Deep MSU pitching staff looks to improve in 2018

Impact Sports continues its preseason coverage of the 2018 Michigan State baseball season with today’s preview of the pitching staff. The preview for the outfield can be found here.

Almost three months ago, Michigan State baseball was left without a pitching coach. Skylar Meade left the program to accept an offer for the same position at the University of South Carolina. He coached in East Lansing for three seasons, making a significant impact in that time.

In 2016, he led the Spartan pitching staff to the NCAA’s third-best ERA. Additionally, he worked with a pitcher who has led the Big Ten in ERA the last two seasons; Dakota Mekkes in 2016 and the departed Walter Borkovich in 2017.

Coach Jake Boss Jr.’s search for a new pitching coach ended on Dec. 14, 2017 with former Spartan assistant coach Mark Van Ameyde. He spent six seasons as an assistant at MSU, then became head coach of Eastern Michigan.

The Spartans pitching staff will be led by fifth-year seniors Jake Lowery and Ethan Landon, along with junior Riley McCauley. Lowery and McCauley were recently named to the Big Ten Preseason Honors List. McCauley also garnered an honor from Perfect Game, which listed him on the preseason all-conference team.

“Depth” is the word that’s been thrown out by Boss and Van Ameyde. There’s a long list of pitchers on this ballclub with big-game experience. What it lacks: a go-to guy. In seasons past, they relied on the likes of Alex Troop and Dakota Mekkes. This year, they’ll lean on McCauley – which is a risky proposition. McCauley is a converted closer who will take the role of starter and ace. He’ll be the ‘Friday starter,’ and one can only assume he’ll see action out of the bullpen in tight games, as well.

For someone who came out of relief all spring and summer of 2017, it’ll be interesting to see how well he’s conditioned and how many innings he’ll be able to give each start. We’ll see as soon as Friday, as Boss Jr. confirmed via Spartan Sports Network that McCauley will be his opening-day starter in Fresno, Calif.

The depth will be tested early in the non-conference slate. The Spartans will have to find four starters to face the Fresno State Bulldogs opening weekend, opposed to the normal three in any regular series. Coach Boss Jr. said they’ll be careful with the arms early, but once the conference season rolls around “all bets are off.”

Returning starter Andrew Gonzalez will hear his name called early and often. Gonzalez started ten games, threw 45 total innings and salvaged a 4-4 record throughout the 2017 campaign. The former All-Big Ten Freshman selection will see more innings this season and have a larger role as a senior. Gonzalez’s ERA jumped to an unsightly 5.00 last year following an excellent 2016 season, and a return to form for the senior would give Boss Jr. another option to be confident in within the starting rotation.

6-foot-5 redshirt senior Ethan Landon was another Spartan pitcher that regressed statistically in 2017. Landon was a rock-solid starter in 2016, holding hitters to a .243 average and winning eight of his 15 starts. However, Landon’s 2017 was not as smooth, allowing a 6.29 ERA in 48 2-3 innings and seeing his number of innings nearly cut in half. If both Landon and Gonzalez have senior seasons that resemble their sophomore years, the entire staff should benefit.

Van Ameyde is familiar with sophomore Mitchell Tyranski, having recruited him and watching him pitch the summer he left. The left-handed pitcher appeared in 17 games in 2017 and posted 18 strikeouts in 16 innings last season. He was used in more of a specialist role, facing lefty hitters. He told Spartan Sports Network he wants to contribute on a larger scale, whether its facing righty hitters or starting.

Sophomore Mike Mokma is poised to expand his role and draft stock. According to baseballamerica.com, Mokma is listed as one of the Big Ten’s top 2019 draft prospects. He’ll need to miss the barrel a lot more this season. Mokma surrendered 31 hits in his 25 innings of work. He started six games and posted a 3.20 ERA.

In the bullpen, there are a handful of names that saw limited action last spring. Sophomore righty Sam Benschoter allowed zero earned runs in three innings of work last year, and will continue to develop his role in late-game situations. Fellow sophomore Caleb Sleeman walked just two batters in 12 1-3 innings last year, but did start two games, and could start midweek games later in the year.

It’s not uncommon for teams to rely on the veterans to carry the workload, but it’ll be essential that this occurs on MSU’s pitching staff in 2018. The Spartans have a lot of depth and numerous options when it comes to pitchers, but Landon, Lowery and McCauley need to carry this staff and pitch deep into ball games – especially when the conference season rolls around.

The Spartan pitchers must get on the same page with coach Van Ameyde quick, but it helps that he’s coached and recruited a lot of the older players – stemming from his first stint as an MSU coach.

We’ll get an early look at the depth that MSU pitching carries as 36 innings of baseball will be played this weekend in California. It’s all hands on-deck, but that’s nothing unusual for a Boss Jr. team.