This past Saturday afternoon was a beautiful day for a ballgame. Game One of Mizzou Baseball annual Fall World Series intrasquad games took place on the familiar grass (still natural, for now) of Simmons Field, under a sunny sky. I sat with the longtime Voice of Mizzou Baseball, Tex Little, and watched the Tigers play the Tigers.
It's always difficult to know exactly what you're seeing during these Fall intra-squad games. Did that sophomore hit an impressive home run because he's improved his power hitting since last season? Or is that Juco transfer pitcher just not up to the task of pitching to D1 hitters? Only repetition and real games against real D1 -- and SEC -- opponents will tell.
But this year, as Tex and I picked each other's brains about the 2016-17 Tigers, we found ourselves frequently providing the same response to questions: "I don't know."
It's almost as bad, we decided, as when we had to leave behind everything we knew about baseball in the Big 12 and re-educate ourselves in the ways of the SEC.
"It's like we've switched to covering a different team," Tex said, "but we haven't actually gone anywhere else."
So, I'm letting you know up front just how little I know about this year's Tigers. But that's OK, because not much of anyone else knows anything about them either.
The 2016 Fall roster was posted at mutigers.com this past week, which was nice to see. In the past we sometimes didn't see an actual roster until shortly (sometimes it was hours) before the first game of the season in February. I hold out hope that the new Baseball front office is more proactive and engaged in promoting the team than we've been used to.
A few notes on the roster:
- There is only one senior on the roster. OF Kirby McGuire, who hit .235 with eight doubles, two homers, 21 runs and 12 RBI in 35 games (31 starts). His season was truncated due to a broken hand early in the year Why is there only one senior on the squad? Among last year's junior class, SS Ryan Howard and OF Jake Ring were drafted. Jake Klages apparently decided to hang up the "tools of ignorance." Griffin Goodrich and Matt Feldt hadn't played much in their time on the team. All 3 are still on the MU e-mail list as students.
Of 36 players on the Fall roster, There is 1 senior, 16 juniors (4 of those newcomers), 10 sophomores, and 9 freshmen. So the team does have a core of experienced players, not all of them with experience at the D1/SEC level.
- Returning position players: Along with McGuire, there are 5 returning position players who saw significant playing time in 2016: junior C Brett Bond, junior IF/OF Trey Harris, sophomore IF/C Brian Sharp, sophomore IF Ian Nelson, and sophomore OF Conner Brumfeld. Jr. OF Johnny Balsamo, who played in somewhat fewer games, also returns.
- Deep at catcher and infield, a bit short on outfielders. Besides Brett Bond, there are four other players on the roster who are either listed primarily as catchers or as a secondary position. In the infield, along with three returning starters, are 8 players listed as infielders. The competition for playing time at those positions will be fierce.
- Outfield lacks depth. The good news: There are 4 returning players who saw playing time in the outfield last year -- McGuire, Harris, Brumfeld, and Balsamo. The bad news: After those four, only freshman Kameron Misner is listed as an outfielder (with Alex del Rio, primarily a catcher, listed with OF as a secondary position). Injuries or lack of offensive productivity could make the OF pretty thin.
- Pitching staff has a good core. Led, of course, by Junior Tanner Houck (who is projected as a high first-round draft pick this coming June), there are several returning pitchers who, to one extent or another, saw time on the mound in 2016 and have shown promise: RHPs junior Cole Bartlett, sophomore Liam Carter, junior Nolan Gromacki, junior Ryan Lee, and sophomore Graham Ruopp; and LHPs sophomore Michael Plassmeyer, and sophomore Ty Shoaff.
There are 8 newcomers on the pitcher roster as well. Sophomore Grant Macciocchi saw limited action in 2016 due to injury, and his status is unknown. Redshirt sophomore Lake Dabney didn't pitch at all last year due to injury, and, from what I hear, it's unlikely he'll be ready for action by the beginning of this season.
- Bryce Montes de Oca deserves a note of his own. The big RHP power pitcher has been tantalizing Mizzou Baseball watchers for two years now, delivering fastballs in the mid-to-upper 90s, but more often than not delivering them anywhere but the strike zone. Word was he showed some progress in his control in the Cape Cod League this summer. This past weekend I saw him pitch two innings (as the starter), and his control is indeed noticeably improved. By that I mean he didn't hit any batters, didn't throw any wild pitches, and only sent one batter dodging back from a too-close inside pitch.
He still is throwing significantly more balls than strikes, but his velocity was ranging from 95 to 97 mph for his fastballs. He actually seemed to be getting more strikes and outs from his change-up, which came across the plate in the low to mid 80s. If Pat Hallmark, the new pitching coach, can continue to work with him to increase his control, Montes de Oca could be a major tool for the Tigers in the bullpen.
Quick Impressions from FWS Game 1
- Two new hitters stood out: freshman OF Kameron Misner (Poplar Bluff) and JuCo transfer Robbie Glendinning (from Australia) distinguished themselves by hitting well and with power. Misner was 2-for-5 with a home run and 3 RBI; Glendinning was 5-for-7.
- Among the pitchers, in addition to Montes de Oca (see above), sophomore Michael Plassmeyer, who is a favorite to be a weekend starter, threw three perfect innings with 4 strikeouts; Ty Shoaff, Ryan Lee, Nolan Gromacki, and newcomer TJ Sikkema also looked good.
New Coaching Staff
During the past four years under Bieser and Lawson, the Redhawks became a dangerous offensive team. In 2013, when the system was implemented, SEMO hit .285 with 24 home runs while drawing 210 walks.
By 2016, when the Redhawks made the NCAA Tournament, they hit .309 with 60 home runs while drawing 335 walks.
Missouri’s best season in that time was the 2015 squad that hit .258 with 41 home runs. The Tigers have consistently ranked among the worst-hitting teams during their SEC tenure.
"We’ve struggled the past couple years on the offensive side, so maybe there’s a reason we should be working on things like that," Harris said. "We played SEMO, and they always could hit, so I’m down."
Whether new coaches, new tech, and new players will mean a new era of success for Mizzou Baseball in the SEC, only time will tell. But for fans, it should generate some excitement, because in many ways it will be like rooting for a new team.
The Fall World Series continues over the coming week or so. The schedule has historically been subject to change at a moment's notice, so following @MizzouBaseball on Twitter is the best way to keep up to date. If the weather stays nice, I highly recommend finding to time to take in at least one of these intrasquad games, to get yourself a head start on learning about this new team you've decided to root for.