The state of Missouri had two very good baseball teams on different ends of the state this past MLB season. The 2015 Missouri Tigers looked like one of them. Guess which?
Hint: It wasn't the one that ended winning it all.
No, the Kansas City Royals got by on a combination of solid starting, a dominant bullpen and an under-the-radar offense that ended up being one of the best in baseball. And it resulted in a World Series trophy.
The St. Louis Cardinals, on the other hand, are the team that looked like a professional version of the Missouri Tigers, albeit more successful. While the Cardinals had a below-average offense (24th in the MLB in runs scored), they finished the regular season with the best record in baseball, 100-62. How does a team that seemingly can't score do that?
It's all about run prevention. The Cardinals had a historically great pitching year, one that saw their starters and bullpen carry a lackluster lineup into the playoffs, where they were shellacked by the upstart Cubs (I'm still recovering.)
Similarly, Missouri's 2015 team had a well below-average offense, as I noted in my last post. However, they scraped a winning record because of a good pitching staff that included some great starters.
This team strength is the basis of much of Missouri's predicted success this season. As I said in my last post, even the greatest pitching can be let down by a stagnant offense (*cough* Cardinals *cough). But there are reasons to believe Tiger pitchers might be even better than last year.
Let's dive into it by taking a look at the opening weekend rotation:
Friday: Reggie McClain
While Tanner Houck was Missouri's most reliable starter last season, senior Reggie McClain might have been the biggest surprise. Coming to Columbia as the No. 65 junior college prospect in the country, McClain added an elite option to Missouri's rotation. The biggest story of his season was the 22.1 inning scoreless streak he opened with, but even after it was over, he ended up leading the rotation in innings pitched and posted very good K and BB numbers. He'll begin the season as Missouri's Friday starter.
One thing I'd like to see out of McClain this year would be greater command. He didn't walk a lot of guys, and his WHIP was an excellent 1.14. But he did lead the team in wild pitches (10) and had the highest BAA (batting average against) in the rotation at .257.
I think it would be safe to assume McClain will have another strong season, and there's one more thing to consider before we move on from him. McClain had every intention of leaving the Tigers for the MLB after last season. According to Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he had taken his locker's name plate and his father had written a letter to coach Tim Jamieson thanking him for welcoming his son to the program. However, the draft came and went and McClain's name wasn't called. It's a little inexplicable given McClain's success last season; I'd expect him to come out with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. That could be fun for the team and fans.
Saturday: Tanner Houck
The uber-talented sophomore had a busy offseason. He spent time on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team this summer and led the team in Earned Run Average and Innings Pitched. He was named as the No. 1 draft prospect for the 2017 MLB Draft by Perfect Game USA and the No. 1 draft prospect from this past summer's National Team by Baseball America. And he was named to the Golden Spikes Award Watch list as I write this.
It's safe to say expectations are sky high for Houck moving into the season, and for good reason. Of the three main starters on last year's team, Houck led the team in two of the most important pitching statistics: strikeouts and WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched.) When it comes to WHIP, it's actually sort of startling how much better Houck was than the rest of the staff. The entire team's WHIP came out to 1.22 (tied for 2nd in the SEC); Houck contributed to that number by turning in a WHIP just under 1.00, 0.33 points under the SEC average. In addition, Houck allowed the least walks in the rotation.
All of these numbers are extremely important for obvious reasons. Any plate appearance ends in one of four outcomes (strikeout, walk, home run or ball in play), and strikeouts are the best for pitchers since it results in an out and (usually) no advancing runners. The more strikeouts, the better. But WHIP is good for the remaining three results. Since WHIP calculates how often undesirable outcomes happen per inning, we can determine that Houck is going to give up 6 or 7 undesirable outcomes per game if he pitches seven innings every time out. This number is outstanding, especially as a freshman.
If there's anything concerning about Houck's profile from last season, it's the amount of power opposing hitters seemed to have against him; he allowed the most home runs and triples of the starters.
He has impeccable control, so it's not as if he missed his spots all that often. If anything his pitches might be a little too consistently placed. That isn't to say he needs to be wilder, just maybe more unpredictable. I'm not entirely sure of his entire repertoire, but I do know from watching him pitch that the fastball is one of his go-to pitches. If he were to mix in more off-speed and breaking pitches going into the season, he'll probably be due to see power numbers against him drop.
By any measurement or statistic, Houck was Missouri's best pitcher last year, and that should continue moving forward.
Sunday: Michael Plassmeyer (?)
Replacing Sunday starter Peter Fairbanks (who was drafted in the 9th round of last year's MLB draft), will be a tough chore. Fairbanks didn't have nearly the pinpoint control that Houck or McClain had, but he had some dominant stuff, striking out 79 batters in only 76.2 innings pitched. It's hard to ask for a whole lot more from your third best pitcher.
Michael Plassmeyer is one of the team's options. The freshman from St. Louis was named the second-game starter for the Saturday doubleheader against Seton Hall. It's nearly impossible to use high school numbers to project college success, but it's worth looking into Plassmeyer's numbers, if only for wishful thinking.
In his senior season, Plassmeyer led the DeSmet pitching staff with an 8-2 record. He struck out 66 to 10 walks and produced a 1.05 WHIP. He also held opposing hitters to a .253 OBP and a paltry .296 slugging percentage.
It'll be interesting to see how he adjusts to the college game. If he maintains the control he had in high school, he should be a pretty solid addition to the staff.
Sunday: Austin Tribby (?)
The senior is apparently Jamieson's other choice to take over the Sunday starter's role. Looking at his numbers from last season, Tribby will have a lot to prove if he wants to hold onto a starter's spot.
Tribby carried a 1.67 WHIP in only 35.1 IP and was particularly vulnerable to power: he allowed 8 home runs, tied for most on the team with Houck, who pitched nearly 70 more innings.
However, Tribby had stretches of success, and his experience has earned Jamieson's trust. In his first 10 appearances of the season, he allowed only one run and struck out 15 batters. If Tribby could turn those numbers into a little more consistency, he would give Jamieson a veteran arm to turn to in mid-week or doubleheader games.
While the Tigers are pretty stable at the starter front, the bullpen is a different story. And losing closer Breckin Williams to the pros isn't the only problem. There were only five Tiger relievers who had more than seven appearances last year. One of them is Austin Tribby. The other four were seniors.
It's easy to say that whoever doesn't win the Sunday starter role can move into the bullpen. But it's not quite that cut and dry. Assuming for a second that Tribby ends up winning the spot, it's not exactly safe to say that Plassmeyer will vastly improve the bullpen. He'll still be tabbed to start mid-week games, but he's not going to take a back end bullpen job. At the most, he'll be a middle reliever for the weekends. And if Plassmeyer does get the starting position, Tribby will return to his role as a dependable reliever.
The missing pieces are still the back end of the bullpen, the Williams and Andrew Schwaab of this team. Jamieson has a few options to try out: sophomores Lake Dabney and Bryce Montes De Oca were highly touted recruits coming out of high school and could take another step up to solidify the bullpen's holes near the end of games.
And, in the most interesting story of the preseason, football fan favorite Tyler Hunt has joined the team as a reliever.
(Derrick Forsythe / Rock M Nation)
According to Jamieson's statements, Hunt is still a work-in-progress. But Hunt does have a history of dominant pitching. He gave it up to play football at Missouri, but who knows? Maybe he can be a nice pickup. If nothing else, he gives Jamieson some much needed depth. After all: you can never have too much pitching.
As weird as it feels to say, Missouri's pitching is a bit of a question mark for me this year. There's no doubt the Tigers have one of the best one-two punches in the SEC in Houck and McClain, and that will carry them to a lot of wins. However, they still need to see which young pitchers -- of which there are plenty -- will step up to fill the various holes in the staff, most notably the Sunday starter and closer.
That said, I have confidence that pitching should continue to be a team strength. Missouri has a pretty good history of churning out productive pitchers, and I wouldn't expect 2016 to be different.