The Memphis Tigers have made a habit of being at the very least a competitive baseball program, regularly reaching 30 wins and performing at a high level. Something went wrong, though, last season and the Tigers found themselves near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference. Now in the 13th season under Daron Schoenrock, the Tigers will try to reverse course in 2017.
Pitching killed Memphis last season. Not opposing pitching, although the team’s .254 batting average wasn’t anything to brag about. However, it was the Tigers’ own struggles on the mound that dropped it to 22-39 overall and 9-15 in AAC play. They finished with the worst ERA in the conference (5.04) and also allowed the most home runs to opponents (40). They also ranked second to last in the league in strikeouts (374), ahead of only Cincinnati itself (312).
When their pitchers were able to get hitters to make weak contact it still didn’t matter, as the Tigers ranked last in the league in fielding percentage as well (.967). Without consistent ability to keep runners off base or from scoring runs, the Tigers’ mediocre offensive efforts were cast in an even gloomier light.
The team’s 22 wins ended a streak of four years with at least 30 wins and were the fewest by a Memphis squad since 2009. UC added to Memphis’ troubles, taking four out of six from the Tigers during the season.
Despite the weakness of the regular season. Memphis still managed to reach the semifinals of the AAC Tournament before eventually succumbing to eventual champion UConn. Still, with a win over East Carolina and a run to the semis, Memphis picked up some momentum it will try to bring into the new season.
Players to Watch
Brandon Grudzielanek, 2B
A junior transfer, Grudzielanek was a second-team all-conference selection in 2016. He batted .292 and had 12 extra base hits and 32 RBI although his on-base percentage (.321) was not ideal. He also struck out 47 times, but in general found a way to get the bat on the ball at a high rate.
Chris Carrier, LF
Carrier was the power bat for a team that only hit 26 home runs last season. He had six of those and also had team-highs in RBI (38), doubles (16), triples (5) and total bases (100). He also hit .280, stole 15 bases and had a healthy .351 on-base percentage for good measure. He is expected to be a big producer once again, as he was named to the preseason All-AAC team.
Jacob Elliott, 1B
Like Carrier, Elliott was one of the threats to drive in runs, as he hit four home runs and drove in 30 base runners. His slash line of .269/.320/.379 wasn’t stunning, especially because of the low OBP, but he was reliable enough at first, despite committing 10 errors.
Colton Hathcock, SP
The ace of a forgettable staff, Hathcock tossed 82 1⁄3 innings and accumulated a 3.94 ERA with 71 strikeouts in that time. He also surrendered just a single home run and walked 37 batters. The right-hander will be a junior in 2017 and the unquestioned leader of the staff.
Colton Neel, RP
A southpaw that also plays outfield, Neel only batted .183 last season but he recorded a 3.47 ERA in 17 relief appearances, striking out 21 batters in 23 1⁄3 innings of work.
Even with solid bats like Grudzielanek and Carrier in the lineup, Memphis got worse because of the departure of both Darien Tubbs (.304/.379.441, team-high 22 stolen bases) and Jake Little (.301/.384/.410). Losing two key hitters will not make life any easier for a team that needs its offense to buoy a pitching staff that was dismal last year. If Hathcock takes a step forward that will go a long way in getting the Tigers back to contention, but it probably won’t be enough.