JP's Weekly Walk-Off: Pitching Preview

The Beaver baseball team opens the season today in Surprise, Arizona. Get ready for the action with Jeff Perry's in-depth look at the pitching staff.

A very interesting year to see OSU as a consensus top-10 pick, yet it is not the pitching (or specifically the front of the starting rotation) that is fueling those picks.  No, this is certainly not 2014 when OSU rolled out Wetzler/Fry/Moore or 2006 with Buck/Nickerson/Stutes.  Hell, in a way it is not even 2016 when the pundits could point to a rotation “anchored by (a known high-level talent like) Drew Rasmussen”.

But, while it seemed Yeskie and Casey were cobbling together a pitching staff held together with duct tape and bailing wire, they did finish 4th in the conference in ERA despite a loss of “star power” in the rotation once Rasmussen was injured, and the bullpen being wafer-thin in terms of depth much of the year.  No, not the pitching we’re used to or aspire to (“only” being 4th)… but aside from the loss of Eckert, the key pieces are back, and I think better luck with health issues (the return of Tweedt and Hickey being healthy), and a really good crop of freshman arms is going to improve on 2016.  In addition, that is not even factoring in when/if Rasmussen is ready to go – something I have filed away as “gravy” that I can’t/won’t even build into expectations for this year.

Key Losses 

  • Travis Eckert (6-4, 3.28): When Drew Rasmussen was lost for the season, Eckert stepped up in a big way, finishing the season 4-2, 3.00 (with a pair of hard luck no-decisions where a lack of run support cost him the W) as the Friday night starter.  

The uncertain nature of Drew Rasmussen’s availability this season adds another key arm that will be absent for at least some, if not most (or conceivably even all if there is a setback in his recovery) of the 2017 campaign.  If the coaching staff has an idea of when they expect him to make his return to game action, they certainly have said nothing to tip their hand on the matter.  This has the look of an on-going “wait and see” situation where there may not be much word on a timetable for his return until he is very near to playing again.  

A side note worth mentioning, the timing of Rasmussen’s injury last year fell within the parameters for a medical hardship waiver, so he enters this season as a redshirt-sophomore.          

Pitching Stats

 

ERA

W

L

S

GS

REL APP

IP

K

BB

2016 Total

3.53

35

19

15

54

114

480.0

383

179

Players Lost

3.58

6

4

0

14

10

100.2

72

32

Players Returning

3.51

29

15

15

40

104

379.1

311

147

-- Fehmel (R)

2.31

10

1

2

6

20

70.0

51

23

-- Heimlich (L)

3.53

7

4

0

11

9

86.2

63

25

-- Thompson (R)

4.28

3

3

0

13

1

61.0

53

28

-- Engelbrekt (L)

2.92

3

3

11

0

25

37.0

39

14

-- Hickey (R)

4.72

1

0

0

0

11

13.1

8

6

-- Church (R)

3.60

0

0

1

0

16

30.0

23

17

-- Britton (L)

4.75

0

2

1

3

11

30.1

21

15

-- Paul (R)

3.97

1

0

0

0

8

11.1

9

8

-- Martinek (L)

6.75

0

1

0

1

3

2.2

2

1

-- Rasmussen (R)

3.41

4

1

0

6

0

37.0

42

10

 

Returning Pitchers  

The season Bryce Fehmel put together last year easily goes down as one of the best – and seemingly least likely – success stories I have covered in the past dozen years.  The staff initially saw his future as an infielder, but issues with pitching depth last year moved him to the hill, and he was not projected to play anywhere near the role he ultimately did.  While early in the season experienced veterans and more heralded recruits struggled to throw strikes out of the bullpen, Fehmel steered clear of the free passes and kept recording outs (and wins).  By the time the final two crucial series of the year rolled around, he was in the weekend rotation, winning both starts allowing just 13 hits and no earned runs in 16.1 innings.  Countless freshman all-American accolades later, it is no surprise that Fehmel will start the season in the weekend rotation, quite possibly as the Friday night starter.            

The other returning arm that will definitely start the season in the weekend rotation is lefty Luke Heimlich.  While Fehmel’s 2016 season rode a steady upward trajectory, Heimlich’s was full of up’s and down’s.  After opening the season with a pair of quality starts, he moved to the bullpen where at times he threw very well and others he battled command and control issues and the results were less positive.  Following the injury to Rasmussen, he moved back to the rotation, and at times he was tremendous and at others, those control issues lead to trouble.  The good news is I think entering the season knowing that his role will be to start will help, and reports out of fall camp and pre-season practice have been very positive in terms of increased consistency as well as picking up some added velocity that will help his fastball. 

I suspect that I could just cut-n-paste the comments I have made about Jake Thompson in the last two or three season previews and they would say exactly the same things I plan to write this year.  Physically, Thompson and his power arm that that can occasionally bump a fastball into the upper 90’s is capable of overpowering hitters.  The issue keeping him from having achieved greater success throughout his career has seemed to be mental.  We saw it on several occasions last year where he would start out cruising along and retiring batters, but when he hit a bump in the road, he had a very difficult time getting back on track.  Coach Casey made the point this preseason that Thompson pitched better last year than his numbers would indicate, and I think that’s a very fair assessment as often it was the one bad inning that tainted the stats and overshadowed the 3-5 good innings that preceded things going sideways.  I know I have said it before, and it has not panned out… but I really think this is the year he puts it all together and he performs up to his full potential.

The absence of Sam Tweedt (8-1, 2.85 in 2015) last year was a huge blow to the pitching staff, but he is 100% healthy and will join Thompson in the battle for the third slot in the weekend rotation.  As we saw with Josh Osich and Jace Fry following their Tommy John procedures, it may take Tweedt a bit of time to return to form and dial in his mechanics after a prolonged period away from the mound/game action, but I expect by the time conference play rolls around (if not sooner) he will be a significant contributor. 

Particularly after Heimlich and Fehmel moved into starting roles, it felt like Max Engelbrekt was single-handedly holding the bullpen together, and he was utterly invaluable.  Max will once again anchor the back end of the bullpen, but fortunately, his task should be a bit easier this season with coach Yeskie having better depth to work with this season. 

Last year was somewhat of a lost season for Mitch Hickey, as he tried to battle through a back injury but just was not able to perform at the level he achieved as a freshman (4-1, 2.28, 11 saves).  His return to good health gives the Beavers a quality right-hand option to pair with the lefty Engelbrekt in late-innings situations. 

Scotland Church logged some crucial multi-inning relief efforts last season, and I would expect him in a similar long to middle relief role again this year. 

I missed a bit in my predictions last year on Jordan Britton and he struggled as many with great “enters college with really good looking ‘stuff’” prospects that are a bit raw do as they make the jump to Pac-12 ball, but I’m still on the bandwagon.  He has been talked about as being a guy that could make a run at a starting spot, and I would not rule that out mid-week especially in cases where we have two mid-week games, I think he is going to prove to be a key left-handed option out of the pen in front of Max and Mitch. 

As one of the highest profile Oregon high school recruits in recent years, there has been great interest in Christian Martinek since he got to OSU, and it has been a rocky road as he has tried to work his way back from TJ surgery.  He found his way back to the hill for very limited action last year, which proved to be a rough return, and much of his summer season in Alaska was bumpy – but he did finish strong with a win via 7 IP of 5-hit shutout ball in his final outing, so that’s a positive.  Honestly, things have been very quiet in terms of how he has looked during fall ball and winter practice, so I really do not know what to tell you.  Obviously, I am hoping that he is finding things are coming back to him and he will tap into the immense potential he showed prior to the injury.    

Newcomers 

Lefties

Seems that just about every year OSU has a freshman pitcher that may have been a bit over-shadowed by other recruits that entered with glossier resume’s, but end up making a significant contribution.  This year, keep an eye on Jake Mulholland out of Snohomish, Washington.  While the three righties below drew most of the attention in the recruiting class rankings, Mulholland has drawn praise from the staff for his approach and his ability to throw the ball for strikes. 

Aloha High School product Brandon Eisert was a late addition to the recruiting class, and like Mulholland isn’t a flame-thrower, but can command a four-pitch mix for strikes bolstered by a deceptive motion that hides the ball quite effectively making it hard for the batter to pick up which pitch he is intending to throw.  He is a bit on the slight side and might be a year away from the physical development that will be important at this level.          

Righties               

Dakota Donovan at 6’6”, 220 lbs is going to present an imposing figure coming downhill toward batters (wish I could remember who to credit it to, but a description I once heard of a tall, lanky pitcher being “a blur of arms and legs coming at you, and somehow you have to track the ball in the midst of that” came to mind witching him), but the strength of his arsenal is movement, rather than raw power. 

Grant Gambrell is another big body at 6’4”, 220 lbs, but in this case, power is his calling card.  In terms of his pitching arsenal (a little different in terms of build a mechanics) he reminds me a fair bit of Drew Rasmussen when he got to OSU – good fastball/change combo with a breaking ball that in time looks like it will develop into a real problem for opposing hitters. 

Mitchell Verberg from Lake O really falls a bit in between the two – while not as tall as Donovan, he’s a lanky kid at 6’2”, 185 lbs, but throws with more velocity than Donovan but not quite like Gambrell, but has a better arsenal of breaking pitches than Gambrell, but not quite like Donovan.   

All three of those kids I really like and are “high ceiling” talents that are going to get looks to contribute this  year, and with the number of draft-eligible pitchers we’ll have come June, could well become the keystones of the 2018 season after “cutting their teeth” as the young pups this season. 

Final Thoughts & Throwing Darts at the Board 

Just for fun, I will again throw out a few predictions on how I think things will shake out with the pitching staff.

Weekend rotation: Fehmel/Heimlich/Thompson (maybe not in that order ultimately, but I like going R-L-R)

Mid-week starter: Tweedt (only because I really think this is Thompson’s year to pull it all together, and Sam may start a little slower coming off injury – but come tournament time, I don’t have to tell you how significant depth beyond just the 1-3 starters is).

Closer(s): Engelbrekt and Hickey (Max gets 2/3 of the saves, Mitch 1/3 – maybe closer to 60/40 split since I think they’ll have the option to play the L-R match-ups more so than in recent years at the end of a game)

In general, while I have been bitten on the posterior at least once before making this sort of proclamation in a season preview, I really, really like the depth of talent I see with this staff and I think bullpen depth is going to (finally) be a luxury.  It may not have a lot of proven “star power” in the rotation with Rasmussen out, but I like the depth of options to find a solid 1-4 starting mix even without Drew. 

After one (Max E.) being out one year due to injury, and the other being hobbled the next and kind of a non-factor (Mitch last year) – I love the potential of the Max/Mitch combo at the back end of games.  In between, there are many intriguing arms like Britton, Donovan, Gambrell, Verberg, and my sleeper Mulholland that if 2 or 3 have what you would look back on as “good” years, that is a lot of depth between the starters and the closers.  There is a lot of freshman talent that is going to be very good at OSU – the fact that largely there is not talk of one of them needing to come in and start is a luxury that I am sure Coach Yeskie will enjoy weaving into the relief corps.

The top 8-10 rankings are not crazy, and this is a team that could well get to Omaha.  Will they? It is going to be fun to watch.

JP's Weekly Walk-Off: IF/OF Preview


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