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ASU Baseball: Examining the projected use of the wealth of freshman bullpen depth

 (Photo: Kimmy Davis/WCSN)

The now-No. 9 Arizona State Sun Devil baseball team may have taken two of three from formerly-No. 5 Oklahoma State this weekend, but an interesting, counter-intuitive, stat revealed itself.

ASU’s starting pitchers combined for 12 innings pitched, while the bullpen accumulated 16 innings of work over the three-game series.

This reliance on long-relief from the bullpen is definitely not a recipe for long-term success, but it illustrates an important, and positive, point about the team.

The Sun Devils have pitching depth, and a lot of it.

In the bullpen, Ryan Burr and Jordan Aboites will get all the publicity, and rightfully so. A week after we predicted a monster season for Burr, he went out and tallied seven strikeouts in 3.1 innings and tied the school record for career saves in the process. Jordan Aboites’s 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief work were also nothing short of heroic, especially because he’s 5-foot-5 and takes the mound from second base with minimal warmup activity.

Aside from starting pitchers, seven relievers (including Aboites and Burr) were used in this series, but only two of them were freshman (Ryan Hingst and Eli Lingos both on Sunday). Hingst and Lingos pitched 3 2/3 of the 28 innings pitched, just over 10 percent of the total body of pitching work.

This weekend—a weekend in which the bullpen outpitched the starters—was the perfect opportunity to showcase that bullpen depth. Seven relief pitchers may seem like a high total, but when the freshman crop of Tucker Baca, Trevor Horn, Grant Schneider, Andrew Shaps and Reagan Todd (all serviceable pitchers who are receiving consideration for a midweek starting role) went untouched, it underscores just how deep ASU’s bullpen is.

The point of emphasis here: Just because the Sun Devils have pitching depth in the form of freshman relievers, doesn’t mean they will need to or even want to use it.

Common sense says that as the season progresses, the starting pitchers will be more effective and eat more innings, especially bonafide aces Brett Lilek and Ryan Kellogg. The obvious implications of this are fewer opportunities for freshman relief pitchers and less bullpen depth required—turning 2015 into a season of grooming for many of the freshman relief arms.

Factor in the experience-based stance being taken by head coach Tracy Smith, and it’s even clearer that the workload for freshman in 2015 will not be strenuous.

“Depth, we’re still trying to figure all that out,” Smith said. “To me, we’d like our starters to go a little bit further, but they’re on a pitch count right now. We’ve got confidence in some guys back there and as we go through the season, I think we’ll figure out even more guys. We’ve got to pick and choose our spots right now. We just don’t want to leave any second guessing so you can kind of tell we’re going with some guys that have some experience right now.”

The issue (or blessing, depending on which way you look at it) for ASU baseball is the same debate that takes place regarding whether or not a rookie NFL quarterback is better served waiting a season or two behind a proven starter or if taking the starting position immediately shortens the learning curve.

ASU’s freshman will fall under the category of those taking a backseat role initially, but this isn’t a bad thing. Any kind of depth is great, but freshman depth is the best kind to have.

As it is, most freshman arms aren’t developed to the point where thrusting them into a large workload at the Division-I level right off the bat would be a smart move.

“It’s a lot different,” said freshman relief pitcher Ryan Hingst in regard to the transition from high school to college. “Pretty much everyone you’re going to face is big time, rather than coming from high school where maybe the bottom half of the lineup isn’t as good.”

Many of these freshman pitchers also undergo significant mechanical changes when first arriving on campus, correcting bad habits that surfaced in high school because the inferior competition allowed them to get away with it.

Shaps spoke on how pitching coach Brandon Higelin worked with him to change his wrist-cutting motion as he delivers the ball and his arm swing as well.

“What I used to do is wrap my arm and then I would actually cut my wrist and that was pretty much the first thing that he got rid of when I got here. I have kind of a longer, looser arm swing now, trying to stay tall and not drift forward as I go through my motion,” Shaps said.

Along with Higelin, the experienced pitchers on the staff have aided in the development of the freshman pitchers. Shaps singled out Lilek and Kellogg in particular.

“It’s awesome, being a lefty myself with Kellogg and Lilek I can really watch them mechanically. We may be different pitchers, but we do some things the same. Those are two pretty good guys to look up to,” Shaps said.

Essentially, the innings totals for freshman relief pitchers will be minimal this year. But that’s not to say that it will be a wasted season. Rather, they will be groomed by the best of the best on the ASU roster and will showcase their development in Sunday and midweek games this year, where starting pitchers typically fare worse and the true importance of bullpen depth is illustrated.

This situation is the perfect balance between ensuring enough reps for the freshman pitchers to acclimate to collegiate baseball and also ensuring that ASU has the best pitcher for the given situation on the mound at all times.

Ryan Burr, the most decorated and experienced of the wealth of bullpen talent expressed a similar thought.

“I think it just comes down to the preparation in our offseason, knowing that at any point, any of the pitchers have a chance of going in,” Burr said. “You’ll see a lot of guys in the midweek games that are chomping at the bit to get in because they really want to show their talents as well. Top to bottom I feel like everybody’s confident and everybody knows what they’re doing. No matter who gets the ball, we’re pretty confident in ourselves.”

Follow Jacob Garcia on Twitter @Jake_M_Garcia or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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