Duke Baseball: Five Questions To Answer Entering 2021
Duke is currently on the best run of success in program history. After a breakthrough regional appearance in 2016, snapping a 55-year drought, the Blue Devils reached a super regional in 2018 and then did it again in 2019. In 2020, they finished the season as a top-15 team in the country.
For a program that had been well outside the national picture for decades prior, the turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable.
As Duke looks to keep that momentum going, here are five questions it will look to answer this fall as it prepares for the 2021 season.
Who leads the rotation after the departure of Bryce Jarvis?
In putting up a 0.67 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 27 innings in 2020, Jarvis announced himself among the best pitchers in college baseball last season, and his departure leaves a massive hole at the front of the rotation.
The short answer is that it’s probably too much to put on one pitcher to expect them to step up into that role in the same way that Jarvis did.
“One of the things that we’ve been careful (about) as coaches (is that) you don’t want to have somebody feel like that they need to step in and fill Bryce Jarvis’ shoes,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “When the season ended last year in mid March, Bryce was throwing arguably as well as anybody in the country. He was certainly throwing as well as anybody, at any time, that I have ever coached.”
With that said, however, Duke has a handful of returning pitchers to watch who could combine to give the Blue Devils another outstanding rotation, whether or not any of them take their game to a Jarvis-like level in 2021.
The most notable is third-year sophomore righthander Cooper Stinson, who was nearly as good as Jarvis last season, at least statistically. In 21.2 innings, he had a 0.42 ERA and 24 strikeouts, and if you’re pegging hopes on one guy being a true Friday workhorse in the way Jarvis was, he’s the choice based on track record. After working off what Pollard described as “quarantine rust” upon returning to campus, Stinson has had an outstanding fall, with velocity on his fastball back up to 92 mph and throwing three pitches for strikes.
Third-year sophomore righthander Jack Carey, who started three games in 2020 and had a 4.26 ERA in 19 innings, has made a jump after spending time this offseason at Driveline, primarily to work on shaping his pitches. His fastball has been up to 94 mph, the work at Driveline has shown up in the way he’s throwing his slider, and thanks to increased vertical depth, his changeup is emerging as a swing-and-miss offering.
The third pitcher to follow is second-year freshman righthander Henry Williams, who jumped onto the scene before last season and elbowed his way into the competition for a weekend rotation spot. He’s a good athlete on the mound who has been up to 93 mph during fall scrimmages with a big-breaking curveball.
Pollard is looking forward to seeing those three get pushed by returners and new faces alike as the fall continues and then into spring, but for now, that’s the trio in the best position to lock down weekend rotation roles.
Where does Joey Loperfido play?
Loperfido’s versatility is a real weapon for the Blue Devils, as it allows the coaching staff to move him around based on team needs. Despite coming to Duke as a high school shortstop, Loperfido started every game at first base as a freshman. As a sophomore, he was the team’s primary second baseman. Last season, he shifted to center field.
For now, the plan is to continue to run Loperfido, a fourth-year junior, out as the team’s center fielder for a couple of reasons.
For one, Pollard sees Loperfido as a really good defender at the position and the best man for the job, but also, fifth-year senior Chase Cheek, another potential center fielder for the Blue Devils, is currently out after he had some scar tissue cleaned up after ACL reconstruction surgery. Cheek is expected to be back at full strength for the 2021 season, but for now, it means Loperfido’s talents are most needed in center.
The other thing to consider is that Loperfido just may not be needed in those other positions. Second base will likely be covered by one or both of second-year freshman Grant Norris and fourth-year junior Wil Hoyle, and first base not only has some of those same types of options in players like fourth-year junior Chris Crabtree and second-year freshman Britt Fuller, but it’s also a position Duke can teach a player in a pinch for the sake of getting a bat in the lineup.
Who locks down outfield roles?
Going into last season, Pollard felt like outfield depth was an issue. Going into 2021, he feels that the opposite is true.
“This time last year, we were putting catchers in the outfield to play scrimmages, or every once in a while, we’d have to stick a pitcher in the outfield, and we just didn’t have bodies,” Pollard said. “Now we’re at the other end of the spectrum where we have a tremendous level of competition with experienced guys out there.”
Loperfido is back in the mix in the outfield, as are veterans like Cheek and third-year sophomores Damon Lux, RJ Schreck and Jake Topolski. New to the group are three grad transfers in Peter Matt (Pennsylvania), Chris Davis (Princeton) and Richard Brereton (Emory). All three were productive with their previous teams and bring different things to the fold.
Matt has already turned some heads. Pollard lauds the Penn transfer’s bat speed, which has led to some off-the-charts exit velocity readings off his bat. A .311/.387/.427 career hitter with the Quakers, it’s hard to imagine that Matt doesn’t lock down a prominent role for the 2021 season.
Brereton is one of the most intriguing players on the roster. Pollard has been impressed with his athleticism and raw power, which has helped him put on some impressive batting practice rounds. Brereton put up gaudy offensive numbers in his last three seasons at Emory, where he also was a key piece of the pitching staff, and he turned some heads with how he pitched on the Cape in 2019. He has not yet been on the mound for Duke this fall because of a minor forearm injury coming out of the summer, but the idea is to mix him back in there once he’s ready to go.
There are some hunches about how the outfield will shake out. Loperfido seems like a virtual shoo-in in center field, barring needing him somewhere else, and Matt’s track record is such that you figure Duke will find a place for him, but mostly, this position group will be among the most competitive for the team through the fall and into the spring.
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With Michael Rothenberg back, what does Duke do with the depth at catcher?
In a normal year, fourth-year junior Michael Rothenberg would be in pro baseball now rather than back at Duke, but because an abnormal year gave us a five-round draft, he’s back on campus, giving the Blue Devils a great lineup core with Rothenberg, Loperfido and third-year sophomore shortstop Ethan Murray, along with uncommon depth behind the plate. What Duke will do with that surplus of catchers is a story to watch play out leading up to the season.
Third-year sophomore Rudy Maxwell is coming off of hitting .400/.472/.756 this summer in the Coastal Plain League, and he’s gotten significant playing time each of the last two seasons at Duke as a catcher, designated hitter and left fielder. His bat is one that Duke wants to have in the lineup.
“Our challenge is to figure out how to, with Mike (Rothenberg) back, get Rudy involved in the mix,” Pollard.
There’s also Chad Knight, a talented second-year freshman who is ranked 60th on the newly-updated list of college prospects for the 2022 draft. Recently, Pollard and his staff have been working Knight out at first base, which could be a potential landing place for him, at least in the short term.
There are also veterans in fifth-year senior Chris Dutra, who returned healthy in 2020 after missing significant time in 2018 and 2019 with injuries, and third-year sophomore Matt Stinebiser, along with true freshman Alex Stone.
Days off from catching for Rothenberg might open up a start here or there for one or more of the other catchers, but otherwise, playing time will be all about who can provide value at other positions.
Which freshmen earn playing time early?
Look to the mound to find some freshmen who could make an impact right away. Pollard is quick to praise two pitchers who have impressed in fall practice already.
One is righthander Adam Boucher, whose 6-foot-5 frame creates an extreme downhill angle on his fastball, which has been up to 95 mph. The other is lefthander Luke Fox, a good athlete who is also listed as an outfielder on the roster. He’s been sitting 91-92 mph with his fastball and has filled up the zone with three pitches this fall. Pollard thinks Fox is ready to surprise this spring with what he can do.
Righthanders Nick Conte, who was up to 95 mph with a wipeout breaking ball in high school, and Collin Bosley-Smith, who was up to 94 in his prep days, haven’t thrown yet this fall but are expected to at some point and should get a crack at earning innings in the spring.