The glaring issue of Clemson baseball has to fix to become an ACC contender again

Clemson is searching for a new baseball coach, who will have plenty of work to do in one specific area in order to get the program back to a level athletic director Graham Neff expects going forward.

That’s competing for championships, an expectation Neff made clear following his decision to part ways with Monte Lee. An ACC tournament crown in Year 1 and an Atlantic Division title in 2018 were the only outright championships Clemson claimed during Lee’s seven-year tenure, which ended with the Tigers missing out on consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

As the old adage goes, defense wins championships. For those who subscribe wholeheartedly to that theory, it’s easy if not critical to take it one step further in baseball, a sport in which pitching sets the tone.

There’s been one constant in Clemson’s dropoff the last couple of seasons: a lack of quality depth on the mound, particularly against ACC bats. It’s something Lee knew had to change after last season when the Tigers posted a 5.00 earned run average – the highest of his tenure – en route to their first losing season since the 1950s.

“When you look at the teams that, at least that I’ve coached, have been successful, successful teams are consistent,” Lee told The Clemson Insider during the preseason. “And consistency starts on the pitching side.”

Yet there again was little to be found among the Tigers’ arms this season. Mack Anglin, Nick Hoffman and Nick Clayton started the season in Clemson’s weekend rotation, but Anglin, who posted a team-best 4.48 ERA over 15 starts in what may have been the final collegiate season for the draft-eligible sophomore, was the only one who finished there.

At one point, fellow sophomore Geoffrey Gilbert, one of the Tigers’ top relievers, was moved into the rotation. Lee even gave true freshman Billy Barlow, who began the season as a midweek starter, a handful of weekend starts. But the Tigers spent most of the season looking for answers on the bump instead of finding them.

That was particularly true against ACC lineups, nine of which will be participating in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Even with ACC Player of the Year Max Wagner powering an offense that averaged more than seven runs a game, Clemson finished the year 13-18 against league competition after starting the season 14-0.

The Tigers scored at least seven runs in 14 league games but lost more than one-third of those (five) since they had trouble containing opposing offenses. Seven times, Clemson yielded double-digit runs to ACC opponents. The Tigers lost all of those games, including an 18-15 series finale at Louisville and a season-ending 18-6 setback to Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament.

“You score seven runs and put together a big inning, you should win the game,” Lee said following Clemson’s 9-7 loss to North Carolina State in early April. “It’s really that simple.”

Clemson didn’t do itself any favors by issuing a whopping 295 walks this season. That’s more than five free baserunners per game. It contributed to a 4.86 ERA, which again ranked in the bottom half of the ACC.

All but two of the league’s NCAA Tournament teams this year have ERAs lower than that, and one of the outliers, Georgia Tech, made up for it by leading the league in hitting (.323 team average). Notre Dame, Virginia and Virginia Tech – teams that finished in the top 3 of their respective divisions – are all taking sub-4.2 ERAs into this weekend’s regionals. Meanwhile, Clemson hasn’t posted a team ERA lower than 4.47 in a full season since 2018, which is also the last time the Tigers won their division and hosted a regional.

It all begs a couple of key questions: Is the talent level within the program where it needs to be for Clemson to compete in the top half of the ACC again? And, if not, are candidates with a proven knack for developing players and recruiting top-end talent a prerequisite for Neff during this coaching search?

Asked both by TCI earlier this week, Neff opined that “we have great ball players here and always have at Clemson.” But he acknowledged the Tigers’ on-field results the last couple of seasons proved there is a disconnect somewhere.

“When we finish 11th and 12th in the ACC, those are clearly big drivers toward this change,” Neff said, referring to Lee’s dismissal. “I talked about that with Monte very candidly and directly.

“Do we need more talent? Absolutely. Does it lead itself to someone that’s really well-versed and has chops in recruiting, relationships, travel ball, high schools and those types of things? Those are really compelling attributes for coaches, absolutely.”

Those criteria may be more important than ever given the scholarship restrictions in the sport that put Clemson and other programs at a natural recruiting disadvantage. The NCAA limits baseball teams to 11.7 annual scholarships to be divvied up among a maximum of 27 players, a financial shortcoming that some schools use the kind of massive endowment Clemson doesn’t have to circumvent.

Recruiting could further be impacted by name, image and likeness deals for student-athletes, though the NCAA recently classified NIL collectives as boosters and thus illegal to entice prospective athletes with money. Neff said Clemson’s administration has taken measures to try to level the playing field, including the recent implementation of the Clemson Athletic Performance award, which will allow current athletes the opportunity to receive up to an extra $5,980 per academic year for academic progress.

“It’s important on us administratively, and we’ve taken steps and will continue to take those to have great opportunities for our coaches and our baseball coach to recruit and raise that talent level to the point that we expect to compete nationally,” Neff said .

Whether that’s developing the pitchers that choose to stick around, bringing in new arms or a combination of the two, the goal of getting Clemson back to a regional and beyond for whoever ends up getting the job has a simple starting point.

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