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June 20, 2014

Rojo Breakdown: Huskers taking steps under Erstad

As the College World Series continued this week, it was hard not to watch the field and wonder how Nebraska would have fit in with some of the contenders. Even the most optimistic fan would admit that the Huskers aren't yet on the same level as the eight teams in Omaha, but they might be closer than it appears at first glance.

Had NU eliminated just a few of its uncharacteristic fielding errors in the Stillwater Regional, it likely would have taken down Cal State Fullerton, setting up a matchup with host Oklahoma State in which weekend starters Kyle Kubat and Christian DeLeon would have been available. Win that, and the Huskers would have hosted a Super Regional against UC Irvine, the weakest team in the CWS field and a squad Nebraska had already beaten twice. If Nebraska had won that, it would have played in Omaha this week.

Admittedly, it's a stretch, but the possibility was there. And the way Darin Erstad has the team improving, it's not impossible to imagine the Huskers completing that dream soon.

There's still work to be done, but the steps Nebraska has taken under its new coach have optimism on the rise in Lincoln. Erstad's 2012 squad was a team of mashers that posted a good record, but it lacked quality wins and weakly flamed out in the Big Ten Tournament. The 2013 team struggled to handle a brutal schedule, but finished just one win short of making the postseason. And this past season Nebraska got over the hump and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.

Here's the breakdown of how Nebraska has improved each season under Erstad:

2012 2013 2014 Total
Record 35-23 29-30 41-21 105-74
Batting average .315 .291 .293 .299
On-base percentage .384 .355 .363 -
Slugging percentage .445 .368 .384 -
Runs (per game) 413 (7.1) 325 (5.5) 363 (5.9) 1,101 (6.2)
Home runs 47 15 19 81
Stolen base attempts 81 80 57 218
Fielding percentage .974 .981 .976 .978
ERA 4.40 4.68 3.50 4.18
Strikeout-walk ratio 1.7:1 1.6:1 1.8:1 1.7:1
Opponent batting average .291 .285 .263 .280

The Huskers' drop in power from that 2012 season will always be a bit puzzling, especially because so many of the same players were back on the 2013 squad (Richard Stock, Kale Kiser and Cory Burleson were the notable losses). But Nebraska was better in almost every area from 2013 to 2014, and the pitching staff in particular has made giant strides. The weekend rotation was a mess in 2012 - seven pitchers started at least four games as the Huskers struggled to find a workable weekend rotation. The only disruption to NU's rotation this year was arm soreness by Christian DeLeon. A combination of great recruiting and the coaching of assistant Ted Silva have shifted NU's pitching greatly in a positive direction.

A quick side note - when Erstad first arrived at Nebraska, it seemed he would try to incorporate more a running game, but that hasn't really materialized so far. Despite adding speedsters like Ryan Boldt and Steven Reveles, the Huskers attempted their fewest stolen bases by far last season. It's certainly a trend to keep an eye on moving forward.

Nebraska last made the College World Series in 2005 under Mike Anderson, but it wasn't Anderson who got the program on its feet. That distinction falls to Dave Van Horn, who won nearly 70 percent of his games in his five seasons in Lincoln. When Van Horn arrived in 1998, Nebraska had made the NCAA Tournament four times in 108 years. NU made four postseason appearances under Van Horn, including the first two CWS runs in school history, before the coach left to take the Arkansas job.

Here's how the Huskers fared in Van Horn's first three season's at the helm:

1998 1999 2000 Total
Record 24-20 42-18 51-17 117-55
Batting average .294 .338 .325 .322
On-base percentage .368 .428 .422 -
Slugging percentage .455 .532 .483 -
Runs (per game) 248 (5.6) 599 (9.9) 560 (8.2) 1,457 (8.5)
Home runs 41 77 76 194
Stolen base attempts 45 170 162 218
Fielding percentage .962 .965 .967 .966
ERA 5.70 5.55 3.14 3.50
Strikeout-walk ratio 1.7:1 2.3:1 2.9:1 2.3:1
Opponent batting average .263 .287 .301 .240

Comparing coaches is a very inexact science, especially when the comparison spans a decade. Van Horn's teams benefitted from the beefed-up bats of the early 2000s, not the composite sticks that can barely push a ball over the fence at TD Ameritrade Park. And when Van Horn was at Nebraska, the Huskers played their home games in Buck Beltzer Stadium. They've since moved to Haymarket Park, making it difficult to directly compare the numbers. The two teams were also playing in different conferences (Van Horn in the Big 12, Erstad in the Big Ten), and college baseball has simply changed in the past dozen years.

But just for the fun of it, here's how the two coaches' first three years stack up:

Erstad Van Horn
Winning percentage .587 .680
Batting average .299 .322
Runs per game 6.2 8.5
Home runs 81 194
Stolen base attempts 218 377
Fielding percentage .978 .966
ERA 4.18 4.63
Strikeout-walk ratio 1.7:1 2.3:1
Opponent batting average .280 .263

This chart probably says more about the changes in college baseball as a whole than it does about the two coaches - offenses was much more lethal during Van Horn's reign, and the changes have helped Erstad's teams post better pitching numbers.

The better comparison to make between the two is how each team improved in its early years under its new coach. Van Horn's ascension came more swiftly - by the end of his third year, Nebraska had made the postseason twice and attended a Super Regional. Erstad's squad's can't boast that type of success just yet.

Each coach walked into a rocky situation. The Huskers went 54-62-1 in the two years before Van Horn arrived, and they went 57-52 in the two seasons before Erstad was hired.

There is one big difference between the two - Van Horn came to Nebraska with much more coaching experience. When he arrived, he already had 14 years of coaching under his belt, including three as the head coach at Northwestern State. Erstad was hired with just one year of experience, and that was as a volunteer hitting instructor the season prior. Erstad's learning curve was much steeper.

Comparing the careers of these two coaches is not an easy exercise, and there's a reason for that - their teams competed in different eras under different sets of rules. And stacking up anyone against Van Horn is going to be tough. Van Horn is one of the best in the business, and it wasn't a big surprise to see him achieve quick success at Arkansas.

But in examining the improvement Nebraska has made under Erstad compared to what it did under Van Horn, the early results are encouraging. The current staff has plenty of work to do, and they will be tested by a bevy of losses thanks to graduation (DeLeon, Michael Pritchard, Zach Hirsch) and the MLB Draft (Aaron Bummer, Pat Kelly, Monte Harrison, Jakson Reetz).

But it's not a mistake that NU has gotten better each year under Erstad. The new coach is building something in Lincoln, and if he has it his way, Husker fans could be watching their team in Omaha in the near future.

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