Stanford Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022
Stanford last season engineered an impressive run to the College World Series. With an inexperienced team coming off of a 5-11 record in the shortened 2020 season, the Cardinal made the program’s first trip to Omaha since 2008.
That feat is made all the more impressive when you consider that Stanford didn’t have any fall practice and had a delayed run up to opening day that forced the team to start the season a week later than they otherwise would have.
On paper, Stanford goes into 2022 in a good position to put together another special season. These five questions loom large in determining the degree to which that ends up being the case when it’s all said and done next year.
How much progress has the pitching staff made?
As Stanford piled up wins in 2021, coach David Esquer was quick to admit that the success wasn’t much of a surprise to him despite coming off of that 5-11 season. The team was painfully young in 2020 and that showed in the results, so it stands to reason that the 2021 team was going to be better by virtue of that group growing up before our eyes.
That said, the pitching staff on last year’s team was still pretty young, with freshmen showing up all over the stat sheet. In fact, the three most often used pitchers on the staff were first-year players in righthanders Joey Dixon, Brandt Pancer and Tommy O’Rourke, and lefthander Drew Dowd wasn’t far behind that trio in terms of usage. Dixon and fellow freshman Ryan Bruno were also forced into duty as starters in Stanford’s opening series against Santa Clara despite not really having pitched as seniors in high school due to the pandemic and not having a fall practice to prepare.
In the end, that lack of experienced depth on the mound ended up being Stanford’s undoing in the postseason. In an elimination game in the CWS against Vanderbilt, the Cardinal’s third game of the event, they turned to Quinn Mathews to start after he had pitched in relief in the opener against North Carolina State, and late in the elimination game, they turned to ace Brendan Beck, who started the NC State game, to try to get a nine-out save rather than use one of the young arms that were more rested at the time. To his credit, Beck pitched well but ultimately gave up the tying and winning runs to the Commodores in the ninth.
There are holes to fill with the departure of a couple of key veterans from last year’s team, most notably Beck and closer Zach Grech, but it’s fair to speculate that if the pitching staff last season was where the position player group was back in 2020, a big leap could be in store on the mound.
The depth certainly looks good. Dixon, Pancer, O’Rourke and Dowd are back, of course, but so is fourth-year junior righthander Alex Williams, who had a 3.42 ERA last season as Stanford’s most effective starter not named Beck, and Mathews, a third-year sophomore lefthander who started 14 games and was trusted with important innings on the biggest stage a season ago.
Others will have to step up to fill in around the top returners, as was the case in the lineup heading into last season, but Stanford is now in a place where it won’t have to turn to newcomers out of necessity. Rather, those newcomers and pitchers who didn’t get much time on the mound last season will be part of a larger competition taking place on The Farm, out of which Esquer and his staff hope to craft a much more battle-tested group than they had in 2021.
“I think the pressure of what it’s going to take to get on the field on the pitcher’s mound, I’m hoping that pressure creates a couple of diamonds,” Esquer said. “That’s what we’re hoping for.”
What does the weekend rotation look like without Brendan Beck?
The biggest specific question mark for Stanford is what the rotation will look like without Beck, last season’s Pac-12 pitcher of the year and someone who the Cardinal knew could go toe-to-toe with any other pitcher in the conference on Friday nights.
With it being a virtually impossible task for any one pitcher to replace Beck’s production, it’s likely to be a rotation that has strength in numbers rather than having a standout workhorse Friday starter, but with the experience returning, that might not be a bad thing for this Stanford team.
Williams is the most obvious candidate to step into the Friday starter spot, and if there’s someone who can provide a reasonable facsimile of Beck’s output, it’s him. He was late getting his season started in 2021, but once he returned and got ramped up, he was solid in his 11 starts, continuing a career that has been nothing but productive. In three seasons, he has a 2.64 ERA and a .206 opponent batting average in 136.1 innings.
With just 29 walks issued in his career, command of the strike zone stands out about Williams, but his stuff is also plenty good. His fastball averaged just about 90 mph last season, but it touched as high as 94, and his changeup was a swing-and-miss pitch, with a whiff rate approaching 40%.
Mathews is another experienced option who was in the rotation for much of last season. He has stuff similar to Williams, including a fastball that was up to 93 mph last season, right down to having a changeup as his best offspeed pitch when it comes to missing bats. He also pitched well in the Cape Cod League over the summer, putting up a 1.55 ERA in 17.1 innings. The trick for Mathews will be staying strong all season after he tailed off as the 2021 campaign went on and he accumulated more innings than he ever has on the way to a 6.07 ERA.
Dowd will also be in the rotation mix after he started six games a season ago among his 19 appearances. His numbers last season, including a 6.99 ERA, aren’t particularly pretty, but it’s worth noting that 12 of the 29 earned runs he surrendered came in his first three appearances. He was much more solid after that point, even if he did still have the ups and downs expected of a freshman pitching in the Pac-12. In a relatively small sample, he showed the ability to use two different swing-and-miss offspeed pitches last season, with his curveball inducing a 44% whiff rate and his changeup coming in with a 36% whiff rate.
Freshman righthander Ty Uber could also work his way into this conversation. A physical presence at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Uber has a low-90s fastball and really fills up the strike zone. He showed well in the West Coast League over the summer, with a 2.65 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 51 innings.
Esquer is hoping to use some early-season opportunities to let things shake out in the rotation.
“I’m a big fan in favor of playing four-game weekends, where it really kind of will push your pitching staff a little bit and stretch them a little” he said. “Obviously, you put four guys out there and when it comes to a regular weekend, you’ve got to get it down to three. I think that gives us the best look.”
Who’s the stopper in the bullpen?
While it won’t garner the attention of filling Beck’s spot in the rotation, Stanford has another matter to handle on the mound in figuring out who fills Grech’s shoes as the team’s stopper after the righthander had a 3.62 ERA and 13 saves last season.
Stanford has gone into each of the last four seasons with either Grech or Jack Little ready to go in that role, so in that way, these are extremely big shoes to fill for the next man up.
O’Rourke stands out to Esquer as perhaps the most natural fit in that role. Last season, when he had a 4.07 ERA in 24.1 relief innings, he was essentially a two-pitch pitcher, throwing a low-80s breaking ball more often than a fastball that averaged a touch under 90 mph and touched as high as 95.
Being the team’s stopper might be the way in which two-way player Braden Montgomery, a top-100 prospect for the draft last year, gets on the field the quickest. He throws a low-90s fastball, plus an advanced changeup and curveball, with an easy delivery.
Esquer says Dixon could be a good fit as well. He had a 3.28 ERA and held opponents to a .190 average in 35.2 innings last season, but with 19 walks and 16 strikeouts, he’ll have to throw more strikes and miss more bats moving forward. Last season, he worked with a fastball in the high 80s, touching the low 90s with a mid-70s breaking ball.
“Joey Dixon is extremely competitive and a guy who has high expectations and believes in himself,” Esquer said. “He may be the guy that just has ice water veins that can handle getting the last three outs of the game.”
Pancer, after putting up a 3.83 ERA in 42.1 innings last season, will also be in the mix, as will Bruno, who has typical back-end stuff with a fastball up to 97 mph. One wild card to watch is fourth-year sophomore righthander Cody Jensen. He missed all of last season due to injury and really struggled with control in the small sample that was 2020, but as a freshman in 2019, he had a 3.55 ERA in 33 innings of relief.
Does anyone fit into the Tim Tawa mold?
In the lineup, one of the most impactful losses is that of utility player Tim Tawa. He hit .290/.357/.519 with 12 home runs and 14 stolen bases last season, which represented a career year for the four-year contributor.
His value went beyond his numbers, however, as Tawa was also a good athlete who could handle a variety of defensive positions, including second base, third base, shortstop and center field.
Thankfully for Stanford, Esquer thinks the heir apparent in terms of that athleticism and versatility is on the roster now.
“Tommy Troy is certainly that type of player,” he said. “I think Tommy Troy has a chance to be just an impact-type player. He can run, he’s got explosive power, he just keeps getting better defensively. He can play both infield and outfield for us, just whatever our biggest need (is). I think he’s a major league talent.”
Troy didn’t quite burst onto the scene as a freshman last season in the way that classmate Drew Bowser did, but he was still pretty productive in hitting .247/.345/.487 with 10 home runs. Defensively, he saw time at second base, third base and left field, and that was with Tawa still around manning some of those same positions.
If Troy continues to make strides offensively and can expand his versatility as needs arise in the wake of Tawa’s departure, he’ll be a very big part of a Stanford lineup that should once again be stout in 2022.
What does the lineup look like around Brock Jones?
The centerpiece of the Stanford lineup is unquestionably third-year sophomore center fielder Brock Jones. After being one of the young players who famously struggled in the Stanford lineup in 2020, he became a star in 2021, hitting .311/.453/.646 with 18 home runs. That earned him a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team over the summer, where he was second on the team with three home runs during the club’s 11-game scrimmage schedule.
His primary protection is likely to come from sophomore third baseman Drew Bowser, the top recruit in Stanford’s 2020 class. He excelled right away last season, hitting .302/.361/.487 with 16 doubles and seven homers, which really helped lengthen the Cardinal lineup.
“The fact that Drew Bowser and Brock Jones are more concerned about winning baseball games and what it takes to win the game really takes off the internal pressure they have on themselves to do well because I think they just focus on the game and what it takes and they’re talented enough that their talent will shine through when they take that type of approach,” Esquer said.
Stanford has a pair of capable catchers back in the fold in third-year sophomore Kody Huff and fourth-year Junior Vincent Martinez. Huff ended the season with 12 doubles and five homers. Martinez, who finished with seven home runs, was one of Stanford’s best hitters early in the season before struggling down the stretch.
Third-year sophomore shortstop Adam Crampton also returns after hitting .287/.348/.362 last season, but more importantly, he’s back to man shortstop after playing the position extremely well in 2021.
In line for a bigger role is sophomore outfielder Eddie Park. He ended up with just 89 at-bats last season, but he had more walks (15) than strikeouts (12), and by the time the CWS rolled around, he was batting leadoff to make use of his on-base skills and plus speed.
Third-year sophomore Owen Cobb could also have a more prominent role come 2022. He missed most of last season due to injury, but he’s back healthy and Esquer thinks he could factor in at positions like left field and second base.
The fiercest competition for Stanford as the fall comes to a close might be at first base, the position Brueser vacated. Players in the mix there include third-year sophomore Henry Gargus, a highly-touted recruit in the 2019 class who has hit .193/.329/.281 in 57 at-bats over two seasons so far, third-year sophomore Brett Barrera, who had four homers in just 65 at-bats last season, and sophomore Carter Graham.
This lineup should be good enough to help lead Stanford on a deep postseason run, because we saw many of these returning players do just that last season. And while there are some questions to answer at certain positions the answers to those questions are likely already on the roster and ready to go.