It's Time for a 2009 Mizzou Baseball Preview (Part Two)

For Part Two of this preview, I thought it best to go straight to the top of the Mizzou Baseball Fans pantheon--Tim Robertson, a.k.a. trripleplay from SimmonsField.com.  Here are nine questions (Get it?  Nine?  For baseball?) with the inestimable trrip...

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1.  Tell us about Mizzou's pitching staff (strengths and weaknesses).  I'm going to assume most people know about Kyle Gibson by now, but what else do Mizzou's arms have to offer?

Kyle Gibson will certainly be the leader and the Friday night starter.  In watching him pitch in practice, he has added a little muscle and bulk to that matchstick frame, but he's still pretty long and lean.  Kyle is projected as a 1st round draft pick in June (Considering Aaron Crow will be re-entering the draft in June, MU could have a pair of pitchers taken in the 1st round).

Senior Ian Berger will repeat as a weekend starter, and hopefully he will be a veteran leader for the staff.  Nick Tepesch is expected to be the front runner for the remaining weekend starting position.  Nick has great stuff, but needs to be more consistent than he was as a freshman.  Many have Tepesch as a 1st rounder in 2010.

Kelly Fick leads the pack of returning sophomores for the mid-week starting jobs.  He looked really good and effective in fall and winter practice.  He, along with his fellow sophomores (Tyler Clark, Brad Buehler, Phil McCormick) needs to show he has gained focus and consistency in the year since he last saw the  mound in a game.

Really, the Tigers' effectiveness as a team in 2009 may hinge on those sophomore pitchers consistently fulfilling their potential.

The bullpen will likely be manned by the more veteran guys on the staff, like Scooter Hicks, Ryan Allen, Ryan Gargano and Greg Folgia (who is expected to pitch more this year than in the past).

2.  Tell us about Mizzou's offense (strengths and weaknesses).  In Aaron Senne and Trevor Coleman, Mizzou have a couple of pretty recognizable guys...but they're only two-ninths of a batting order.

Everyone focuses on the fact we lost Jacob Priday as the heart of the order, but this could be one of the most potent offenses MU has had in a while. 
 
Ryan Lollis turned down a 20th round draft pick and is back in CF for the Tigers.  Steve Gray was amazing as a hitter in the last several weeks of 2008 and has apparently been hitting the ball with authority in practice (he hit a homerun off the crown of the roof of the Devine Pavilion a couple of weeks ago).  I expect Greg Folgia to be a solid contributor at bat.  Andrew Thigpen was better at the plate than in the field last year, and should be key to the lineup this year.  Kyle Mach has gotten a little better at the plate each year, and will probably find himself toward the bottom of the lineup every day.  JuCo transfer Michael Liberto is a speedster and is reportedly going to hit either 1st or 9th in the order.

All in all, that's a lot of good hitting surrounding Coleman and Senne, the two stars.  This could be a team that puts up a lot of runs.

3.  Tell us about Mizzou's defense (strengths and weaknesses).  Mizzou had 75 errors (6 more than their opponents) in 2008, basically half of which came from the middle infield.  Will this number (plus overall range, arm strength, etc.) improve for the Tigers in '09?

Thigpen is moving from SS to 2B, where he will do less harm.  If he doesn't do well in the field there are plenty of guys crowding him, led by freshman Conner Mach, whose bat could be the biggest thing pushing him into the lineup.

Michael Liberto is reportedly a very good shortstop, which will be a welcome relief.

Kyle Mach has become hands-down the best third baseman defensively the Tigers have had at that position during Tim Jamieson's career as head coach.

The outfield of Folgia, Lollis and Senne will continue to be good, with frequent substitutions from a number of able gloves from the bench.

And then there's Trevor Coleman, who has grown into a dominating presence behind the plate, both in handling the pitchers and in his defense.  Besides Kyle Gibson, he's the guy on the team most likely to be All Big 12 or All American.

4. Mizzou's first nine games are in Arizona, including three against Arizona State and one against Oregon State.  Is this Mizzou squad one that can hit the ground running and make some noise in the desert?


The good news is that because of the relatively mild weather in Columbia during January and February, the team has been able to practice outside on Simmons Field for most of the preseason, so they will be ready to go.   And glad to see the warm weather.

I think the offense is ready to rumble from day one.  As for the pitching, the veterans on the staff will be very ready to go (Gibson, Berger, Hicks, Allen, Gargano and the like).  It will be good to see just how the younger pitchers do during this first 11 days in Arizona.  Fans shouldn't panic if the pitching in the middle set of this road trip are a little rocky.  The youngsters need some leeway to get rolling . . . as long as they do get rolling and don't get rolled over.

There's really not much choice about starting the season out with such a packed schedule, because of the late universal starting date that makes the season more compact.   Gotta get a lot of games in every week.   And if you're going to schedule quality out-of-conference games, it almost has to be early in the season before the Big 12 schedule eats up the weekends.   I'd rather play teams like Arizona State and Oregon State than the patsy teams we've seen in the early season in years past.  MU's overall schedule strength has been steadily increasing each year for the past several years.  Here are the numbers for "Intended Schedule Strength", figured by averaging the previous season's RPI for all the teams on the upcoming schedule for each year (RPIs from http://www.BoydsWorld.com):

2009: .541
2008: .537
2007: .534
2006: .532
2005: .528
2004: .528

5. So if the pitching is solid, the defense is improved, and the offense is explosive, Mizzou's good enough to vie for a conference title, right?  Who would you say is their stiffest competition in the race?

Everyone says Texas A&M is the favorite for #1.  They've got the pitching to earn that ranking.  Texas and Oklahoma State and Baylor will also be right in there.  But the road to the Big 12 title probably goes through College Station.

6. Where does the Big 12 rank among the country's best conferences?

The Big 12 sits among the SEC, ACC and PAC 10 as one of the 4 best baseball conferences.  I generally think the SEC is the best, because they tend to be the best balanced, with really good teams from top to bottom.  The Big 12's basement tends to be less impressive than the SEC's in general, but the Big 12 has as much right to the #2 slot as any of the other contenders.

7. Back on our old website, you wrote a piece called "What If Tim Jamieson had been fired in 2002?"  Part of your premise was that Mizzou would have likely replaced him with CMSU's Brad Hill.  In five seasons at K-State, Hill has gone 150-128-2 (.539) with 0 NCAA Tourney appearances, while Mizzou has gone 194-113-1 (.631) while winning 8 games in NCAA Regionals.

Do you think this has more to do with the "loyalty = good" premise of running an athletic department (Mizzou has done very well in giving their coaches plenty of slack this decade), or does this speak more to Tim Jamieson picking up his game in the last half-decade?  In his first nine seasons, Jamieson only once won more than 37 games.  In the last five, he's done it four times.



Based on performance, Jamieson "deserved" to lose his job in 2002.  I say that within the context of big time D-1 NCAA athletics.   Loyalty probably saved him for a year.  But loyalty doesn't account for what happened next.

Tim Jamieson reportedly spent that summer learning how to be a better coach, re-evaluating the way he does things.  And things turned around immediately and have continued to do so at a steady pace.

8. How much of Mizzou's success can be traced to Pitching Coach / Recruiting Coordinator Tony Vitello?  (Disclosure: I went to grad school with him, so I'm biased because I liked him before he turned out to be a great assistant coach.)  Is there any way Mizzou can hold onto Vitello for too much longer?

Part of being a highly successful head coach is hiring really good assistants (Gary Pinkel's staff is a prime example).  And Tim Jamieson made a very smart move by hiring Tony V, which was questioned by some people at that time, since Tony, an infielder, was hired to replace the void left in the Pitching Coach position.  But Tony has turned out to be a good pitching coach and is probably one of the very best recruiters in all of D-1 Baseball. 

If Tony was eager to jump into a head coaching position wherever he could, he would have sought out and taken the SLU job a couple years ago, considering he is from St. Louis (his dad is a well-known high school baseball coach in the area).

I really think Tony likes being at MU and figures it makes more sense to wait until he has the age and experience and resume to start being considered for head coaching jobs at schools in the leading conferences.  The current head coaches at Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech all got their first head coaching jobs at their current Big 12 schools after being successful assistant coaches at tier-1 schools.  I expect Tony V will be considered for head coaching positions in the Big 12 or SEC in the near future.

9. We'll close with a two-parter.  First, Mizzou seems to be attracting higher-caliber talent during this run of postseason success--has there been a bump in recruiting, or are Jamieson and his staff just doing a better job of developing the talent they have?  Second, talk a bit about the planned expansions to Taylor Stadium.  Do you see this giving us a further recruiting bump (if we have indeed had a bump), and where will this expansion get us ranked regarding Big 12 baseball facilities as a whole?

The answer to the first question is Yes.  They're doing better at recruiting (led by Tony Vitello) and it gets easier to recruit as you (a) make the postseason so many years in a row, and (b) have high profile Jamieson-era alumni in the major leagues (Scherzer, Kinsler, Mathis) and others doing quite well on their way up in the minors (like Evan Frey).

Extra inning question:  Nice facilities will always help in recruiting.  No high school prospect really got excited to play at the old Simmons Field.  It was not much better - and sometimes worse - than their home field in high school.  The new construction includes a really nice clubhouse for the home team, which will be attractive to recruits. 

Unfortunately, even with this expansion, Taylor Stadium will still be considered by most to be in the lower half of the Big 12.  Its hard to compete with stadiums that are built for minor league ball and shared by the college team (like Nebraska), or stadiums that have a capacity of 7,000 (A&M) or 8,000 (UT) - especially when a recruit or a fan goes to a game there and the stands are FULL of rowdy partisans. 

But the renovations and expansion will make Taylor Stadium something that won't turn most recruits away.   The stadium is not the only - and seldom the #1 - factor in attracting a recruit.

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Thanks to trrip for the great stuff, and with the season kicking up, be sure to put SimmonsField.com on your list of daily visits or your RSS reader.

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