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Hail Bieser! The Mizzou Baseball season preview

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Steve Bieser brings a pro baseball mentality to Mizzou.

Mizzou Coach Steve Bieser and Junior Trey Harris
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There’s a new head coach at Mizzou Baseball this season, and there’s one big question on the minds of fans and followers: Can Steve Bieser really turn the Missouri Tigers into a competitive SEC-worthy program?

Maybe.

Steve Bieser Thinks

It’s virtually impossible to find a Steve Bieser interview online where he doesn't use the words “thinking”, “mentality”, and “mindset”. As he says in the above video, he has respect for the automatic muscle memory approach to the game on the field (baseball’s traditional “don’t over-think it” philosophy). But for Bieser, it’s the analytic approach to preparation before the game that consistently turns “just do it” into “we did it”.

He knows this because he saw it work during his 10 years in professional baseball (8 years in the minors; 2 years in MLB) and as head coach at both Vianney HS and Southeast Missouri State. During his four seasons at SEMO, the perpetual OVC also-rans compiled a .587 winning percentage (138-97) and won three consecutive Ohio Valley championships. (Tim Jamieson compiled an overall .552 winning percentage during his tenure as a Tiger; .517 in his final 10 seasons).

The big question is how Bieser-ball will translate into the SEC. Bieser knows he’s not in the Ohio Valley any more.

"I look at the competition and realize this [the SEC] is pro baseball. There's very little margin for error if you want to be successful...It's all about who's going to put the time in and who's going to prepare every single night." http://topcoachpodcast.com/tc215-steve-bieser-missouri

He’s also not cowed by the supposed disadvantages of being the northernmost school in a southern conference, with historical under-funding and poor fan support.

“When I walk in this facility, I think this is an awesome facility,” Bieser said. “When I look at the field, the bases are 90 feet, the pitching rubber is 60 feet, 6 inches — it’s a baseball field. The baseball venue is good. We talk about, ‘Do we need to build a stadium?’ and stuff like that. I think, ‘Let’s give the fans something to come out for, and when we can fill this, then we’ll think about that.’ ” Columbia Tribune, 7/2/16

At Mizzou’s First Pitch Banquet in early February, Bieser repeated the team’s motto, Committed to Excellence (#C2E), and said he wants to aim for Mizzou Baseball being the best in the SEC in every aspect. That includes, he said, “having the best hot dogs in the SEC.”

Bieser has emphasized hiring assistant coaches who, like him, have professional baseball experience.

If you really want to know what makes Bieser tick, check out the Top Coach Podcast’s 12/12/16 interview with Coach Bieser for an extensive discussion of his background and coaching philosophy. He talks about following the example of legendary basketball coach John Wooden by timing everything in practice down to the last minute; about a team culture based on “whom I am: Faith, Family, Education & Service”; about learning from Bobby Valentine the importance of thinking outside the box; and about how he likes to recruit ballplayers who have also been wrestlers, like he was.

Also check out Getting to know Steve Bieser, our profile of the newly hired head coach from last July.

What about Pitcher U?

Columbia Tribune, 7/2/16: New MU baseball coach evaluating coaching staff, other issues facing program

Bieser played as a catcher in 283 minor league games over a 13-year career, and that experience behind the plate has helped him connect with pitchers over his 13-year coaching career.

“The pitching part was something I was able to pick up,” Bieser said. “I was a catcher for 13 years. I’m catching every single bullpen for 12 or 13 different pitchers on the staff. I’ve got to listen to every single pitching coach at every level give his opinion and his coaching philosophy.”
. . .
“This is a pitching-rich conference and a pitching-rich university,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of success, and that’s the one thing we don’t want to let go. You gotta keep your strengths, but we gotta work on weaknesses. Our strength lies in our pitching staff.”

Mizzou Assistant Coach Pat Hallmark
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For Bieser, a key component of continuing Pitcher U was the hiring of Pat Hallmark out of Rice University. Bieser talked to D1Baseball.com about the spiked curveball that’s a staple of Hallmark’s approach.

"Everybody on our pitching staff has been introduced to that curveball [that Hallmark brought in]," he continued. "We’ve had a few guys who have been able to pick it up well and that’s definitely going to help them moving forward. Beyond that, having Hallmark around has been nice, given the mindset that he brings to the ballpark each day. There’s a definite toughness component to the way he teaches."

That “toughness” he describes is something some Tiger fans might find surprising and, for some. refreshing. Every time I’ve dropped by for a practice or Fall World Series game, Hallmark’s aggressive and loud approach to telling players exactly what’s on his mind is a sharp contrast to what we’ve been used to hearing at Simmons Field. He’s not shy about expressing himself.

Talking to Hallmark at the First Pitch Banquet, I fond him to be friendly and engaging. But then, I’m not a scrub pitcher trying to prove I deserve innings.

One of his former pitchers at Rice talked to the Columbia Tribune about Hallmark:

Duplantier said he initially clashed with Hallmark, who he described as fiercely competitive. By his junior season, however, Duplantier had come to appreciate Hallmark’s coaching style. He credited Hallmark with helping him develop his spike curveball — otherwise known as a knuckle curve — which turned into a devastating out pitch.

“I would run through a brick wall right now for that man,” Duplantier said of Hallmark.

Will the Bieser/Hallmark pitching mentality work? In large part, that will depend on the pitchers themselves.

Tanner Houck: Ace of Diamonds

Tanner Houck is on a Fast and Furious road to the 2017 Draft
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Every pre-season ranking of top pitchers in D-1 baseball, SEC baseball, and the June 2017 MLB Draft mentions Mizzou RHP Tanner Houck, usually at or near the top of the list.

All that hype and pressure can have a derailing effect on a young ballplayer’s season, but Houck seems about as cool and focused as “Mizzou’s best ever [future] pro pitcher” could possibly be. And he certainly has the skills and tools for the job.

Houck had a good summer with USA Baseball Collegiate team, including 4 no-hit innings in a combined no-hitter vs. Cuba.

When his summer was over, Houck was shut down, not pitching at all in the Tigers’ fall practice. Word is it had nothing to do with any injury, but was intentionally done to better prepare him to be ready to be the Tigers’ Friday night ace in 2017.

As expected (and hoped), it appears Houck will be even better in his junior year than he’s been thus far.

Bieser said Houck felt much more confident with his changeup after the summer, while it appears that new pitching coach Patrick Hallmark will go to work with his breaking ball leading up to opening weekend. https://d1baseball.com/analysis/fall-report-missouri-2/

Bryce Montes de Oca: Wild Card

Bryce Montes de Oca is also looking toward that June MLB Draft. He was listed at #100 among college draft propsects by both D1Baseball.com and Baseball America that put Houck at #5. Whether he stays on that list, or rises higher, will depend greatly on how much he contributes to the success of the Tigers this season.

Bieser told Matt Nestor of the Columbia Tribune that he hopes Montes de Oca can be a weekend starter, but he also knows he needs to prepare him for the draft.

My hope is that he slots right in there and starts one of those weekend games. I think a lot of it with Bryce is running him out there and giving him a chance. . . .Somebody’s gotta give him that opportunity and let him develop on the mound. Our goal is to have him developed before he gets out of here this year.

Mones de Oca had a good summer with the Falmouth Commodores in the Cape Cod League.

In Fall practice and the Fall World Series, Montes de Oca appeared to have better control than he has shown the past two years. Bieser told 101 ESPN that Montes de Oca has “really harnessed his command and was able to pitch in the zone a lot this fall.” He’s still throwing more balls than anyone would like, and the 2016 Fall World Series stats show he compiled a 7.71 ERA in 4 starts, 9-1/3 innings pitched, with 4 wild pitches and 3 HBP. On the other hand, opposing batters managed only a .176 BA against him. Check out this YouTube video of one of his FWS outings.

In D1Baseball.com’s Mizzou Fall Report, Bieser called him a "true wild card." If the big 6’7” RHP can successfully transform from “wild thing” to effective “wild card”, the one-two punch of Houck & Montes de Oca could have a massive impact on the Tigers’ 2017 season.

Houck & Montes de Oca
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The rest of the deck

Returning RHP Cole Bartlett is a likely front-runner for the starting rotation. He had a 3.86 ERA in three starts in the FWS, after a good 3.90 ERA in the 2016 season. In every interview I’ve read or listened to since last fall, Coach Bieser has mentioned Bartlett favorably. On a PowerMizzou podcast this past week, Bieser said, “Bartlett is throwing the ball better than anyone on the staff right now,” high praise for someone who pitches for the same team as Houck.

LHP Michael Plassmeyer and RHP Liam Carter are MU veterans who gained experience last season and should be in the mix either as starters or in the bullpen. A scout recently told me Carter “has a chance to be a Rock Star.”

Newcomer LHP T.J. Sikkema, a true freshman, was also impressive in the fall, posting a 1.80 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 10 IP in the Fall World Series. In his final prep season in Iowa, he limited opposing batters to a .1007 BA. As a lefty strikeout pitcher, he could be key to a successful weekend rotation.

Bieser: I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by T.J. Sikkema, who just has plus stuff. I mean, it’s electric. The thing that could hold him back early is just the experience of getting some experience in a different light. Columbia Tribune, 1/15/17

Bieser talked with the Tribune at length about the pitchers who are most likely to compete for the starting jobs and key bullpen roles. He talks about specific roles for JuCo transfer RHP Andy Toelken and returning junior RHP Ryan Lee, and addresses the question of who will be the team’s closer.

On the back side of it, we figure out how we close that game on that particular day, probably from one of those guys that don’t end up in a starting role. Everybody thinks Bryce is that guy — and he could be, and he probably will be at the next level — on the back side of games, but right now I think there’s still some reasons why he’s not the best option for that.

As of one week before opening day, Bieser told the Tribune his tentative starting rotation for the opening 4-game series against Eastern Michigan

Bieser said right-handed pitcher Tanner Houck will get the ball for Friday's opener with Andy Toelken and T.J. Sikkema working the doubleheader next Saturday. Cole Bartlett will get the start in the Feb. 19 series finale unless the Tigers need him out of the bullpen earlier in the weekend. In that case, either Bryce Montes de Oca or Michael Plassmeyer will get the ball.

Crush U?

Crush U
Steve Biesr, Mizzou Baseball Head Coach
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Great pitching can only take a program so far if the offense consistently struggles to produce runs. The multi-season slump of the Mizzou offense played a large part in Tim Jamieson’s downfall.

Bieser has two monumental tasks to accomplish if he’s going to turn the Mizzou Offense into Crush U.

First, he’s going to have to rehabilitate the confidence and mental approach of the hitters in the Tiger lineup after a brutal 2016 offensive drought.

“We need to look at everyone as a whole and figure out why guys took such big steps back last season," he said. "We need to see what caused those issues and work to fix them moving forward." Steve Bieser, speaking to D1Baseball.com

Bieser also has to prove he’s up to the task of adapting to the offensive requirements of competing in the toughest conference in college baseball.

"If we expect to bring the slugging mentality we had at SEMO, we’d be making a huge mistake in this league. Those things don’t happen much in the SEC and we need to tailor our approach to what the league typically entails." Steve Bieser, D1Baseball.com Fall Report

The Tech

One of ways Bieser and hitting coach Dillon Lawson plan to revive the Tiger offense is through “technology accelarators.” That begins with recruiting effective hitters with the help of the TrackMan sensor system “that can measure exit velocity off bats, which can help determine which recruits have power potential comparable to the average major league player.” (Columbia Daily Tribune, 7/2/16)

He’s also begun using the GameSense Baseball IQ Pitch Recognition System. http://www.gamesensesports.com/success-stories/

“We created a program to fit into what we were already doing,” Lawson said. “Guys already hit off the tee. They already would stand in and track pitches during bullpens. They already watched video. We were trying to add little bits and pieces of pitch recognition to their normal daily routines. We were able to do it and be quite successful with it. It gave us a huge competitive advantage at SEMO.” (StLToday.com, 7/10/16)

“I’ve always preached that in order to score runs, you’ve got to get on base. And we’re able to get on base at a very high rate and we’re also able to do damage from extra base hits, being able to pick that pitch that we want and attack the right pitch. And that’s been very successful for our guys being able to drive the gaps whenever we get a pitch over the heart of the plate and also being able to lay off tough pitches whenever we get that nasty pitch that’s really tough to handle. “ Steve Bieser on Top Coach Podcast, 12/12/16

The Hitters

Bieser will have to rely on the experience of the team’s returning leaders, a group of veterans recruited and developed by Tim Jamieson. IF Brian Sharp, OF Kirby McGuire (the only senior on the roster), IF/OF Connor Brumfield, C Brett Bond, and OF/IF Trey Harris will be expected to lead the Missouri offense. In order to do so, they’ll need to elevate their game from 2016’s mediocre performance. Their respective batting averages were .252, .235, .221, .219, and .213 last season. Those numbers aren't going to put fear into SEC pitchers. Hopefully the new coaching staff will be able to turn their experience into productivity. Bieser has repeatedly said he expects these veterans to have a good bounce-back year.

Bieser: But I know that they’ve put the work in, and I think they’ve got a chance to have really good years. To have an older lineup like that, a more experienced lineup, I think there’s a chance to have some success on the offensive side. Columbia Tribune 1/15/17

A pair of JuCo transfers will also be counted on to be productive in the everyday lineup.

Alex Samples comes to the Tigers from Navarro Junior College. Samples had committed to SEMO but switched to MU after Bieser’s move. He’s a potential starting third baseman who could prove to be a consistent hitter with some power.

Robbie Glendenning, an Australian who came to Mizzou by way of North Iowa Area Community College, appears to be the front runner for the starting shortstop job.

Glendinning brings an impressive résumé from his two seasons at North Iowa Area Community College. Glendinning hit .390 at NIACC and set school records with 195 hits, 33 home runs, 42 doubles, 141 RBI and 151 runs. His 25 homers and 87 RBI last season are school single-season marks. Also, the shortstop drove in five runs three times and had seven multi-home-run games, including six last season. Columbia Tribune: Glendinning has big shoes to fill with MU baseball team

A trio of true freshmen performed well in the fall and should be in the mix for starting time.

All-State OF Kameron Misner hit .422 with 8 HR, 9 3B, 8 2B, 35 RBI, and 29 SB in his senior year at Poplar Bluff. He was drafted by the Royals in the 33rd round of the 2016 MLB Draft.

IF Chris Cornelius, from Vianney HS, hit .380 as a senior, with 7 2B, 3 3B, 1 HR, and 21 RBI.

IF/C A.J. Lewis, from Mount Carmel HS in Chicago, will provide versatility to the roster. In high school he played at every infield position and at catcher. He hit .390 with 4 HR as a senior.

Based on the Fall World Series stats and everything I’ve read and heard so far, I’d guess the starting lineup might look something like this

1 SS Robbie Glendenning
2 1B Brian Sharp
3 3B Alex Sample
4 C Brett Bond
5 2B Chris Cornelius or Matt Berler
6 LF Kameron Misner
7 DH TBA
8 RF Connor Brumfield, Trey Harris, or AJ Lewis
9 CF Kirby McGuire

That line-up is, of course, almost certainly wrong.

Black & Gold Gloves

A big part of the Tigers’ problems over the past few seasons has been inconsistent - and sometimes downright sloppy - defense. Bieser had a perfect error-free career in the major leagues - while playing four different positions (C, RF, CF, LF).

At the First Pitch Banquet earlier this month, Bieser made a point of talking about how they’ve spent a lot of time working on fielding and defense. He has brought on Joe Migliaccio, from SEMO and previously Siena College, as a graduate assistant who has been focusing on defensive training.

From gosoutheast.com:

Migliaccio was responsible for all positions players’ defensive work and also assisted with the offense. His work with the defense led to the third-highest fielding percentage in program history (.963) and finished the season leading the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in fielding percentage in league-only games (.976.) He implemented new catching a defensive development programs while at Siena. In 2015, the infield completed conference games with a .981 fielding percentage, committing only eight errors, which was an improvement from .958 (21 errors) the previous season. During the complete season, the infield recorded a .967 fielding clip, committing 24 fewer errors than the previous season. The catching defensive program he helped implement saw the catchers throw out 37% of all base stealers, an improvement of 18% from the year before.

Looking at the 2017 Schedule

The Mizzou Baseball schedule mixes the brutally difficult SEC schedule with a healthy sampling of other competitive teams, plus quite a few from the lower end of the spectrum. The schedule features four teams listed in d1baseball.com’s Preseason Top 25, all from the SEC (UF, USC, VU, A&M).

Here are the 2016 final RPI rankings (out of 300 total D1 schools), and the number of games scheduled for the upcoming season. It includes 1 College World Series team (Florida), 2 that made it to a Super Regional (A&M, USC), and 3 Regional teams (Ole Miss, Vandy, SEMO).

1 Florida (3)
4 Texas A&M (3)
9 Ole Miss (3)
13 South Carolina (3)
16 Vanderbilt (3)
45 Georgia (3)
55 Illinois (2)
57 Houston (1)
58 SEMO (1)
65 Alabama (3)
70 Kentucky (3)
83 Missouri St (2)
88 Tennessee (3)
124 Arkansas (3)
131 Mizzou
132 Little Rock (1)
185 Eastern Michigan (4)
192 Ill-Chicago (3)
198 Murray St (1)
215 Eastern Kentucky (1)
229 Texas A&M CC (2)
241 Appalachian St (3)
271 Ark Pine Bluff (2)
272 Eastern Ill (1)
292 Chicago State (2)

The average 2016 RPI ranking is 109th. 33 of the 56 games are against teams that were in the top 100 RPI, 12 from the middle 100, 11 from the bottom 100.

Planning your season

Of course, what you’ll really want to do is contact the Mizzou Ticket Office and order your season tickets and plan to make it to all the home games so you can #PartyLike Its1954. But if you’re only going to make it to some of the games, here’s your guide to the highlights and lowlights:

  • Best non-conference road trip: Corpus Christi, TX (the home of #MizzouMade Chicago Cub Rob Zastryzny), February 23-26. Games against Houston and Illinois, both quality opponents, as well as two against Texas A&M Corpus Christi
  • Best conference road trip: Oxford, Mississippi April 21-22 vs. Ole Miss. The Rebels were 9th in RPI in 2016 and look to be even better in 2017. And a trip to Oxford in late April would be delightful.
  • The annual chilly March home stand: 9 games vs. 3 teams that finished 192nd, 241st, and 292nd in 2016. Sounds dreadful, but these games are where you can really get to know the new players and the new coaches in a casual atmosphere.
  • Better home stand: 8 games in late March/early April, beginning with mid-level mid-major Little Rock, followed by the always good pair of series against Arkansas and top-5 ranked Florida, with a mid-week match-up against in-state rival SEMO (Bieser’s former team) sandwiched between those two.
  • Neutral site game: The Tigers and Illini meet in Corpus Christi in February, but then they’ll get another chance at each other April 4th at the Gateway Grizzlies ballpark in Sauget, IL. This Braggin’ Rights Game should be a lot better than that basketball game back in December.
  • The final two SEC series at Taylor Stadium should be two of the best, against the Texas A&M Aggies in late April, and then South Carolina in mid-May.

Another highlight of the season will be when Mizzou and Georgia get to help inaugurate the Atlanta Braves new SunTrust Park with a game on April 8th.

"This college matchup will be the first time the general public can really immerse themselves in SunTrust Park," said Derek Schiller, Braves president, business. "With the excitement building around the ballpark, we think we have a great opportunity to have a large crowd in attendance, which would mean a lot of money raised for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta."

Plus, several games will be on TV or streaming. And, as always, every game will be broadcast on KTGR and ktgr.com.

Oh, and there’s beer

Yes, thanks to Steve B[udw]ieser, you’ll now be able to buy a beer at Taylor Stadium. It won’t be cheap - an annual $100 donation to the Tiger Scholarship Fund gets you membership in the Left Field Lounge Club.

Yes, there is already an outfield drinking area by that name in college baseball. At this point, it’s still unclear whether the Tigers will be sticking with that name or will switch to something more original.

At this point there’s also been no evidence of new signage or partitioning in the area of the 3B/LF stands.

But for all of you baseball fans who have been saying you’d be more likely to come to Taylor Stadium if there was beer available, you no longer have that excuse. See you there!

Projecting the future

It won’t surprise anyone that Missouri is not listed in any of the pre-season polls. D1Baseball.com picked the Tigers to finish dead last in the SEC East. The SEC Coaches’ poll not only has Mizzou last in the East, the Tigers received the fewest votes of any of the teams.

That’s as it should be. They’re following up what was a mediocre season with a new and untested coach, at least at the power conference level. Both Bieser and his Tigers will have to prove themselves.

Bieser knows the odds and expectations are against the Tigers. But he doesn't care. From the Columbia Tribune, 1/15/17:

I’ve seen some preseason polls of what we’re supposed to do in the SEC, and they’re more social-media-aware than I am, so I know they’ve seen that there’s several publications that have us 14 out of 14 in the SEC from a baseball standpoint. But I don’t think anybody here at Mizzou thinks we’re going to be that guy or that team that’s going to finish down there, dead-last. We won’t give up.