What are the best Texas baseball teams of the last decade? The 2005 team won a title, 2009 and 2014 nearly did, and 2011 made the CWS. What did all of those teams have in common? Talented and deep pitching.
The 2014 squad had three weekend starters with an ERA under 2.50, six pitchers who threw 50+ innings, and three relievers with ERAs under 2.00. Last year the Horns had no regular starter with an ERA under 2.50, only three pitchers above 50 innings, and one reliever under 2.00.
Sure the ball changed before the 2015 season, but the biggest issue for Texas last year were the losses of Nathan Thornhill, Dillon Peters and Morgan Cooper, as well as Chad Hollingsworth's shoulder injury, which eventually forced him to retire from the game. Texas spent most of the season getting solid production from Parker French, good relief from Kirby Bellow, and not much else reliably.
However, Texas did something toward the end of the 2015 season that could pay huge dividends for 2016 -- it started freshmen Kyle Johnston and Connor Mayes. Johnston has stuff that has rarely been seen on the 40 Acres, but his problem in 2015 was all about control. Johnston walked a team-leading 27 batters in just over 40 innings while striking out 41. When he wasn't giving out free bags, however, Johnston was nearly unhittable, to the tune of a 2.21 ERA and .170 opponent's batting average.
Mayes, on the other hand, wasn't flashy but he did just about everything well as a freshman. He averaged a solid 7 strikeouts per 9 innings, .231 opponent batting average, and even threw a complete-game two-hitter against Baylor.
Johnston and Mayes should give Texas a very strong Friday-Saturday starting rotation, and head coach Augie Garrido will have lots of choices for the Sunday starter and the rest of his bullpen. Texas should be improved in 2016, but just how much better the Horns get largely depends on whether the pitching is good, great or amazing.
Five arms in particular jump out, though we'll know more within the season's first few weeks.
- Morgan Cooper -- The redshirt sophomore was last seen throwing 4.2 innings of terrific release against Vanderbilt in the 2014 CWS. Cooper struck out 41, walked just 9 and held opponents to a .247 batting average in 56 innings as a freshman before surgery last summer derailed his 2015 season. Cooper would easily be a weekend starter if it weren't for his injury, but for now he's a young pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery. Cooper's back now and could take the Sunday starting spot he would've had last year if not for injury or may go the John Curtiss closer route. Ultimately, his role will largely be determined by his post-surgery stamina later into games.
- Nolan Kingham -- Considered "one of the better raw talents in the freshman class", Kingham was a potential 1st-round pick that slipped into the 39th round thanks to signability concerns. I can't think of the last time that Augie started a freshman the first weekend of the season, but Kingham is as good a candidate as any to do so.
- Chase Shugart -- The annual Orange-White Fall World Series wasn't available for viewing, but perhaps no player stood out more than Shugart. He was named MVP after pitching three innings in Game Two and going 4-4 in Game Three. Overall he was 6-10 at the plate in addition to his three solid innings. Texas could use Shugart in a bullpen/closer role in order to take advantage of his apparent acumen at the plate. If there's a young player who screams "Texas fans are going to irrationally love this guy" it's Shugart.
- Ty Culbreth -- The senior didn't see a ton of action in 2015 until thrust into the starter role toward the end of the year. Culbreth was mediocre in a tough spot before pitching a crucial complete game against Baylor in the Big 12 tournament. Culbreth strikes out a fair number of hitters and doesn't walk a ton which is basically all you want from a Sunday starter.
- Josh Sawyer -- A career Tuesday starter, Sawyer will likely see extended action on the mound during the season and perhaps this is the year that he puts it all together. Sawyer threw four no-hit innings (6 Ks) during the Alumni Game (followed by four scoreless innings by Culbreth). Sawyer has appeared in 20 games (11 starts) in two years at Texas and I'm not sure I can recall a single memorable moment. Perhaps I'm getting old or perhaps he's due for a big role on the 2016 Horns.
The Texas bullpen and Tuesday starter will likely come from a plethora of both new names and players we already know. In addition, Parker Joe Robinson, Beau Ridgeway and Jake McKenzie could contribute to a relatively deep stable of talented arms.
It's hard to say how the 2016 Longhorns will perform, but the good news is that this team appears to be deeper and more talented than last year's squad. A deep, talented pitching staff isn't the only ingredient for a successful season at Texas, but under Augie Garrido it has been present every time the Horns have made a run.