2011 Mizzou Baseball Preview with SimmonsField.com

Photo via MUtigers.com

Subtitle: CONTROLLED RECKLESSNESS!!

Somewhat unintentionally, we've neglected Mizzou Baseball in favor of Mizzou Softball recently, and I think there are three main reasons: 1) Tim Jamieson is too clean-shaven (we like our coaches of diamond-based sports to have a couple days' worth of growth), 2) we're unabashed front-runners, and 3) let's face it: why reinvent the wheel when we've already got ourselves a near-perfect Mizzou Baseball blog to which we can link on a daily basis?  To say the least, SimmonsField.com and its proprietor, trripleplay, has all of your Mizzou Baseball needs covered.  (And if one site is not enough, I have the feeling our own Uribe Auction will be doing a fine job at his place -- or some place -- soon enough.)  This week, trrip unleashed a lovely three-part season preview.

Part One: What Can We Expect?

Rebuilding year? Or rehabbing year?

The string of high profile pitchers of the past few years (Scherzer-Crow-Zagone-Gibson-Tepesch) ran into a speed bump last season, which was one big reason the Tigers' string of post-season appearances hiccuped as well.

A look at the 2011 pitching staff, though, shows that Pitching U may be back on track. Junior transfer Matt Stites is a likely high round draft pick - potentially a first rounder if he shines at the D-1 level like some expect him to. Sophomore Eric Anderson was touted as a hot prospect until his season was crippled by injury. And there are at least 2 or 3 of the incoming freshman pitching class that could be scouts' favorites as they develop over the coming three years.

As for the offense, in college baseball every year is a rebuilding year. Every college baseball fan wonders how their team is going to replace the offense they lost from players who were drafted or graduated. And every year, those inconsistent young hitters from the past season turn out to be the matured offensive lynchpins of this year.

The biggest key, though, for getting the Tigers back on the track they were for the previous eight years, is having the patience to let the numerous injured pitchers and players get back to full strength. Most of them won't quite be there on Day 1. But most of them should be contributing at a high level by the time the Big 12 season gets underway.

Part Two: Pitching

I expect Tim Jamieson to follow his usual course of action and use the first few weeks of of the season to shake out the pitching staff, throwing those pitchers that looked good in practice up against real D-1 college opponents, giving them a chance to sort themselves out into weekend starters, mid-weeks starters, bullpen workhorses, and closers.

The main difference this year for MU pitching is the presence of a new pitching coach, Matt Hobbs. The new banner on the practice facility sums up his philosophy, which includes something called Controlled Recklessness. Should be interesting. Much better than the uncontrolled type.

After the jump, a Q&A with trripleplay!

Part Three: Position Players

On KFRU's The Closers last week, Tim Jamieson said about the lineup, "you may not see anybody new", because there were so many freshmen who got significant playing time in 2010.

MU lost its two leading home run hitters and RBI producers (Senne and Nicholas). The returning players accounted for a total of 24 homers, led by Jonah Schmidt with 7 and Eric Garcia (6). Schmidt (33) and Garcia (31) are joined by Dane Opel (30) as the returning RBI leaders.

But that's pretty much true every year. The 2010 team had lost its HR leader (Folgia) and its RBI leaders.

The returning players are just going to do what the veterans on any college team are expected to do each year - step it up a notch and become the new leaders.

Earlier this week, trrip and I exchanged some e-mails.  Enjoy.

BC: Mizzou's long streak of consecutive NCAA regional appearances came to a close last spring.  In a nutshell, what went wrong?  Was there too little talent?  Experience?  Just a plain, old cruddy year?

trrip: Too few wins.  Combine a .288 team batting average with a .506 team ERA, and you're going to have to be very lucky to put together a Regional-worthy season. Unless you've got a GREAT team, what a GOOD team needs is a dominant ace pitcher to win enough games to put you past the bubble.  There was at least 1 (maybe 2) of those consecutive-Regional years that MU was seriously on the bubble and only made it in because there was a 1st-round draft pick that caught the committee's eye.  Eric Anderson was supposed to be the next in the line of dominant pitchers, and his season was hampered and then cut short by injury.  With Tepesch being good but not great, and EA not firing on all cylinders, the team was just mediocre enough to not make the grade.

BC: Nick Tepesch never quite made it to "dominant ace" status, but now he's gone regardless.  If you were a betting man, who is Mizzou's No. 1 starter in mid-April?  Tell us who you're particularly optimistic about.  And is it fair of me to say that I think the Matt Stites-Eric Anderson combination has the highest ceiling on the staff?

trrip: JuCo transfer Matt Stites appears to be the #1 starter going into the season, and there's no reason to think he'll not still be the ace in April and May (and June).  And no, I don't think that Stites-Anderson have the highest ceiling.  Both are likely high draft picks, but freshman Rob Zastryzny is right there with them in terms of potential.  And there could be others among the freshman pitchers that take a little longer to adjust to D-1 competition, but could develop into that category of prospect.

BC: Who is the most dangerous hitter in the Mizzou lineup this year?  With the departure of Mizzou's main power hitters, how can the Tigers generate easy runs without small ball?  Or are they just going to be really good at small ball?

trrip: The most likely to hit a home run is senior Jonah Schmidt, but he's going to have to get his average up to be considered a truly dangerous hitter.  To me, a dangerous hitter is one who has the best chance of getting a hit when he steps up to the plate, especially in RBI opportunities.  I'm thinking Ryan Gebhart will be the most productive and most dangerous hitter in the lineup.  If Gebhart puts it together in his Junior year, after an injury-shortened sophomore year, he'll have a big impact on the rest of the lineup around him.  Others who will be big contributors are Eric Garcia, Conner Mach and Dane Opel.

And they're going to HAVE to be really a good at small ball, or "inside baseball", as John McGraw used to call it.  Which could make them a very exciting team to watch.

BC: For a while now, I've feared the loss of assistant coach Tony Vitello and what it could do to this team.  It finally happened this past offseason; tell us about the new blood on the staff, and tell me why I shouldn't fear this Vitello-less life.

trrip: Tony V was a great recruiter - probably one of the best in D-1 baseball.  And he turned into a decent pitching coach for someone who was a middle infielder in college.  One of these days, he'll be a great head coach as well.

But Kerrick Jackson, the new Recruiting Coordinator, is in the same league as Vitello as a recruiter.   With strong St. Louis roots, plus experience as a scout with the Washington Nationals, Kerrick has the experience and the contacts to keep those hot prospects coming.  I've heard nothing but good things about him from parents and players.

As for the pitching coach, I've been pretty honest about pointing out that Matt Hobbs was a real flake when he was a pitcher at MU.  But that just means that he understands what it's like to be a young kid with a million dollar arm and a mind full of chicks and beer.  Everything I read about him says he's made himself into a great pitching coach, full of creative ideas and focused on a plan of attack.  And I hear from the players and parents that the pitchers are loving what he's doing with them.

BC: Let's say it's mid-May and Mizzou is back in the NCAA regionals.  How did it play out?  Slow start against a tough schedule, followed by a March-April hot streak?  Something different?

trrip: The first 7 games are going to be tough, facing some good opponents that early in the season.  MU will likely emerge either 4-3 or 3-4, either of which would be OK.

Then there's a 16-game home stand against some fairly mediocre teams.  The Tigers really need to focus during this stretch, because losing too many of these games can be the tipping point if you're sitting on the bubble at the end of May.  That's also true of the assorted mid-week opponents scattered through the Big 12 season.  Texas State is the ringer in that stretch, and we play them at their own park.

But when it really comes down to it, the Big 12 season it what really separates the men from the boys.  If the Tigers have got their pitching staff firing on all cylinders, they should be able to finish somewhere in the 3rd-to-5th range in the conference.

There is always a slump for a week or two.  There's always a winning streak for a week or two.  You just have to hit the ball, throw the ball, catch the ball.  Just play it one game at a time. 

What was the question?

BC: I already know (somewhat) how you're going to answer this, but I'll throw it out there anyway: tell Mizzou fans why they should be coming to the ballpark early and often this season.

Nine Reasons (every baseball list should have 9 points)

1) Because there's a certain perverse pleasure in telling people you've sat through a baseball game during a snowstorm

2) The cheeseburgers aren't as disgusting as they were a few years ago

3) Your chance to get in on the betting pool on which assistant coach will be the first to step into Tony Vitello's essential role as the coach most likely to completely go berserk in the face of an umpire. 

4) You've gotta get your baseball fix somewhere, since the Cardinals are going to suck without Albert.

5) Your chance to laugh at Tex Little when he tries to pronounce Zastryzny.

6) The childish pleasure of sneaking food in past the Event Staff

7) Controlled Recklessness

8) Asst. Coach Dan Pietroburgo is liable to dress up in a cheerios skirt and do cartwheels across the field between innings.

9) College Baseball is a blast.

Mizzou's season opens tomorrow at 10am; they play Cal Poly in the USC Tournament.  And seriously, visit SimmonsField.com at least once a day ... add it to the RSS feed ... do whatever you've got to do.

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