It almost gets old. Every year, those of us that watch and care about Texas baseball could tell you the same story with different names: "The pitching is solid, absolutely, but where will the runs come from?" My friends, 2015 is a new, possibly short-lived era at Texas. With one returning weekend starter, last year's closer gone, and some veteran bats returning to the lineup along with a few highly touted freshmen, the script is flipped.
In fact, Texas' apparent (I use that term because it could obviously end up being entirely untrue once games begin) ability to score some runs this year is a huge part of the reason to be optimistic about this team's ceiling. Skip Johnson & Co. have been getting pitching staffs into elite shape by the end of the year so consistently that it's hard to imagine Texas won't have the arms to win big in the postseason once again; but this time, it looks like they might be backed up by a consistent offense. Let's have a look at who's returning from the 2014 lineup, who's new, and the big picture.
In terms of pure batting average, the leading returning hitter for the Longhorns is shortstop CJ Hinojosa, who is also tied for the lead in returning RBI with 35 last season. Hinojosa is a junior who will be playing both to return Texas to the College World Series and to impress MLB scouts; he'd love to have a tough decision to make in June. To get there, he'll likely need to cut down on errors in the field and maintain, if not improve, his consistency at the plate. Hinojosa also has the distinction of leading the team in sacrifice bunts in 2014, as he laid down 16 of them. On an Augie Garrido team, that's no mean feat.
In terms of power, there are two big returning bats: first sophomore catcher Tres Barrera, who as a freshman hit five dingers, drove in 35 runs, and slugged at a .402 clip. Obviously there is some risk of a sophomore slump, but Barrera got better as 2014 went on so there's no reason to think he can't pick up where he left off. And second, junior left fielder Ben Johnson hit a team-high six homers, drove in 33 runs, and slugged .405 last year. Johnson is perhaps the most underrated player on the Texas roster, as he possesses a rare combination of speed and power. He covers a lot of ground in the outfield and stole 21 bases as a sophomore in 2014. That combination is how, despite a middling OBP of .367, he led the team in runs scored with 46; once on the base paths, he's likely to find a way to score.
Three more position players returning to likely starting roles in 2015: senior second baseman Brooks Marlow, sophomore center fielder Zane Gurwitz (who mostly played third base last year), and senior right fielder Collin Shaw. Of the three, Gurwitz has the most potential for a breakout season as he begins the season familiar with the college game, as opposed to last year when he obviously had to adjust as a freshman. Seniors Shaw (.264/.355/.301, 0 HR, 23 RBI, 13 SB in 2014) and Marlow (.268/.383/.375, 4 HR, 21 RBI, 4 SB in 2014) are certainly not easy outs in their own rights; the fact that they may well be the two weakest hitters in the lineup is not a knock on them, but a testament to how good the lineup could potentially be.
The batting order will likely include three guys seeing their first action in burnt orange.Highly touted freshman catcher Michael Cantu out of Corpus Christi will be tough to keep out of the lineup and will, in all probability, usually serve as the designated hitter. Cantu hit .352 for his high school career with 14 home runs. Perhaps the most amazing stat on his Texas Sports bio page is that he had perfect attendance K-12; kid never missed a single day of school in his life.
Reports from preseason practice indicate he's been excellent behind the plate, so he won't DH exclusively throughout the season. Giving him some time behind the plate will have the added benefit of letting Barrera rest his legs, particularly on days like this Saturday where the 'Horns play a double -header. Keep your eye on this situation, as it's possible the pitchers will have a say; one can imagine, for instance, Cantu being Josh Sawyer's preferred catcher and thus being behind the plate when Sawyer gets a start. (That's just a random example. Please do not take that to mean I believe Sawyer will in fact prefer Cantu to Barrera.)
With Gurwitz moving to the outfield, third base is open for redshirt freshman Bret Boswell to get a shot. The six-footer out of Rockwall missed 2014 with a wrist injury, but before that was a shortstop in high school who batted .410 for his career. Not in his senior season. Boswell pulled a Teddy Ballgame in 5A Texas baseball for four years beginning as a ninth grader. He also pounded 21 homers in his high school career. He gives fans a lot to be excited about. Waiting in the wings is sophomore Andy McGuire, who started 19 games at third base last year but never really got the bat going.
Finally, true freshman Travis Jones will begin the year at first base. As with most infielders who make it to the Division 1 level, he played shortstop in high school. He netted a career average of .384 at Atascocita High School in Humble, and comes highly regarded by every scouting agency that's had a look at him. Like Boswell, Jones will have a guy who played the position last year available to pick up slack if he's not quite ready. Kacy Clemens will spend most of his time pitching in 2015, but played a solid first base and came up with some big clutch hits during the Longhorns' run to Omaha last year.
Jones will get every opportunity to keep the spot, but Clemens isn't a bad backup option. And, of course, the Cantu-Barrera duo could also see some time at first with Jones or someone else getting reps at DH. Look for several combinations in the weeks leading up to conference play as the coaches look to find the right mix. Unlike most years, though, the issue on offense heading into the season looks to be too many competent bats, rather than too few. It's nice to have the good kind of problem for a change.
The Big Picture
The hoped-for increase in offense goes well beyond the friendly confines of UFCU Disch-Falk Park this year. We have alluded before to the fact that he NCAA has approved a new ball, with lower seams than the one used through 2014. The linked ESPN article has a pretty good rundown of the various options for baseballs, but the long and short of it is the new balls will be very similar to those used at the MLB level. Some prefer that the NCAA take the additional step of using a slightly harder core, which would mimic the balls used in Minor League Baseball. BUt the whole issue arises because of the new bats introduced to the college game in 2011, which--for good reason--were brought on to improve player safety.
The problem, as ever with a foolish organization like the NCAA, is one of over-correction. It's clear the old bat/ball combination was not tenable, both because line drives up the middle were unquestionably dangerous to pitchers and because there's a limit to how many runs can be scored while still resembling baseball. But the new bats combined with relatively dead baseballs meant offensive production was worse than if colleges simply used wood bats from 2011-2014.
As the linked article notes, one of the old balls hit at typical home run trajectory with the current bats flied 367 feet, whereas the new ball flies 387 feet. That's the difference between warning-track power and a home run. Whether it will be enough obviously remains to be seen; but this is a good year for Texas to have more talent in the lineup than ever before.
The question, as posed in the comments to Part I of this preview by BWG, is whether the new ball will affect Augie Garrido's affinity for bunting. He hasn't made any public statements indicating one way or another, but the guess here is that it will not. He liked bunting during the pre-2011 years as well, and his commitment to small ball--designed to put pressure on opposing defenses and use the Longhorns' speed--is unlikely to vanish due to the baseball having lower seams.
The one small way I can see Garrido's strategy being affected is on which personnel he asks to bunt. In the past, it hasn't mattered who the player is; a Texas cleanup hitter needed to be as consistent bunting the ball as the number nine guy. Perhaps this year, with a more aerodynamic baseball, guys like Barrera and Johnson will be allowed to swing away with guys on base more often. The modern conventional baseball wisdom demands this minor shift in strategy. But don't hold your breath.