Mizzou baseball is roaring — sorry, it happened naturally — to start the season, and one young pitcher is playing a bigger role than people are talking about.
Steve Bieser’s Tigers are 15-1 and currently have the nation’s longest winning streak, and with two more games until SEC play starts, they’ve already bested last year’s non-conference record by 3 wins. The offense is rolling along, ace Tanner Houck is back in dominant form, and TJ Sikkema continues to be a lights-out bullpen weapon.
And yet, one of the biggest keys to Mizzou’s success on the young season has been the emergence of sophomore pitcher Michael Plassmeyer.
While Houck took a few starts to round into form, Plassmeyer cemented himself as a reliable No. 2 starter and a perfect counter for Houck at the top of the rotation.
No sophomore slumps
I wrote about Plassmeyer and other Mizzou pitchers not named Tanner Houck before the season started. In that piece, I singled out Plassmeyer as a valuable player because of what I see as an underrated quality among college pitchers: a knack for eating innings. Plassmeyer wasn’t as dominant as Houck last year, but he averaged nearly five innings per appearance as a true freshman on a below-average SEC team. Numbers aside, that’s impressive.
I also noted that while his stuff isn’t overwhelming like Houck’s, Sikkema’s or even Bryce Montes de Oca’s, a guy who already has the skill of efficiency can easily learn how to make those innings count for more. Thus far, that inning-eating ability has proven true. Plassmeyer has made four starts — tied for first on the team — and is averaging nearly six innings per. The uptick is encouraging.
That’s not what excites me, though. What excites me is that Plassmeyer has quickly learned how to miss bats. His ERA and Batting Average Against were squarely below average in 2016: 5.12 and .332, respectively. This year? They’re down to 2.35 and .185.
This isn’t an entirely surprising development. If there’s any position the previous staff knew how to evaluate and recruit, it was on the mound. Plassmeyer is an undoubtedly gifted pitcher, and as many college players are prone to doing, he’s improved.
What shocks me is how drastic that improvement has come about. His walk rate has ticked slightly up (from 1.12 per 7 up to 1.54) which is less than ideal. But you can live with more walks when you’re getting more strikeouts (from 5.25 per 7 up to 7.28). And while more Ks and BBs will obviously mean fewer hits, Plassmeyer is doubling down on a good thing by making those hits count for less. Of the 15 hits the sophomore has surrendered, only 3 of them have gone for extra bases, all of them doubles.
I’m not exactly expecting Plassmeyer to keep this up all the way through SEC play — he probably won’t continue to be an innings-eater turned poor contact, strikeout pitcher. But I also didn’t expect him to improve this much in just one offseason either. He’s proven me wrong once; why not again?
A win-win situation
The other thing I find encouraging about Plassmeyer’s emergence is how his style could complement Houck’s power at the top of the rotation. Plassmeyer was more of a contact pitcher in 2016, a dubious distinction with any college defense.
As I noted, though, Plassmeyer seems to have become more of a power pitcher this season. And from what I know — admittedly not a lot — Plassmeyer doesn’t have overwhelming velocity. I couldn’t really tell you what’s in his arsenal of pitches, though I assume he’s got at least three workable offerings.
Instead, Plassmeyer seems to be slotting into his role as a different style of power pitcher: all about location, location, location. It fits into what I said earlier. Plassmeyer is walking more batters than he did last year, but it’s still a small amount. For comparison’s sake, while Plassmeyer walked 1.12 per 7 innings last year, Houck walked 1.82. That’s Tanner Houck, renowned ace with pinpoint control. Even Plassmeyer’s ‘elevated’ walk rate is lower than Houck’s from last year.
With Houck and Plassmeyer hemming the one and two slots of the rotation, Coach Bieser has both right-handed and left-handed pitchers (yes, that’s important) he can depend on to not give up free passes. And when Houck hits a lineup with his plus-plus fastball and plus slider one night, Plassmeyer will counter the next day with plus-plus location and left-handed movement.
Yes, Houck is still the ace of the Mizzou staff. Yes, Sikkema has been the dominant weapon out of the pen; I’ll probably end up writing about him later in the season. And yes, Bryce Montes de Oca looked promising in his first two appearances.
But Plassmeyer’s emergence as a genuine No. 2 starter is one of the biggest, most unheralded reasons Mizzou has rocketed to 15-1.