Let’s play a game.
Here are two baseball teams: we’ll call them Team A, and Team B.
Team A is 16-4 overall and 12-3 in conference play. In fact, they are undefeated in conference series, having gone 5-0. They have a .800 winning percentage, one of the best in the nation. They currently sit in 2nd place in their divisional standings, due in no small part to their impressive lineup and pitching staff.
Team B is pretty mediocre. They’re solid, but perhaps they have not lived up to expectations. They are 16-13, 2-7 in conference play. They are 0-3 in conference series, and sit dead last in their divisional race. Their offense has shown signs of promise, but have been pretty streaky through their 29 games. Likewise, their starting pitchers have struggled to contain opposing lineups, and when they are able to, their bullpen often blows leads.
It’s pretty clear; if team A faced off against team B, it wouldn’t be pretty. However, these teams are actually the same squad: the 2023 Clemson Tigers.
Through their first 29 games of the 2023 season, the Clemson Tigers were not a great ball club. There was little consistency in their pitching staff, and they often struggled to find timely hitting. They sat at the bottom of the ACC Atlantic, having gone 0-3 in conference series, including an 0-3 sweep at home against Wake Forest.
However, since that Wake series, the Tigers have gone on a tear, winning 5 straight ACC series, including sweeps over NC State and Louisville. They have also earned several impressive out-of-conference wins, including one over Georgia and two over a Top 25 Coastal Carolina team.
Their success has sent the team skyrocketing in the rankings. They are now regarded as a legitimate contender in the ACC, and perhaps a legitimate postseason contender as well.
While Tiger fans are content to sit back and watch their team wreck opponents, one must wonder, what happened? A ball club, even one that may have been underperforming, does not transform into a national contender overnight!
The Run Differential
The most noticeable change through Clemson’s turnaround has been their run differential, or the number of runs they’ve scored compared to the number of runs opponents have scored against them.
In their first 29 games (that is through their series against Wake on April 1st), Clemson’s run differential sat at +32. That difference is doubled through their recent stretch, as the margin is +64 runs in their last 20 games.
A spike in home runs, along with improved contributions from the back end of the batting order, have led many to believe the Tigers’ turnaround has been sparked by their lineup.
Through their first 29 games of the season the Clemson Tigers scored 196 runs, roughly 6.76 runs per game. For reference, this rate would be 10th in the ACC today, according to theACC.com. The Tigers’ offense has increased this tally to 7.3 runs per game in their last 20 matchups, which would put them at 9th in the conference.
While the Tigers have statistically improved offensively, a 0.54 increase in runs per game alone does not equate to their drastic rise in wins.
The key to their success lies in the number of runs they have allowed. Through their first 29 games, opponents scored 164 runs against the Tigers, roughly 5.66 runs per game. That rate would leave them 9th in the ACC today.
Over their last 20 games, however, the Tiger have only allowed just 82 runs, a mere 4.1 runs per game! Not only would this put them 2nd in the ACC, but 3rd amongst all Power Five teams.
This number has also been inflated by outlier performances, such as a 4-10 loss to Notre Dame on April 14th. The median number of runs the Tigers have allowed in their last twenty matchups is only a mere 3.5 per game!
If the Tigers had sustained this level of play all season, they would undoubtedly be viewed as one of the premier teams in the country. Their .800 winning percentage would be the third best in the nation, and they would be neck and neck with Wake Forest for the no. 1 seed in the ACC tournament.
Of course, this comparison is unreliable. There is a big difference between playing great for 20 games and playing great for nearly 50.
Nonetheless, these comparisons do help us put Clemson’s recent success into perspective. The Tigers have been nothing short of elite over this 20 game stretch, and it has been sparked, primarily, by their pitching.
College baseball often boils down to damage control.
Allowing a solo shot doesn’t kill a team. Sure, it hurts, but over the course of 9 innings, a single run rarely defines a ball game.
However, two walks, followed by a single, followed by another two walks, and then a homer… That is called a big inning, that does define a game, as it can kill a team’s chances.
In the early months of their season, the Clemson Tigers were plagued by the big inning. Through their first 24 games, opponents scored 4+ runs in a single inning on 8 different occasions. That means the Tigers were allowing opponents to hang a crooked number nearly every three games.
Contrarily, in their last 25 matchups, Clemson pitching has only allowed one such inning: Notre Dame’s 6 run 3rd on in their 10-4 loss on April 14th. In all other matchups, the Tigers have restricted opponents to no more than 3 runs in any given inning.
While the starting rotation has been stunning during this stretch, the bullpen has been equally as impressive.
As a season progresses, a coach hopes to see two things regarding their pitching staff:
1. Your guys get better.
2. You, as a coach, grow to understand them better.
While the improved results are certainly a testament to the work the players have put in, a great deal of acknowledgment is due head coach Erik Bakich and pitching coach Jimmy Belanger.
Both coaches have put in the time to better understand their pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses. In doing so, they have designed a game plan that, when deciding who to bring into the game, lends itself to the individual’s situational strengths. Their game plan has proved to be very effective.
The bullpen, which through the first half of the season was a glaring weakness for this team, is now a strength. No Clemson bullpen pitcher has suffered a loss over their last 20 games.
Though the pitching staff has helped this club exponentially, there is another, perhaps more important, factor that has contributed to the Tigers’ success.
There’s a Belief
There’s a kind of aura amongst championship level ball clubs. A feeling, a vibe. A belief that, regardless of which team stands in the opposite dugout, our squad will find a way to win.
Clemson’s team seems to have this belief right now. While it is impossible to statistically track its effects on a team’s success, its impact is clear.
Regardless of what in-game challenges have been thrown at Clemson, the Tigers have found a way to respond.
On April 16th, for example, Clemson faced off against Notre Dame in the series’ rubber match. For each run the Irish scored, the Tigers responded. ND scored one in the top of the 1st, Clemson scored 1 in the bottom. ND scored again in the second, Clemson scored 2. Again, each team scored a run in the fifth. ND tied the game with another run in the 7th, but in the bottom half, Clemson scored two of their own, reclaiming the lead and holding it for the 6-4 win.
Almost a week later, on April 22nd, the Tigers found themselves down 4-6 to NC State heading into the late innings. An Amick RBI single in the 7th would bring the Tigers within one. With two outs in the 8th with the bases loaded, Caden Grice crushed a pitch to right field, chasing home four runs and ultimately lifting the Tigers to a 9-7 win.
Again, on May 5th, the Tigers struggled to find timely hits against a stout Louisville pitching staff. Despite finishing the game 2 for 13 with runners in scoring position, Clemson’s pitching staff was able to stifle the Cardinal lineup enough to carry their lead to a 6-3 win.
After the game, Erik Bakich attributed the success to the team’s belief in themselves and their teammates, in a postgame press conference documented by All Clemson.
"“When the team is confident, and they’re connected and there’s that synergy between the pitching and the defense and the hitting it’s just… there’s just this connectivity that we’re just going to find a win.”"
This team has always been capable of achieving this level of success, but now, they’ve proven that capability to themselves. Such confidence can do a lot for a team, especially as they approach the end of the regular season.
When considering the postseason, there’s some good news, and some bad news for the Clemson Tigers.
The bad news is the selection committee is required to consider a team’s entire season when deciding tournament seedings. This means the committee will have to look at Clemson’s early season showings, which includes series losses to Duke, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, and yes, the three game home sweep to UCF.
While Clemson has certainly helped their case over the last few weeks–it’s hard to imagine a better response from the Tigers than what they’ve given–it remains to be seen if their efforts are enough to earn them a favorable seed.
The good news is, however, once tournament play begins, nothing matters except how the team performs that day. If the Tigers continue to play at their current level, which has been exceptional to say the least, Clemson could do some significant damage on the road to Omaha.
While there still seems to be a pretty noticeable difference between Clemson and the top championship contenders–Wake and LSU have been playing on a different planet this season–fans have yet to see the Tigers look inferior to any team they’ve played since their turnaround.
If this trend continues, who’s to say the Tigers can’t shock the world this summer and make a run for Omaha?
All statistics utilized in this article are accurate as of May 11th, 2023. Games after this date are not factored into this review.