Mizzou baseball is back in action, and despite some mixed early returns, this Mizzou alum is especially excited about this year’s team. It’s been a few years since the Tigers have trotted out a lineup this imposing - Brumfield-Harris-Misner-Bond is the ideal way to start this lineup, in my opinion - and there’s a nice mix of senior leadership to go along with several underclassmen contributors. For anyone that’s read my writing on baseball here before, you’ll also likely guess I’m a big fan of Steve Bieser’s focus on analytics and advanced statistics. If only they’d make them available to writers...
There is, however, one major issue facing this team: its ability to fill out a weekend rotation. That may sound like an out-of-place concern given that the team returned 2 of its top 3 pitchers (TJ Sikkema and Michael Plassmeyer) along with Bryce Montes De Oca, the hard-throwing bulldog drafted in the 15th round of the 2017 MLB First-Year Player Draft. But let’s consider what Mizzou is working with, specifically regarding these three.
Michael Plassmeyer has been one of this team’s better pitchers since his freshman year, and he was a big reason the Tigers rocketed to such a hot start last year. He’s not an overpowering pitcher - though his K% (strikeouts/batters faced) of 23.5% isn’t bad - but he doesn’t give up a lot of free passes with his paltry B% (walks/batters faced) of 3.9%. Plassmeyer could do to give this team more innings though, as he only averaged about 3 innings per each appearance last year (largely due to his mixed starting and relieving role.) He also carried a 1.24 WHIP last year, which isn’t great, especially when he walks so few. So while Plassmeyer is a great Saturday starter, he’s not going to be your ace largely because his stuff isn’t overpowering enough.
TJ Sikkema is this team’s best pitcher and may have already been last year (sorry, Tanner Houck, you’re still my dude). As a freshman, he pitched 79 innings, mostly out of the bullpen, and posted a ridiculous K% of 26.8% to a BB% of 5.8%. His WHIP was a sterling 0.88 and he only gave up 2 home runs. So Sikkema (1) strikes out a lot of people while walking very few (2) doesn’t give up hard contact (3) has already proven he can pitch in tough spots. There’s no doubt in my mind he should be the Friday night starter... but Bieser seems curious about the possibility of leaving him in the bullpen. In a way, I understand that thinking. Anybody whose watched the MLB has seen the revolution in bullpen usage over the past few years, started mostly by Andrew Miller’s dominant run in the 2016 playoffs. TJ Sikkema can be this team’s Andrew Miller, a guy who can shut a game down in the tightest situations or take over a bum start and give you 5 solid innings of excellent stuff.
However, I wonder if Bieser would be more comfortable using Sikkema in a starter’s role if it weren’t for the biggest question mark this team has - Bryce Montes De Oca. Bieser has stated he wants MDO to be the team’s Friday night starter, and again, I understand why. MDO is a big dude who offers a stupid good fastball. The issue is he can’t really get it over the plate with any consistency, as he displayed in that 7-walk performance during his first start. I’ve not been the biggest fan of his mechanics in the past, and I’ve yet to check in on them recently. But clearly, Steve Bieser trusts him.
So let’s take a look at what MDO does well and why Mizzou needs him to improve to really hit its ceiling this year.
As previously stated, Montes De Oca can sling it on the mound. His fastball has been clocked at triple-digits which is good enough to get you by even at the college level. He also offers a curve ball that, if harnessed, would be a really nice get me over pitch. Bieser also talked about a changeup before the season, though the only reason I can see to add a third pitch is to prepare him for the MLB. He’s also a big guy at 6’7” and should be able to shoulder some innings for this team, though he is an injury risk.
However, the best thing about MDO is that he doesn’t give up hard contact. He gives up too many hits as of now, but that’s likely due to spotty control. His home run numbers are very good, which makes sense. It’s hard to square up an upper-90’s fastball if you’re not quite sure where it’s going.
However, aside from the home run numbers, a lot of these qualities can be filed under ‘unrealized potential.’ A pitcher with his stuff should be sitting in the upper 20’s in terms of K%, but he only posted a 22.7% last year. Of course, his walk numbers weren’t good either at 15.6%. And like I said, his spotty control probably allows hitters to take advantage of his mistakes more often than they otherwise would. It’d be nice for him to have 2 pitches he could control, but it doesn’t seem like either are very consistent at this point.
However, there’s a reason Bieser wants him to be the Friday starter. In the fall, he talked about MDO getting a better feel for the zone and starting to work with two-and-four seam fastballs. I like the idea of MDO getting control over a hard, boring two-seamer which would negate some of those contact problems he’s had. And if he truly does have 3 pitches in his arsenal, including a changeup, he’s definitely got the potential to be a shutdown starter.
B4 | After two quick outs, #MDO walks the bases loaded. Here comes @TJSikkema17. He's in a tough spot.— #MizzouBaseball (@MizzouBaseball) February 17, 2018
0-2-0#MIZ #C2E ⚾
However, MDO’s opening start was more of what we’ve seen in the past. He didn’t give up any runs, but he put himself in trouble almost every inning and ended up walking 7 batters before TJ Sikkema had to come take the reins. To be fair, he did follow it up with a strong performance against Northeastern. But too me, it’s somewhat telling that Sikkema was ready to take that mantle and ended up going 5 innings to secure that first win.
In one of his previews for the season, trripleplay noted MDO’s development could end up playing a big role in this team’s success.
The ultimate success of the 2018 Tigers may rise or fall on how well MDO takes the next logical step in his long development into a reliable and dominant starter.
I have to agree. With a Bryce Montes De Oca who is consistently starting and staying in Friday night games, Steve Bieser can pick his spots with TJ Sikkema. He can be a weekend starter or a deadly weapon out of the bullpen. However, if Sikkema needs to be on standby every Friday night to bail MDO out of trouble, that not only eliminates one of the Tiger’s biggest weapons at the beginning of every weekend, but it also severely limits how Bieser can use his best pitcher.
The best version of the 2018 Mizzou Tigers looks like this: Bryce Montes De Oca successfully starting around 15 Friday night games and TJ Sikkema acting as fireman and occasional starter without having to worry about taking over for MDO. With one series under his belt, Coach Bieser has to wonder if the improvements he wants to see out of MDO will come despite a lack of game-time evidence.