Breaking Down Cajuns Baseball – From the Bird’s Nest
You won't find many people who enjoyed 2012 Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns Baseball. You will, however, find plenty who believe 2012 was totally unacceptable.
And, heading that list is head coach Tony Robichaux.
Robichaux, who just completed his 18th season as head coach, has always said if the Cajuns don't make it to postseason, it's not a good year.
He was talking about the failure to qualify for an NCAA tournament berth, not a failure to qualify for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
But that's what Robichaux has to deal with after the Cajuns' worst season since he became head coach. The Cajuns finished 23-30 and were swept in their final series of the regular season by Louisiana-Monroe, who parlayed that sweep into a tournament championship and a berth in the Baton Rouge regional.
Naturally, there was plenty of discontent among fans of the Cajuns, who really don't care how or why something happens, only with the results. Those particular fans tab any analysis as "excuses."
Those fans won't like this story.
A program can't be fixed without finding out how and why the situation is what it is....and then taking steps to correct it.
Some of the things fall into the "stuff happens," or "that's baseball" category. Not much can be done about that.
But the rest needs to be addressed. And, that's why I'm here.
1. YOUTH--We heard all season that this team was young. And, it was. The roster contained two fifth-year players in outfielder Brian Bowman and pitcher Ethan Hebert. There was one four-year player in Tyler Frederick. Everyone else had played for the Cajuns two years or less, although a couple had redshirted (Jordan Nicholson, Daniel Nichols.) Moreover, there weren't many juniors on this squad, either. Chase Traffica, who, along with Frederick were the only freshmen recruited in the 2009-10 recruiting class, missed the entire season with an arm injury. The other juniors were new players, specifically pitchers.
Now before we get too critical of the decision to go heavily into the junior college ranks that year, let's remember Lance Marvel, T. J. Geith, Taylor Hubbell (redshirt) , Joey Satriano and Ryland Parker were all a part of that class. And, the Cajuns did win a championship that year, with all of the aforementioned players making contributions. As seniors, that group finished in the top three in the league.
All of that led up to a team with a lot of youth.
But the problem wasn't youth. The problem was the young players were the team's best players. Freshman Dylan Butler led the team in homers and RBI. Freshman Jace Conrad had a great second half offensively while anchoring the Cajuns infield defense. Redshirt freshman Tyler Girouard hit over .300 at third base and freshman Logan Preston gave plenty of support at that position. Sophomore Ryan Leonards led the team in hitting. Another sophomore, Chase Compton, hit over .300 and was second on the club in RBI.
Like I said, we talked about the youth of this team. And, to be sure, there were some consistency issues with the youngsters. But it's just really hard to have success when those guys are the best guys on your team.
2. ATTRITION--If you want to really break down the reason the Cajuns had to rely on youth this past year, look no further than the recruiting class that SHOULD have been seniors this year: Dayton Marze signed early. So did Alex Fuselier. Matt Lackie transferred out after this freshman year. So did Les Smith. Blake Wascom chose not to finish his eligibility. That particular class had a good mixture of freshman signees and junior college players: Zach Osborne, Kyle Bostick, Hubbell (who redshirted), and Chad Keefer were all junior college recruits. Kyle Olasin also joined the team that year. But, the reality is all of the players from a very good recruiting class were gone.
3.. INJURIES--Yeah, injuries are a part of the game. But, if you have a bunch of them, or a couple of critical ones, they can really tear your club down. Catcher Michael Strentz missed virtually the entire season. The Cajuns' other catcher, Chris Sinclair, missed a couple of weeks because of back spasms, necessitating the addition of Adam Todd. Tyler Girouard missed nearly two weeks with a pulled quad. Jordan Bourque, who turned out to be the senior who contributed the most down the stretch, missed the first month of the season with a hand injury. And, Dominick Francia, who had gotten off to a good start on the season, missed more than a month after an emergency appendix operation and had exactly one hit the rest of the season when he returned.
Add to that, injuries to two pitchers Robichaux was really counting on to be toward the front of the pecking order this year in Traffica and Ben Carter and you have a recipe for real trouble.
Now, there are teams that have injuries and can just plug in another guy because they have the quality depth to do it. Which leads to another issue....
4. RECRUITING ISSUES--It's the one thing the coaching staff had control over. And, without getting into names, the reality is some of the signees just didn't pan out. Others who should have been support players wound up being thrust into the forefront and just weren't cut out for it. While there were plenty of recruiting hits, there were enough misses to where the Cajuns didn't recover from the attrition of the freshmen from the 2009 season, couldn't rely on the youth to be the best players and couldn't recover from the injuries. Recruiting misses became even more glaring because of the new roster limits. If you're only going to be allowed 35 on your roster, you'd better make sure you don't miss on a lot of players. Unfortunately, the Cajuns did.
5. THE COACHING CHANGE--If you look at the history of Cajuns' baseball under Robichaux, you'll find a change in assistant coaches has meant taking a step backwards offensively before moving forward. The Cajuns were abysmal for a good part of the season in 2003, John Szefc's first season, before righting the ship. The same was true when Szefc left for Kansas and Mike Trahan was hired. That year the Cajuns started slowly but caught fire on the way to a league title. And, this season, with the arrival of Matt Deggs, we saw the Cajuns have some struggles before having double digit hits in eleven of their last eighteen games, as opposed to seven of the first 27 after Deggs took over. Deggs didn't put in his entire hitting philosophy and packages because of the late start. He'll put the whole package in this fall. And, in this case, the uniqueness of changing hitting coaches during the season made for a tough situation.
None of these issues by themselves would cause Cajuns baseball to sink to the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference. But collectively, the problems made for a season Cajuns fans haven't seen since the days of Gene Shell.
But, the best players from this team return next season. And, while recruiting isn't an exact science, Trahan (with the early signees), Deggs and Anthony Babineaux appear to have the manpower necessary to make sure the nightmare that was 2012 doesn't happen again under Robichaux's watch. We'll address that in a story later in the week.