Our offseason coverage rolls on, as we continue to pinpoint the toughest sets of shoes to fill in some of the best conferences in college baseball.
Today, we’re talking Big 12, so let’s get going.
Thomas Hatch- Oklahoma State
After the 2015 season, the Cowboys had a hole at the front of their starting rotation thanks to the departure of ace Michael Freeman.
Enter Thomas Hatch.
The righty was coming off of missing the entire 2015 campaign due to injury and was two years removed from an up-and-down freshman season where he did a little bit of both starting and relieving, so it was tough to predict what head coach Josh Holliday and staff were going to get from Hatch as a member of the rotation.
What they got was an outstanding season that saw the Tulsa native go 9-3 with a 2.14 ERA. In 130.1 innings of work, he struck out 112, walked just 33, and opponents hit .233 against him on the way to leading his team to their first College World Series appearance since 1999.
The trouble now is that Holliday and company will once again be in the place they were last offseason, looking for someone to step into the role of staff ace. That’s going to be a tough ask, but with the likes of Tyler Buffett returning after spurning the Houston Astros and Trey Cobb doing the same to the Cubs, they certainly have options.
Michael Tinsley- Kansas
You can be forgiven for not knowing of the exploits of Michael Tinsley, catcher for the Kansas Jayhawks. After all, his team won no more than 23 games in either of the two seasons in which Tinsley was a full-time player. But now you’ll have no excuse because we’re about to tell you all about him. In short, the guy raked during his time in a KU uniform.
He actually had a solid debut as a freshman in a limited role for the 2014 Kansas team that got into a regional. In 61 at-bats, he hit .361 with a .426 on-base percentage. Looking to prove that his success at the plate was scalable, he had a breakout season as a sophomore in 2015, hitting .337 with a .407 on-base percentage and 15 doubles. He also walked (24) more often than he struck out (19). He followed that up with a 2016 season that saw him hit .377 with a .460 on-base percentage and 15 doubles. Once again, he walked (32) more than he struck out (18), but this time by a much wider margin.
To really hammer home how important he was to the offense in 2016, he led the squad in average, runs scored (47), hits (80), doubles, RBI (42), walks, and stolen bases (9). He was also the only player to play in (and start) all 56 games.
Players as effective and durable as Tinsley don’t come along very often, particularly at a program that is not among the true blue bloods in the game. And that’s what will make it so tough to replace him.
Eric Gutierrez- Texas Tech
If there is a player who really personifies this era of Texas Tech baseball, featuring two trips to the College World Series in three seasons, it’s Gutierrez, the team’s four-year starter at first base.
In 2013, in a season that was otherwise forgettable for the Red Raiders, Gutierrez gave fans a taste of what was to come. On the way to being named a Freshman All-American, he hit .251 with a .377 on-base percentage, ten doubles, and seven home runs. In his sophomore campaign, he had as much to do with his team’s surprise run to Omaha as anyone, as he put up a .302/.399/.539 slash line with 18 doubles, 12 homers, and 58 RBI.
The 2015 season, by comparison, was both a down year for Tech as a team and in many ways for Gutierrez individually, but for almost anyone else, it would have been a standout year, as he put together a .315/.444/.443 slash line with 14 doubles, four home runs, and 46 RBI.
His senior season, then, very closely mimicked his sophomore year, both in terms of personal production and the team’s results. He capped off his career by hitting .333/.465/.581 with 17 doubles, 13 homers, and 60 RBI on the way to leading the team back to Omaha. It’s safe to say that Gutierrez is going to go down as one of the all-time greats in Texas Tech history, and so it goes without saying that he leaves a huge hole to fill.
Donnie Walton- Oklahoma State
Any time a guy is a three-time First-Team All-Big 12 player, you’ve got a pretty good player on your hands, and those are precisely the superlatives that Walton earned over his four-year career with the Cowboys.
As a freshman in 2013, he was “just” honorable mention All-Big 12 and a member of the Big 12 All-Freshman Team as he hit .287 with a .372 on-base percentage while splitting time between second base and shortstop. In 2014, he hit .310 with a .407 on-base percentage and 15 doubles as the team’s starter at shortstop for all 66 games.
His battled injuries during the 2015 season, limiting him to 39 games, but he made the most of them, hitting .326 with a .410 on-base percentage, again primarily manning a premium defensive position at shortstop. After the season, he was drafted in the 23rd round by the Milwaukee Brewers, but he decided to come back for one more go ’round.
Given how things went, it’s safe to say that coming back for one more season paid off in a big way. Not only did he set an armful of career highs, including batting average at .337, on-base percentage at .428, doubles with 16, RBI with 44, and stolen bases with 14, but he helped lead his team back to the College World Series.
Walton’s four years in Stillwater neatly coincide with the first time OSU has won 40 or more games in a season since doing it for ten years straight between 1989 and 1999, the last season of that run, of course, being the last time the Cowboys had been to the College World Series until Walton (and Hatch) led them back this past season. That’s no coincidence.
Sheldon Neuse- Oklahoma
Somewhat quietly, Neuse has been among the more consistent and dynamic hitters in the Big 12 over the last three seasons.
He burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2014 and delivered a .304/.369/.521 slash line with 17 doubles, seven triples, seven homers, and 47 RBI. He followed that up with a sophomore season that saw him hit .275 with ten doubles, three triples, six homers, 43 RBI, and ten stolen bases.
But he saved his best performance at the plate for his final season in Norman, as he hit .369/.465/.646 with 15 doubles, five triples, ten homers, 48 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. Throughout his career, he also steadily improved his defensive performance, going from a .922 to .952 to .980 in terms of fielding percentage.
As if that wasn’t enough, he was also a quality arm in relief. In three seasons, he threw a combined 39.1 innings with a 1.60 ERA, a .193 batting average against him, and 36 strikeouts compared to just 11 walks.
The Sooners are saying goodbye to a large group of players who have held down huge roles on the team over the last few seasons, but none will be tougher to replace than Neuse.
Chad Donato- West Virginia
Daniel Castano- Baylor
Stephen Smith- Texas Tech