Feb. 13, 2012
Baylor baseball enters the 2012 season with a nearly identical outlook from this time a season ago. With eight position starters returning for the second straight season, the Bears have plenty of veterans in the line-up.
Though Baylor returns 20 of 25 lettermen from a 2011 squad that came within one strike of winning the NCAA Houston Regional, three of those departed letterwinners were members of the Bears' starting pitcher rotation. Logan Verrett and Brooks Pinckard were selected in the 2011 MLB Draft and Jon Ringenberg graduated, leaving the Bears to find replacements for pitchers who accounted for 29 of 59 starts a season ago.
"We have a number of options on starters and several options in the back end of the staff," 18th-year head coach Steve Smith said. "There may be some growing pains as they try and get comfortable and settled in, but we've got some capable guys and they're extremely hard working."
The Bears return plenty of bats after losing only one full-time starter from the field. Landis Ware started 55 games at shortstop last year, and the Bears will also have to replace 80 starts from outfielders Pinckard and Chris Slater.
With so many players returning from last season's painful end -- Baylor lost a three-run lead in the ninth inning of the Houston Regional championship game -- Smith expects this year's squad to be highly motivated.
"Moving forward, I believe that whole experience to this point, going from the fall to now, has been a very strong motivator," Smith said. "Nobody wants to go through anything like that, but it can produce something extraordinary and that is really what this year is about for us. That has been the mindset of the team since they got back. Since I've been here, I've never seen a season have a carry-over effect that the 2011 season has had."
Though the Bears lost only three pitchers, that trio combined for 36 percent of the innings pitched in 2011. Smith said he's leaning on fourth-year assistant coach Trevor Mote to help him with the pitching staff this year.
"At the end of the fall I moved Trevor Mote into a lot of the day-to-day duties with the pitchers, so they're getting a second voice and a different perspective right now which I think is healthy if you have the right guy," Smith said. "Trevor is the right guy and is just a baseball guy. He is going to have a real positive impact on a lot of these guys."
One known quantity returning to anchor the weekend rotation is junior LHP Josh Turley (4-5, 3.39 ERA, 63 K in 2011). He earned 2011 Houston Regional All-Tournament honors after pitching a complete game to beat No. 8 Rice on its home field, 3-2. Turley, who made the transition to starting pitcher after spending his freshman year working mostly out of the bullpen, has allowed three earned runs or less in 15 of 16 career starts on the mound.
Another possible weekend starter is fourth-year junior RHP Max Garner (2-4, 3.12 ERA, 42 K, 8 saves). Garner missed all of the 2010 season with a life-threatening medical condition, but he came back strong in 2011 was the Bears' most-utilized reliever with 49.0 innings over a team-high 29 outings. This season, Garner will likely make his first career start on the mound.
"The thing that was most shocking to me was how fast he came back. It was special and it was out-of-the ordinary because what he did defies reasonable thinking," Smith said. "He looks like he is on a mission. If you ask which role Max wants, he'll tell you that he wants Friday night and that's great - and he might, but he also might have to get the last out."
Baylor has plenty of other options to start on the mound, but there's a drop off in experience after Turley and Garner.
Sophomore LHP Brad Kuntz (0-1, 4.12, 28) started once in 14 appearances as a true freshman, but he posted the team's best strikeout-to-walk ratio with 28 strikeouts and seven walks in 24.0 innings.
"Kuntz is a guy that has really developed," Smith said. "He is a guy that really helped himself over the summer and came into the fall on a mission. His mission was to show us that he belonged on the weekend and he pitched with that intensity and purpose every time he went out."
The Bears could also turn to one of two senior right-handed pitchers. Tyler Bremer (2-2, 7.80, 24) pitched 30.0 innings over 15 appearances with three starts last year, and Trent Blank (5-2, 4.88, 27) made 10 starts a season ago, but his best results came later in the year when he moved to the bullpen and started pitching from a lower arm slot.
Freshman LHP Michael Howard is also expected to compete for a starting job on the mound, as well as in the outfield. A 21st-round draft pick last summer, Howard took a break from the mound during the fall to rest his arm.
"Whether it is this year or a year from now, I believe he could be a weekend starter for us," Smith said. "It may not be right away and he might have to grow into that role a little bit, but that is up to him."
Smith added that another freshman, RHP Austin Stone, could also work his way into the weekend rotation.
The Bears have plenty of options out of the bullpen, including two arms that didn't see any action on the mound a season ago.
Senior RHP/C Joey Hainsfurther is expected to take on a larger role. He made 10 relief appearances over his first two seasons at Baylor, but was used only as a position player in 2011.
"I think Joey Hainsfurther is a candidate for the closer role," Smith said. "He hasn't had a lot of repetition on the field, but I've seen him in the bullpen and he is very capable. His strongest asset is his competitive fire."
Junior RHP Miles Landry is also expected to carry some of the load. A walk-on in his fourth year with the program, Landry has only pitched 0.1 inning in his career, but he came on strong this summer and was named a NECBL All-Star.
"I am anxious to see a guy like Miles Landry on the mound -- that is one of the coolest stories that people don't know yet," Smith said. "At this point in his career at Baylor, he has thrown less than one full inning, but he will get an opportunity to play professional baseball. He has come on in the last year and really came on during the summer. It'll be an experience for him."
Baylor also has some veterans returning to the bullpen. Junior RHP Kolt Browder (0-1, 3.86, 13) is back after being limited to 13 appearances while batting through injuries a season ago.
"Kolt Browder has also made some big improvements from last year," Smith said. "Those guys aren't going to be household names, and when other teams see their names on the scouting report they're not going to shake in their boots, but I really believe they have the ability and the heart to get it done."
Junior LHP Crayton Bare (0-1, 4.91, 9) returns after holding left-handed hitters to a .158 batting average last season.
A pair of sophomore RHPs are also expected to see increased action after getting their feet wet in 2011. Dillon Newman (1-1, 3.29, 17) was the Bears' second-most used reliever last season with 25.1 innings in relief and allowed only six earned runs over his final 12 outings. Trae Davis (3-1, 6.75, 18) also returns after making 16 relief appearances in his true freshman season.
Other options out of the bullpen include redshirt freshman RHP Sean Spicer, sophomore LHP Doug Ashby, sophomore RHP Josh Michalec, junior RHP Nick Wright and freshmen RHPs Ryan Smith and Joe Kirkland.
With three starters returning, the Bears aren't lacking for experience in the infield, but that doesn't mean there won't be changes.
One likely change is junior Jake Miller (.299, 3 HR, 27 RBI) moving from third base -- where he started 50 games last season -- to shortstop to take over for Ware.
"We've got some other options, but the downside of putting Jake at short is that you don't have Jake at third," Smith said. "He is exceptional at third base, and third base is probably the most difficult place to play."
If Miller sticks at shortstop, the most likely candidate to replace him at third base is last year's right fielder, Cal Towey (.244, 4, 15).
"I see him as a leader and he has matured a lot in that role," Smith said. "There is probably not a guy on the team that is more respected by the other players than Towey. He is physically a grown man and his work-ethic leads the pack."
Junior Steve DalPorto (.222, 0, 13) returns after starting 47 games at second base a season ago, and he's a candidate to play at shortstop if Miller is moved back to third.
Third-year sophomore Lawton Langford (.222, 0, 3) could also see action at either middle infield spot.
"It'd be hard to define the impact of that last game (California) on (DalPorto) because of just the physical error that he made and how good of a year he had," Smith said. "He has learned and grown from it while putting it behind him and using it in the right way.
"I thought Lawton would do more for us last year than he did -- maybe I was about a year ahead of the schedule on him, but he has a chance to be helpful not only at second base but other positions, too. The two of them are similar but they have some versatility."
One position where there is no debate is first base. Junior Max Muncy (.322, 9, 44) returns after leading the Bears in all three Triple Crown categories, earning All-Big 12 and second-team All-Region honors in 2011.
"Last season Max was one of the most improved guys offensively that I had been around in a long time," Smith said. "He became more of a pure and complete hitter. Those guys are not that common and pitching to them is very difficult. They're going to get their hits and they are going to force you to make mistakes."
The Bears also have the option of shifting Muncy to second base and playing senior Dan Evatt (.220, 8, 23) at first base to bring more power to the lineup.
Infield depth will be provided by sophomores Nate Goodwin (.200, 0, 2) and Grayson Porter and freshmen Smith and Duncan Wendel.
Baylor's outfield will likely have a different look this season. With the departures of Pinckard and Slater, and with Towey likely moving from right field to third base, both corner outfield spots are up for grabs.
Evatt could see action in left field after making 23 starts there a season ago, and the Bears could also turn to some combination of a trio of freshmen in Howard, Logan Brown and Adam Toth.
"It'll be a challenge to replace Pinckard's speed on the bases," Smith said. "He is a game-changer. We've got some guys that will grow into that role. Adam Toth and Logan Brown have the skills to be real game-changers."
Despite struggling through a sophomore slump, there is little doubt that 2010 Freshman All-American Logan Vick (.213, 2, 18) has one starting spot in the outfield locked up. He started the last 18 games of 2011 in center field and is likely to start there again this season.
"He had a great summer and kind of got his feet back on the ground and got his confidence back in the fall," Smith said. "He can play anywhere in the outfield and he plays defense so hard in that he will do whatever he needs to do to make a catch. He is not the best runner of all the guys, but he might get the best jump on the ball and run with the glove on better than anyone else."
The Bears also have the option of playing junior Wes Mercurio (.333, 1, 6) in one of the corner spots. Mercurio was used 10 times as a pinch hitter last season -- twice as often as any other player. Another potential corner outfielder is Turley, who has started six times as designated hitter in his first two seasons.
The Bears return plenty of experience behind the plate with three players who have all seen significant action as collegiate catchers. Josh Ludy (.278, 3, 34) will enter the season as Baylor's starting backstop after starting 33 games there a season ago, including 12 of the last 13 contests and all six postseason games.
"Ludy is one of our better hitters and he is almost a little bit like the right-handed version of Muncy," Smith said. "He has pretty good pop and is becoming a better two-strike hitter that can go the other way. He is a competitor at the plate, a veteran and has had a lot of at-bats to get better."
Ludy's likely backup is 2009 Freshman All-American Nathan Orf, who sat out last season after transferring from Illinois-Chicago.
"Nate has a chance to be a spark for us. He plays the game at a fast pace and plays with a lot of energy," Smith said. "He is a leader and I believe he is pretty gifted behind the plate."
Additional depth will be provided by Hainsfurther (.270, 0, 17), who started 26 games as catcher last season.
"Hainsfurther is going to be more of a pitcher and just an emergency catcher," Smith said. "I believe the two guys behind the plate will be Ludy and Orf, which gives us two pretty good guys back there. We won't lose a lot from a defensive standpoint either way."
Baylor can also turn to Goodwin, who spent the fall working as a catcher after playing in the middle infield in 2011.
Freshman two-sport athlete Jimmy Landes gives the Bears five players capable of stepping in behind the plate. He earned a letter after playing as a long snapper in 12 games for the Bears' football team in 2011.