The legacy of the Texas Longhorns baseball brand has built itself on phenomenal pitching over the years. This year should be no different, as the ‘Horns return an ace starter in Nolan Kingham, who was named to the USA Golden Spikes award preseason watch list (an award given to the best amateur baseball player).
However, the ‘Horns do have some serious question marks on the mound this year. Replacing Morgan Cooper, who was a second round MLB draft pick to the Dodgers in 2017, will be extremely difficult, not to mention the four other underclassmen ‘Horns pitchers who went to the pros rather than returning to school.
Texas took another big blow to its pitching depth after news this fall that Donny Diaz will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery. Diaz was a JUCO product and MLB prospect who would almost certainly be Texas’ closer this season.
Still, Texas has some valuable additions this season of both the freshman and JUCO variety, as well as enough reliable returning faces to hold down the fort. Texas pitchers should be set for another strong year.
Below is my prediction for this season’s rotation. Note that like in my position player preview, this projection could end up being entirely wrong.
Friday — Nolan Kingham, Jr.
2017 Stats: 10-4 W/L, 2.84 ERA, 92.0 IP
Texas fans should be thankful Nolan Kingham isn’t three months older. The Las Vegas native would’ve been eligible for the MLB Draft last season if he was, and would’ve been in high-demand from MLB franchises.
Thankfully, Kingham has returned to the 40 Acres for a (likely) final season where he will headline this pitching group as a Friday starter. Kingham was the No. 56 prospect in the nation out of high school, but had his collegiate breakout as a sophomore last season. He posted a 10-4 record and a 2.84 ERA in a team-high 92.0 innings pitched in 2017. If Kingham can replicate those numbers this year, he’ll be one of the best pitchers in the Big 12. If he can improve them, he’ll be one of the best in the nation.
Saturday — Chase Shugart, Jr.
2017 Stats: 3-2 W/L, 3.43 ERA, 42.0 IP
For me, Chase Shugart will be the most interesting pitcher to watch this season. The junior has never started a game in his 61 career appearances, but will begin the season in the weekend rotation. Shugart is notorious for his high heat that can sometimes get wild — he threw 22 walks in his 42.0 innings pitched in 2017.
However, all in all, Shugart put together a nice season in 2017. He closed the year with two excellent performances against Long Beach State in the NCAA tournament in which he threw for five strikeouts, four hits, one walk, and no runs in 5.2 innings pitched. Shugart carried this strong play into the Alumni game on February 3, striking out three, allowing two hits, and walking none in two innings pitched.
Sunday — Blair Henley, So.
2017 Stats: 4-5 W/L, 4.23 ERA, 61.2 IP
Blair Henley was a weekend starter as a freshman in Texas’ first series of the season in 2017, so the sophomore will not be new the role. Henley’s freshman campaign was at times tumultuous, such as when he surrendered five runs to Louisiana-Lafayette in 1.1 innings (the ‘Horns host UL-Lafayette this weekend to kick of the season). However, he still had some excellent performances, such as an eight inning game against Stanford in which he allowed only two runs.
Hopefully Henley can settle into his role as a dependable, consistent weekend starter this season. Henley will be draft eligible after this year, so a solid sophomore season could vault him to the pros.
Mid-Week - Nico O’Donnell, Fr.
2017 Stats: N/A
Nico O’Donnell is poised to be Texas’ key freshman pitcher, despite being a late addition to the 2017 recruiting class. The 6’3 righty can hit the low 90s with his fastball and has impressed David Pierce this fall and spring.
O’Donnell wasn’t a top prospect out of high school, but was a late bloomer who drew attention from other major programs. O’Donnell earned a 1.12 ERA and notched 113 strikeouts in 52.0 innings pitched his senior season at Churchill high school in San Antonio.
Right-Handed Reliever - Matteo Bocchi, Jr.
2017 Stats: 6-4, 4.23 ERA, 61.2 IP (JUCO)
Matteo Bocchi has one of the most unique backgrounds of any player on the roster, as the righty JUCO product originally hails from Parma, Italy. When Bocchi committed to the ‘Horns in 2016, he was an extremely raw prospect, as he had only a 6.15 ERA his freshman season at Odessa. However, in his sophomore year for the Wranglers, Bocchi made great strides and cut his ERA to 4.23 in nearly double the game action.
The “Italian Stallion”, who played in the 2008 Little League World Series, was named as one of baseball’s top 150 JUCO transfers by Perfect Game. The 6’4, 205 pounder is bursting with potential, and could serve as a midweek starter or key reliever this season.
Right-Handed Reliever - Bryce Elder, Fr.
2017 Stats: N/A
Another late commitment to the 2017 class, Elder was a late bloomer and flew under the radar for much of his high school career. However, by his senior year, Elder gained velocity on a fastball that now touches the low 90s. He capped off high school career at Decatur High School with two straight no-hit starts in the playoffs.
In the Alumni game, Elder threw for two scoreless innings. Look for him to be one of Texas’ most trusted relievers if not a midweek starter in 2018.
Right-Handed Reliever - Parker Joe Robinson, Rs. Jr.
2017 Stats: 1.93 ERA, 9.1 IP
Parker Joe Robinson may have honed a 1.93 ERA last season, but the Cota de Caza, California native is far from a known commodity. Robinson pitched in only 9.1 innings in seven appearances, and threw for two innings or more only twice. Robinson’s best game came against the best competition he faced in TCU, as he allowed only one hit and no runs against the Horned Frogs in three innings.
Robinson was ranked as the No. 355 prospect overall out of high school, and showed that potential in 2017 by holding his own against good competition. Now, he will have to progress even further and be a guy the ‘Horns can call upon for consistent relief this year.
Left-Handed Reliever - Josh Sawyer, Rs. Jr.
2017 Stats: N/A
Over the course of his career, Sawyer’s role on the team has been anywhere from starting 11 games in 2015, to not being listed on the roster at all in 2017 due to suffering a hip injury. But just when it looked like Sawyer’s career was over due to injuries, the redshirt junior is back and in position to get playing time for Texas. As one of only three lefty pitchers for the ‘Horns, Sawyer will be called upon as a valuable south paw asset.
If he can return to the form he was at in 2015, Sawyer could even serve as a starter for the ‘Horns this year.
Left-Handed Reliever - Brandon Ivey, Jr.
2017 Stats: 2-5 W/L, 3.99 ERA, 38.1 IP
A 2-5 record at Navarro College may not be the most promising stat line, but Brandon Ivey could prove to be a second key lefty arm for the ‘Horns. Ivey threw for a solid 3.99 ERA at Navarro his sophomore season, but his most promising stat was that he notched 37 strikeouts in 38.1 innings pitched.
With a fast ball in the high 80s, look for Ivey to be a dependable lefty option out of the bullpen this year for Texas.
Closer - Beau Ridgeway, Jr.
2017 Stats: 1.89 ERA, 12 saves, 52.1 IP
Beau Ridgeway was one of Texas’ most valuable players in 2017, and will be a key for the ‘Horns yet again this season. The junior made 37 appearances in relief last season — fourth in all of D-1. Ridgeway doesn’t have unbelievable velocity from the mound, but makes up for it with excellent command. Opponents hit just .186 against Ridgeway last season, and Ridgeway struck out 40 in 52.1 innings pitched.
If Donny Diaz was healthy, Ridgeway could move to a set-up or even starter role. However, with Diaz sidelined for the year, Ridgeway will continue to serve as the ‘Horns’ trusted stopper.
This list is far from complete, as David Pierce will have a plethora of arms to choose from to fill out his bullpen in 2018. JUCO transfers such as Chris Fearon could emerge as valuable arms, freshmen such as Kamron Fields could get some work, and under-the-radar guys with big arms like Bryce Verplank will also get their chance.
The ‘Horns don’t have a ton of proven options on the mound, but they do have a lot of options to choose from. A pitching guru like Pierce should be able to build a really solid group with the players he has available to utilize and develop.
Up next in BON’s baseball preseason coverage will be a look at Texas’ schedule this season. You can check out our preview coverage by clicking these links:
The baseball season begins in two days, as Texas will host UL-Lafayette on Friday at 6:30 pm CST.