the last team to beat the Illini before Maryland. But, according to D1baseball.com writer Aaron Fitt, the Illini are still all but guaranteed to in this morning’s stock report, they Illini were still secure in their bid to host a national seed.

The Fighting Illini’s pitching has been simply outstanding so far in the tournament – starters Kevin Duchene and Drasen Johnson have given up 2 earned runs in 2 starts and the team has given up five total.

What’s more disconcerting is the Illini’s lack of offense – more specifically their lack of offense early. As I noted in a previous post, the Fighting Illini offense has been a little inconsistent lately, red-hot one game, colder than Anna and Elsa the next. (You can’t escape Frozen. Because…you just can’t. Better to accept the fate and move on.) But just to give you an example, over the last two games, the Illini’s No. 1-7 hitters are a combined 10-48 – a .208 batting average.

What’s the good news you ask? Well, the pendulum is bound to swing back the other way eventually. You don’t field a team with 11 all-B1G selections, including the Player of the Year David Kerian, and stay in a prolonged slump.

Speaking of postseason honors, left-handed RELIEVER (*cough*Keith Law*cough*) Tyler Jay was announced as a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, which is given annually to the top college baseball player. Unlike football or basketball, there are players from lower-division schools that are eligible for the award. This year’s it’s former Cal State-Fullerton pitcher Phil Bickford, who transferred to Bryce Harper’s alma mater, the College of Southern Nevada, in an effort to be draft eligible sooner.

And speaking of Tyler Jay, Baseball America released its latest mock draft on Friday afternoon. Guess who is going No. 1 overall? Tyler. Jay. And Jim Callis, a former Executive Editor at Baseball America and now a senior writer for MLB.com, released his mock draft this week as well. He has Jay going No. 3 overall to the Rockies in MLB’s First-Year Player Draft, which begins June 8. Callis also notes that UC-Santa Barbara RHP Dillon Tate, who made a Keith Law approved move to the starting rotation, has faded down the stretch and seen his stock drop. But is Keith Law badmouthing UCSB coach Andrew Checketts? He is not.

So what do the next few days look like for the Fighting Illini? They can still win the conference title, but it’s going to take some outstanding pitching from Drew Dickinson’s staff. At some point, the scouts may get their wish and see Jay make a start. Either way, they are now four wins a way from a clean sweep of B1G baseball titles.

Sunday night, the NCAA will announce whether Illinois Field’s bid to host a regional has been approved. According to today’s Champaign News-Gazette, the university is adding temporary bleachers down each line that, when combined with standing room only counts, will bump the facility’s total capacity to somewhere around 2,500. While that doesn’t compare with the baseball palaces of the SEC and PAC-12, Illinois’ reward for an outstanding season is getting to host.

Monday, the Fighting Illini will found out who they are facing in their regional. D1baseball.com’s latest projections had the Illini playing host to Kentucky, Oregon State and Central Michigan. It will be interesting to see if that holds. Central Michigan is the MAC champion and has made a habit of dipping into Illinois regularly for players thanks to recruiting coordinator Jeff Opalewski’s ties to the Illinois Sparks travel-baseball program. That program also regularly supplies Dan Hartleb’s clubs with talent as it is headed by former Illini great Dave Payton.

Caught In Suspension

I’m an Aston Villa fan. (Soccer, England.) Villa is probably third behind Illini football and Illini basketball for me right now. NFL/MLB/NHL/NBA? I only partially care, while my Villa fandom grows and grows. This past week, with Illini football in the national news, my best comp is Aston Villa. I’ll attempt to explain: [Read more…]

The Klaw and Tyler Jay

Got an e-mail from Robert saying “here I am asking for a second article already, feel free to tell me to get bent.” But as I told Robert, he read my mind! I want to make sure Dan Hartleb, his staff and his team get recognized for such an outstanding run in the 2015 season.

Side note: Hartleb and the Fighting Illini won their 24th game in a row by sweeping Rutgers this weekend, including a 28-13 clubbing on Sunday that featured five Fighting Illini home runs. Their magic number to clinch the Big Ten Conference title is now two.  For those still not understanding the enormity of this feat, this baseball team is like the 2004-05 basketball team. (Man I wish I had something more recent to draw upon in terms of basketball success. My Fighting Illini basketball conversations with Tony Wysinger have been reduced to head shaking disbelief. Still, in Groce I trust.)

But in this post, I wanted to address one of the questions from the comments section of my first post. Later this week, we’ll talk about some of the other comments.

Question from IB reader 22:  Curious as to your reaction to Keith Law’s non-stop complaining about how Hartleb is using Tyler Jay?

If you read a little further, another reader by the name of Hhsillini says “Keith Law can slap himself.” In my opinion, that’s putting it politely.

Now, overall, I have a very low opinion of ESPN. I can’t count how many deceased horses the World Wide Leader has beat in the last decade. Now, like script writers, they’re reduced to recycling story lines. Tim Tebow, come on down! (again).

In my world, ESPN is good for two things:  SportsCenter and 30 for 30. Other than that, they’re the USA Today of sports television – reporters with very broad assignments trying to act like they’re plugged in at the “local” level.

Here’s Law’s official bio for those who don’t know, according to a recent ESPN Chat MLB Draft chat that he hosted. Law is the senior baseball analyst for ESPN Insider. Before joining ESPN, Law served as special assistant to the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays and was a writer for Baseball Prospectus.

Here’s what Law had the following to say about Dan Hartleb’s usage of Jay in two recent chats.

Bob McBob (Here Here)

Dillon Tate could have been out 5 million or so dollars if he had not been moved to the rotation this season. It seems Tyler Jay is in a similar situation except he wasn’t moved to the rotation, thus costing him dearly. It seems pretty criminal to me.

Klaw

  (1:35 PM)

I’d say irresponsible. Given what Jay’s done in a relief role, I don’t think it’s crazy to say he could have been a $4 million guy with a full season in the rotation. In a few longer outings he’s held his stuff and throws a ton of strikes.

Dave (Champaign)

And maybe Jay as a starter would show that he lacks stamina and can’t be a starter, in which case starting him would make him completely fall out of the first round. Are scouts projecting Jay as a starter anyway? I would think that they would be happy that he isn’t throwing 120 pitches per week.

Klaw

  (1:58 PM)

He projects as a starter with three pitches and a good delivery. He’s had several longer outings where he’s shown no issues with stamina. There’s a middle ground between barely using the kid – two weekends ago, he didn’t pitch at all in three games, burning scouts who’d gone to see him – and overthrowing him.

TF (Chicago)

On Tyler Jay, How many fans don’t understand that players this talented end game is not your COLLEGE team. They have a future in the pros making actual money for their skill. I am sorry that we have collegiate athletics that serve as farm systems in our sports, but that’s the way it is.

Klaw

  (2:02 PM)

Bingo. I still think Jay goes in the top 10-15 picks – Dave Stewart, who has seen 24 players for the first overall pick (!), went to see him – but I imagine he’ll go under slot if he’s taken that high.

I tried to refute Law’s arguments on Twitter, but there were three problems: 1) Twitter limits you to 140 characters; 2) Law thinks he can do no wrong and 3) My prep period was over and I didn’t want to use my phone in front of my students.

So let’s address these arguments here instead.

Dan Hartleb is being irresponsible and costing Tyler Jay money

I’ve NEVER seen this argument made against any coach in print. In my opinion, it’s incredibly unprofessional on Law’s part. I’ve seen coaches called irresponsible when it comes to injuries, never for the size of their SIGNING BONUS. That’s not a college coach’s concern, which I’ll cover shortly. If I thought Law had talked to Dan Hartleb about how he uses Tyler Jay, I’d lend more credence to his thoughts. Instead, I’m betting Klaw has watched nothing but clips of MLB Scouting Bureau footage and talked to his scouting buddies.

Now, if we were talking about the difference between first-round money and eighth-round money, I’d agree with Law.

For those unaware, MLB assigns value to slot picks – at the high end the No. 1 pick can receive a bonus of nearly $8.7 million. The MLB-assigned bonus slot doesn’t drop below $2 million until pick No. 28, by which, according to law, Jay figures to be long gone. If he goes somewhere between Picks 5-15, which Law seems to think is likely, Jay will bank anywhere between $2.6-$4.1 million. When former Fighting Illini outfielder Justin Parr — an All-American and Big 10 Player of the Year — was taken in the eighth round  and received just a $15,000 signing bonus from the Phillies. So the difference between first-round money and eighth-round money? That’s a huge difference. But Jay is looking at a difference in decimal places in the millions. That’s life-changing money no matter what pick he gets taken at in the first round. That’s like winning the lottery type of money.

Speaking of the scouts that Law is talking to, I think I know why scouting Jay is frustrating them. He’s not making a scheduled start every weekend. Now, pro scouts are very busy. Most of them have anywhere between 6-12 Midwestern states that they’re responsible for covering. That means they have to try and see every potential draftee at the high school, junior college, NCAA Division I and II schools in their coverage area. It’s a hectic schedule that they try diligently to maintain.

Often, you’ll see scouts check in on an arm for a handful of innings at an afternoon game and then try to catcher another player in a night game. It’s a matter of being efficient with your time. Jay closing throws off that schedule because you never know when or if he’s going to throw.

But if you look at Jay’s stats, Law’s arguments don’t hold water. Jay has made 24 appearances for the Fighting Illini, including one start in February while fellow southpaw and ace Kevin Duchene was suspended for a violation of team rules.

Of those 24 appearances, 15 have covered 1+ inning of work — including a six-inning relief stint at Penn State, not to mention a few three and four-inning stints. So it’s not as if scouts don’t have an idea of what Jay can do when extended over multiple innings. But again, those appearances come late in games and mean scouts have to stick around til the end. I understand the frustration, but again, it’s not a college coach’s job to make sure the scouts are happy.

Which brings us to our last point. In the final question, Law agrees with the the questioner’s assessment that college’ coaches should think about a kid’s future when determining how to use them.  That’s true with injuries, not with their role on a team. What does the University of Illinois pay Dan Hartleb to do? Win ball games and Dan Hartleb and his squad are currently sitting on 43 wins. Jay has nailed down 10 of those wins with saves. It’s nice to have a stopper of that caliber when the the Illini have had to stage comebacks for 20 of those wins (which is a little disconcerting, but this is a veteran team that doesn’t get flustered easily)

Now, Law and some area scouts here in the Midwest also argue that most relievers at the MLB level are failed starters. And I understand that. But there’s another trend that’s rapidly emerging. Recently, we’ve seen the White Sox employ this method with two of their recent top picks – left-handers Chris Sale and Carlos Rodon. Sale was drafted in June 2010 and two months later, he was in the big-league bullpen.  He’s obviously since returned to starting and done so very effectively for the White Sox. Rodon was drafted in June 2014 and the Sox considered using him in the bullpen this year out of the gate, but sent him to Triple A. He’s since been called up and made one appearance out of the pen (not good) and made his first start on Saturday (very good).

If we stay within the AL Central, we see Kansas City’s use of left-hander Brandon Finnegan on its way to a World Series appearance in 2014. Finnegan led TCU to the College World Series in June and finished the season by becoming yet another flame-throwing weapon in the Kansas City pen. What’s Tyler Jay’s quickest route to the majors? The bullpen. Then teams can decide where he profiles best and make the adjustment in the off-season.

One of the teams that Law mentions being very interested in Jay is, coincidentally, the White Sox, who pick eighth. The Southsiders made some impressive moves this off-season, including the signings of David Robertson, Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera with an eye on contending for the AL Central crown. They are currently six games back in the AL Central race, but if they take Jay and climb back into contention, you think they wouldn’t love to add a kid who can either serve as a bridge to Robertson or a long reliever to their bullpen? That’s a valuable weapon. Not to mention that kid grew up in Lemont, which is all of 40 minutes down the road from Sox Park. That’s called a dream come true.

If you’re looking for good information on college baseball in general or the draft, I’d suggest checking out several much more plugged in experts:  Kendall Rogers, Aaron Fitt and Frankie Piliere at D1 Baseball are, in my opinion, the best. Baseball America and Perfect Game also do great jobs on a national level. And if you want a guy plugged into the Big 10, there’s no guy better than Chris Webb at b1gbaseball (if you can forgive him for being a Buckeyes fan).

Baseball!

The one thing at the center of all IlliniBoard “hirings”: passion.  We look for passionate people.  Craig & Steve love Illini football. Tyler loves Illini basketball.  Robert loves himself. And Ben loves Illini baseball.  So welcome Ben, everyone, our newly appointed Illini baseball writer.  Here’s his first article: [Read more…]

Football Mailbag – Part I

I really only do two mailbags per year. Both are football – one during Rantoul and one after spring ball. I took my normal early-May week off last week (I do it nearly every year, but I hide it well), so now I’m ready to mailbag all week. Starting with this one. [Read more…]

IlliniBoard Contest Winner

Originally I had planned to make this a post of several player/coach interaction stories that were sent in as part of this contest.  But as you will see from reading this, one story stood out above all the rest.  Including the others in this post feels off now, so I’m just going to let Deanna tell her story so you can hear it. [Read more…]

Kentucky Derby Preview

No, seriously, this is a Kentucky Derby Preview.  You see, Steve (you know Steve – Back & Forth Steve) loves three things in life. Illini Football, Everton, and horseracing.  So when someone is passionate about something – as in, 12,000 words passionate – I want people to see those words. So here’s Steve’s brilliant Kentucky Derby preview. Seriously – brilliant. [Read more…]

Win 4 Tickets To Illini Night

OK, Chicagoans, turn your ears off for a bit. This Illini blogger in St. Louis is now speaking to the Illini fans in St. Louis (and southern Illinois) who might just like some free tickets to Illini night at Busch Stadium. Plus 4 of those hats right there. The Cardinals have given me four tickets to give away, and here’s how I’ll do it: Best Illini story wins the four tickets. [Read more…]

Pick My Post: Big Ten Hate

I do this thing where I tweet “pick my post” and then people tweet me a bunch of topics to write about and then I write about one of them in 45 minutes.  This is now that post which I was just talking about right now.  I’m Perd Hapley.  [Read more…]

Big Year

Figured I’d write the Thorne LLUOUI post today. Of course, I owe Steve an email for our spring game back-and-forth. And Tyler and I agreed to do our basketball season autopsy after spring ball. Amani Jones LLUOI, spring football mailbag, basketball recruiting – lots to write about. But all of it makes me think one single thing: this is a really big year. [Read more…]