DIGGIN' IN Baseball Preview: Starters

Feb. 12, 2015

DIGGIN' IN PREVIEW SCHEDULE:
Outfielders: Monday, Feb. 2: Story | Podcast
Infielders: Thursday, Feb. 5: Story | Podcast
Catchers: Friday, Feb. 6: Story | Podcast
Bullpen: Wednesday, Feb. 11: Story | Podcast
Starting Pitchers: Thursday, Feb. 12: Story | Podcast

By Jon Cooper

The 2015 Georgia Tech starting rotation, like the one before it, has the potential of being a nightmare for Coach Danny Hall and his staff, but in a very different way.

PODCAST: STARTING PITCHERS PREVIEW

Tech's '14 rotation saw its projected 1-2 punch, Jonathan King and Cole Pitts, get KO'd by season-ending injuries one day apart when King injured his shoulder and Pitts his elbow on the first weekend of ACC play.

That left only Josh Heddinger who'd even made a start in 2013 (Dusty Isaacs and Sam Clay were now mainstays of the bullpen), while junior Devin Stanton was coming off Tommy John Surgery.

That nightmare turned into pleasant dreams, however, as the staff stepped up. Nine different pitchers made starts, the most for a Tech team since 2012 when the Jackets used 10, with eight making multiple starts, the most since 2006, when nine pitchers did it.

The starters-by-committee produced, as six different pitchers won at least four games, the first Tech staff to do that since 2010, and they pitched to a 3.33 ERA, the lowest in three years and second-lowest in more than two decades.

The 2015 season might offer a different kind of nightmare -- finding innings for all the arms.

Redshirt senior lefty Stanton (5-3, 2.24) and sophomore southpaw Ben Parr (5-4, 2.62), last year's top two, are back, while King and Pitts, are back healthy. There's also the rest of the talented bunch, poised, just waiting for their opportunity.

"I like our guys, especially from a depth standpoint," said pitching coach Jason Howell. "In years past, I think we've all felt we're sort of one arm away or X number of innings away from really making a lot of noise in the postseason. This season we feel like we have a lot of guys we feel like can come in and fit in a lot of different roles. Saying that, I don't know right now where those roles are going or fit and I can see a lot of changes throughout the year, but from a depth standpoint, it's really nice to see there are several guys that can go out there and do some good things for us."

It adds up to an embarrassment of riches, but, at the same time, is not uncharted waters for head coach Danny Hall, who has seen this before and is willing to let things work themselves out.

"I can remember, like five or six years ago, we had it in our mind, that Mark Pope would be in our weekend rotation. We were playing intrasquad games," Hall recalled. "Pope had a bad outing. Jed Bradley had a great outing and so we ended up switching Bradley into the weekend rotation based on what we saw in practice and we put Pope on Tuesdays. I think Pope won just about every Tuesday game, Jed Bradley ended up being a first-round pick. Then you have things like last year, when Pitts and King go down in the same weekend and you have to totally juggle everything. So you have a good idea but it's not set in stone."

The "May the best pitcher win" scenario works for Stanton, one of the team's two captains (senior A.J. Murray is the other).

"It's a great thing," he said. "Then you have to give Coach Howell so much credit for the culture that he's created. He comes to practice every day fired up, a lot of enthusiasm and guys feed off that. With a lot of guys that want to prove themselves, Pitts and King coming back off injury and then a bunch of the sophomores, they want to make a name for themselves. They want to get out there, too. There are a lot of guys that are chomping at the bit to get out there."

The lefty-righty tandem of Stanton and Parr should top the rotation.

Stanton was superb as the Saturday starter last season, going 5-3 and pitching to a 2.24 ERA (3-3, 2.30 in ACC play), while holding opponents to a .245 batting average, tops among Tech starters. He allowed only 19 earned runs, tied for the best among GT starters, and 68 hits in 76 ¨÷ innings, both second among starters, while striking out 57 and walking only 22. He was outstanding once entering the rotation on March 15 against Miami, giving up three-or-fewer runs in all 10 starts, and over his final seven starts pitching to a 1.08 ERA (five runs in 41 ¨ø innings). His record was misleading, as he received only two runs of support over four road games.

Parr, who came out of the bullpen early then dominated in midweek before finishing the year in the Sunday role, also was outstanding. He pitched to a 2.62 ERA (second to Stanton among starters), allowing only 19 earned runs, and 66 hits (best among starters), striking out 52 while walking 20 (fewest on the staff among starters) in 65 ¨÷ innings. He went 4-1 with a 1.60 ERA (six earned runs in 33 ¨ø innings) in six midweek starts, including a three-start winning streak during which he allowed one run over 17 ¨ø innings (a 0.51 ERA), with 18 strikeouts. Parr would be as dominant on Sundays, as he pitched into the sixth inning in all four appearances and, after allowing five runs in his debut against Virginia Tech, allowed five over his final three starts, over 17 ¨÷ innings.

"The good thing about [Ben] and Devin is you roll them out there and you know what you're going to get," said Howell. "You're going to get a solid outing and they're not really going to beat themselves. They're going to make a team beat them."

The return of King and Pitts is the provides a second 1-2 and gives Howell and Hall the kind of headache every pitching coach and head coach dream of.

King will look to regain his freshman form that saw him go 6-5, with a 4.04 ERA, 3-1 with a 4.63 in ACC play. He appeared on the way to building off that last season, as he started 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 18 ¨÷ innings in four non-conference starts. Included in that was a career-long 7 ¨÷-inning gem against Bowling Green on Feb. 28. But he left during the third against Wake Forest in his ACC debut on March 7 with shoulder issues and was shut down for the rest of the season.

Pitts saw his junior season go up in smoke the next day. He had been 1-0 with a 3.18 ERA, with 16 strikeouts in 17 innings, but had to leave after two innings against the Demon Deacons then underwent Tommy John Surgery. He plans on getting back to the pitcher that in his first two seasons on the Flats was as durable a pitcher as the Jackets had, making 19 appearances and 13 starts both years.

From the start of spring practice, it appears that both King and Pitts are on course to do just that.

"I've been very impressed with both guys," said Hall. "I'm convinced that King is totally healthy and Pitts, I think has recovered nicely. In my mind, he looked like the old Cole Pitts. So it's just a matter of getting his arm-strength built up and then the doctor's got to sign off on releasing him to compete. But he's had zero setbacks and he's really worked hard in his rehab to get to where he is."

While there are only four starter spots, sophomores Ben Schniederjans, Matthew Gorst and Matt Phillips will be waiting in the wings. Schniederjans worked on his stuff during the summer with Columbia of the Coastal Plain League and made a statement during the White-Gold Series, pitching five shutout innings for Gold in the deciding third game.

Gorst, similarly put in some innings during the summer with Asheboro in the Coastal Plain League and was solid in his start for White during the White-Gold, going 4 ¨÷ innings (the third-longest stint) and allowing only two runs on seven hits.

Phillips, who teamed with Gorst over the summer, stated his case pitched five innings for White, allowing three runs (all earned) on five hits, but also struck out a Series-high eight batters and was one of only two pitchers not to walk a hitter (Parr was the other). That improved control is nice to see, as during his freshman season he walked 10 while striking out nine.

The experience gained by Schniederjans, Gorst and Phillips and last year's entire freshman class in helping pitch Tech to an ACC Championship is big as they come back as sophomores.

"I think it was great for our sophomore class to win that as freshmen," said Stanton. "It set the standard for them because they're still going to play a big role. For them to get a taste of what a championship feels like, it kind of gave them something to work for all fall. They played a big part in winning the championship last year and they want to do that again."

Then there's this year's freshman class, where lefty Daniel Gooden and right-handers Cody Worthy, and Patrick Wiseman will be among the group out to earn some mound time. It's list of quality arms doesn't seem to end.

Then, again, if 2014 proved anything it's that there's no such thing as TOO MUCH starting pitching.

"It's awesome to think about just how many guys can contribute and how many guys can line up there," said King. "We've got five guys we can run out there on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and throw lights out. That's a great feeling to know that we've got that many guys that can really make an impact in a starting role and then whoever's not starting is going to make a big impact in our bullpen."