Expectations can be a funny thing. Some fans expectations are realistic, while some are wildly unrealistic. Some adjust their expectations based on the situations surrounding a team, while some maintain consistent expectations amid those circumstances.
The Tigers hit 40 wins and hosted NCAA regionals (but did not advance) in each of the past three seasons - Monte Lee’s first three as Head Coach. In that first season (2016), Clemson won the ACC tournament for the first time since 2006. This year - season four under Monte Lee - represented a clear step down. After looking like a team that could contend for a national seed during the first half, the second half was an entirely different story. They lost eight straight at one point, while struggling to finish .500 in the ACC. They spent much of the final stretch on the NCAA bubble, and failed to win 40 games for the first time under Lee.
This coaching staff has taken a lot of flak since the middle of April. After the season-ending loss to Jacksonville State in the regionals it reached a fever pitch. Some of the criticism justified, some not as much.
This teams offensive philosophy is without question up for debate and has earned every bit of criticism its received. It's a go big or go home approach and through four seasons it's an approach that has generated a mixed bag of results.
Hitters are always looking to drive the ball, regardless of situation. The team has hit a lot of long balls with this approach, but it's also led to a ton of strikeouts and many runners left on base. Whether this approach can produce the results Tiger baseball fans were used to seeing prior to 2010 remains to be seen.
One thing's certain, and that is if you're going to have this kind of offensive philosophy that relies on one or two big innings each game, you best have the pitching to go along with it. Through four seasons, this program hasn't had it. It's had good pitchers but there's been virtually no depth. To be fair, the pitching depth was poor when Monte Lee took over the program. The question then becomes how long does it take to rebuild that depth.
Opinions vary greatly on that but recruiting in college baseball is a lot trickier than it is in football or basketball. With baseball, you need to be recruiting 3-4 years ahead, and coaches have to worry about the more talented recruits being poached by the MLB draft. Clemson has had its fair share of these type of losses over the years.
Taking into account the pitfalls associated with recruiting and the fact that the pitching depth had to be completely rebuilt, I thought this staff would need up to four years to get this program back on solid footing. Those four years are up. Heading into year five and looking at the roster after three straight Top 20 recruiting classes, there's no reason for this team to not take that next step in 2020.
That brings us back to the expectations. What should they be? This is a storied program that became accustomed to competing for a trip to Omaha every year. A Hall of Fame coach was run out of town for failing to live up to those expectations for five consecutive years. A new regime shouldn't change those expectations, but at the same time there should be some sort of grace period when you're talking about a rebuild under a new coach.
Winning the conference in Monte Lee's first season and hosting regionals in his first three seasons gave the casual fan the wrong perception of exactly where this program stood. Not one of those teams had good pitching depth, which was the downfall of all three.
Going into year four it looked like this team would finally have just a little pitching depth. Injuries to two starters depleted that depth before the first pitch was ever thrown. Add in all the youth on this roster and those losses were too much overcome.
Looking to 2020, Lee's fifth season leading this program, that grace period will be over and the fanbase will be justified in having high expectations. The pitching is there, as well as the depth. Getting Carter Raffield and Spencer Strider back as well as not losing Mack Anglin and Geoffrey Gilbert to the draft should solidify the depth. Unlike the 2019 season, an injury or two shouldn't have catastrophic effects. The questions surrounding the development of pitchers under this staff should be answered as well.
There's no denying this program has taken a fall since 2010. In the nine years from 2002 - 2010, Clemson won six regionals and made three College World Series appearances. Since then the Tigers have been bounced in the regional round in nine consecutive seasons
Historically speaking, baseball has been arguably Clemson’s most consistently sucessful program. There's no reason for the fan base to not expect that same kind of success in the future. That future starts now. Once the 2020 season rolls around, the grace period will have expired. It's time for Monte's Tigers to win a regional for the first time since 2010, and get the monkey off their backs.