At the onset of the 2017 season, there were myriad questions about Ohio State baseball, but one aspect of the team that promised to be a strength was the pitching staff. Despite losing two-thirds of the weekend rotation in Tanner Tully (drafted) and John Havird (graduated) and one of the bullpen’s workhorses in Michael Horejsei (drafted), the Buckeyes returned a stable of experienced arms that had played major roles in the club’s Big Ten tournament championship and NCAA tournament berth a season ago.
As we know now with the benefit of hindsight at the end of the season, things did not work out on the field the way they looked like they would on paper. Ohio State finished the season 22-34 and went 8-16 in conference play, missing out on the Big Ten tournament and an opportunity to defend its title.
The pitching staff turned out to be a major factor in the program’s decline this past season, plagued by injuries and poor on-field performance. Buckeye hurlers posted a 5.32 earned run average in 2017, up two whole runs from the season prior, and saw opponents hit more than 30 points better against them. While the 2016 squad outscored the opposition by more than 100 runs over the course of the season in large part due to a stingy staff, this year’s iteration was outpaced by 55.
Despite the drop-off in production, there are reasons to be optimistic about the unit moving forward, though. Several players made major strides in their development, while others now stand poised for a return to previous form. Let’s take a look at who struggled, who shined, and what the staff could look like in 2018.
Injuries and ineffectiveness
Despite the losses of Tully and Havird from the weekend rotation, Ohio State entered the season with experienced starters expected to once again be among the most competitive in the Big Ten. Redshirt junior Adam Niemeyer was the lone holdover from 2016’s rotation, being joined by redshirt senior Jake Post, and sophomore Ryan Feltner. But whereas last season’s starters didn’t miss an outing, the 2017 trio would ride a rollercoaster of injuries and ineffectiveness.
Niemeyer made 14 starts and threw 71 innings a season ago, posting a solid-enough 4-2 record with a 4.31 ERA, .270 opposition batting average, and 70 strikeouts. This year an elbow injury limited the team co-captain to just 10 appearances, including five starts, and 34.2 innings of work. When Niemeyer was on the mound, he got knocked around, going 2-4 with a 4.67 ERA, a .315 opponent clip, and only 23 strikeouts. Because the Minster, Ohio product has already undergone Tommy John surgery, any elbow issues are a concern, and clearly impacted his stuff.
Post was returning from his own TJ surgery, and brought 38 career appearances with him into the rotation. While the 1-7 record and 5.17 ERA point to a dismal season, he was actually the most consistent starter over the course of the three-month season, routinely keeping the Buckeyes in ballgames, and often being the recipient of hard luck. Still, a 1.58 WHIP and .288 opponents’ batting average also indicates that he was hit hard, and only four of his runs allowed were unearned, so the team’s suspect defense was not a major factor in his struggles.
While the year was a disappointment for Niemeyer and Post, one could say it was disastrous for Feltner. Possessing a fastball that sits in the low-to-mid 90s, the Walsh Jesuit grad was considered one of the top 2018 draft prospects in the Big Ten entering the season. Feltner had command issues from day one, though, and eventually fell out of the starting rotation. On the season, he went 1-5 with a 6.32 ERA, with a 1.64 WHIP and .293 opposition average. He did tie for the team lead in innings pitched at 62.2, and averaged nearly a strikeout per inning.
As if the issues of the rotation weren’t enough, Ohio State also saw its closer, Yianni Pavlopoulos, who in 2016 led the Big Ten in saves, completely implode in that role in 2017. Pavlopoulos actually began the year starting games, as the early season schedule included a number of four-game weekends, and he notched the team’s biggest win of the season, defeating national powerhouse Oregon State. But when the right-hander returned to his stopper role, everything unraveled. He concluded his redshirt junior season 2-5, with a 6.53 ERA, two saves, and a .304 batting average against, and missed time with a leg injury.
With the exception of Post, this whole group should be back in the fold next season. How high the Buckeyes’ 2018 ceiling can be will depend in large part in Niemeyer, Feltner, and Pavlopoulos rebounding.
It wasn’t all bad
Yes, Ohio State’s pitching staff had a disappointing season. Opponents knocked them around, leads were blown, and at times it felt as though opposition hitters had no fear in the box. Yet there were bright spots, performances that point to better things to come in the future.
The undisputed MVP of the staff was junior Seth Kinker. The side-winding righty filled every role imaginable - starter, long reliever, setup man, and closer - and was by far the most effective arm the Buckeyes had. In 24 appearances, including three late season starts, that covered 58 innings, Kinker went 3-1 with a 2.95 ERA and seven saves. He posted a WHIP of 1.19 and held opponents to a .257 clip at the plate, striking out nearly a batter an inning. Kinker is a candidate for the MLB draft next month, though he has indicated he expects to return for his senior season.
While Kinker entered the season expecting to be a big part of the staff, sophomore Connor Curlis was trying to make a name for himself. The southpaw from Findlay, Ohio had thrown just six innings as a freshman in 2016, but made huge strides from the beginning to the end of 2017. In 20 appearances, eight of which were starts, Curlis led the team with five victories and 62.2 innings pitched, put up a 4.02 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP, and a .237 batting average against. Next season, he has an opportunity to claim a full-time starting job in the weekend rotation.
Two others worth mentioning are redshirt junior Kyle Michalik and sophomore Thomas Waning. Like Kinker, Michalik was expected to be one of the key cogs in the bullpen for Ohio State, and while he missed some time due to an ankle injury, he delivered as expected. Michalik made 24 appearances, allowed just 10 earned runs, and held the opposition to a meager .247 clip at the plate.
On the other side of the spectrum, Waning’s breakout performance was completely unexpected. A transfer from Xavier and Lincoln Trail Community College, the right-hander emerged late in the season, making 10 appearances and posting an ERA of just 2.25. Though it’s a small sample size of 12 innings of work, Waning proved he could be valuable out of the pen at this level, and could see an expanded role next season.
Post and left-handed reliever Joe Stoll have both exhausted their eligibility and will not return in 2018, and there is the possibility that Kinker could depart via the draft, but for the most part, the Buckeyes mound corps will be returning intact next season. Given the struggles the unit had in 2017, that may or may not be seen by some as a good thing.
There is room for improvement, for development, and for new faces to emerge. One name in particular to keep an eye on is Seth Lonsway of Celina, Ohio, the top recruit in Ohio State’s 2018 freshman class. A definite possibility to be lost to pro ball in the draft, should Lonsway make his way to Columbus, he could be an immediate contributor.
A lefty, he sits in the low 90s with his fastball and can touch the mid 90s, has a 12-to-6 curveball with good depth, and a “filthy” slider, according to Prep Baseball Report. As head coach Greg Beals said when Lonsway signed with the Buckeyes, “I see Seth making an immediate impact to our pitching staff.” For fans of the scarlet and gray, let’s hope he gets the chance.
Adding Lonsway to the trio of Niemeyer, Feltner, and Curlis gives the Buckeyes four candidates for the weekend rotation. Other names that could be in the mix, or see action in midweek games, include Pavlopoulos, if he doesn’t return to the bullpen, Jake Vance, who showed flashes as a freshman this season, Reece Calvert, who had a tough year after transferring from the JUCO ranks, and little-used freshmen Gavin Lyon, Andrew Magno, and Michael McDonough.
The bullpen will need to replace Stoll as the left-handed setup option, and is likely to lean heavily on Kinker and Michalik once again, with Waning also eating up innings. Beyond that, there is some experience in Austin Woodby and Curtiss Irving, Calvert’s JUCO teammate Dustin Jourdan, who saw only three appearances this season, and no one else proven. The reemergence of Pavlopoulos as a viable stopper would be immensely helpful to Ohio State’s relief situation.
One things is certain: if the Buckeyes hope to avoid a repeat of their disappointing 2017 season and return to contention in the Big Ten, they will have to pitch much better. The talent and potential to do so is there, but it’s on the staff’s members to perform. With summer leagues, fall ball, and offseason work, there is a great deal of time for them to once again develop into a strength.