Saturday, February 09, 2019

Pitching Optional?

What happens when you take a team that got into the NCAA tournament despite finishing in the middle of the pack in its conference and relying on a makeshift pitching staff and remove the few reliable pitchers while leaving much of the offense intact? Does this sound interesting to you, like an experiment cooked up in the lab of a mad sabermetrician (or more likely a resident of that state up north)? If so, you may be interested in the 2019 Buckeyes.

In the ninth season of the seemingly never-ending Greg Beals regime, he once again has an entire unit with next to no returning experience. Sometimes this is unavoidable in college sports, but it happens to Beals with regularity as player development does not appear to be a strong suit of the program. Players typically either make an impact as true freshmen or are never heard from, while JUCO transfers are a roster staple to paper over the holes. The only difference with this year’s pitching situation is that holes are largely being plugged with freshmen rather than transfers.

The three pitchers penciled in as the rotation have precious little experience, with two true freshmen and a junior with 24 appearances and 11 starts in his career. Lefty Seth Lonsway was a nineteenth-round pick of Cincinnati and will be joined by classmate Garrett Burhenn, with Jake Vance as the junior veteran. Vance was +3 RAA in 36 innings last year, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider the dearth of returning performers on the rest of the staff.

Midweek starts and long relief could fall to sophomore lefty Griffan Smith, who was not effective as a freshman (-7 RAA in 32 innings). The other veteran relievers are junior Andrew Magno (sidelined much of last season with an injury, but Beals loves his lefty specialists so if healthy he will see the mound) and senior sidewarmer Thomas Waning, who was promising as a sophomore but coughed up 18 runs in 16 frames in 2018. A trio of freshmen righties are said to throw 90+ MPH (Bayden Root, TJ Brock, Will Pfenning) joined by other freshmen in Cole Niekamp and lefty Mitch Milheim. Joe Gahm is a junior transfer from Auburn via Chattahoochee Valley Community College and given his experience and BA ranking as a top 30 Big Ten draft prospect should find a role. Senior Brady Cherry will also apparently get a chance to pitch this season, something he has yet to do in his Buckeye career.

The Buckeye offense is more settled, and unless the pitchers exceed reasonable expectations will have to carry the team in 2019. Sophmore Dillon Dingler moves in from center field (that’s nothing, as recent OSU catcher Jalen Washington moved to shortstop) to handle the catching duties and was raved about by the coaches last season so big things are expected despite a .244/.325/.369 line. He’ll be backed up by sophomore transfer Brent Todys from Andrew College, with senior Andrew Fishel, junior Sam McClurg and freshman Mitchell Smith rounding out the roster.

First base will belong to junior Conner Pohl after he switched corners midway through 2018; he also played the keystone as a freshman so he’s been all over the infield. While his production was underwhelming for first base, at 3 RAA he was a contributor last season and looks like a player who should add power as he matures. Senior Kobie Foppe got off to a slow start last year, flipped from shortstop to second base, and became an ideal leadoff man (.335/.432/.385); even with some BABIP regression he should be solid. Third base will go to true freshman Zach Dezenzo, while junior shortstop Noah West needs to add something besides walks to his offensive game (.223/.353/.292). The main infield backups are freshman Nick Erwin at short, sophomore Scottie Seymour and freshmen Aaron Hughes and Marcus Ernst at the corners, and junior Matt Carpenter everywhere just like his MLB namesake (albeit without the offensive ability).

I’ll describe the outfield backwards from right to left, since junior right fielder Dominic Canzone is the team’s best offensive player (.323/.396/.447 which was a step back from his freshman campaign) and will be penciled in as the #3 hitter. The other two spots are not as settled as one would hope given the imperative of productive offense for this team. A pair of seniors will battle for center: Malik Jones did nothing at the plate as a JUCO transfer last year besides draw walks (245/.383/.286 in 63 PA) while Ridge Winand has barely seen the field. In left, senior Nate Romans has served as a utility man previously, although he did contribute in 93 PA last year (.236/.360/.431). Senior Brady Cherry completes his bounce around the diamond which has included starting at third and second; in 2018 he hit just .226/.321/.365, a step back from 2017. While he could get time in left, it’s more likely he’ll DH since the plan is to use him out of the bullpen as well. Other outfield backups are freshman Nolan Clegg in the corners and Alec Taylor in center.

OSU opens the season this weekend with an odd three-game series against Seton Hall in Pt. Charlotte, Florida. It is the start of a very lackluster non-conference schedule that doesn’t figure to help the Buckeyes’ cause come tournament time as the schedule did last year (although unfortunately as you can probably tell I tend to think the resume will be beyond help). There are no games against marquee names, although OSU will play MSU in a rare non-conference Big Ten matchup. The home schedule opens March 15 with a three-game series against Lipscomb, a one-off with Northern Kentucky, and a four-game series against Hawaii, whose players will probably wondering what they did to wind up in Columbus in mid-March when they could be home.

Big Ten play opens March 29 at Rutgers, with the successive weekends home to Northwestern and the forces of darkness, at Maryland, home to Iowa, at Minnesota, home to PSU, and at Purdue. Midweek opponents are the typical fare of local nines, including Toledo, Cincinnati, Ohio University (away), Dayton, Xavier, Miami (away), Wright State, and Youngstown State (away). The Big Ten tournament will be played May 22-26 in Omaha.

It’s hard to be particularly optimistic that another surprise trip to the NCAA tournament is in the cards. Even some of the best pitchers who have come through OSU have struggled as freshman so it’s hard to project the starting pitching to be good, and while there are productive returnees at multiple positions, only Canzone is a proven excellent hitter and a couple positions are occupied by players who must make serious improvement to be average. The non-conference schedule may be soft enough to keep the record respectable, but there are few opportunities to grab wins that will help come selection time. Aspiring to qualify for the Big Ten tournament seems a more realistic goal. Beals is the longest-tenured active coach at OSU in any of the four sports that I follow rabidly, which on multiple levels is concerning (although two of the three other program have coaches in place who have demonstrated their value at OSU, and the third did well in a three-game trial). Yet somehow Beals marches on, floating aimlessly in the middle of an improved Big Ten.

Note: This preview is always a combination of my own knowledge and observation along with the official season outlook released by the program, especially as pertains to position changes and newcomers about which I have next to no direct knowledge. That reliance was even greater this year due to the turnover on the mound.

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