Can Texas bounce back after a disappointing season at the plate?
In case you missed Part One of the 2020 baseball season preview, we discussed which pitchers to look out for as the Texas Longhorns season gets started this weekend against the Rice Owls.
In part two, we’ll go over the half of baseball with an extensive look into the Texas batters. Last season, both the fielding and hitting the Longhorns produced was well below par what was expected preseason — especially at the plate. In fact, here’s an unfortunate rundown of just how bad the Texas bats were in 2019:
NCAA rankings are out of 300 teams
Batting Average — .250 (Last in Big 12, 236th in NCAA)
Runs per Game — 5.3 (8th in Big 12, 204th in NCAA)
Hits per Game — 8 (Last in Big 12, 241st in NCAA)
Home Runs per Game — 0.5 (Last in Big 12, 223rd in NCAA)
Slugging Percentage — .350 (Last in Big 12, 246th in NCAA)
Without a doubt, it was the hitting woes that served as the biggest catalyst in a lost 2019 season.
You can chalk up that season as some part a regression from losing multiple contributors from the 2018 team, some part inexperience and a lack of skill, and some part on the coaches. In truth, it was a combination of all three of these things, as well as accepting the bitter truth that the 2019 team maybe just wasn’t that good.
But, there’s three concrete reasons I’d like to point out that should help Texas fans come around and expect this team to return to a level of play that would get the Longhorns back into the NCAA Tournament.
For starters, with how bad last season’s team was on paper, it’s reasonable to believe that Texas can only go up from here. Some of the production from last 2019 season will be replaced by incoming talent, and while that’s not usually a recipe for success in college baseball, it’s worth noting that Texas did have the No. 10 recruiting class according to Baseball America and an intriguing group of JUCO transfers.
Second, of the players returning to prominent roles, Texas is getting reliable or potentially exceptional production. Players such as Eric Kennedy, (who was named to the preseason All-Big 12 Team) Austin Todd, Duke Ellis, and Zach Zubia accounted for most of the offensive production from last season.
Last, though many have labeled David Pierce as a coach on the hot seat, he and his staff of assistants have a track record of building up young teams that meet or exceed their potential. Last season was his first season as a head coach that didn’t end with his team in the NCAA Tournament, and the first in which his team failed to win at least 35 games. Last year Texas went 27-27 — a record of 35-19 in the Big 12 should be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. Based on history, it’s a good bet to place Pierce and the Horns back in the Tourney come May.
But ultimately, how well Texas does will come down to the players. Texas will a have a handful of returning faces, but a whole lot of new ones that should contribute early on. Here’s the players you should know heading into the 2020 season.
The infield is where Pierce and his coaching staff have room to get creative, with many of the projected starters being new or incoming players. But Texas can look to first base for some stability, as Zach Zubia is set to start there. There’s a chance Zubia will DH, but word out of the Forty Acres camp is that ZZ will man the corner to start the year. Zubia, a redshirt junior, had a disappointing season last year after a breakout freshman campaign. But even in a “down” year, Zubia provided an excellent OBP (.385) and led the team in homers (5). He’s a good bet to that again this year.
Second base is a little trickier to predict, and I see this as more of an “experimental” position early on in the season before a regular starter is chosen. Last season, Lance Ford provided one of the better gloves on the team in his first season in college ball. Now entering his sophomore season, it’s likely Pierce will give him some work at 2B and possibly SS or OF, but he’ll need to improve his batting numbers in order to be a regular starter.
Pushing Ford is incoming freshman Brenden Dixon. Dixon, ranked as the 60th best in-state recruit by Perfect Game, has been talked up by Pierce as a player who could possibly be seen at every infield position, but specifically was mentioned as having the inside track for the 2B starting job in this NCAA.com report. I expect Pierce to give playing time to the players who earn it, regardless of class or previous years’ performance. So don’t be surprised if Dixon starts, but is pulled in favor of Ford if the freshman encounters early struggles.
Shortstop and third base are practically set in stone, with Texas expected to dive head first into its youth movement and use their top two 2019 recruits at these spots. At short, fans can expect Trey Faltine and at the hot corner, Andre Duplantier.
Both Faltine and Duplantier have been covered extensively on Burnt Orange Nation, since both were top 300 prospects who have long been committed to Texas. This article from last May highlights what can be expected from these two, but the main point is this — these are two of the best recruits Texas has had come in and play immediately in a long time. Both Faltine and Duplantier should be capable of handling their own on the left side of the infield. Both have strong arms, quick hands and should provide a good fielding combo. There’s a chance they may struggle at the plate in their first season of college ball and put up underwhelming numbers for parts of the season, but their potential over the next three years is too much to let sit on the bench.
Lastly, at the catcher position, it’s looking like DJ Petrinsky should be ready to go for the start fo this season. Petrinsky suffered a shoulder injury early last season, which forced now-graduated Michael McCann and Caston Peter into action. The catchers struggled at the plate last season, with McCann and Peter posting some of the worst numbers on the team. Hopefully Petrinsky is truly healthy and can play the full season, but if he were to miss time, Texas can rely on a combination of Peter and incoming freshman Silas Ardoin to produce in his stead. Ardoin was another big get for Pierce in the 2019 recruiting class, and he’s expected to take the job next year once Petrinsky graduates. Expect for him to get some reps this season in relief of Petrinsky, but this should be DJ’s year to start.
There’s also a few utility guys to note, and they could be seen at DH, in the infield or even the outfield. Freshman Douglas Hodo could find himself in the outfield if any of the starters miss time, or at DH to start the season. Hodo has reportedly shown great speed and athleticism in fall ball, which makes sense given that he was All State at Boerne High in baseball, and lettered all four years in football and track. He also finished his career second in Texas high school baseball history with 106 career stolen bases. If Texas is looking for speed out of their DH slot, they will go with Hodo.
Other options include two transfers, Cam Williams and Murphy Stehly. Williams has been discussed at BON before, and many expect the San Jacinto transfer to provide power and, like Hodo, could come off the bench to play in the outfield or potentially the infield. Stehly is a more well-rounded hitter, and played in the exceptional California Community College league at Orange Coast College under under the late John Altobelli. Stehly brings great plate discipline to the Horns, as well as a good defensive range that would lend well to playing in the middle infield positions.
Unlike the infield, which is undergoing an almost complete transition to new and incoming players, the outfield is expected to be patrolled by three returning players — two of whom are seniors. It’s likely a few of these guys will take days off and be replaced by one of the UTIL guys mentioned above, but barring injury, this will be your 2020 Texas outfield.
The best hitter for Texas last season was Eric Kennedy, who led the team in nearly every statistical category. Now entering his sophomore season, Kennedy is expected to once again be the best hitter for the Longhorns. Kennedy provides a well-rounded game — some speed, power, good fielding and good contact — and the hope for many Longhorns is that he’ll take a leap in his game and become a massive threat to opposing teams.
One of the leaders of the team, senior Duke Ellis has been a source of speed and good defense for the Longhorns for the past three seasons. Last season he led the Longhorns in stolen bases, going a perfect 17 for 17. Patient at the plate, Ellis commands a spot at the top of the batting order due to a ridiculous OBP (.411). Ellis is as steady and solid as they come — you know exactly what you’re getting and what to expect from each game, but he needs to improve his strikeout rate.
The last outfield spot will be manned by senior Austin Todd. At the beginning of last season, Todd was the best hitter for the Longhorns, and for a while he single-handedly carried the team’s offensive production. Unfortunately, Todd’s season slowed down, and it mirrored the whole team’s success as he and the Longhorns struggled in the second half of the year. Still, he finished with the most RBIs (38) on the team, and serves as another veteran leader for a young group. There’s the chance of injury and inconsistency with Todd, but when he’s on — and a better team around him this season should elevate his game, as well — he’s one of the better all-around hitters on the team.
Of course with baseball, sometimes you just never know what will happen. Here’s to hoping the Longhorns can get back to where they were two seasons ago. If you’ve made it this far, I hope to see you at the Disch this spring. As always, Hook ‘em.
Source: Burnt Orange Nation