Baseball Preview: No. 1 Florida

It's time for another year of Titan Baseball with lots of new arrivals to the program with fifteen freshmen on the roster making their debuts in a Fullerton uniform.

There are also new arrivals in the dugout with longtime former assistant coach Rick Vanderhook returning to take over as the head coach of the Titans with former assistants Mike Kirby and Chad Baum returning to work with the position players and Kirk Saarloos being promoted from a graduate assistant to the pitching coach.   

There are plenty of holes on the pitching staff to fill with the loss of eight pitchers who were responsible for 85% of the innings pitched last season, including All-Big West starting pitchers Noe Ramirez and Tyler Pill and closer Nick Ramirez in addition to starting pitchers Colin O'Connell and Jake Floethe.  The pitching staff is very inexperienced with ten of the fifteen incoming freshmen being pitchers so how those young pitchers develop under Saarloos' tutelage will dictate how far Fullerton goes this season.

As inexperienced as the pitchers are, there is plenty of experience among the position players after only two regulars moved on after last season – Big West MVP Nick Ramirez and Pill.  The offense should be improved with so many returning players along with another year of getting used to hitting with BBCOR bats.  The defense that was among the worst in the Big West should also be improved with so many position players coming back.

Fullerton is known for traditionally playing one of the tougher schedules in the country every year and the new coaching staff couldn't have a much more difficult challenge to start the season with a long trip to the south to play the consensus number one team in the country, the Florida Gators.

 

Florida Gators

  • Overall Record – 53-19
  • Conference Record – 22-8 (1st – tied).  Won SEC Tournament.
  • Post-Season – 2nd in College World Series (1-0 vs. Texas, 2-0 vs. Vanderbilt, 0-2 vs. South Carolina).  Won Super Regional 2-1 vs. Mississippi State.  3-0 in Gainesville Regional (1-0 vs. Manhattan, 2-0 vs. Miami).   
  • RPI/ISR – 2/4
  • Pre-season ranking – 1st by Baseball America, USA/Today Coaches Poll, Collegiate Baseball, NCBWA and Perfect Game.
  • Predicted conference finish – 1st by the SEC coaches, Baseball America, Perfect Game and Easton College Baseball Today

 

2011 Summary and 2012 Preview

Florida has been building towards the 2012 season since Kevin O'Sullivan took over five years ago.  The Gators finished 29-30 in 2007 the year before O'Sullivan arrived in Gainesville, were 34-24 and went to a regional in his first season in 2008, were a national seed in 2009 when they went 42-22 and lost in a Super Regional, were a national seed in 2010 when they returned to the College World Series for the first time in five years and finished 47-17 after losing their two games in Omaha and they were a national seed last season after going 53-19 and were the national runners-up after losing twice to South Carolina in the championship series.

Florida brought in a bumper crop of players in their recruiting class two years ago and as a result they have one of the more experienced teams in the country after losing only two starting position players and they return all three weekend starting pitchers.  The Gators also had a very deep bullpen last season and have two of their best relievers back but need to find some replacements from a group of talented but less experienced arms.  Florida has one of the most talented teams in the country with about ten players projected to be drafted in the first five rounds of the draft over the next two years with several of them expected to be first round picks. 

Florida had one of the best offenses in the SEC last season and they were either first or second in the conference in R, AVG, HR, 2B, SLG and TB and were fifth nationally with 69 HR's.  The Gators were especially potent at home where they hit .325.  For a team with as much power as Florida had they didn't mind advancing runners by bunting and were second in the SEC and 25th nationally with 64 SAC's with three different hitters having at least 10 SAC's.  The Gators didn't run much with 56 SB's in 72 games and only one player stole more than seven bases.

Florida wasn't a one dimensional team that only had a potent offense because they also had an outstanding pitching staff.  The Gators team ERA was just under 3.00 with one of the deepest staffs in the country and the key area that their pitchers excelled in was with their control because Florida led the nation with the fewest walks per nine innings and averaged about 1.8 BB/9 IP.

 

Offense

  • Park Factor according to Boyd's World – 103 from 2008-2011 (increases offense by 3%).  Dimensions are 329-365-400-375-325.  HR's fly out to power alleys and down the lines as they do in most southern ballparks.
  • Batting Average – .307 (2nd in the SEC, 24th in the NCAA)
  • Runs Per Game – 6.3 (3/64)
  • Home Runs – 68 (1/5)
  • Stolen Bases – 56 (7/229)
  • Slugging Percentage – .460 (1/13)
  • Walks – 249 (4/44)
  • HBP's – 58 (8/109)
  • Sac Bunts – 64 (2/26)

 

Lineup

Infield

Florida returns starters at four spots around the infield with two of those players among the best players at their positions in the country.

C – JR #3 Mike Zunino (RH – .371/.442/.464, 19-67-7; '10 - .267/.314/.472, 9-41-8) had a solid first season when he was a Freshman All-American but was much more consistent last year when he exploded at the plate and was the SEC Player of the Year and a 1st team All-American and will be in contention for national player of the year honors.  He is a good athlete for his size and also one of the better defensive catchers in the country and was selected to the SEC All-Defensive Team.  Zunino was a big bat with plus power as the cleanup hitter and helped to carry Florida in SEC games when he hit .422 with 8 HR's and 33 RBI.  He will work counts and see lots of pitches and was second on the team in walks and has a big swing and led the team in strikeouts.  Zunino led the SEC in HR, H and TB and was second in R, 2B, RBI and SLG.  He is projected to be drafted in the top half of the first round in June.

1B – JR #10 Austin Maddox (RH – .280/.327/.368, 6-35-1; '10 - .333/.363/.587, 17-72-0) hit the ground running in his first year and was the SEC Freshman of the Year and a 3rd team All-American in helping to lead Florida to Omaha.  He struggled in the first part of the season last year in adjusting to the BBCOR bats but started to come around during SEC play when he hit .321.  Maddox is a big man with plus power and usually hit sixth in the second half of the season.  He usually swings early in the count and walked only 14 times so he is prone to chasing pitches.  Maddox was a 2nd team Pre-Season All-American selection by Baseball America.  He is also a pitcher so he has a strong arm and was a part-time starter at 3B and is projected to be drafted in the first three rounds in June.  JR #30 Vickash Ramjit (RH – .382/.427/.487 in 76 AB's) will usually play 1B when Maddox shifts over to 3B.  Ramjit didn't play much early in the year but started to get some playing time during SEC games when he hit .457 in 35 AB's and also started six of their post-season games.

2B – FR #2 Casey Turgeon (LH) or FR #12 Josh Tobias (Both) have been battling to see who would replace Josh Adams, who graduated after hitting .323 and setting the school's record for most games played.  Turgeon was a 22nd round draft pick and has a little more pop in his bat and Tobias was a 31st round draft pick and has more speed.  Tobias was set back some by missing the fall due to an injury.  The winner of the 2B battle will usually be hitting in the lower part of the order.

SS – JR #4 Nolan Fontana (LH – .289/.414/.434, 5-43-6.  '10 – .287/.437/.417, 3-23-11) has been the starter since day one on campus and is one of the smoothest fielding shortstops in the country.  He has good range and a very strong arm and was the national Gold Glove winner as a FR when he made only four errors all season and was selected to the SEC All-Defensive team as a FR and Soph.  Fontana is the leadoff hitter and has outstanding plate discipline with a 52/30 BB/K ratio and led the SEC in walks.  He handles the bat well and had 11 SAC's last season.  Fontana played on Team USA after each of his first two seasons and is projected to be picked in the first two rounds of the draft.  He was a 3rd team Pre-Season All-American selection by Baseball America.

3B – JR #20 Cody Dent (LH – .207/.343/.244 in 82 AB's) and Soph #5 Zack Powers (LH – .250/.314/.344 in 64 AB's) shared time at 3B last season (each started 21 times) with Maddox (15 starts) and it looks they will all see playing time at the hot corner again this season.  Dent is a better defensive player than Powers, who is the better hitter of those two.  Maddox was injured for most of the post-season so Dent started all 11 post-season games at 3B and was selected to the All-CWS team.  Tobias could also factor into the mix at 3B if he doesn't win the 2B job.  When Dent, Powers or Tobias are in the lineup they will be hitting in the lower part of the order.

DH – JR #35 Brian Johnson (LH – .307/.381/.464, 5-29-2; '10 – .405/.458/.631 in 84 AB's) is one of the top two-way players in the country and will occasionally see time at 1B.  He was a FR All-American and was 1st team All-SEC last season and has played on Team USA after each of his first two seasons due to his versatility as a hitter and a pitcher.  Johnson got off to a bit of a slow start at the plate but hit better during SEC play when he hit .330.  He has plus power potential from the left side and usually hits fifth.  Johnson is projected to be drafted in the first round in June.  He was a 1st team Pre-Season All-American selection by Baseball America.

 

Outfield

Florida returns both of their corner outfielders and a part-time player is the favorite to win the CF job.

LF – SR #8 Daniel Pigott (RH – .331/.375/.479, 5-40-15.  '10 – .268/.329/.383, 1-22-4) started 35 games as a FR and 38 games as a Soph before breaking out as a JR and finishing second on the team in AVG and was in the top ten in the SEC in H, 2B and TB.  He hit all over the lineup last season, most often hitting either 2nd or 8th and figures to hit 2nd most of the time this year.  Pigott handles the bat well and had 10 SAC's last year.  He only walked 12 times last year so he will usually be swinging early in the count.  Pigott is the biggest threat to run in the lineup and led the team with 15 SB's. 

CF – SR #18 Tyler Thompson (LH – .264/.331/.364, 1-17-3.  '10 – .301/.360/.493, 6-28-6) was a part-time starter in the OF the last two seasons and made 37 starts as a Soph and 27 starts last season and is taking over for Bryson Smith, who hit .328 in 2011.  He has above average speed with good range.  Thompson struggled using a BBCOR bat after having a solid year in 2010.  He usually hit in the lower part of the order last season and figures to do so again this year.  FR #16 Justin Shafer (RH) has hit well during the fall and practices leading up to the season and he could get some AB's at DH or in the OF, primarily in LF with Pigott shifting over to CF.

RF – SR #25 Preston Tucker (LH – .308/.381/.545, 15-74-5.  '10 – .331/.436/.551, 11-49-8) will be a four year starter after being drafted in the 16th round and coming back to school for his SR year and he has a chance to end up in the top ten in many career categories.  Tucker was the national FR hitter of the year in 2009 when he hit .364 with 15 HR and 85 RBI and followed that up as a 2nd team All-SEC selection as a Soph and was 1st team All-SEC and a 2nd team All-American last season.  Tucker led the SEC in RBI and 2B and was in the top ten in the conf in H, HR, TB and SLG.  He has very good bat control with more BB than K in his career (92/80 ratio).  Tucker usually hit third last season and was a 2nd team Pre-Season All-American selection by Baseball America..

 

Defense

Fielding % – .974 (1/32) – 70 errors.  Florida has two of the best defensive players in the country at key positions with Zunino at C and Fontana at SS.  The Gators will be breaking in two FR at 2B after losing the reliable Adams.  Defense at 3B was a major issue last year, which was why Dent was in the lineup during the post-season despite being a below average hitter.  Florida has good speed in LF and CF but average arms in the OF.

Stolen Base Attempts – 31-47.  Most teams didn't run on Florida because their pitchers did a good job of holding runners and Zunino has good catch and throw skills.  This will be a key area to watch this weekend as Fullerton looks to take extra bases whenever they can.

WP's/PB's Allowed – 51.  Zunino is average at blocking pitches and Florida was only ninth in the SEC in that category.

 

Pitching

  • ERA – 2.95 (3/16)
  • BA – .243 (4/xx)
  • HR – 36 (10/xx)
  • H's/9 IP – 8.3 (4/35)
  • BB's/9 IP – 1.8 (1/1)
  • K's/9 IP – 7.6 (4/47)

 

Starters

Florida returns all three weekend starting pitchers from one of the best rotations in the country in 2011 and they combined to go 27-7 with a 2.63 ERA.

FRI – JR #11 Hudson Randall (RHP – 11-3, 2.17 ERA, 19 GS, 2 CG, 124 IP, 104 H, 13 BB, 73 K, .227 BA, 8 HR, 3 HBP, 0 WP, 6-10 SB.  '10 – 8-4, 3.24 ERA, 20 apps, 17 GS, 97 IP, 102 H, 21 BB, 69 K, .268 BA, 8 HR, 8 HBP, 6 WP, 7-9 SB) isn't overpowering with a fastball that sits in the upper 80's that has good sink but he is a battler with excellent control of four pitches. He was a FR All-American in 2010 and was 2nd team All-SEC last season.  Randall was solid during SEC play with a 6-3 record and a 3.00 ERA but stepped up his pitching during the post-season with a 1.48 ERA in five starts.  He was the workhorse of the staff and went at least seven innings in eleven starts.  Randall is projected to be drafted around the third round in June and was a 2nd team Pre-Season All-American selection by Baseball America.

SAT – Soph #22 Karsten Whitson (RHP – 8-1, 2.40 ERA, 19 GS, 97 IP, 84 H, 28 BB, 92 K, .235 BA, 2 HR, 6 HBP, 11 WP, 6-9 SB) was the 1st round pick (9th pick overall) of the San Diego Padres out of HS but couldn't agree to terms with them and ended up on campus in Gainesville.  He came to Florida with a great deal of hype, lived up to all of the expectations and was a consensus FR All-American and Perfect Game's national Freshman Pitcher of the Year.  Whitson has a mid-90s fastball, a strong slider and a good changeup.  His pitch counts were strictly monitored in 2011 and he only worked past the sixth inning once.  Whitson led the rotation with a 2.56 ERA in SEC games and had a 2.22 ERA in five post-season starts.  He was a 3rd team Pre-Season All-American selection by Baseball America.

SUN – JR #35 Brian Johnson (LHP – 8-3, 3.62 ERA, 15 GS, 80 IP, 78 H, 15 BB, 72 K, .253 BA, 4 HR, 2 HBP, 2 WP, 5-7 SB.  '10 – 6-4, 4.03 ERA, 16 apps, 14 GS, 73 IP, 88 H, 14 BB, 51 K, .293 BA, 9 HR, 10 HBP, 2 WP, 6-8 SB) has a good amount of upside as a pitcher as well as a hitter with a fastball that sits in the 92-94 range and the ability to throw four pitches for strikes.  Not too many pitching staffs around the country have the luxury of having a potential first round pick as a Sunday SP.  His pitch counts were also strictly monitored last season and he only went past the sixth inning in two starts.  Johnson was hit in the head by a throw early in his start in the SEC tournament and due to a concussion he didn't pitch for the rest of the post-season and was limited to DH duties.

 

Relievers

Florida had one of the deepest bullpens in the country last year with six pitchers who made at least 20 appearances, five of whom were in the top ten in the SEC in games pitched, and three of them were drafted in the first eleven rounds and their midweek SP who would pitch in middle relief on the weekends was drafted in the 9th round.  The depth of the Gators pitching staff allowed them to limit the innings that their starters threw and turned games into a five-six inning game because Florida only lost one game all season that they led after six innings.

JR #10 Austin Maddox (RHP – 3-0, 0.67 ERA, 21 apps, 5 saves, 27 IP, 20 H, 3 BB, 21 K, .198 BA, 0 HR, 3 HBP, 2 WP, 0-1 SB) has plus power at the plate and also has plus power on the mound with a mid 90's fastball and a very good slider and has good control for a power pitcher.  He didn't pitch as a FR but led the team in saves last season as one of many options to finish games and was usually limited to throwing one inning.  Maddox was especially effective in 9 apps in conf games with a 2-0 record and three saves and held SEC hitters to a .102 AVG.  He is projected to be drafted in the first three rounds in June.

JR #32 Steven Rodriguez (LHP – 4-2, 1.91 ERA, 32 apps, 2 saves, 38 IP, 31 H, 12 BB, 44 K, .228 BA, 2 HR, 5 HBP, 4 WP, 2-2 SB; '10 – 2-0, 2.57 ERA, 20 apps, 28 IP) has a low 90's fastball along with a cutter and is very tough on LH hitters.  He usually threw only one inning but was capable of throwing several innings when needed like he did against Vanderbilt in the CWS when he threw 4 1/3 innings over two days due to a game that was delayed by rain and held the Commodores hitless and struck out seven batters.  Rodriguez is projected to be drafted around the fourth round in June.

SR #37 Greg Larson (RHP – 1-1, 2.09 ERA, 33 apps, 0 saves, 39 IP, 37 H, 7 BB, 30 K, .248 BA, 1 HR, 3 HBP, 5 WP, 1-2 SB; '10 – 3-1, 5.70 ERA, 3 saves, 25 apps, 36 IP) is the returning leader on the staff in appearances.  He would be most likely to come into the game in the 6th–7th innings before Rodriguez and Maddox finish things off and often threw 2-3 innings in his appearances last season.  Larson's best pitch is a sinker and he doesn't throw as hard as either of them despite being a big guy at 6'8", 235 lbs.  He was drafted in the 26th round last June but decided to come back to school.

Florida will be relying on several pitchers with little experience or in their first year on campus to pick up the slack for the relievers that they lost to the draft.  Those pitchers include Soph #23 Jonathon Crawford (RHP – 3 2/3 IP in 2011) who has a live arm with a mid 90's fastball, Soph #28 Keenan Kish (RHP – 0.63 ERA in 12 apps and 14 IP in 2011), Soph #6 Daniel Gibson (RHP – 13.06 ERA in 14 apps and 10 IP in 2011) and freshmen RHP's #45 Johnny Magliozzi (35th round pick), #24 Ryan Harris (37th round pick) and #27 Aaron Rhodes and LHP's #21 Corey Stump and #14 Bobby Poyner.  Magliozzi, Harris and Stump were all in Perfect Game's top 150 going into June's draft but decided to go to school.

 

Outlook

Fullerton had issues with getting off to slow starts under the previous coaching staff.  The Titans started out the season 9-8 in 2008, lost the opening series to TCU at home in 2009, started out 4-7 in 2010 when they lost each of the first three series and started out 8-7 last season.  It would be an understatement to say that the new Fullerton coaching staff is making it a point of emphasis to get off to a good start against a very challenging schedule with the non-conference part of the schedule rated the most difficult in the country according to Boyd's World with three series in the first four weeks against teams ranked in the top fifteen. 

It isn't often that Fullerton will go into a series where the Titans are a decided underdog but that is the case this weekend with Fullerton traveling across the country to play the team that is the odds on favorite to win the national title.  It is an understatement to say that this is an intimidating environment for any team to go into, especially one with as young of a pitching staff as the Titans have. 

The only way that Fullerton is going to have any chance of having success this weekend is to play what has traditionally been their game, which is to manufacture runs, take advantage of their chances and get good pitching.  The Titans cannot make mistakes on the bases and in the field – two areas that were major issues last season – and the pitchers must minimize damage when they get in trouble to keep the team in the game.  Fullerton did not handle the situation well last season when they traveled down to Baton Rouge and made mistakes in all areas that turned a winnable series into a sweep for LSU.  If the Titans do not handle things well in a hostile environment in Gainesville then the likely result will be a sweep by Florida. Although nobody is expecting Fullerton to win this series if they play a more disciplined style of baseball than they did last season the Titans will be competitive in this series.