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Texas Longhorns baseball’s hitting could take step forward in 2018

The ‘Horns hit for a dismal .252 team batting average in 2017, but new additions to the program could help Texas have more success this season.

COLLEGE BASEBALL: FEB 25 UConn at Texas Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m a little embarrassed that in my preview of Texas Longhorns baseball position players from a season ago, I titled my piece, “Hitting could finally become Texas baseball’s strength in 2017.” As any Texas baseball fan will tell you, that didn’t happen. Sure, Texas hit an impressive 52 homers with help from the new, brought in fences of Disch-Falk Field, but the team also hit for a .252 average, down from an already bad .268 average in 2016.

The reason I thought Texas would be a good hitting team in 2017 was because the ‘Horns were returning several key players. The reason I’m cautiously optimistic Texas actually will be a decent hitting team in 2018 is because of the new faces.

For the first time in several years, the ‘Horns likely won’t start a freshman position player on Opening Day. However, JUCO transfers Masen Hibbeler, Duke Ellis, and DJ Petrinsky could all find their names on the lineup, as well as redshirt freshman Zach Zubia. All of these guys dominated at the plate at the previous level, and though that level is admittedly against lower competition than Division 1, I believe some of that success will translate to the 40 Acres.

Additionally, the ‘Horns are hoping to get not sophomore slumps, but sophomore break throughs out of David Hamilton, Ryan Reynolds, and Austin Todd. Those guys started so many games as freshmen largely because of their gloves, but all three have shown promise at the plate as well.

Finally, the ‘Horns will be counting on some upperclass leadership from Kody Clemens, Tate Shaw, and Michael McCann. Clemens especially will be relied upon to be a key player for this Longhorns team. He’s shown flashes of potential on both offense and defense in his career thus far. Now it’s time for him to consistently deliver.

Below is my prediction for Texas’ Opening Day lineup, with a blurb for each player. Note that while most of the starters should be correct, my prediction for batting order is almost surely wrong.

1. Masen Hibbeler, 2B (Jr.)

2017 Stats: .493 average, .561 OBP, 10 homers (JUCO).

Masen Hibbeler has been signed to the ‘Horns since November 2016, so there’s no doubt he’s chomping at the bit to officially dawn burnt orange and start this season. In the time since Hibbeler has committed to Texas, he has blown up as a prospect. The junior increased his freshman batting average at Odessa College from .312 as a freshman to a remarkable .493 as a junior.

Hibbeler will be one of Texas’ most well-rounded players as he can do much more than just hit. The junior also stole 14 bases at Odessa last season, and is heralded for his glove on defense. Expect him to start from day one for the ‘Horns.

2. Duke Ellis, CF (So.)

2017 Stats: .415 average, .491 OBP, four homers (JUCO).

Starting the lineup with two JUCO transfers might seem questionable, but like Hibbeler, Duke Ellis is the real deal. The left-handed hitter was selected in the 20th round of the MLB Draft in 2017 after a remarkable freshman season at Panola Junior College. Ellis hit for a .415 average and hit four homers. His elite speed is apparent on the box score, as Ellis notched 17 doubles, five triples, and stole 21 bases. Perhaps the most important stat is that Ellis struck out only 16 times in 197 at-bats. His ability to simply put the ball in play could be huge for a Texas team that struck out in over 23% of at-bats last season.

Ellis will be one of the best athletes on the field for the ‘Horns, and I expect him to be an impact player early so long as he can adjust to the Division 1 level.

3. Kody Clemens, 3B (Jr.)

2017 Stats: .241 average, .356 OBP, five home runs.

Now the lone Clemens brother on the Texas roster, Kody will have a tough act to follow in trying to replicate Kacy’s collegiate success. Thus far in his career, Kody has had some clutch moments for the ‘Horns in his own right, but he hasn’t been a consistent force at the plate.

Kody had a promising freshman campaign, hitting .242 with five homers as a regular starter, but stagnated his sophomore season. In fact, Kody performed nearly identically in 2017 as he did in 2016, hitting .241 with five homers.

Worrisome is the fact that Kody finished 2017 hitting 1-19 in his final seven games, but he also had some very nice stretches where he looked like one of the ‘Horns’ best hitters. Kody has the tools to be an elite player, and is one of the most powerful hitters of the returning players. Hopefully this is the year where it really comes together for him.

4. Zach Zubia, DH (Rs. Fr.)

2017 Stats: N/A

Despite redshirting his freshman season due to transfer rules, Zach Zubia came to the attention of Texas baseball fans this summer when he had a historic season in the Northwoods summer league. The former Tulane commit hit a league record 22 homers — in a wood bat league, no less — en route to earning league MVP honors. The 6’4, 240-pounder could help the ‘Horns replace some of the power in the lineup that they lost with the departures of Kacy Clemens and Patrick Mathis.

Look for Zubia to DH and possibly play some first base this season for the ‘Horns.

5. DJ Petrinsky, C (Jr.)

2017 Stats: .358 average, 12 home runs (JUCO).

Though former starting catcher Michael Cantu has left the program, Texas should be in good shape at the catcher position with DJ Petrinsky and Michael McCann (who is discussed later in this article). The two players could very well split time at the position in 2018, but I expect Petrinsky to get the nod on Opening Day due to his hitting abilities. After all, Petrinsky broke open the scoring in the alumni game earlier this month with a solo shot.

The former Alabama commit earned a .358 average and hit 12 homers last season at Hill College. He did even better as a freshman at Hill, hitting .390 and again knocking 12 homers. Like Ellis, Petrinsky is adept at putting the ball in play, as he struck out only 25 times in 189 at-bats in 2017.

In JUCO Petrinsky had some issues on defense, as he allowed 12 passed balls in 2017, and 16 in 2016. If he struggles with that this season, then it’s possible McCann could earn some time at catcher, while Petrinsky may move to DH.

6. Ryan Reynolds, 1B (So.)

2017 Stats: .212 average, .346 OBP, five home runs.

Ryan Reynolds made an impression for the ‘Horns right when he got on campus, as he had a fantastic fall ball season as a freshman in 2016. He continued to dominate at the plate in the spring, going 3-4 in the 2017 alumni game.

This helped the Louisiana native land on Texas’ Opening Day lineup, and Reynolds was a mainstay in the meat of the order for much of the year. Though Reynolds showed off his power in the form of five long balls, he also really struggled at the plate at times. This is reflected in his .212 average, and team-high 64 strikeouts. I’m optimistic that this is a case of the numbers not reflecting Reynolds’ true potential, and I believe he could be a guy who could have a breakout sophomore season.

7. Austin Todd, RF (So.)

2017 Stats: .276 average, .359 OBP, seven doubles

Austin Todd has the best batting average of any returning player, as he was quietly one of Texas’ most consistent players last year highlighted by a 5-6 performance against TCU. He hit for a solid .276 average, a number that actually hovered around .300 for most of the year.

Though Todd finished the season 0-10 and was at times disappointing in NCAA tournament play, there’s no reason to believe he won’t have another successful season. He is yet another solid athlete in the Texas lineup, and should be a consistent force.

8. Tate Shaw, LF (Rs. Jr.)

2017 Stats: .239 average, .358 OBP, two home runs.

Tate Shaw, a walk on, unexpectedly became a solid contributor and occasional starter for the ‘Horns in 2017. With the departures of outfielders Patrick Mathis and Travis Jones to the MLB draft, Shaw will be called upon to be an even bigger factor for the ‘Horns in 2018.

Shaw is yet another Texas player who got off to a fantastic start at the plate, but tailed off at the end of the season. Shaw’s 2017 highlights included a 4-6 performance against Tech and 2-3 outing at the plate against K-State only two games later. However, he hit only 1-20 in his final 11 appearances of the season. That can’t happen in 2018, especially because Texas doesn’t have as much depth in the outfield this season.

9. David Hamilton, SS (So.)

2017 Stats: .218 average, .305 OBP, 11 doubles.

David Hamilton is much more known for his unbelievable glove at shortstop than his bat, but there’s reason to believe that the sophomore could be more than just a threat in the infield. The former MLB draft pick may have only finished his freshman season hitting .218, but he actually progressed as the season went on, including a stretch in May where he hit 10-22.

When Hamilton does reach base, he is instantly a threat to take more, as he had a tied for team best 14 steals in 2017.

If Hamilton can take a big stride at the plate this season, he will be an amazing leadoff guy. If not, he could still be an athletic presence at the bottom of the lineup.

Other key contributors

Last season, the ‘Horns had 13 players who recorded 20 or more at-bats. I believe that this season, Texas could see perhaps 14 or 15 guys get that many plate appearances, as the ‘Horns have some very promising non-starters.

Michael McCann, C (Rs. Jr.)

2017 Stats: .268 average, .346 OBP, 112 at-bats.

After taking the year off in 2016, McCann unexpectedly supplanted Michael Cantu as the program’s most reliable catcher in 2017. McCann caught fire early in the season at the plate, and though that hot start waned a bit, he still finished the year fifth on the team in batting average at .268. Whether or not McCann can continue to be a key contributor for the ‘Horns remains to be seen, but its very possible he will notch several starts behind the plate this year.

Joe Baker, INF (Rs. Jr.)

2017 Stats: .250 average, 12 at-bats.

Joe Baker’s year was derailed due to injury in 2017, but the redshirt junior started 31 games as a redshirt freshman in 2016. In that season, Baker hit .245 and notched seven doubles and a homer. Though the infield is awfully crowded this year, expect Baker to see significant game action if he can stay healthy.

Kamron Fields, OF (Fr.)

2017 Stats: N/A

The first commitment David Pierce earned at Texas, Kamron Fields was also one of the most prized recruits of the 2017 class. The center fielder possesses power at the plate, but could be used more this season as a right-handed pitcher.

Bennett Inoff, INF (Fr.)

2017 Stats: N/A

Like Fields, Inoff is also a pitcher and could compete for some time as a reliever in addition to potentially third base.

Sam Bertelson, INF (Fr.)

2017 Stats: N/A

The Midland native earned playing time in Texas’ annual alumni game and could see some work at first base or DH.

Here’s to hoping that Texas baseball doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the offenses in football and basketball and provides some excitement for fans this season.

Next up will be a preview of Texas’ pitching tomorrow. Stay tuned.

The baseball season begins in three days, as the ‘Horns will host UL-Lafayette at 6:30 p.m. CT on Friday.