Kansas Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022
Under Ritch Price, who has been at the helm since 2003, Kansas hasn’t been a power in the Big 12, but it has made postseason appearances at fairly regular intervals. It got to regionals in 2006, 2009 and 2014. But right now, the Jayhawks are going on seven seasons since they last played June baseball.
There have been some near misses in that time, such as 2019, when KU went 32-26 and 12-12 in the Big 12, only to miss out on regionals because its RPI was outside of at-large range, but it has been a long time since there has been a Kansas team that left no doubt that it was a postseason team.
Can the 2022 Jayhawks do enough to break the postseason drought? These are five questions they will have to answer in order to make that kind of push.
How good is Cole Larsen?
Fifth-year senior righthander Cole Larsen will lead the Kansas rotation in 2022, coming off of a very good, if somewhat overlooked, 2021 season.
He started the season as hot as any pitcher in the country, giving up four total runs in his first 42 innings spread over six appearances, all of which were starts after a four-inning relief appearance to begin the season. His pace slowed after that, but he still finished the season with a solid 3.87 ERA in 95.1 innings.
With another step forward in 2022, it’s not out of the question that Larsen will be one of the steadiest starting pitchers in the Big 12, which would be a big step in the right direction for Kansas’ postseason hopes.
“He’s got a chance to be an all-conference performer, and that’s where we need him to be,” Price said. “We need him to be up there with the top 10 best starters in our conference for us to finish in the first five (of the conference standings) and have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament.”
Larsen is never going to be the guy in the Big 12 with the best raw stuff, but it’s more than good enough. His fastball was up to 94 mph last season, and in his first scrimmage outing of the fall, he was already working 91-93 mph with the pitch. He also uses a breaking ball in the high 70s/low 80s that had a 35% whiff rate last season and a changeup in the high 70s.
As part of his efforts to take a step forward going into next season, he has also recently added a high-80s cutter to the mix. That could be an effective offering to help him stay off of hitters’ barrels or to use as a putaway pitch on the back foot of lefthanded hitters.
So much of competing with the best teams in college baseball is about going toe-to-toe on Friday nights, and in Larsen, a small-town Kansas kid who is as competitive as they come, the Jayhawks have a pitcher who will keep them in games every Friday against the best the conference has to offer.
Who will support Larsen in the rotation?
Kansas struggled last season to get consistent starting pitching around Larsen in the rotation, and the two starters who most often paired with Larsen on the weekends last season, lefthander Eli Davis and righthander Ryan Cyr, are gone.
For a fix, the Jayhawks are likely to look to the bullpen, and specifically, third-year sophomore righthander Ryan Vanderhei. Last season, Vanderhei was one of KU’s most reliable relief arms, with a 2.70 ERA in 26.2 innings across 20 appearances.
Vanderhei, who stands 6-foot-6, walked 20 in those 26.2 innings last season, so his control will have to improve for him to be an effective complement to Larsen in the rotation, but he has a big arm. He was up to 94 mph last season with his fastball and he touched 95 in the Jayhawks’ first fall scrimmage.
“We’ve been pleased with his development,” Price said. “He’ll touch 94-95, and he had some really good outings this summer in the NECBL in Martha’s Vineyard, and we have high expectations for him.
“His upside is off the charts, and obviously he’s got a chance to be a future pro with that body and that arm.”
A slider is his top secondary pitch, and while it wasn’t much of a swing-and-miss pitch for him last season, it had a 62% whiff rate in the NECBL over the summer. That’s an unsustainably high whiff rate, but perhaps it suggests that the slider will be a more effective weapon during the 2022 season.
Who leads the bullpen?
This question is actually quite easy to answer, because it’s clear that fifth-year senior righthander Jonah Ulane will once again serve as the anchor in the Kansas bullpen.
Ulane has been a contributor for four seasons at KU, but last season was far and away his best, as he saved 11 games and had a 1.44 ERA and .139 opponent batting average in 25 innings of work. Along with Vanderhei, Ulane gave Kansas a steady presence at the back of the bullpen and a lot of confidence that if it took a lead late in the game, it would come away with a win.
There’s not a lot of mystery about how Ulane wants to attack hitters. Last season, he threw fastballs an astounding 92% of the time, but it’s clearly an effective pitch for him. It averages just a tick above 90 mph and touches as high as 94, but its spin rate is such that it looks much faster than that, and as the icing on the cake, Ulane comes right over the top in his delivery, giving the appearance that he’s flying downhill at the hitter.
“He goes out there and pitches with one pitch and guys know what’s coming,” Price said. “But when you pitch it 90 to 95, and his spin rate is as good as it is, he’s one of the few guys in America that can close games with just one pitch.”
Help for Ulane on the back end will come from fifth-year senior lefthander Daniel Hegarty. Like Ulane, he’s a four-year contributor who had his best full season in 2021, with a 4.65 ERA in 40.2 innings. With a fastball in the high 80s and a slider and changeup that aren’t necessarily swing-and-miss pitches, Hegarty doesn’t have high-octane stuff, but he’s battle-tested and throws a ton of strikes.
A newcomer to watch in this mix, or perhaps as the midweek starter, is junior college transfer Knolton Clark. The 6-foot-3 righthander had a 4.22 ERA in seven starts last season for Santa Ana (Calif.) CC, using a fastball in the low 90s and a slider as his primary offspeed pitch.
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Who will be the catalysts in the lineup?
The top of the Kansas order should be a lot of fun with the return of sophomore shortstop Maui Ahuna and sophomore outfielder-turned-second baseman Tavian Josenberger. Both of those guys really burst onto the scene in a big way in 2021.
Ahuna, a native of Hawaii, hit .314/.413/.422 while playing shortstop every day and got off to a hot start (6-for-17) with Falmouth in the Cape Cod League before going down with injury.
“Ahuna hit .320 in the Cape before he got hurt and he hit over .300 for us last year,” Price said. “He’s got as good of tools as anybody in the country and I totally expect him to be a first-three-round draft pick before this thing’s over.”
Josenberger, a prep shortstop himself, was limited last season due to an arm injury he suffered the summer before arriving on campus. To take advantage of his athleticism and to get his bat into the lineup, KU moved him to center field and he went on to hit .316/.392/.413 with a team-leading 11 stolen bases.
With good bat-to-ball skills, good speed and relatively low strikeout rates, that pair will make everything go in the KU lineup. And with Josenberger likely to move back to the dirt to play second base, it will also give the team one of the most athletic middle infields in the Big 12.
Fourth-year junior outfielder Casey Burnham will be a catalyst as well. He missed some time in the middle of last season but was effective when he was on the field, hitting .286/.432/.400 with more walks (15) than strikeouts (11) and eight stolen bases, putting him on pace to lead the team in that category by a wide margin had he played a full season rather than just 23 games.
Freshman outfielder Chase Jans could also fit in well with a speed-based KU lineup if he can earn regular playing time as a first-year player. He was one of the fastest and most athletic players in the 2021 prep class, which gives him a chance to be a lockdown defender in center field, and the coaching staff is excited about his upside at the plate.
Where will power production come from?
This particular Kansas lineup isn’t one likely to hit home runs in bunches, and that more or less fits in with the types of lineups Kansas has had in recent years. In the last 10 full seasons, the Jayhawks have had just three players put up 10 or more home runs in a single season, with catcher Jaxx Groshans’ 12 home runs in 2019 representing the highest total in that time.
But there are a couple of hitters projected to hit in the middle of this lineup who can run the ball out of the ballpark.
One is grad transfer outfielder Caleb Upshaw from Eastern Kentucky. With a strong 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame, he hit .325/.401/.560 with 11 home runs for the Colonels last season, and he’s already impressed the KU coaching staff this fall.
“He’s got tremendous work ethic, he’s got a very mature approach at the plate, he’s been successful in junior college and in Kentucky, where he came from, and I love everything about him,” Price said. “He’s in the graduate school program (for) sports management. Very mature, very good approach, makes two-strike adjustments, one of the few guys you’ll see go down on the knob with his physical presence in the box. It’s really impressive and he’s going to help protect Josenberger and Ahuna in the middle of that lineup.”
The primary returning player to watch in this regard is fifth-year senior catcher Nolan Metcalf, who is a physical presence at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds. He has nine home runs in 103 career games, with no more than four homers in any one season, but the power in his swing is apparent when you see the way the ball comes off his bat.