Last season, the star power of Kody Clemens helped carry the Texas Longhorns on an improbable run to the College World Series that was ended quickly and decisively by two powerhouse SEC programs with more talent.
By all accounts, the Longhorns overachieved in head coach David Pierce’s second season, though that didn’t keep expectations from rising in the fanbase, a situation aided by a strong start to the season and a rise up the polls after a thrilling sweep of LSU in Austin.
And then the cracks started showing — the offense has struggled with two of its most important players sidelined by injury and the pitching staff has had issues throwing strikes. Defensively, the Horns have had trouble fielding, especially as the catching situation has fallen apart.
Following a brutal month of March, Texas was expected to take advantage of an easier schedule, but the schedule has proven more difficult than anticipated, resulting in the Longhorns failing to win each of the last four conference series. Weather wiped out a 6-0 lead during the Sunday game to force a split in Waco several weeks ago and things have gone downhill since then.
A three-game sweep in Stillwater, including two blowouts and disheartening blown leads against Oklahoma State dropped Texas to 5-9 in conference play. Pierce’s team now sits eighth in the Big 12 standings as those five wins match the five wins by Kansas State (seventh) and Kansas (ninth).
So, what happened and what does it mean moving forward? The most simple and most compelling explanation is that two preseason injuries helped reveal a lack of program depth that has contributed to those issues with fundamentals like executing on offense, fielding on defense, and throwing strikes. So when Pierce vowed to make changes after the Kansas State series loss, he was left with few options beyond making himself the third base coach and changing his Sunday starter.
The loss of junior shortstop David Hamilton to an Achilles injury suffered on a scooter before the season was the most significant.
Hamilton was a catalyst for the offense with 31 stolen bases last season, only eight fewer than the Horns have currently — in that regard, he was simply irreplaceable. In steals, junior center fielder Duke Ellis leads the Longhorns with 11 this season, but for a team that seriously lacks power, the loss of its best table setter is significant.
And that’s without mentioning the fact that Hamilton’s slugging percentage jumped from .292 as a freshman to .445 as a sophomore as his batting average improved by 73 points to .291. After failing to hit a home run in his first season at Texas, Hamilton hit five as a sophomore.
Of course, a further improvement by Hamilton was never a guarantee, but even producing at the same level would slot him as the team’s best hitter, greatest threat on the base paths, and the second-best slugger. His loss impacted the entire lineup, as Ellis hasn’t fared well as the replacement atop the order, with his average dropping from .289 to .252, the type of decline that an offensively-challenged lineup simply can’t afford.
Not to mention the fact that Hamilton was an exceptional shortstop who only made 11 errors last season compared to 15 total from Masen Hibbeler and Bryce Reagan this season. Overall, the defense has suffered this year across the board, with the team’s fielding percentage down from .978 to .966. Texas has already committed as many errors as it did last season.
The other injury, which resulted in shoulder surgery for senior catcher DJ Petrinsky, had a similar domino effect on the team’s offense and defense.
What did Texas lose with the exchange between Petrinsky and Michael McCann? Petrinsky finished third on the team in home runs last season with nine and third among qualifying players with a .452 slugging percentage. He hit .257 as he adjusted from playing at Hill College, where he displayed enough power to land in Austin as the type of instant-impact player the program desperately needed.
In other words, Petrinsky was the second-best returning hitter this season in terms of power, but his shoulder injury forced him to first base for 11 games before his season-ending surgery.
Petrinsky’s injury forced McCann into the role of starting catcher. In 2017, McCann was a solid player and a feel-good story after returning to the program following a year away from baseball, but last season he settled into a role as the backup catcher, starting 13 games and hitting .265. He was in the perfect position for his ability level.
As a full-time starter this season, McCann’s production has cratered — he’s only hitting .221, perhaps in part because his backup, freshman Caston Peter, recently suffered a finger injury that forced Texas to bring back redshirt freshman Turner Gauntt, who was cut from the team before the season.
Due to the pressure to play in virtually every game and some bad luck, McCann has taken an unholy beating, getting hit by five pitches this season, missing several games due to a groin injury incurred on a foul ball, and suffering other assorted blows like recently taking another foul ball under his chin. When that happened, the only recourse for McCann was to shake it off and keep on playing, essentially a microcosm of his season.
The beating might explain why he’s not as sharp behind the plate and struggling to reduce wild pitches and passed balls, a huge problem against Oklahoma State, for instance, when his issues resulted in five passed balls. On the season, he has 14 total, twice as many as Petrinsky allowed last year.
The wildness and ineffectiveness of the Texas pitching staff is less easy to understand, as the team’s ERA is now up to 4.23 overall and 5.74 in conference play — given the out-of-conference schedule played by the Horns, that’s a bit surprising.
Wild pitches and hit batters are a big problem. Longhorns pitchers have thrown 53 wild pitches compared to 29 for opponents, while hitting 45 batters compared to 28 by opponents. Last season, those numbers were roughly even for Texas and its opponents.
For this staff, wild pitches are a particular problem for stopper Kamron Fields, who throws with a lot of sink on all of his pitches, putting a premium on his own control and the ability of the catcher to make stops behind the plate. Neither has happened often enough, as Fields leads the team with 12 wild pitches in 15 appearances. He also has 28 strikeouts in 20.2 innings.
All of the wild pitches and passed balls result in runners consistently moving up, compounding any previous mistakes like walks or hits allowed. During the 15-0 defeat by the Cowboys on Thursday to open the series in Stillwater, Oklahoma State scored four runs on wild pitches or passed balls.
The pitchers haven’t gotten much help from McCann throwing out baserunners, either. Last season, Petrinsky threw out the baserunner on 26 of 35 attempted steals, while McCann was abysmal in that category, throwing out only two of 18 attempted steals. So it’s actually an improvement that the senior is now up to over 50 percent in that category, but opponents have run on McCann as many times this season already as they did against Petrinsky all of last season — the injured junior college transfer was clearly a deterrent behind the plate and a much better catcher overall than McCann.
Some bad luck injury luck on the pitching front hasn’t helped, either.
Take key reliever Cole Quintanilla, for instance — he posted a 0.65 ERA as a junior in high school at Cedar Park, then committed to Texas. At the start of his senior year, he underwent Tommy John surgery and redshirted last season as a result. Now he’s trying to get all of his velocity back while getting used to pitching again as a redshirt freshman.
When Pierce added some late help to the 2018 signing class in late 2016, he landed promising junior college transfer Tristan Stevens. Then Stevens underwent Tommy John surgery months later, slowing down a baseball career that made a promising jump out of high school.
So did fellow junior college transfer Donny Diaz, who could have gone pro when he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox out of San Jacinto in 2017. Diaz is still working his way back, too, especially in terms of his velocity.
For a young pitching staff that lost so many key contributors from last year’s team, Texas isn’t getting everything out of those pitchers it might have otherwise, the type of small cracks that can have a big impact for a program still rebuilding after the Augie Garrido era.
In attempting to put the recent struggles into further perspective, it’s worth looking back on last season’s group, which included high-level contributions from Andy McGuire and Parker Joe Robinson.
Somewhat like McCann, McGuire was a reclamation project, except as a former top recruit who left the program and then eventually returned to post a 1.93 ERA and seven saves in his final season at Texas.
Robinson was completely a product of this coaching staff — Pierce saw nothing special in Robinson when he arrived and considered removing him from scholarship. Before doing that, however, Pierce and volunteer pitching coach Phil Haig asked Robinson to try lowering his arm slot. It worked, as Robinson led the team with a 1.71 ERA and became a clutch performer in key moments, even ending up with an unexpected professional baseball career as a result.
This season, the staff made a similar change with Italian-born junior college transfer Matteo Bocchi, the hero of last year’s clinching Super Regional game against Tennessee Tech. Bocchi was solid transitioning from Odessa College with a 3.05 ERA, but now he leads the team with a 1.75 ERA and .99 WHIP, down from 1.44 last season, thanks to his lowered arm slot that increased the movement on his pitches.
The story of Friday starter Bryce Elder is a little bit different — he was bound for Howard Junior College after his senior season, but used a Texas commit to help him contact the Longhorns coaches to have them come watch an all-star game he made only because it was coached by his high school coach.
Assistant Phillip Miller liked what he saw enough to offer Elder and bring him to Austin. In conference play, Elder is struggling a little bit, but he still went from a prospect not recruited by Division I programs to starting on Friday nights for his dream school.
Those type of success stories have earned Pierce and Haig some respect from national observers, including Kendall Rogers, the co-managing editor of D1Baseball.com:
It’s also time folks start talking about how good of a pitching coach Phil Haig is. He’s done some impressive things. https://t.co/yrdXixTvyq— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogers) March 17, 2019
As for concerns about hitting, Texas certainly does have issues there with an abysmal .238 batting average, largely due to the disappointing lack of growth from veterans like Zach Zubia and Ryan Reynolds and the injuries to Hamilton and Petrinsky, two of the team’s top returning hitters.
There are promising young players like freshmen Eric Kennedy and Lance Ford, who lead the team in batting average and showcase Pierce’s vision for a future with more speed. Both were members of Pierce’s first full recruiting class.
Texas has help coming next season, too, with Petrinsky scheduled to return to supplement the three catchers in the recruiting class. There’s some hope that Lake Travis star Bret Baty will opt for college baseball and provide the team with the pure hitter it so desperately needs. The rest of the class features some strong athletes who also excelled at football and two-way players who could contribute on the mound, in the field, or both.
The program clearly doesn’t feature enough talented depth right now and needs to get older on the mound and much better at the plate. Given that Pierce’s first full recruiting class is only now in the midst of its first season on campus, that lends some perspective to just how long rebuilding takes on college baseball — the first group of freshmen that Pierce coached two years ago signed to play for Augie Garrido in 2015.
So as magical as last year’s run to Omaha was, the 2019 season has showcased the reality that Pierce is still shaping this program in his image. Promising signs beyond the narrow scope of making the College World Series in 2018 are evident even as the true measure of Pierce’s ability to turn the program around will come when he’s had time to coach more of his own recruits for multiple years.