UC Santa Barbara Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021

Image credit: UCSB SS McClain O'Connor (Photo courtesy of UCSB)

UC Santa Barbara impressed in the small sample size that was the 2020 season. It raced out to a 13-2 start and finished the campaign with a road sweep of Oregon State. The bad news for UCSB, of course, is that it didn’t get to finish what it started. 

The good news, however, is that it returns just about everyone from last year’s squad and should pick up where it left off when the season was halted. The Gauchos hosted a regional in 2015, went to the College World Series in 2016 and won 45 games in 2019, and this team has a chance to be just as good as any of them. 

Here are five pressing questions surrounding UCSB as it goes into a promising season. 

Who will be the Gauchos’ Friday starter?

UCLA will probably end up having the best rotation on the West Coast, but it’s hard to imagine another one beyond that better than the UC Santa Barbara trio of third-year sophomore lefthander Rodney Boone, fourth-year junior lefthander Zach Torra and third-year sophomore righthander Michael McGreevy

Boone and McGreevy have been part of the Gauchos’ staff each of the last two seasons, with each enjoying great success. Boone has a career 2.73 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 102.1 innings in two seasons in the rotation. McGreevy has a 1.64 career ERA after spending 2019 as a key multi-inning reliever and moving to the rotation in 2020. 

Torra jumped right into the rotation as a junior college transfer in 2020 and shined, putting up a 0.36 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 25.1 innings. This embarrassment of riches in the rotation means that UCSB has a real competition on its hands for the Friday starter role. 

The honor could conceivably go to any one of those three pitchers. Boone has the most starting experience at UCSB and Torra has been the most dominant, but don’t count out McGreevy. The righthander has seen his velocity jump and his slider has shown improvement as well. 

“McGreevy has made big strides,” UCSB coach Andrew Checketts said. “He really utilized the last eight months to get better. His outing on Saturday, he was 92-95 with a better slider, and sat pretty much 93. Last year, in 2020, he wasn’t that. It was 89-92 and he’d flash a 93 here or there.”

The good news for UC Santa Barbara is that there are no wrong answers. No matter how the three weekend rotation spots shake out, it will go into the season with a high level of confidence in all three guys.

Who is a breakout pitcher to watch?

Fourth-year junior righthander Christopher Troye is a pitcher to watch. 

In his first two seasons on campus, Troye, a converted catcher, flashed a big arm but didn’t quite put it all together. In 38.1 innings between 2018 and 2019, he struck out 55, but also issued 37 walks and had a 4.70 ERA. Then, bad luck struck and he missed all of the 2020 season after requiring Tommy John surgery. 

Now healthy, he’s ready to take on a big role. His fastball was up to 97 mph in the fall and he looks the part of a ready-made answer at the back of the bullpen, where his stuff can really play up if he can command it. 

“He’s got some velocity. The command is still a little bit of a work in progress, but he’s been able to make some strides there, and the velocity is 93 to 96, he’ll bump a 97 every once in a while, and his secondary stuff has gotten better,” Checketts said. “For him, it’s going to be a matter of the strike zone and being able to throw it in there, and even for him, he doesn’t really need to have pinpoint command, he just needs to be able to throw it in the white, in the window, so he should help solidify the bullpen.”

Are there other breakout candidates on the staff?

There are a couple of other names to consider here. 

The first is fifth-year senior righthander Connor Dand, who has a 2.28 ERA in 23.2 career innings spread out over the last two seasons. Checketts was impressed with the leap he made in the fall, which included a jump in velocity. 

“His velocity has increased since he’s gotten back, his secondary stuff has gotten better, breaking ball, changeup,” Checketts said. “He threw some important innings for us last year, but I think his role will get expanded.”

Then there’s junior college transfer righthander Clayton Hall. A two-way player at Merced (Calif.) College, Hall is slated to focus solely on pitching at UCSB, where he has showcased a quick arm and has already become an analytics darling. 

Should those guys become cornerstones of the Gauchos’ pitching staff, they will pair nicely with that excellent starting rotation and other returning pieces like second-year freshman righthander J.D. Callahan, who was outstanding in his debut in 2020, and fourth-year junior righthander Conner Roberts, who had 24 strikeouts in 17.2 innings after transferring in from the junior college level before last season. 

Long story short, if it all goes according to script, UCSB will boast impressive depth on the mound next season. 

Who is the most important returner among position players?

This honor probably goes to fifth-year senior shortstop McClain O’Connor, who had his chance to sign as a free agent and begin his pro career, but instead decided to return to UC Santa Barbara. 

He’s a good defender at an important defensive position, and even though he hit just .238 in 2020, he has a decent track record at the plate, what with a .325/.393/.503 slash line in 2019. 

That, combined with those intangible things that can’t really be measured, make O’Connor the answer here. 

“He’s a plus defender, he can run, he’s got some leadership skills, he plays with his hair on fire, he’s got an infectious personality when he’s out on the field, (and) it’s really good for the younger guys to see someone play that fast and with that much energy and intensity,” Checketts said. “He really reminds me a lot, in terms of the field leader and the way he goes about his business, of J.J. Muno, who was on that 2016 World Series team, who pretty much ran that club.”

That’s high praise for O’Connor, but it speaks to how important a piece he is for this particular UCSB team. 

Who will make the offense go?

UCSB lost a lot of position player talent after the 2019 season, which set 2020 up to be something of a “start over team” on offense, as Checketts put it. 

The Gauchos hit .237/.330/.360 during that retooling season, but infielder Marcos Castanon was a bright spot, hitting .288/.354/.525 with four home runs, the most in the Big West. It’s certainly not inconceivable that Castanon ends up as a real candidate for Big West player of the year had the full 2020 played out, and he seems like the player most likely to make the UCSB offense go next season. 

According to Checketts, the strides he took last year had to do with maturity as much as anything else. 

“We did see Marcos Castanon really mature and turn into a more complete hitter (and be) in control of himself emotionally,” Checketts said. “That’s something that he struggled with early in his career. (He) would get frustrated and get himself out.”

But the Gauchos offense will likely be better next season just by virtue of being healthier, and if there’s a silver lining about the fact that they will go nearly a year between games, it’s the fact that it has given them time to get healthy. 

O’Connor is among those who were banged up last season, as is utilityman Jason Willow, who has been a key piece in the lineup for three seasons. Improvement might come for those two from just being healthy. 

Third-year sophomore outfielder Bryce Willits, who hit .325/.377/.448 as a freshman at Saint Mary’s in 2019, is eligible after sitting out last season after transferring and he’s also healthy after having labrum surgery last year. Checketts projects him to hit right in the middle of the order and be an impact bat. 

With the pitching staff UCSB has, the offense probably won’t have to do a ton of heavy lifting, but at the very least, there’s plenty of reason to believe that it will be an improved unit next season. 

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