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ASU Baseball: Season preview, part two

(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)

As promised in yesterday’s part one of the 2015 season preview, today’s part two features pitching and hitting outlooks for the Sun Devil baseball squad.

The ASU pitching staff will feature left-hander Brett Lilek on Friday nights, left-hander Ryan Kellogg on Saturdays, and either right-hander Darin Gillies or right-hander Seth Martinez as the Sunday starter. Ryan Burr will be at the back end of the bullpen for the third straight season.

A few positions have not been determined yet for the surrounding defensive set, but pencil in Johnny Sewald as the leadoff hitter, RJ Ybarra and Trever Allen in the three-four slots, Dalton Dinatale and Jake Peevyhouse in the five-six holes and Colby Woodmansee serving as a potential “second lead-off” hitter in the ninth position.

A deeper analysis of the current position battles will be discussed tomorrow.

Pitching Staff Outlook

It’s no secret that the Sun Devils’ strength in 2015 will be their pitching staff. A season ago, the unit boasted two bonafide aces, a high-upside midweek starter and a lockdown closer. All return this season, and collectively make up one of the most talented staffs in the nation.

“I think the pitching staff has been well-noted by everybody, based on what they do and the maturity we have coming back,” head coach Tracy Smith said. “They’ve done a pretty good job up to this point. It will be incumbent on us to pick up the baseball and improve on our defense from last year. With those arms, we should be in every game.”

The move to Phoenix Municipal Stadium also bodes well for the prospects of the pitching staff. Whereas Packard Stadium was 338 feet down the lines and 395 feet to straightaway center field, Phoenix Muni extends further at all three locations, with foul poles 345 feet away and the center field fence 410 feet from home plate.

Left fielder Jake Peevyhouse addressed this luxury.

“Just gives you more room to run around,” Peevyhouse said. “I like it. Play a little deeper, but we got speed in the outfield. I think it obviously helps us. Instead of balls being fence-scrappers at Packard, you can run them down here easily.”

Recall from a season ago that it took the pitching staff a few weeks to get its bearings. Lilek was riddled with questions marks—an injury during his freshman campaign and a winter break without electricity in Chicago, resulting in arm strength and durability concerns, were the source of the doubts. Further complicating matters, Burr was asked to make the trying transition from reliever to starting pitcher with only one elite pitch and spotty control.

This season, however, is a completely different story.

Lilek rolls in with a sub-three ERA season under his belt. Ryan Kellogg continues to eat innings (a team-leading 103 innings for the second straight year in 2014) and showcase sterling control (only 18 walks, compared to a career-best 66 strikeouts). Ryan Burr’s command still needs fine-tuning—38 walks and seven hit batters in 31.2 relief innings in 2014 are proof—but when he’s in the zone he’s nearly untouchable and opponents can only muster a .149 batting average.

So while the start of 2014 was spent discovering the foundation for the pitching staff—which roles would be occupied by which players—the start of 2015 has been spent fine-tuning nuances and tinkering with subtle changes.

“Staying back over the rubber, staying tall, strong to front side and getting some downward plane,” said Lilek, in regards to what mechanical aspects he is trying to perfect.

“We’ve tried to fix a few mechanical things, try to be a little bit looser, try to get a little more velocity on the ball,” Kellogg said. “But at the end of the day, once you get on the mound, that goes right out the window and you revert back to what you know and just try to get guys out.”

Lilek, Kellogg and Burr are all three juniors, and are all likely to be selected in the 2015 MLB Draft in June.

Still, the trio refuses to look that far into the future, and instead views this season in Tempe as the prime opportunity to make a splash in the NCAA Tournament.

“It went by so fast,” Lilek said. “I remember freshman year, looking up to Trever Williams, who was a pitcher here, and now kids are doing that to me. Having to set a good example, give them something to follow, is something that’s going to help us all.”

Lilek said he has a strong relationship with Kellogg and Burr. He hopes that the closeness among the three can help propel this team to new heights.

“Those are my roommates in my house right now, so we all bond pretty well together,” Lilek said. “If we want to win, we’re going to need those guys. Time is running out. This is my junior year now, so I know it’s a now-or-never type of deal. We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the chemistry, we have everything. We just have to put the pieces together.”


Hitting Outlook

Let’s establish a premise right now and watch it unfold throughout the season: The move to Phoenix Muni, longer dimensions and all, will be a positive for both the pitching staff and the bats.

Though the eye test for last season (my recollection of what transpired before looking at stats) indicated that ASU struggled scoring runs at times, a glance at conference statistics counters that the Sun Devils were actually a very well-rounded offensive team and above-average in comparison to other Pac-12 teams.

It would be both accurate and inaccurate to say that the 2014 Sun Devil offense showed less reliance on home runs than in years past.

On one hand, 26 home runs compared to 68 in 2010, 37 in 2011, 42 in 2012 and 49 in 2013 indeed shows that last year’s team found other ways to score runs. On the other hand, saying that the 2014 team showed less “reliance” on hitting home runs is also saying that the teams from 2010-2013 were all-or-nothing strikeout-or-dinger teams—something that couldn’t be further from the truth, considering that the 2010 team mashed to a conference-leading .337 team batting average.

The more accurate statement is simply that run scoring and homerun-hitting have depressed across the entire conference, and arguably across all of college baseball. A comparison of the 2010 and 2014 seasons in the Pac-12 shows that 868 more runs were scored in 2010 than in 2014.

Dominant pitching is winning games and offenses are struggling to keep up (hence why the seams on a collegiate baseball were lowered entering this year).

The point of emphasis for ASU should be to trot out an elite pitching staff. If you read the pitching outlook above… Check.

For the offense, the goal should simply be to stay ahead of curve, the curve being the performance of other conference teams.

The 2014 Sun Devils led the Pac-12 in batting average (.284) and hits (560) and ranked second in slugging (.386), on base percentage (.371) and doubles (101).

Even with the loss of its top two hitters in Nate Causey and Drew Stankiewicz, there’s little reason to doubt that the offensive average-ness (remember, which is actually above average given the depressed run-scoring environment) won’t continue in 2015.

For one, deeper fences means more opportunities to take an extra base. For another, capable and experienced hitters populate the one-through-nine slots of the Sun Devil lineup.

“I don’t think we have the star power or the big, big bats,” Smith said. “But, I think we’re pretty balanced from top to bottom. When guys stick to the approach, I like this lineup because there’s eight, nine guys that you have to work through. It may not be 20-homerun guys, but I think they’re guys that can put good swings on the ball.”

Putting good swings on the ball is something that Peevyhouse has grown accustomed to recently. After starting off last season mired in a 1-for-24 slump, Peevyhouse caught fire and hit .328 the rest of the season. He ended the year reaching base safely in 23 consecutive games.

“Same approach that I’ve been doing,” said Peevyhouse, when asked how he can avoid starting off slowly in 2015. “I took it into summer and had a good summer. Did the same thing this fall and had a good fall. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Other notable returning offensive contributors are Trever Allen, who had a down 2014 but still led the team with five home runs, RJ Ybarra, whose 20 two-out RBI show a knack for big-time situations, and leadoff hitter Johnny Sewald, who reached base last season at a clip of over 40 percent.

Stay tuned for tomorrow, where position battles and reaction to the Sun Devils tough opening schedule will be discussed.

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


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