I was planning on doing an in-depth preview of both Mizzou’s offense and pitching moving into the 2017 season… but trripleplay already beat me to a lot of preseason analysis in his killer season preview. I’d suggest you read it. It’s got a lot of great stuff.
However, there’s no such thing as too much baseball talk, so I’m course-correcting just a little bit. Over the next few days, I’ll still be taking a look at the lineup and rotation for the Tigers. But instead of breaking down the outlook, I’ll be singling out a few key players for each.
Let’s start with pitching which, to no one’s surprise, will be the Tigers’ strength this year.
For starters (ha!) …
Anyone who’s ever read my writing on Mizzou baseball knows how I feel about Tanner Houck. If you need a refresher, start and end here.
Really, though, we’re all best served learning more about what other pieces Steve Bieser has at his disposal. Houck is an outstanding pitcher and by all accounts will continue to be so this year. But one ace does not a pitching staff make. When Mizzou can’t turn to Houck, here are a few of the hurlers, Mizzou fans need to know about.
Bryce Montes de Oca: The “Wild” Card
As trripleplay aptly put it in his full preview, Bieser and his staff are getting a bit of an unknown in the volatile junior. He has the pure stuff to be a high-end weekend starter: a fastball that sits consistently in the mid-to-upper 90’s and a breaking ball that flashes plus potential will miss bats and win games at the college level. And yet, “wild card” seems to be such a fitting title because of Montes de Oca’s control problems that have plagued him thus far in his career.
In last summer’s Cape Cod league, he posted only nine innings for the Falmouth Commodores, walking 6 while striking out 10. These are some eye-popping numbers on both sides of the spectrum. The type of talent to strike out 10 per 9 innings is rare, but it’s all wasted if he can’t get the walk rate down.
To me, the key for Montes de Oca’s season lies in the fact that Bieser wants to get him ready for the draft. After his season was derailed by last year’s Tommy John surgery, Montes de Oca will need a lot of exposure. A lot of exposure means a lot of innings, which means a lot of on-the-fly work.
I’m not holding out much hope he’ll be Houck-level efficient by season’s end, but there are some things Bieser and his staff can work on to maximize the draft exposure and team value elements they’re trying to bring out of the big junior.
Let’s take a brief look at some video to see how they could manage that.
The most helpful part of the video, in my eyes, is the profile portion. I’m not pretending to be a scout by any means, as I was never a good enough high school pitcher to make it to college, much less SEC-level ball. But I have talked to enough pitching coaches and former prospects to identify some mechanical points.
Watching the tape, part of the reason Montes de Oca might struggle with his command is an odd hitch during his stride. If you watch closely, there’s consistently a moment where he leans back before fully extending over his left leg. His tall frame struggles to catch up with his stride, dragging his arm behind and creating an inconsistent release point.
And while he never really falls off the mound, that small hitch does prevent him from staying closed and in control of where he’s throwing the ball.
In this below picture, see how high he’s releasing the ball. A guy this tall (6’7) will want to create a downward plane with his release. It gives his fastball, quite literally, another dimension. And his breaking ball will see some added vertical movement, bring out some of its plus potential.
Conclusion: Bryce Montes de Oca has the pure stuff to match Tanner Houck, and I don’t say that lightly. However, he may never have Houck’s precision command. If he can work on shoring up some mechanical issues, his two plus pitches will move him high onto MLB draft boards while also giving Mizzou a powerful compliment to Houck on the weekends.
Michael Plassmeyer: The proven commodity
At the risk of over-using apostrophes, “proven” may be a loose term here. But Plassmeyer is about as proven of a college pitcher as Steve Bieser is going to get from his staff outside of Houck. He made 11 starts last season as a pure freshman and performed ... well enough. His .332 batting average against is no bueno, and he could certainly squeeze more than 58 innings out of 11 starts. But he only issued nine walks all season, which is an encouraging sign. Coaches can always work with a guy that throws strikes.
The thing that may concern coaches about Plassmeyer is he doesn’t have the stuff that’ll blow college hitters away. Houck, Montes de Oca, TJ Sikkema ... these guys thrive on the quality of their pitches. But don’t discount what Plassmeyer brings to the table.
As a freshman, he proved he can eat innings and keep Missouri close enough to win games. His 5+ ERA doesn’t suggest that, but also remember he played on a weak team in a tough conference as a true freshman.
In my mind, this is the type of pitcher that gets lost in the shuffle in college. Of course big prospects like Houck and Montes de Oca are going to attract a lot of attention because they’re moving to the next level relatively soon. But underclassmen like Plassmeyer bring a lot of value to teams like Missouri.
Pitching should be the least of Bieser’s concerns as he tries to turn the Mizzou program around, and a steady hand like Plassmeyer, who’s proven he can take on a heavy innings load at a young age, will help Mizzou’s pitching staff immensely.
Conclusion: Plassmeyer doesn’t have the stuff of many Mizzou pitchers, which might hurt his chances of maintaining a starter’s role. But until someone proves differently, Plassmeyer is one of the best options Bieser has at maintaining a level of consistency from his rotation. At the very worst, Plassmeyer will be a valuable swing option to eat up innings out of the bullpen and in mid-week starts. Bieser should lean on him early and often this season.
T.J. Sikkema: The newbie
Evaluating freshmen is tough because all you have to go from is high school stats. Don’t get me wrong, guys like Sikkema got here for a reason: They’re good at baseball. But facing a lineup of upperclassmen ballplayers is different than facing a lineup full of guys who might never go on to play at the next level.
Nevertheless, Sikkema does bring an interesting dynamic to Mizzou’s pitching staff. He’s a southpaw, like Plassmeyer, but his numbers suggest he’s a strikeout pitcher, while Plassmeyer gets by on contact and good defense.
Sikkema struck out 12 batters in 10 Fall World Series innings and would complete a power rotation if placed with Houck and Montes de Oca.
Sikkema’s Perfect Game USA profile suggests he offers a slider and changeup, which make sense given his strikeout-oriented profile. Without having seen him pitch, I’d guess Sikkema’s slider is further developed than the changeup, and I’d like to see Bieser’s staff work with Sikkema on developing that third offering. I’m more partial to changeups as a whole, and there’s no arguing the changeup is a devastating pitch when used correctly. It’ll make Sikkema all the more dangerous as a new face.
Conclusion: Bieser has said he’s wary of inexperience holding Sikkema back in his first year, which makes all the sense in the world. But if the staff feels good about his talent, Sikkema could end up taking Plassmeyer’s role from last year: a guy who makes a lot of starts with occasional bullpen work. It would allow the staff to slot Plassmeyer in a utility role, and would give Mizzou’s starters a more unified, power-pitcher archetype.