“Beesball” fans have reasons to be optimistic about this upcoming season: the Jackets enter 2016 ranked No. 21 in the nation and possess one of the best freshman classes in the country. Although the team lost mainstay players in A.J. Murray, Daniel Spingola, and Thomas Smith from 2015, they are returning 20 letterwinners from last year and have plenty of talent to make another run at an ACC championship and the NCAA tournament.
Three of Tech’s four infield starters from 2015 return for this season, and all four projected starters have some valuable experience under their belts.
Junior catcher Arden Pabst is one of the best defensive catchers in the country, as he led the ACC in runners caught stealing (25) and caught stealing percentage (.445) and committed just one error all year. He was named one of the team’s two captains for this season along with pitcher Jonathan King and is poised to bring his leadership and ability to the field once again.
Senior third baseman Matt Gonzalez was one of just three players to start in all 55 games in 2015, but he is the only one of those three who is back for this season. Last year he led the team in hits with 63 and tied for best on the team with 10 stolen bases. Though he started nearly 40 percent of his games in the outfield last year due to team injuries, he figures to be the team’s everyday third baseman for now.
Junior Connor Justus has been the team’s starting shortstop since he first entered school. He is a force defensively, having fielded 94 double plays in his first two seasons. Though his batting average was just .249 last season, he is a threat to score whenever he is on base, as he is tied for the team lead in runs scored among returning players with 32.
Wade Bailey made 52 starts at second base in his freshman season and returns for his sophomore campaign as the second half of the two-headed beast that is the Jackets’ middle infield. Like Justus, he does not hit for a high average but is a particularly dangerous scoring threat. Among returning players, he had the most doubles (13) and second-most hits (51), and he is expected to continue his high-volume pace this year.
Junior Brandon Gold, the dual-threat infielder and pitcher, began his playing days as a regular starter at third base in 2014 but lessened his defensive workload
in 2015 to become one of the Jackets’ starting pitchers.
It looks as though that trend will continue for 2016: with Gonzalez slated to be the regular third baseman and longtime first baseman Smith gone due to graduation, Gold will continue to focus on pitching and make semi-regular starts at first.
The outfield returns three players who made regular starts in the position, with sophomore Kel Johnson and juniors Ryan Peurifoy and Keenan Innis.
Johnson made quite an impact during his freshman season and received a myriad of accolades to show for it. He was named a Freshman All-American and placed on the ACC All-Freshman and All-ACC Academic teams.
Johnson set a new national record with 17 home runs in the first round of the College Home Run Derby and has shown a consistent ability to hit for extra bases and knock runners home (posting a .570 slugging percentage, 30 extra-base hits, and 34 RBIs in 40 games). As long as he avoids the proverbial sophomore slump, he will help the Jackets win quite a few games this year.
Peurifoy made 26 starts and saw action in 43 games last year while leading the team with a .324 batting average and a .386 on-base percentage. His .451 slugging percentage is second-best after Johnson’s among returning players. With the departure of Spingola, he is projected to be an everyday starter in the outfield.
Innis’s .310 batting average was second only to Peurifoy, and his .987 fielding percentage was the best among outfielders in 2015. He also posted 15 multi-hit games, showcasing his consistency.
Fittingly enough, it is very well possible that Tech’s season opener, a home contest against Purdue, could be won on the strength of the Jackets’ pitching. The Jackets have experienced arms and exciting youth, including a pair of freshmen who spurned the professional draft in favor of attending Tech. As the year wears on, this combination of quality top-end talent and youth could prove the difference in close matchups against a typically excellent ACC schedule.
Ben Parr returns to the mound in third year as a Jacket. He experienced a whirlwind freshman season pitching in 2014, one in which he maintained a 2.62 ERA and showed a remarkable ability to bounce back from rough first innings.
Last season was a step back; his earned run average rose to 3.44 while he maintained the 5-4 record he tallied in his freshman year. Parr impressed, though, by showing versatility as both a starter and a bullpen arm. He has typically performed his best as a midweek starter, so Tech head coach Danny Hall may emphasize slotting him in that part of the rotation.
Junior Brandon Gold ended his 2015 season in impressive fashion, winning third-team All-ACC honors as a starting pitcher. Calling Gold a starting pitcher, however, is a massive understatement; he made starts as a designated hitter, first baseman and third baseman as well, not to mention his rather impressive .273 average at the plate. A product of Johns Creek High School, Gold has cemented himself as an essential member of the team, on the mound, at the plate and as an infielder.
Redshirt junior and All-ACC Academic hurler Jonathan King was quietly effective, amassing a 4-5 record with a 3.82 ERA. While King’s record suggests a regression from his 2014 season, which saw him win both of his decisions with a 1.96 ERA before losing the remainder of the season to injury, his losses were in large part the result of poor run support. Most glaring was his performance in the season opener against No. 8 Miami, in which a good performance was lost thanks to a scoreless effort by the offense. The odds are good that King’s record improves this season.
Perhaps the most fascinating storyline in Tech’s starting lineup will be the return of redshirt senior Cole Pitts. Pitts suffered an elbow injury in 2014 that necessitated Tommy John surgery, historically a death knell for promising pitching talent but less so in recent years thanks to advancements in the procedure.
Last season served as a recovery year for Pitts; his ERA ballooned to 6.90 and he failed to secure a win, and he threw 11 wild pitches (as opposed to five in his first three seasons combined.) A successful return to form would serve as an inspiration for the rest of his team, not to mention a boost to an already strong projected rotation.
The Jackets welcome aboard a wealth of young talent this season, including seven freshman relievers. They will join a veteran nucleus to form what will likely be a bullpen to be reckoned with.
The 2016 Stopper of the Year Award Watch List released Feb. 15 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association named none other than Tech junior Zac Ryan to the list. There is little doubt Ryan deserves to be considered one of the top relievers in the game.
Appearing in 28 games last season Ryan tallied nine out of ten wins and ended the season with the second best ERA on Tech’s roster.. His consistency and experience in tough situations will serve the team well.
Coming in just two appearances less than Ryan, Matthew Gorst made 26 appearances last season. With three out of five wins and a single save, Gorst had some difficulty ending the season on the same high note that he began it with. The junior has the makings to improve.
Adding to Tech’s talent, Tristin English and Jonathan Hughes turned down MLB offers from the Cleveland Indians and the Baltimore Orioles to attend Tech.