“Never met your heroes.”
Oddly enough, this is the adage that is resonating in my mind as I think about the 2018 BYU Baseball season.
The problem with meeting your heroes in general has nothing to do with the your hero. It has to do with expectations. Let me illustrate.
Perhaps you’ve met your celebrity crush. I’m going to venture a guess here and say that for a segment of the readership one of these celebrity crushes could very well be Bayside High’s Kelly Kapowski. I know this because I tweeted a gif of Tiffani Amber Theissen once and it cause of riot of followers clicking the heart button. Also, she’s Kelly Kapowski.
If the tremendous opportunity came to meet her. Here is what some might imagine would happen.
Here is what would actually happen.
You see, expectations. They were at fault. In no way could Tiffani Amber Theissen possible be to blame.
One of the most difficult things to do in life is live up to expectations.
This is my 3rd season to take on the coverage for BYU baseball at Vanquish The Foe. This the 1st time that BYU Baseball has the expectation of their sport.
The Cougars are back-to-back West Coast Conference Champions and coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance in 15 years. As such, the Bat Cats have been selected in the WCC preseason coaches poll as the #1 team in the league. It is the first time ever that BYU has been picked #1 by the WCC coaches.
There is good reason. BYU returns a lot of talent to this year’s roster.
Of the 10 field players on the preseason All-WCC baseball team, 3 of them are Cougars. Juniors Daniel Schneemann and Keaton Kringlen were selected, as was Senior Brennon Anderson.
Anderson, the 2nd baseman, was further selected as a preseason All-American. Anderson is always on-base and a menace when he is on them. Brennon scored 71 runs last season which was 3rd best nationally.
Somehow not selected was junior outfielder Brock Hale. All Brock did last season was lead the West Coast Conference in batting average (.395, 5th nationally), slugging (.672) and on-base percentage (.481) last season. I’m not sure if I was a WCC coach voting, I’d want to put a chip on Hale’s shoulder, but that is precisely what they have done. Here’s to looking forward to him clobbering the ball without mercy during league play.
The key for BYU during their rise under Mike Littlewood has been their offense. For the past 2 seasons, the Cougars have been in the top 10 nationally in team batting average. Quite simply, they have been able to put 9 batters into their lineup that provide a substantial challenge to opposing arms.
Last season’s typical 7-8-9 hitters of DC Clawson, Kyle Dean, and Nate Favero hit a combined hit a combined .297 with 18 homers and 97 runs batted in. All 3 players return.
However, they could take different roles in the batting up. The Y must replace the reliable bat of Tanner Chauncey, the clutch power bat of Bronson Larsen, and the bat of the man I dubbed “the Ute Killer” Colton Shaver. Shaver was drafted into the World Champion Houston Astros organization and opted to forgo his Senior season, while Larsen and Chauncey graduated finishing their collegiate careers.
There are a few candidates to step into a more prominent role.
There have been rumblings that perhaps Kyle Dean may serve as a DH while newcomer and junior college transfer from Southern Nevada Community College Jarrett Perns may serve in centerfield.
Perns hit .319 with a .381 on-base percentage and a whopping 20 stolen bases during his two seasons as a Coyote. Perns offers a crafty bat and a lot of pace on the base paths, while Dean provides more punch at the plate. If Mike Littlewood is looking to get more aggressive on the bases, or use Schneemann or Anderson in a different role in the batting lineup, Jarrett Perns allows for some flexibility. Or if Coach Littlewood is looking to get more range in the outfield, Perns may well find himself a key member of the 2018 squad.
My guess is that Nate Favero will likely serve most of his fielding time at 1st base, opening up a competition for time at 3rd base.
Freshly returned from his mission to Bakersfield, California, sophomore Paxton Larson is battling with junior Casey Jacobsen. Jacobsen saw limited time last season at the hot corner, he faced 46 defense opportunities, he had 3 errors for a fielding percentage of .935. Meanwhile, Larson as a freshman in 2015 had 41 fielding opportunities and cleanly handled all of them. They have hit virtually the same. Jacobsen has a little bit more experience, so I would guess he’d start on opening day. However, I expect both players to get a chance with the hotter bat getting more playing time.
The last spot for Littlewood to fill is DH. If Perns is playing, Dean will DH. If Dean is in the field, then the Bat Cats will look to Mackay Jacobsen or Brian Hsu. Brian Hsu contributed last season. He had 20 at-bats and recorded 8 hits to have a .400 batting average. Jacobsen when 0-for-5 in his at-bats. I would expect the nod to go to Brian “A Boy Named” Hsu to win this battle early on. In addition, Hsu was frequently used as a pinch runner, so he has the bench’s trust on the base paths.
It is fair to fully expect the Cougars to produce runs. A lot of runs. It is also fair to fully expect that they will need to.
The real question for the 2018 team, as has been the case for the past couple seasons, is what are the Cougars going to get on the pitching mound.
There are a lot of unproven arms up and down the BYU pitching staff.
The starting pitching rotation has a lot of questions and only 1 of them has been answered.
The Cougars lost 34 of its 59 starts from last year. Last season’s day 1 starter Maverik Buffo was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays organization and he chose to pursue that opportunity. The Day 2 starter Brady Corless graduated.
This leaves Senior lefty Hayden Rogers to take over as the Cougars ace. Rogers is a crafty pitcher. He mixes up opposing batters by changing up his speeds and his placement. He doesn’t overpower batters, but he does having them confused. He had a great 2017 campaign going 9-2 with a 3.63 ERA with 49 strikeouts and 23 walks. Rogers will be relied upon to match up with the other teams best arm as he goes from being the Saturday to the Thursday starter. Rogers ability to step up to the challenge will be a key component of how the Cougars fair in 2018.
The rest of the starting rotation is to be decided between newcomers Ryan Brady and Kenny Saenz. As well as Jordan Wood. Among those 3 will be the Friday, Saturday, and mid-week starters.
Jordan Wood, a right hander, has had a couple of clutch performances last season. Wood went 5-0 on the strength of good run support as he recorded a 5.14 ERA. Wood has a good fastball and I expect that he will be one of the weekend starters.
Kenny Saenz transferred to the Y from the University of Oklahoma. Saenz is a southpaw with a clocked velocity of 87 back in high school. He made 16 appearances as a Sooner. He had a 3.46 ERA with the Sooners during his 13 innings of work. Saenz had 10 Ks with 7 walks at OU. He has also played in several college summer leagues. Last year at the St. Cloud Rox, the 5-foot-8 Saenz started 12 games with an average outing of 4.2 innings pitched with a 1-4 record. He struck out 76 while walking 36 and posting a 1.56 WHIP.
Freshman righty from Park City, Utah, Ryan Brady holds the record in the state of Utah for consecutive shutout innings pitched at 38, 10 career shutouts and 3 career no-hitters. He was the region MVP during his junior and senior years of high school. The 6-foot-1 Brady went 9-1 with 102 Ks and a 0.41 ERA as a senior. Brady is a promising prospect and will certainly get his chance to be relied upon in the starting rotation. How quickly can he adjust to the rise in talent from high school to college? The answer to this will be critical to Brigham’s success this year.
Should any starter get beat up in the early innings, my hunch is RHP Kendall Motes will be call into long relief duties.
In the bullpen, BYU returns ZERO right handers from last season. 6 new arrivals and a returned missionary comprise the right side of the mound.
3 familiar lefties will work from the pen.
Senior Riley Gates will once again be looked to close out games. Gates absolutely has a wicked motion on his off speed stuff. He struck out 38 and gave up 12 walks with a 2.30 ERA in 27.1 innings of work in 2017. He is tough to hit as opponents went .188 against Gates’ arm -- at team best. With his filthy stuff, Gates can get a little wild he had 12 get past the catcher and he hit 4 batters. Gates is un-hittable when he is locked in. He will be great again in 2018.
Bo Burrup has been an inning eater in his career. He will continue to do work as a late relief and set up man.
Rhett Parkinson made 17 appearances last season and pitched 15.2 innings with a 9.19 ERA. He will likely be used as a situation arm against a left handed bat.
Mike Littlewood has done an unbelievable job transforming the Bat Cats from the hunter to the hunted. He has taken BYU to a 157-115 record over the past 5 seasons at the helm.
Littlewood not only has BYU winning conference titles and making NCAA appearances. Littlewood’s winning ways has been able to convince an investment to upgrade the baseball facilities at the Y. Larry H. Miller Field now has turf instead of sod. The field now has a “state-of-the-art” heating and drainage system underneath that allows far more field time during the winter months for practice. They also expanded bullpens and batting cages. Plus, Miller Field now has a bunting station. The campus in Provo now has one of the best facilities for college baseball in the country.
The first stage of Littlewood’s building of the BYU baseball program is complete.
Can the on-field success not only be sustained, but taken further? Can the Y win an outright regular season WCC title? Can reach another NCAA tournament? Can they advance?
With the further investment in the program, and previous goals being reached and transformed into expectations, these questions become the new aspirations and the measuring bar for the Cougars.
However, their pitching staff is almost entirely unproven at this level. The combination of big ambitions and glaring inexperience will provide a tricky task to live up to the billing.
This season will tell us a key question about the baseball program.
Did BYU simply have a good generation of players or did the program itself evolve as significantly as its facilities?