A few weeks ago, one of the brightest baseball minds (and one of baseball’s best writers) penned (keyed?) a piece for The Athletic detailing how young professional hitters are adapting to the increasing use of analytics and data in the game.
Missouri and Steve Bieser came across as one of the article’s big protagonists. Hitters (like alumnus and fast-rising Braves prospect, Trey Harris) gushed about their time at Missouri and the practices they’ve since put into place.
This matches up well with Steve Bieser’s M.O. Ever since his hiring at Mizzou, he’s been talked about as an offensive guru and numbers nerd, the type of guy who would help usher Mizzou baseball into the next era of the sport, one defined by launch angles, defensive metrics and exit velocities rather than batting averages, fielding percentages and the eye test.
Since Bieser’s takeover, the Tigers have been good, if not great. They still haven’t made an NCAA Tournament under Bieser’s watch, and thanks to an incomprehensible, intellectually bankrupt ruling from the NCAA, they’ll have to wait another season. No matter — Jim Sterk and the curators seem to believe in him, investing in him to the tune of $300,00 per year for another three years.
However, it’s not necessarily the hitting that’s given Bieser the most wins a Tiger coach has ever had in his first three years on the job. For the most part it’s something Missouri has always been good at: pitching.
Mizzou Pitching Under Steve Bieser
Now you may look at those numbers and say, “sure, they’re good, but they’re not perfect.” Maybe not, but they’re good enough to win. Mizzou baseball has yet to find consistent success in the SEC, but every year they seem to find new ways to at least be competitive. In 2017, the pitching staff limited earned runs by cracking down on unforced errors (walks) and keeping opponents off the basepaths better than many of their more respected peers. In 2018, they got even better by further tightening down on walks while avoiding big power numbers. In 2019, they improved once again, becoming one of the hardest staffs in the conference to square up.
So as the Tigers prepare to head into another season, Bieser’s reputation as an offensive coach hasn’t changed. What has changed, though, is the perception that he can coach all facets of the game. And if the pitching stays on the track it has been (and the offense can play some catch up), the NCAA may only be able to keep Missouri from reaching the tournament for one more year.
Departures: Luke Anderson (Transfer); Jacob Cantleberry (MLB Draft); Cameron Dulle (MLB Draft); Jordan Gubelman (MLB Free Agency); Tyler LaPlante (Graduation); TJ Sikkema (MLB Draft)
Returners: Konnor Ash; Ian Bedell; Trey Dillard; Seth Halvorsen; Art Joven; Spencer Juergens; Luke Mann; Trae Robertson; Tommy Springer; Lukas Veinbergs; Cameron Pferrer
Arrivals: Jackson Lancaster (Junior College); Brenner Maloney; Zach McManus; Spencer Miles; Ben Pedersen; Steven Sanchez (Transfer from Arkansas); Tom Skoro (Junior College); Shane Wilhelm; Andrew Vail (Transfer from Maryland); Ty Wilmsmeyer
Losing three of your four top starters in one offseason (Sikkema, Cantleberry, LaPlante) may seem like a lot, Steve Bieser hasn’t had a hard time turning over pitchers in his short career at Mizzou — in Bieser’s three seasons, the Tigers have had eight pitchers drafted. It also helps that the schedule of college baseball — which focuses on weekend series supplemented by one-off weekday games or shortened weekday series — allows college coaches to try new arms and groom players for future roles.
Look at TJ Sikkema, for instance. While he would finish his career as one of Missouri’s great starters of the 21st century, Sikkema started his Tiger career as a hybrid man, taking weekday starts and working mostly out of the bullpen on weekends. In truth, this is where baseball has been headed for a long time, especially if your goal is to make the majors. Teams are putting a high value on flexible arms that can fit a variety of different roles, and college is the place to sort out the roles into which young pitchers may fit.
Bieser has also proven that he can take lower-ranked pitching recruits and turn them into stars. Sikkema was just the 106th left-handed pitcher in the 2016 class, while Michael Plassmeyer was 145th in 2015. Both turned into dominant aces for the Tigers, and both ended up as high-round MLB Draft Picks. This year, Bieser has assembled a similar group of players (the one notable exception being Ian Bedell, to whom Perfect Game gave a perfect 10 rating), pitchers who may be more developmental in practice, but have the potential to turn into bulldog starters and shutdown relievers. Pedersen was the only freshman drafted from the 2019 class
However the roster shakes out, Bieser will definitely have a lot of molding to do — 12 out of the 19 rostered pitchers are underclassmen, and only three are seniors.
Names to Watch...
Get ready, baseball fans, because Ian Bedell is the next man up in Missouri’s long chain of dominant starters.
Bedell had a strong sophomore campaign for the Tigers (mostly out of the bullpen), putting up strong strikeout numbers and 1.56 ERA in 40.1 innings. Anyone who follows baseball closely knows how flawed ERA can be, though, and Bedell did have some issues with walks; his K/BB ratio was a flat 3, which is fine but needed improvement to become a top-of-the-line starter.
Over the summer, Bedell took a big step forward. Playing for the Wareham Gatemen in the Cape Cod League, Bedell put up an 0.59 ERA in 30.2 innings for the Gatemen, notching the same amount of strikeouts (36) as he’d done in 2019. The best part? Bedell only walked three batters the entire summer, and his component ERA* was only 0.659. If Bedell can even get close to those numbers in his junior season, it could very well be his last in a Missouri uniform. And it seems he has a fair share of believers — Perfect Game USA recently named him a Third Team Preseason All-American.
The sophomore hurler (a former underclass All-American) got a lot of run in his freshman campaign, throwing 32 innings and, even more impressively, earning four starts. His 3.09 ERA and 3.5 K/BB ratio were big pluses and when he did get hit around, he generally avoided big trouble, only allowing one home run on the season.
For a roster that will be looking for starting arms, Springer finds himself in an enviable position. Perhaps only Bedell and senior Art Joven will have spots locked up, and Springer leads all returners in the amount of starts made in 2019. If the sophomore has had a good offseason (and there’s no reason to believe he hasn’t), expect to see him on the bump quite a bit early on.
The big lefty out of North Iowa Area Community College intrigues me more than almost any pitcher on Missouri’s roster. Based on the video above (from last season), it looks like he throws a heavy two-seamer that would be very hard to square up along with a looping 12-to-6 curve that he’s able to place fairly well — though it could use some tightening up. It also looked like he flashed a slider at one point. He posted crazy strikeout numbers in his two years at NIACC (13.9 and 12.16 K/9, respectively), and had a 3.23 ERA in his freshman season.
For some reason, though, Skoro’s effectiveness dropped drastically in his sophomore year. In 25 fewer innings (he could have had an injury, I’m not sure), Skoro only walked five fewer batters and was absolutely pummeled, giving up 18 more earned runs and three more home runs. His ERA ballooned to 11.27. There could be hidden factors at play (injury, poor defense, changes in arsenal), and it’s always important to take lone college seasons within context.
I’ll be fascinated to see how Bieser uses Skoro coming into this year. He’s got starting experience, but his strikeout numbers plus shaky command scream reliever. I think Missouri’s upside as a team is better off with Skoro in the rotation, but he would certainly be an intimidating presence out of the bullpen should the staff decide that’s the best route for him.