Virginia Tech Baseball Hopes for Healthy Pitching Staff in 2017

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Part two of TSL’s preview on Virginia Tech’s baseball team takes a look at the pitching rotation.

If you take one glance at the Hokies’ earned run average as a staff in 2016, the number will jump out at you. The 6.49 team ERA (last in ACC) was over a full run higher than the next worst team (Wake Forest- 5.24 ERA), and it was the obvious reason for many of Tech’s struggles in 2016.

In fact, injuries derailed the pitching staff last year and forced coach Pat Mason to put some guys in roles that they weren’t accustomed to. This year if the Hokies can avoid the injury bug, they have the arms in line to compete in the gauntlet that is the ACC.

Jamie Pinzino is Tech's new pitching coach.
Jamie Pinzino is Tech’s new pitching coach.

Addition of Jamie Pinzino

In July, Tech bolstered their pitching staff when they hired Jamie Pinzino as the team’s pitching coach as well as recruiting coordinator. Pinzino had spent the previous three years at Oklahoma, where he was the pitching coach under former Virginia Tech head coach Pete Hughes. Over those three seasons, Pinzino acquired quite a reputation for developing his pitchers, as 13 hurlers from Oklahoma were selected in the MLB Draft.

Pinzino also holds head coaching experience, with stints at Division II Assumption (2005), and Division I programs Bryant (2006-2010), and William and Mary (2013). During those stints, Pinzino racked up an overall record of 212-174.

Now, Pinzino will attempt to transfer the same success that he had as Oklahoma’s pitching coach to the Hokies. Mason spoke highly of the work he’s done already to prepare the pitching staff for the upcoming season.

“What I like is that he [Pinzino] has brought a freshness, he’s revived that staff a little,” said Mason. “They needed that. You look at the statistics last year and there could be some doubt cast in their heads, but I don’t think that was the case for all of them. Collectively, I think it’s fair to say that they were down. He’s brought a renewed energy. He didn’t see last year, so he doesn’t have any of that, any predisposed views of any of our guys. He coaches them all the same way with energy and enthusiasm and detail. He hasn’t made anyone go from 85 [mph] to 98, but he’s got them all locked in and excited and really just given them a boost of confidence, which is what they needed. He’s definitely an attention to detail guy, working on developing pitches, and adding to each of their arsenals, and getting them to buy in. He’s really good at getting them to buy in to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Since the fall, Pinzino has been implementing his own training program for the pitching staff in the hope of avoiding the same injury misfortunes from the 2016 season. Part of that is creating an individual plan for each pitcher. No pitcher is exactly the same, so Pinzino has put an emphasis on screening all of them and customizing a plan for everyone.

“When you bring in a new pitching coach, he’s training guys a certain way,” Mason said. “It’d be great to say, ‘Hey, we have this new guy in here and we’re never going to get hurt again.’ There’s also the realistic expectation that it takes awhile to put in a training program. Just because you do something for four months doesn’t mean you’re bullet proof. We are getting guys back. Aaron [McGarity] is back and Luke [Scherzer] is cleared. He’s going to face some hitters this weekend. Gradually we’ll put a couple more bullets in the chamber. [Chris] Monaco will face hitters this weekend for the first time since June, or whenever the last time he pitched was. Collectively, I just think some of the things we’re doing with guys differently, he’s [Pinzino] just individualized that for players. Training them all individually because they are all different. Some of them are power arms, some of them are short 15 pitch an outing type arms. Other guys are 100, 110 pitches an outing type guys. Lefties, righties, pitch a couple days a week, pitch one day a week. He’s really done a good job of individualizing that for each of them.”

Packy Naughton, photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.
Packy Naughton, photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Starters

If you’re going to be competitive in the ACC, you need a three man rotation for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Right now, Packy Naughton and Aaron McGarity have taken the strangle hold on the Friday and Saturday roles.

Naughton (Jr.) returns after starting 14 games last year and compiling 74 strikeouts over 76.0 innings. Over the summer, Naughton excelled in the Cape Cod League, recording a 1.68 ERA over 42.2 innings. He hopes to ride off that success into the upcoming season.

McGarity (r-Jr.) held a 2.38 ERA last year in 10 appearances before his season was shortened due to injury. Now healthy, he’s expected to be an integral part of the rotation.

“If we were to start today, we’d have Packy and Aaron in our rotation right now,” said Mason. “They’re both certainly far talented enough to win in this conference. Their talent level is very good, so they can’t shoot themselves in the foot. They need to let the game slow down, which that’s probably the biggest thing they both need to do. I think Packy had a lot of success doing that in the Cape this summer. The game really slowed down for him and he pitched against a lot of really good players. He’s not a kid who lacks confidence, but anytime you can get even more confident that’s great. Those guys take the mound with a veteran type composure, slow the game down, execute their pitches. If they both do that consistently, there’s going to be a chance to win a lot of games.”

With Naughton and McGarity filling the Friday and Saturday roles, Mason is still deciding who will get the nod for the Sunday starts as well as the weekday starter. However, he did hint at the pitchers who were in the mix.

“We’ll have Connor Coward, Joey Sullivan, Andrew McDonald, and Nick Anderson,” said Mason. “They’ll be competing for that Sunday role. One of them will probably start on Tuesday.”

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Bullpen

Any quality pitching staff needs a guy they can count on to shut the door in the late innings. For the Hokies, that will be Kit Scheetz. Scheetz (r-Sr.) has been a starter over his career, racking up 30 starts in three seasons. However, Mason wants to utilize his experience in the pressure packed situations that come with being a closer.

“We’ll have Kit be our lefty out of the pen with all the experience he has,” said Mason. “We feel really good about him coming out of the pen and doing that. But we also know that if we needed to, we could slide Kit back in on Sunday. He’s made a ton of starts in our program, probably the most starts of anyone in the program on our roster.”

Over the fall, Scheetz developed a new side arm delivery that will be especially tricky for lefties to pick up coming from the left side. The change demonstrates the work that Scheetz has continually put in over his career at Tech to improve.

“Kit has really worked hard,” Mason said. “He’s always worked hard, but this fall he did something new too. He changed his arm slot. He’s not always over the top like he has been, but he has a side arm delivery. To reinvent yourself, to buy in to the fact that, ‘Hey, I want to be a back end closer. I can be a lefty, I can pitch two, three, maybe even four times a week. But I’m going to do something a little different and make myself better.’ When you’re a freshman and you come in and see a kid who’s made probably 25-30 starts in our program, somewhere in that neighborhood. To see him reinvent himself to try to get better every day. That’s leading by example right there. He’s certainly not complacent, he’s certainly not happy with how things are and he’s trying to get better. I think that definitely trickles down to the rest of our staff.”

Luke Scherzer will be a name to watch in 2017 for the Hokies. Scherzer (r-Jr.) missed all of 2016 with an injury. However, he was a consistent back end bullpen arm for the Hokies earlier in his career, saving nine games combined over his first two seasons. When completely healthy, he’s a guy who could be used as the shut-down closer, or even someone within the starting rotation. Early on at least, he’ll be restricted to an innings limit.

“The Scherzer situation when he comes back, he’ll be cleared, but we’re going to have different restrictions with him,” said Mason. “He may only pitch once a weekend out of the bullpen, in which case we’ll have Kit Scheetz be our closer. As the season goes on we’ll evaluate how that is. Maybe some of those restrictions on Luke will be loosened up a little bit. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say Luke throws 30 pitches on Friday night and closes a game. He’s probably not going to be available for the rest of the weekend. We better have two closers and handle Luke accordingly.”

For Scherzer, the rehab has been a long process, but he’s just ready to get back on the mound after sitting out an entire season.

“I’m just sticking to the rehab plans that the doctors have given me,” Scherzer said. “Working every day and staying in the same routines. Just building a good relationship with everybody and hopefully we can stick together and win some ball games.”

Filling out the middle relief roles from the bullpen will be a number of options. Cole Kragel was a guy who Mason was high on in the fall, but his status remains uncertain at the moment with a back injury. If he can go, Kragel (So.) provides an intimidating 6’8” figure with a ball that’s tough to see coming from a three quarter arm slot.

“Cole is nursing a little bit of a back deal. I don’t know if he’ll be available at the beginning of the season or not. It’s kind of a day to day, week to week, month to month because that’s how backs are. The uniqueness to Cole, that’s an injury that we’re monitoring for sure.”

Otherwise, Paul Hall Jr. and Tom Stoffel will provide two lefty arms out of the bullpen, and the two pitchers who don’t become the Sunday and weekday starter will move to the being used in long relief.

“Those four guys that I mentioned, whether Nick Anderson, McDonald, Sullivan, and Coward- two of those guys would jump in our pen,” said Mason. “On top of that we’ll have Paul Hall who’s a lefty. Kit who I already mentioned, a lefty. And Tommy Stoffel, who I’m not sure if he even ended up pitching an inning maybe last year. He came in as a pitcher. With his back injury his sophomore year we kind of put that off to the side. He’s back on the mound too, so those will be our three lefties. Any combination of Scherzer, those other two righties. That gives us six, and with Kragel’s status that will give us seven arms that we feel pretty good about.”

Unfortunately, it appears Nic Enright will likely be redshirted this year. Enright was a 19th round pick by the New York Mets out of high school, but during the end of his freshman year at Virginia Tech, he was required to undergo Tommy John surgery. Everything with the recovery has gone according to plan, but there’s just not a likely situation where he will return in 2017.

“He’s been recovering fine, everything’s on track, he’s healthy, he’s throwing,” said Mason. “He’s starting to throw bullpens this week or next week. He’s looks good, everything along those lines, but realistically by the time he’s cleared we may be three weeks left in the season. I just don’t see a scenario where we would even consider burning that redshirt for that type of scenario. Let’s hypothetically say we’re going to the ACC tournament, looking like a regional team, well then we probably don’t need him at that point because things have worked out, we got to that point without him. I just don’t see a scenario.”

With the experience brought over by Pinzino and a number of players returning from injury, the Hokies pitching staff should be much improved in 2017.

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