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Baylor Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022

Jared Mckenzie Courtesybaylor
Baylor OF Jared McKenzie (Photo courtesy of Baylor)

Baylor last season couldn’t have come any closer to making the postseason. In fact, after a late-season slide that included going 0-2 in the Big 12 Tournament, the Bears were announced as team number 65 at the end of the selection committee’s deliberations.

On paper, Baylor has the roster returning in 2022 to ensure that it doesn’t get left out again. It brings back a majority of the most productive players from last season’s lineup, returns experienced options on the mound and supplemented the roster well with newcomers, including some transfers from four-year schools.

These are five questions facing the Bears as they look to get back to playing June baseball next season.

Is there more ceiling for Jared McKenzie to reach?

McKenzie, a third-year sophomore, has been the centerpiece of the Baylor lineup over the last two seasons. In the canceled 2020 season, he provided a taste of what was to come by hitting .406. Then, in 2021, he broke out in a big way over a full season with a .383/.453/.626 slash line with 10 home runs. 

Those numbers led Baylor in all three slash line categories and the 10 home runs were good for second on the team behind catcher Andy Thomas’ 11 homers. With a .389 career average, he will also go into his third season as Baylor’s all-time leader in batting average. And to top it off, he does all of that while serving as a competent center fielder. He doesn’t need to do anything else to prove that he’s the guy that will make the Bears’ lineup go and that he’s one of the best players in the Big 12.

He did have a tough go of it in the Cape Cod League over the summer, however, hitting .225/.316/.245 with 36 strikeouts compared to 11 walks, which will no doubt leave professional evaluators eager to see him produce again in 2022.

In good news for those evaluators and for the Baylor program, McKenzie is still making strides.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen the full Jared McKenzie yet,” said Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez. “His arm has gotten significantly stronger. His power has really started to develop this year, and he’s turned himself, in my opinion, into a top round—I’m talking like (round) one, compensation, (round) two—pick, and it might go as high as (round) one. There’s a lot of guys who really like him because he’s not a burner, but he plays like he is in the outfield and he runs the bases faster than his times might show.”

The baseline for what to expect from McKenzie is so high at this point that any real marked improvement next season will put him on the short list of the favorites to win Big 12 player of the year honors.

What’s next for Jack Pineda and Tre Richardson in the middle infield?

Quietly, second baseman Tre Richardson and shortstop Jack Pineda gave Baylor one of the most dynamic double-play combinations in the country last season.

Pineda, now a fourth-year junior, hit .327/.430/.493 with 16 doubles, which tied him for the team lead, and 33 walks, which led the club. Richardson, a third-year sophomore, put up a .308/.389/.463 slash line with 16 doubles and 37 RBIs, which trailed just Thomas and McKenzie.

Richardson’s performance is all the more impressive when you consider that it was his first extended playing time since his junior season of high school. Recall that he enrolled early at Baylor to play as a freshman in 2020, only to have that season wiped out. That kept him from getting as many game reps as he otherwise would have, but perhaps more importantly, it delayed his ability to hit the ground running in the strength and conditioning program. That’s been remedied in recent months.

“It was really important for him to do that,” Rodriguez said. “That’s one of the things that I think was most important for him was to gain that strength, to be the full grown man that he can be like he is now and really be able to attack the baseball. It’s been really impressive watching him hit.”

Rodriguez, a former middle infielder himself, also lauds the pair’s feel for the game and coachability, traits it never hurts for two of your best players to have.

“Those two have great instincts. They are so fun to work with,” he said. “They understand where I’m coming from with a lot of things. If I get upset, they completely get it, but it’s really hard to get upset with those guys because there’s never an opportunity where I go ‘oh my gosh, what were you thinking?’ ”

Perhaps Richardson and Pineda will continue to fly under the radar nationally as the 2022 season unfolds, but if they can improve upon the way they played last season, flying under the radar might not be possible.

Who takes over at catcher?

Baylor has been somewhat spoiled at catcher in recent years. From 2017 through last season, the Bears either had Shea Langeliers, a first-round pick of the Braves in 2019, or Andy Thomas, a .327/.422/.489 career hitter, at the position.

In 2022, Baylor will be starting basically from scratch at the position. All three of the primary options coming out of the fall have experience at the college level, but none have been full-time starters.

Abilene Christian transfer Harrison Caley, a sophomore and the twin brother of Baylor lefthander Cam Caley, comes to Waco after hitting .235/.385/.275 last season for the Wildcats. The coaching staff took note of how well he handled himself in the Bears’ recent exhibition against the Rangers instructional league team.

Fifth-year senior Ian Groves, a transfer from Tarleton State, is also in the mix. He hit .269/.338/.504 with six home runs in 119 career at-bats over two seasons with the Texans. If his plus raw power can help him produce at a similar rate over a full season at Baylor, he can be a run producer in the lineup.

Third-year sophomore Nicolas Balsano will also have something to say about how things shake out. He arrived in Waco the season after Langeliers departed, but he’s been waiting patiently the last two seasons behind Thomas. He doesn’t have much of a track record, as he has appeared in just six games at Baylor, but he has the experience and comfort that comes with having been in the program, and that could give him a leg up.

In a perfect world, Baylor finds a catcher who, in the mold of Langeliers and Thomas, is a steady hand defensively and can also hit in the middle of the order, but for right now, the Bears are likely just concerned with finding the guy who is prepared to handle the rigors of catching a full season in the Big 12 and can best work with a talented pitching staff.

Peyton Pallette Courtesyarkansas

Arkansas Righthander, 2022 Draft Prospect Peyton Pallette Out For Season With UCL Injury

The 2022 draft class and college baseball world received tough injury news Thursday morning.

What are the early impressions of Jake Jackson?

Fifth-year senior righthander Jake Jackson is, on paper, the most impactful transfer on the Baylor roster ahead of 2022. In four seasons at Nevada, Jackson piled up 216 innings, most of them as a starter, and three times earned all-conference honors.

His 5.46 career ERA might not stand out as a particularly stellar number, but context is important here. Jackson was pitching his games in an extreme hitter’s environment in Reno in a conference that was full of good hitter’s environments.

“I said ‘hey look, there’s a lot of wind here, you’re going to be playing in some different environments in regards to weather,’ and he was like ‘Coach, man, I was up in Reno, it can’t get much worse than that, trying to pitch up there,’ ” Rodriguez recounted.

Going into 2022, Jackson is expected to compete for a spot in the Baylor weekend rotation, and he’s got a lot going for him, even aside from his experience. With just 55 career walks issued at Nevada, including 22 in 84.2 innings in 2021, he pounds the strike zone. And while he doesn’t have standout stuff, necessarily, it’s more than good enough. His fastball touches the low 90s with his spin rate helping it play up a bit, with a high-70s slider serving as his best secondary pitch.

“I’ll tell you what, the energy level he brings, the excitement he brings, it’s really been impressive,” Rodriguez said.

Under Rodriguez and pitching coach Jon Strauss, Baylor has never had the biggest arms in the conference or the pitchers with the most hype surrounding them, but they always get production out of the group they put together. In that way, Jackson seems like a perfect fit.

Who else is in the mix in the rotation?

Beyond Jackson, there are two obvious rotation candidates on the roster in fifth-year senior lefthander Tyler Thomas and fourth-year junior righthander Blake Helton.

Thomas has had a bit of an up-and-down career with the Bears, but when he’s been good, he’s been really good. He had a 3.38 ERA in 53.1 innings as a starter as a freshman in 2018, and just last season, he had a 2.49 ERA in 65 innings across 11 starts. In between those two seasons, he had a 6.68 ERA in a swing role in 2019 and then threw exclusively out of the bullpen before the season was canceled in 2020.

He’s not been a pitcher who typically gets hit hard, as shown by a .216 career opponent batting average, but throwing strikes has been an issue from time to time. If he can keep the control issues in check, as he did last season, he should again be a solid piece of the rotation puzzle.

Helton emerged last season and put up a 3.44 ERA in 52.1 innings while leading the team in starts with 13. He worked primarily with two pitches in 2021: a fastball that averaged a touch below 90 mph and a low-80s slider. He doesn’t miss a ton of bats, so locating everything well and avoiding barrels is paramount.

Even with Jackson, Thomas and Helton making up a clear trio of proven starters, the coaching staff came out of the fall with an open mind about everything on the mound.

“This is one of those fun years where nothing is clear cut for us,” Rodriguez said.

Junior college transfer righthander Brett Garcia will also look to elbow his way into the rotation competition. After beginning his career at UC Irvine, Garcia spent the 2021 season at Cypress (Calif.) College, where he had a 4.41 ERA in 32.2 innings across seven starts.

The aforementioned Cam Caley, a sophomore, is also in the mix after he started eight games among his 13 appearances last season. He had a 4.79 ERA but just a .222 opponent batting average in 35.2 innings, leading with a fastball that averaged around 88 mph.

Another newcomer to watch who will certainly have a role to play on the mound, even if it’s not in the rotation, is fifth-year senior lefthander Matt Voelker, a transfer from Loyola Marymount. A good athlete who played both ways for the Lions, he has been primarily a reliever in his career, putting up a 4.67 ERA and 14 saves in 125.1 innings. He works with a high-80s fastball and a slider that had a 37% whiff rate in 2021.

The real wild card, in the rotation and on the pitching staff more generally, is third-year sophomore righthander Will Rigney. The Waco native was a top 100 draft prospect coming out of high school in 2019 and the top recruit in Baylor’s class that year, but his career hasn’t gotten off the ground yet, mostly due to injuries.

Now that thoracic outlet surgery is behind him, there’s hope that he can make good on some of his promise in 2022. If he’s healthy, he’s a big arm who could greatly raise the ceiling for what Baylor’s staff is capable of.

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