By Reed Graff
It’s almost time to return to the diamond, folks! College baseball season is right around the corner, and the 2018 Texas State Baseball team hope to be an intriguing team to follow. The 2017 season ended with the Bobcats finishing in the top four in the Sun Belt tournament, with an overall record of 29-30. The exciting news for the Bobcats however, is that a majority of the team is returning for the 2018 campaign. Former outfielder Theodore Hoffman went in the MLB amateur draft, and the team graduated three seniors (all pitchers). Coach Ty Harrington looks to lead his team into his 19th season at the helm while the experienced roster works to be a Sun Belt contender.
Newly hired pitching coach Chad Massengale has an important job this season for the Bobcats. The former Bobcat pitcher joined the coaching staff this off season after coaching at Weatherford College the last three years. A very obvious struggle for the Bobcats a season ago was pitching. The team had to outscore opponents and ended up in a lot of high scoring games because the pitching staff struggled to keep opponents at bay. Texas State finished with the second highest team earned run average in the Sun Belt with a 5.59. That is a statistic that the Bobcats definitely need to improve on. Despite this, Massengale does have some solid talent to work with.
The leader of the rotation last season was freshman, now sophomore Nicholas Fraze. In 15 starts, the 6’4” righty went 5-2 with a 4.59 ERA, the lowest of all starters. An area Fraze could stand to improve the most is his control. The Carrollton, TX native struck out 49 batters, but walked 43. His strikeout to walk ratio must be improved in 2018 in order for him to establish himself as a complete pitcher. Nonetheless, Fraze is the ace of the Bobcat starting staff, and figures to have a great 2018 season.
Another quality starter for the Bobcats is senior Cam Baird. Baird is another big right handed pitcher, standing at 6’3” and is capable of eating up innings for the Bobcats. In 54.2 innings pitched, Baird recorded a 5.76 ERA, striking out 36 batters. Also in the mix for the Bobcats is junior Connor Reich. Reich threw 77 innings last season, second the team only to Fraze, and his 5.73 ERA is poised to improve this season. Some other guys that could get looks in the starting rotation include junior Wes Engle, and southpaw Brandon Lewis. They all have experience as starters, so look for them to compete for spots in the rotation.
The bullpen is a tricky area for Texas State. Junior Brayden Theriot seems to be the most reliable out of the bullpen going into 2018. Theriot is a right handed pitcher who in 2017 threw 37.2 innings recorded a 3.82 ERA, the lowest of any returning pitcher on the roster. The 6’2” junior struck out 34 batters, walked only 14 and gave up only two home runs. Theriot figures to be the one most likely to be the team’s closer.
Sophomore left hander Zachary Leigh figures to get a shot at the starting rotation, but he would also be a great reliever out of the pen. Junior Anthony Pagano also figures to be an integral part of the bullpen. Pagano is a strikeout machine, recording 33 K’s in 39.1 IP. What tends to get him into trouble is walks and the long ball, but anytime this 6’0” lefty takes the mound it ‘s going to be a fun time. Outside of those three, the bullpen will consist of a lot of guys that have not thrown a ton of collegiate innings.
Fellow lefty Braden Pearson looks to rebound from a disappointing 2017 season. An early season injury cut his junior campaign short, only appearing in five games. Pearson has the ability to get outs, but he has not quite been able to put it all together. 2018 will be a big year for him. Freshman Tyler Clark-Chiapparelli comes to San Marcos after an impressive high school career that saw him named an Under Armour All-American and earned him a chance to play in the Perfect Game Showcase. The Round Rock, TX native could see time on the mound as a true freshman.
Time to talk about what this Bobcat baseball team excels at, scoring runs. The offense is led by senior Luke Sherley, and the fantastic recruiting class of 2015. Juniors Jonathan Ortega, Ryan Newman, Jaylen Hubbard, Jacob Almendarez and several others have made a significant impact on the program in their time here.
You can’t talk about Bobcat baseball without mentioning Ortega. A lead hitter in the line-up and the spark plug for the team, Ortega is an exciting player that draws fans to the ballpark. Whether he is hitting for power, getting on base, stealing bases or making people dance because of his walk-up song, the 5’8” second baseman lights up a baseball diamond. His sophomore campaign was another excellent one. Ortega led his team in runs scored (54) and stolen bases (22). His .339 batting average, 81 hits, 45 runs batted in and .502 slugging were second only to former right fielder Theodore Hoffman, a 15th round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers. The small statured spark plug of the offense resembles 2017 MVP Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros in more ways than one, as he’s a speedy second baseman who has elite contact skills and has more power than you’d expect a guy of his stature to be capable of.
First baseman Newman has shown excellent skills at the plate throughout his career in San Marcos, but injuries have kept him from showing what he is truly capable of. The Brenham, TX native hit .296 with six home runs, and 30 RBI’s in 159 at bats last season. Staying healthy is big for him, since he’s a true 20-plus home run threat when at his best. Fellow junior Hubbard is an excellent defensive third baseman that is poised to have a breakout season offensively. If he can show some more power, he may get some MLB teams taking notice of his skills. The son of a former MLB player, Hubbard hit .296 with an on base percentage of .373. He slugged 11 doubles, three triples and three home runs. His 2018 campaign will be an interesting one to follow.
Senior Derek Scheible and junior Almendarez figure to be staples in the outfield. Both are legit speed threats that can hit for a high average. Scheible has power as well, slugging seven home runs in 2017, good for second on the team. The third outfield spot figured to be a spot that several different players could play. Senior Travon Benton has experience in the outfield. Sophomore Cole Coffey saw playing time last season, and is capable of playing both first base and right field. Senior Dylan Paul saw a lot of time in the outfield a season ago and is a very capable batter that will see significant time in the outfield as well.
Behind the plate, the Bobcats have two capable catchers that both have offensive skills. The predicted starter is senior Jared Huber, or “Hubes” as he is often called. A four year starter, Huber has an excellent arm behind the plate, and despite being a smaller catcher is one of the best in the Sun Belt. He is no slouch at the plate either, hitting .273 last season with two doubles, 12 RBIs and 10 runs scored before suffering a season-ending injury. Junior Felipe Rodriguez will be his back up for one more season. Rodriguez carries a more powerful bat than Huber, and perhaps a better arm as well. However, the backstop needs to show he can make consistent contact before he earns a starting job, so look for him to make the most of his opportunities. Rodriguez has been the backup since he joined the Bobcats as a part of that fantastic 2015 recruiting class. His plus power and arm strength represents a viable option off the bench behind the plate, and don’t be surprised if he sees time at DH.
However, the energizer bunny that keeps everything rolling is senior shortstop Luke Sherley. A four-year starter, Sherley has blossomed into an excellent defensive shortstop that is capable of getting on base and creating havoc. His natural instincts and plus defensive range make him a delight to watch in the field. An old fashioned, hard nosed ball player, Sherley missed the first nine games in 2017 due to injury but rebounded and put together a solid season. A .291 batting average was the highest of his career yet, and his ability to get on base was on full display. He led his team in on base percentage with a .420, and walks with 39 showing his advanced approach at the plate. The senior is the vocal leader of the team, and his chemistry with double play partner Ortega is dazzling to witness.
The deciding factor for the Bobcats going into 2018 comes down to pitching. Their pitching has to improve in order to compete for a Sun Belt Title and a shot at playing in the NCAA tournament. The great thing about baseball is any team can get hot in the postseason and win the championship. What matters most is getting into the postseason. This year’s Bobcat baseball team has the potential to be a Sun Belt powerhouse. If the pitching staff holds up and improves, and the offense stays healthy then 2018 could be a special season. The Texas State Bobcats kick off the season with a three-game series in San Marcos, where they will play host to The Big 12 opponents Oklahoma State. That series begins Feb. 16, and all three of those games will be broadcasted on KTSW 89.9.
Featured image by Madison Tyson.