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TCU Baseball vs Texas Tech Preview: The West Texas Championship

Back in the day, the football game between TCU and Tech was dubbed "The West Texas Championship". This weekend, the TCU and Tech baseball teams will play for the West Texas Championship and likely the Big 12 Championship as well.

Get ready to slap hands, a TCU series victory is at...hand...
Get ready to slap hands, a TCU series victory is at...hand...

If I worked for the Big 12, or any other Conference, I'd pitch the idea of a Conference Network, with multiple channels, so that when a momentous weekend in a sport that's picking up more and more interest happens, fans could watch games in a narrow aggregate and only have to flip one channel between games. Sadly, nothing like that exists.

With Oklahoma State playing in Austin and Texas Tech playing in the Fort Worth, it's perhaps the biggest single weekend in recent Big 12 baseball memory. A week ago, Oklahoma State--coming off a sweep an embracing sweep in Lubbock--and Texas--putting forth the same effort as Batman v. Superman writers' room--looked all but toast this time last Friday. But a series win by each of those teams, against the presumed, and then unimpeachable frontrunners, threw a staggering wrench into the regular season title race.

Now, it's still more or less a two-team race between TCU and Tech for a few reasons; (a) The Red Raiders have a sweep against Oklahoma State, so even with a series win against TCU, it'll be hard for the Cowboys to steal this thing away from either the Red Raiders or Frogs; (b) and credit them for this, Texas has only played two good Big 12 series this year, which coincidentally, like we said in this week's Manager, against the two best teams in the Conference. Even with a series win against both TCU and Tech, the Longhorns still have a lot of things to get straight before they can start taking a title run seriously.

That said, barring an epic meltdown, essentially two teams get eliminated from the title race this weekend with a series loss. Tech and TCU can basically lock it up if either of them sweep--especially the former; and Oklahoma State has to (a) win--and possibly sweep--in Austin, and also hope TCU either sweeps or wins the series for a legit run as well.

Pitching Preview

Projected Friday Matchup

Starting Pitcher W-L IP ERA H/9 K/9 BB/9
Dalton Horton - LHP 7-0 46.2 2.12 6.8 4.4 1.9
Davis Martin - RHP 6-0 49.0 2.39 7.9 7.3 2.4

This Friday night matchup will feature the top two active freshman pitchers in the Big 12. Dalton Horton is the top active freshman pitcher in the league in terms of ERA. This is made true only because the pitcher with the best ERA in the Big 12 is TCU pitcher Luken Baker, who is currently week-to-week and not expected to start against Tech. Still, the rise of Horton from unknown freshman to the ace of this staff has been remarkable. His 7-0 record is the best in TCUs starting rotation, despite Horton having started at least one less game than anyone else in the rotation. In his last two starts Horton has gone at least six innings both times, allowing just two runs on seven hits in the first and two runs on five hits in the second.

Freshman Davis Martin has been the Texas Tech equivalent of TCU's Dalton Horton. He's a freshman from San Angelo, Texas who has risen from obscurity to become the rock upon which Texas Tech's surprise season was built. In his last two starts he has gone at least six innings, earning a W in both. He did get knocked around a little bit last weekend by Texas though, giving up five earned runs on seven hits. He'll be a tough draw for the Frogs on Friday night, especially without their own Friday night freshman wunderkind, Luken Baker.

Projected Saturday Matchup

Starting Pitcher W-L IP ERA H/9 K/9 BB/9
Brian Howard - RHP 5-2 51.0 3.88 7.4 8.6 2.8
Steven Gingery - LHP 3-1 36.0 3.25 9.0 9.5 4.0

Howard is coming off his worst start of the season last Sunday against Oklahoma State. He lasted just 2 2/3 innings, giving up seven runs on five hits. He started off the day great, throwing two innings of no-hit ball and striking out the side in the second, but things went downhill fast in that third inning. Schlossnagle likes to say that when evaluating pitchers he throws out their best game and their worst game and makes his judgements based on how they "usually" perform. So, we're going to throw out the OSU game. Howard's last start before that was a seven inning, three hit, shutout, and that wasn't even necessarily his best start of the season.

Beyond Davis Martin, predicting Texas Tech's starting pitching becomes kind of like a game of Battleship. There's a lot of guessing involved, but when Tim Tadlock guesses right this team can do some serious damage. Much like TCU, Tech can hit, and when they get good pitching they usually win. Steven Gingery made the start for Tech last weekend against Texas and went 4 2/3 innings, giving up three runs on four hits while striking out four and walking three batters. One of the more trusted Red Raiders on the mound, he has started seven games, tied for third on their pitching staff.

Projected Sunday Matchup

Starting Pitcher W-L IP ERA H/9 K/9 BB/9
Rex Hill - LHP 2-2 36.2 5.40 11.8 10.1 2.5
Ty Damron - LHP 3-1 36.2 5.89 9.1 8.1 3.9

From a bird's eye view this doesn't look great, but it doesn't look terrible either. Hill has been spotty at best as a starter for the Frogs this year, but here and there he turns in a pretty good start. Earlier this season Rex spent most of his time as the Sunday starter. His best start in that role was a four inning, six hit, one run outing against Houston in the Houston College Classic. About a month ago he got moved into the Tuesday role, following the emergence of freshman Dalton Horton as a bona-fide stud. Hill's last two Tuesday starts have been against Dallas Baptist. He went 4 1/3 innings in the first of those two starts, giving up six hits and one run. In the second, this last Tuesday, he went just two innings of no-hit baseball before he was lifted to keep him fresh for the weekend.

Texas Tech has announced that they plan to go with junior lefthander Ty Damron in Sunday's game. Damron was primarily a reliever his freshman season before being thrust into a starting role last year. He did pretty good in 2015, putting together a 3.58 ERA, but he has regressed in his junior year and that ERA has creeped up to 5.89 through nine starts in 2016. Last week the Raiders decided to go with Hayden Howard in the Sunday role and that turned out horribly as Texas walloped the Red Raiders 17-1. This week they will go back to Damron in hopes that he can regain his 2015 form. In a matchup between two guys with ERAs upwards of 5.00, anything can happen.

Offensive Preview

Offensive Comparison avg r h hr slg% ob% fld%
TCU 0.313 304 417 33 0.476 0.410 0.970
Texas Tech 0.301 327 447 38 0.461 0.408 0.973

These are far and away the best offensive teams in the Big 12. Texas Tech has played a few more games than TCU, so that padded their hits, runs and HR numbers a little bit. Other than that they are almost a mirror image, with TCU holding a slight statistical advantage. Sophomore Tanner Gardner leads the Raiders with a batting average of .390, and while he has Barzilli-like numbers, his 26 RBIs seem low for a three-hole hitter, as do his 2 HRs. He has, however, hit a whopping five triples in addition to being second on the team in runs scored (40). Cory Raley, one of the senior leaders on this squad, heads up the rest of the pack with a batting average of .339. He's tied for second on the team with 12 doubles and leads the team in stolen bases, where he is 13-13. Steven Smith in another guy to watch out for as he leads the team in home runs with nine. Most of the time guys with that many homers aren't hitting .330 either. He's also second on the team in terms of hits and walks, so overall he makes for a really tough out.

Usually I like to highlight three main guys offensively, but that's really hard to do with either of these teams. Early in the year, the trio of Barzilli, Baker and Skoug had created some pretty solid separation between themselves and the rest of the lineup, but that's just not the case anymore. Baker is still on fire right now, recently raking over the team lead in RBIs at 38 only to have the also-lit Skoug tie him on Tuesday with a two run homer, Skoug's seventh of the year. Barzilli still leads the team in batting average and slugging percentage, but he has cooled off a little bit in April from the insane amount of success he was having at the plate in February and March. So, its not that these three aren't still having a crazy amount of success, it's just that that Steinhagen, Warner, Wade and even Josh Watson have been just as dangerous. Steinhagen has hit four of his five home runs in the last month and Watson leads the team with eight. Wade is third on the team with a batting average of .336 and first in on-base percentage. Even the short stop Ryan Merrill is hitting .287 in the nine-hole. No matter where you are in this lineup, you are not safe.

A case for TCU's true ace | Mitchell Traver's return, Dalton Horton, and ubiquitous scoring

Big 12 Contenders Runs Scored Runs Allowed Differential
Run Differential
TCU 304 145 159
Texas Tech 327 212 115
Oklahoma State 219 154 65

With Mitchell Traver's return against Penn State on the horizon, it's pretty hard not to look ahead. This weekend may not be the de-facto Big 12 Regular Season Championship like we thought even as close as last Friday, but it will clear it up with two huge series in Austin and Fort Worth.

Traver's return paints a pretty nice picture going forward for the Frogs, a team that despite its first negative return in weeks, is still dominating run differential in the Big 12. As we said earlier in the week, with your collesall ace returning, and with the way scram-handed freshman Dalton Horton is pitching as of late, and a consistent guy righty like Brian Howard to close out weekends, TCU's move from simply winning series to sweeping them going into the home stretch is looking a lot better. It was only two years ago, about this time, where Brandon Finnegan, Preston Morrison, and Tyler Alexander went down to Austin and changed the trajectory of their season. One from borderline NCAA-bid team, to College World Series competitor.

As a sports fan, I do believe in curses--or at least trends. TCU simply, regardless of sport, doesn't play well in Stillwater. So I really want look at last weekend as a sign of weakness or a real reason to be worried for this weekend. Tech's pitching is young, the Frogs have only stumbled this season in two areas; on the road and against veteran pitching. When both of these intersect--like Oklahoma State and Texas--that's where I worry. So while my semi-superstitious notion that TCU is forever doomed in Stillwater, the fact that it falls into something I can actually put some really pseudo-data behind is comforting.

Despite all this, in Conference play, the Frogs still sit atop in both offense and in pitching. Luken Baker and Austen Wade--the latter of whom is having a quietly brilliant season--are 1-2 in the Big 12 in BA (.435/.426) and two of four Big 12 hitters hitting over the Teddy Williams mark in Conference play. One of the other three? Texas Tech senior, Cory Raley.

Since his Rex Hill's relegation, Dalton Horton has made the most in the past month. In three Big 12 starts, and stepping up with Traver's absence, and some sportiness elsewhere, Horton has pitched with MVP-like prowess. He doesn't strike a lot of guys out, with that, along with a similar 6'3"-ish frame, he reminds me a lot of Houston lefty, and reigning AL Cy Young, Dallas Keuchel.

I understand wanting to give to the MVP to Luken Baker or Elliot Barzilli, but if the voting were ending today, my vote would go to this kid. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, Horton has gone full Leicester City; sly and cunning in his delivery, Horton certainly embraces a fox like mantra as well. While the Mitchell Traver return will, nearly certainly be impactful when he returns against Penn State, the crowd in Fort Worth will indeed see their ace pitch this weekend. His name is Dalton Horton and he's pitching Friday night.