Baseball is very much a numbers-driven game. Coaches often pore over the most minute stats, seemingly insignificant details and the most obscure facts. Entering the 2011 season, Washington and Lee Head Baseball Coach Jeff Stickley is concerned with two sets of numbers. 4/491 and 22/12. Four is the number of infield starters that W&L lost to graduation and 491 is that group's combined number of at- bats from last year alone. 22 is the number of underclassmen on the team, while the number 12 represents the team's upperclassmen totals, including just two seniors.
Despite a projected lineup that will feature a lot of new faces, Stickley does have some pieces returning that instill some confidence and can help soothe the turnover on the roster.
"This is some of the most production that we have had to replace from one year to the next," said the 25th-year skipper. "We have a lot of guys that are going to be given an opportunity this year and I think we have some guys that can step up."
If the Generals' infield was gutted, the projected outfield is a pillar of stability. Senior rightfielder and co-captain Anthony Cardona is back for his fourth year of patrolling Cap'n Dick Smith Field's spacious outfield. Junior Mike Decembrino will roam centerfield for the second-consecutive season and junior C.J. Thompson is back for his third season in left.
Cardona, who was a Second Team All-ODAC selection as a sophomore, hit .272 as a junior with seven extra-base hits and 17 RBIs. He has started 100 games over the previous three seasons and will be counted on to lead a very young team.
"Anthony is pretty good for us," Stickley noted. "He had the real good sophomore year (.372/3/28) and has the ability to produce like that again for us this year."
In center, Decembrino took over the starting role last season and hit .297 with 20 RBIs and was tied for second on the team with 26 runs scored. One of the fastest players on the team, he was also a perfect 4-for-4 in stolen-base attempts.
"Mike can go get it in center," said Stickley. "He had a good sophomore year and he can be effective for us at the top of the order with his speed."
Rounding out the outfield returnees is Thompson, who made 30 starts as a sophomore after appearing in the starting lineup 24 times as a rookie. Last year, he hit .272 with seven doubles, 15 runs and 18 RBIs, and he committed just two errors in the outfield.
"C.J. gives us a good option in left," said Stickley. "He is a good athlete and he could also see some time in the middle infield this season."
Also figuring into the outfield mix will be sophomores Joe Scalzo and George Youmans. Scalzo proved to be a good defensive outfielder in limited action as a first-year and Youmans hit .242 in 33 at-bats, including two doubles and three RBIs.
Looking to the infield, Stickley has a lot of questions to answer. He will trot out a lineup that features new starters at first base, second base, third base and catcher. The only holdover in the infield is sophomore shortstop Jonathan Stutts.
"Stutts is a good ballplayer," Stickley gushed. "Real smooth, great range and he hit the ball a lot better than we thought he would as a first-year. He is one of the best shortstops in the conference."
As a rookie, Stutts started all 33 games at short and hit .345, good for second on the team. He clubbed six doubles, two triples and a home run, while driving in 18 runs and scoring 26 times. He also led the team with six stolen bases.
Joining Stutts in the infield figures to be junior Alston James at second base, sophomore Alex Maragos at first and one of a number of players at third base.
James played in 22 games as a sophomore and made 18 starts, though he primarily played as the designated hitter. He hit .274 in 62 at-bats and had four doubles and two home runs among his 17 base hits.
Maragos, who had just five at-bats in his debut season, will step in at first base and the hot corner could be occupied by junior Chas Straface, sophomore Mike Savas or perhaps first-year Josh Josephson.
Straface hit .333 in nine at-bats last season, while Savas did not see any action due to injury.
"I think we are going to be fine defensively," Stickley said of his revamped infield. "A few of those guys haven't seen a lot of action and we're not sure where the production (offense) is going to come from, but they are going to get a chance to play and I really think they'll be alright."
A pair of sophomores are in line to split time behind the plate. Luke Deary (12 games, 5 starts) and Will Salley (13 games, 7 starts) each saw a fair amount of time last season and the platoon will more than likely continue this season. Last year, each player slugged a home run and they scored five runs apiece.
"Both of those guys saw some time last season in the second game of doubleheaders and they played alright," Stickley noted. "They're both gonna play this year and don't count out (Alex) Mait as well back there."
Whomever is behind the plate is going to be in charge of handling a large, if inexperienced, pitching staff. Headlining the staff are a pair of righties in senior co-captain Gregg Laswell and junior Roger Strong.
Strong earned Second Team All-ODAC laurels a season ago and Laswell ranked among the league leaders in nearly every statistical category.
"Roger is going to be our No. 1 guy and take over Chuck's spot," said Sitckley. "Laswell is kind of our swing guy. He will close games, throw some long relief and he can start if we need him to. Both of those guys are pretty good and they are going to be able to keep us in games."
Strong made 10 starts a season ago and posted a 4-2 ledger with a 3.28 ERA, good for sixth in the ODAC, and surrendered 23 runs (18 earned) on 53 hits and 17 walks with 32 strikeouts, while limiting opponents to just a .277 batting average-against.
Laswell was 3-2 with two saves among 17 appearances (43.2 IP) a season ago. He led the ODAC with an opponent batting average of .239, allowed a league-low 16 hits and his 9.48 strikeouts per game also paced the ODAC. Additionally, he ranked among the league leaders in ERA (3.30, 7th) and strikeouts (46, 8th).
Also looking to make the rotation are juniors Jody Davis and Pat Smith. Davis, a righty, was just 1-4 in eight appearance (7 starts) last season, but had an ERA of 4.58. "He isn't going to blow anybody away," Stickley pointed out, "but he does a good job of keeping us in games and if we can score a few runs for him you never know."
Smith is one of five lefties that Stickley has at his disposal. He was 0-1 in six games a season ago and will look to generate more consistency this year. Joining Smith in a crowded bullpen are junior Lee Tackett, sophomores Jake Pelton, Ian Shaw and Eric Wisotsky, and first-years Nate Plein and Andrew Kindelin among others.
Shaw posted a 2.25 ERA in 8.0 innings as a first-year. Wisotsky made 12 appearances and had a 3.18 ERA in 17.0 IP, while Pelton logged 15.0 innings with an ERA of 7.20. Tackett is returning to the team after not playing last season and making the conversion from first base to pitcher.
"Its going to be pitching by committee this year," Stickley stated. "We have a lot of arms, including five left-handers, so if one guy isn't getting it done we can put someone else in there and see what they have."
With so many fresh faces occupying spots in his lineup and a lot of young arms on the hill, Stickley knows his guys are going to have to "hang in there."
"We might have to get a little more creative to score some runs," he said. "A little more bunting guys over and hit-and-runs. We just have to have the confidence that we can score. Defensively, we are going to be pretty good and I think our pitching will keep us in most games, we just need to find a way to score some runs."
Experience will most certainly be gained this season as youth is the prevailing theme for Stickley's squad, but should his team round into shape, don't be surprised if the Generals are once again making noise in the conference tournament.
W&L begins its season on Sunday, when it travels to Greensboro for a non-conference doubleheader. Game one is set to begin at 3:00 pm.