One of the main reasons that Ohio State baseball enjoyed such a successful 2016 campaign was the performance of its pitching staff. The Buckeyes' hurlers were among the best in the Big Ten, leading the conference in wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched, and placing third in earned run average.
With the season over and players moving on due to the draft and graduation, head coach Greg Beals now looks ahead to what Ohio State's pitching staff will look like in 2017. Two-thirds of the weekend rotation must be replaced with the likely departure of Tanner Tully to the professional ranks and the graduation of John Havird, and the end of Michael Horejsei's college career means the team must identify a reliable left-handed bullpen arm.
Unlike the everyday lineup, which we focused on yesterday, the mound corps for the Buckeyes has plenty of questions for next season already answered. A strong bullpen returns, and two of the three weekend rotation spots appear to be in very capable hands. The key during the offseason for Beals and pitching coach Mike Stafford will be to fill in the missing pieces and keep the scarlet and gray staff among the Big Ten's elite units.
What the pitching staff returns in 2017
While the loss of Tully and Havird will certainly impact Ohio State's weekend rotation, there are plenty of options to absorb their innings. Redshirt sophomore Adam Niemeyer, who manned the third weekend spot in 2016, can be penciled in once again. Niemeyer showed flashes of dominance on the mound this season, but a hamstring injury hampered his performance down the stretch.
The right-hander went 4-2 with a 4.31 ERA in 14 starts covering 71 innings. Niemeyer's strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 6-to-1 was excellent, as was his 1.21 WHIP. The only concerns are that opposing batters hit .270 off him, and he was seventh in the conference with nine hit batters.
Joining Niemeyer on the weekend will be Ryan Feltner, whose development throughout his freshman season was extremely encouraging. Possessing a fastball in the low 90s, a sharp breaking ball, and a solid changeup, the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Hudson, Ohio native went 3-4 with a 4.06 ERA in 20 appearances that included 11 starts. Feltner figures to be among the top prospects in the Big Ten for the 2018 Major League Baseball draft if he continues to progress.
Just as the starting staff has a solid foundation to build off, the bullpen has a number of key performers returning, and sets up to be among the best relief groups in the conference. Redshirt sophomore Yianni Pavlopoulos came back from Tommy John surgery with a vengeance in 2016, leading the Big Ten with 14 saves, limiting the opposition to a .229 batting average, and averaging more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Pavlopoulos was a weapon at closer for Beals and Stafford, and should continue to be.
Setting him up will be the right-handed duo of Seth Kinker and Kyle Michalik. Kinker led the Big Ten with 38 appearances as a sophomore this season, going 6-1 with a 1.65 ERA and two saves of his own in 54.2 innings. He held opponents to a .250 batting average and sported a WHIP of 1.10.
Michalik had very similar success, coming on in relief 19 times, going 4-1 with a 1.69 ERA and a save. The side-armer limited opposing hitters to a .198 average and had an astounding 0.84 WHIP. Michalik and Kinker give the Buckeyes two versatile, tough to hit right-handed options out of the pen, and should continue to be used in a variety of situations.
Another righty is redshirt sophomore Austin Woodby, who appeared 19 times, including three starts, in his first season in Columbus after transferring from Cincinnati. Woodby had his struggles, posting an ERA of 6.00 and a .323 opponents' batting average, but he went 5-1 and his 39 innings were fifth on the team.
Jake Post, who missed the 2016 season after Tommy John surgery, should also be returning, and has experience both out of the bullpen and in a starting role. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Indiana native is 7-7 with a 3.48 ERA in 38 career appearances that include 13 starts.
The loss of Horejsei leaves the bullpen without a proven left-handed option, but redshirt junior Joe Stoll and freshman Connor Curlis should both be back after combining for 16 appearances covering 25.1 innings.
How will the staff fill holes?
Even with a number of experienced arms expected to return in 2017, Ohio State will need to find a third weekend starter, a couple of guys who can start in the midweek, and another matchup lefty out of the bullpen. The incoming recruiting class, as it turns out, addresses these needs very well.
One of three transfer students from McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas that will be donning the scarlet and gray is Reece Calvert, a big right-hander that could step right into the third weekend spot. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Calvert went 11-2 with a 3.70 ERA in 2016, with a fastball in the low 90s that has room for velocity growth.
Along with Post, Woodby, and perhaps Curlis, incoming freshmen Michael McDonough and Jake Vance could compete for time in the midweek. McDonough, a lefty and top ten prospect in the state of Ohio according to Prep Baseball Report, aggressively attacks the strike zone with his fastball and features a breaking ball that has been referred to as "nasty, with tight spin and late break." Vance is a lanky righty with a ¾ arm slot, a plus changeup, and a lot of room for development.
In the bullpen, Calvert's teammate and fellow transfer Dustin Jourdan could turn Kinker and Michalik's duo into a trio. The righty went 4-0 with a 1.14 ERA in 11 appearances for McLennan that included two starts, covering 23.2 innings. Jourdan averaged over 10 strikeouts per nine innings and posted a 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Four other incoming freshmen pitchers will also join the staff in right-handers Collin Lollar, Gavin Lyon, and Clay Surrell, and lefty Andrew Magno. Whether any of these arms will be able to contribute meaningful innings right away is a question that won't likely be answered until fall ball comes around.
So Ohio State's pitching isn't in too bad of shape, right?
At this early juncture, nothing is assured, but the Buckeye pitching staff in 2017 appears as though it should be a strength for the team. There are established players both in the weekend rotation and the bullpen that should provide stability for a team that is going to be very young.
Niemeyer and Feltner give Beals a solid foundation to build the starting staff on, and the returning Pavlopoulos, Kinker, and Michalik should give Ohio State one of the top bullpens in the Big Ten.
Given the offensive production the team will be losing after its championship 2016 campaign, the Buckeyes will need their pitching staff to look as good in reality as it looks on paper if they are to avoid falling off the proverbial cliff in 2017. If that happens, Ohio State may be able to remain in contention for postseason play as it embarks on its rebuilding project.