Back to the Future Part IV (Pitching)
Some might be wondering why I'm so high on this ballclub given the losses sustained in the draft. Simply put: it's the pitching. We've talked about the talented returnees and freshman in the field, but Dan Hartleb's club is particularly rich in both returnees and newcomers on the mound.
How pitching rich is Dan Hartleb's club. Check out this tweet:
Almost the entire pitching staff is back from last year and we've added a top-25 recruiting class.
?? 98% of starts
?? 97% of wins
?? 91% of innings
Pitching preview ?? pic.twitter.com/pfHKQ3xlS6
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) February 12, 2019
Let's start, obviously, with the starters. The Illini 9 return all three conference starters from a year ago and two of them -- No. 1 Quinn Snarskis (Sr. RHP) and No. 2 Andy Fisher (Sr. LHP) -- figure to hold down those spots again.
Let's start with Snarskis, who we last saw dealing an absolute gem against Indiana on the opening night of the Big 10 tournament.
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 24, 2018
Snarskis, you may recall, transferred in last year after his original school, Division II St. Joseph's College of Rensselaer, Ind., closed. It didn't just fold the baseball program -- the college, sadly, ceased to exist. It would have been magical had Snarskis been just one of the 10 arms pitching coach Drew Dickinson turned to on a regular basis, but to become a Big 10 team's Game 1 conference starter (and post a 6-1 mark with a 2.84 ERA to boot) is darn-near storybook.
Snarskis changes speeds with and employs a variety of arm angles to keep hitters from getting anywhere near comfortable in the batter's box. Fisher provides much of the same, save for doing so from the left side.
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 18, 2018
Fisher's story is almost as fanciful as Snarskis'. After two seasons at Eastern Illinois University, where posted an ERA north of 6.00 in 95 innings as a freshman and sophomore, he transfers to Illinois and sits out a year. When he is eligible, he leads the team in innings pitched and strikeouts while posting a 6-3 record with a 3.96 ERA.
"They're both great kids, great students and great competitors," Hartleb said. "They take care of business on and off the field. Their lives are in order and when you do that, it allows you to compete with a type of calm that they both possess."
Jr. RHP Ty Weber has been a conference starter since he set foot on campus. Last year, the Wisconsin native occupied the No. 3 spot for the Illini all season and pitched very well, going 4-3 with a 3.84 ERA and the second-most innings pitched on the team with 82.
Two straight 1-2-3 innings for @Ty_Weber7.
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 13, 2018
Despite those numbers, Hartleb isn't guaranteeing Weber the Sunday slot. Once again, he sees competition as a healthy thing for this ballclub.
"Ty's thing has always been being down in the zone consistently," Hartleb said. "But he's worked hard this off-season to make some changes and developed a slider to with his curveball."
Among the others that Hartleb sees as in the mix for the No. 3 spot includes Jr. RHP Cyrillo Watson, Sr. R-Sr. RHP Sean Leland and Fr. RHP Aidan Maldonado. On Wednesday, it was announced that Watson will get first crack at holding down the Sunday spot in the rotation by taking the mound against Sacred Heart.
"Cyrillo (Watson) has, arguably, the best stuff on the team with four legit pitches," Hartleb said. "But sometimes in the past, he almost over-competed, wanted to do so much that he would get away from pitching and just be throwing out there."
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 17, 2018
The junior from the Milwaukee suburbs has seens his fastball climb to as high as 94 mph and backs it up with a slider that spins upward of 2800 rpms. Only 13 MLB pitchers had sliders last year with bite like that on average.
Leland, like Watson, appears to have achieved a better mindset entering his final season as well. Leland was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American at Louisville in 2015 after posting a 2.05 ERA in 40 innings for the Cardinals. But he was limited to eight innings in 2016 and decided to transfer home to Illinois.
In his first year in orange and blue, the Orland Park native made 12 appearances, but posted a 10.22 ERA in just 12.1 innings. Leland, however, enjoyed a great summer with the Madison Mallards, the Northwoods League's premier franchise.
After allowing one run over six innings and striking out seven in his last outing, @LeLANDB4Time_'s season ERA is down to 3.40 in the Northwoods League.
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) July 23, 2018
"He's finally healthy and in a good frame of mind," Hartleb said. "He's got good stuff and I like where he's at right now."
The wild card in the rotation figures to be Maldonado. The Minnesota native has an electric arm that pumps his fastball up to 96 mph and a curveball that is wicked. Perfect Game ranks him as the No. 47 freshman in the country and both D1baseball.com and Baseball America rank him as a top-five freshman in the Big 10.
?? VIDEO SPOTLIGHT ??
-- Prep Baseball Report (@prepbaseball) September 21, 2018
"We've head some highly touted guys, but not with the velo and the shape on the breaking ball that Aidan has," Hartleb said. "He still needs to learn to pitch and stay calm in tough situations and we've seen him improve on that already in a short period of time."
Most rotations are only four deep counting mid-week starters, however, so two of these arms are going to add depth to an already deep bullpen.
Ryan Thompson returns after making the second-most appearances out of the bullpen and posting team bests in wins (eight) and ERA (2.72). Thompson was particularly tough to hit with runners on-base, when he limited opponents to a .181 batting average. The Minnesotan features a nasty cutter that spins at 2,375 rpm according to Illini statistics savant Charlie Young.
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 18, 2018
Thompson figures to partner with junior-college transfer Garrett Acton (RHP/Parkland College) to give the Illini a formidable closing duo. Acton led Parkland to a runner-up finish at the NJCAA D2 World Series by going 2-3 with four saves and 44 strikeouts in 32 innings.
"Acton has great ability to throw strikes," Hartleb said. "His fastball has been 93-96 and the breaking ball is very good as well."
And, to paraphrase Hartleb, there's still plenty of ponies in the stable - a lot of whom are left-handed.
Soph. LHP Jimmy Burnette has seen his velocity climb to 90-93 now that he's focused solely on pitching.
"(His arm action ) is so easy," Hartleb said. "He's been a bit of a project because the control has to be there."
Nathan Lavender also figures to see time out of the bullpen. The Fr. LHP from Hudson was ranked as a top 30 left-hander nationally by Prep Baseball Report. He earned one of the starts against the Aruban National Team on the squad's Thanksgiving trip to the Caribbean and struck out six in three innings of work.
Keeping the southpaw line going will be junior-college transfer Josh Harris (Kankakee Community College). Harris, a 26-year old former Marine, has three years of eligibility remaining and was 87-89 mph last year while striking out nearly two batters per inning for the Cavaliers.
"(Pitching coach Drew Dickinson) has done a good job with Josh," Hartleb said.
The Fighting Illini will travel to Winston-Salem, N.C. this weekend to face Georgetown, Sacred Heart and the host, Wake Forest, who enters the season ranked No. 20 overall.
The season will start with Georgetown at 11 a.m. Friday. The Illini figure to see Georgetown's No. 1, Jr. LHP Brent Killam, who earned pre-season unanimous all-Big East honors after going 6-4 with a 3.06 ERA and 97 strikeouts for the Hoyas.
On Saturday, at 3 p.m., Hartleb's squad will take on the host Demon Deacons, who enter the season ranked in the pre-season Top 25 for the first time since 2003. Wake Forest returns eight of its nine starters from last year's team that went 25-32 overall and 13-17 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They also return two conference arms in Jr. RHS Colin Peluse (6-2, 3.87) or Morgan McSweeney (2-6, 4.44). Illinois figures to see one of those two hurlers on Saturday.
The weekend wraps up with a 9 a.m. start on Sunday against Sacred Heart University. The Pioneers were picked to finish fifth in the Northeast Conference a year after going 17-35 overall.