OMAHA, NE- By just about any measure, it wasn’t a great 2018 season for Michigan State. They stumbled out of the gate, starting the season 0-5, and then went 0-5 to begin Big Ten play. Even as they bounced back as the season wore on, they finished 20-32 overall and 11-12 in the Big Ten.
They struggled with injuries, including those to starting shortstop Royce Ando and to pitcher Andrew Gonzalez, who had been a valuable swingman through his first three seasons in the program. Some other guys simply didn’t have seasons indicative of their abilities. On the pitching staff, just three pitchers had season ERAs lower than 4.00, and as a team, they hit just .244.
After looking dead in the water for much of the season, though, MSU showed a ton of character down the stretch to make something of the season. Needing to win a series over Ohio State just to get into the Big Ten Tournament, the Spartans came back from a heart-breaking loss in the series opener where they carried a 6-5 lead into the ninth inning to win the final two games of the series and quality for the event.
Once they got into the tournament, they played well, but came up short in a pair of one-run losses to Minnesota (3-2) and Indiana (6-5). On the surface, those two losses appear to be a team that struggled much of the year bowing out quietly in a situation where they were undermanned. Perhaps that’s true to a certain degree, but looking at the macro view, the takeaway from the last two weeks of their season could be seen as a team with a young core finding themselves, playing their best baseball down the stretch, and foreboding what might be a return to MSU contending for the postseason in 2019.
For evidence, look no further than the lineups they ran out there during their two games at the Big Ten tournament, which were largely reflective of the lineups they used throughout the regular season.
The two table setters, outfielders Danny Gleaves (.272 BA, 25 SB) and Bryce Kelley (.271 BA, 33 SB) were both sophomores. Gleaves enjoyed a solid step forward in 2018 after a nice freshman campaign, while a potential return to Kelley’s freshman form, when he hit .353 with a .416 on-base percentage, would be a huge boon for the 2019 offense. Either way, the pair promises to be a fairly formidable team at the top of the MSU lineup that pushes the issue on the base paths.
“Two sophomores, Gleaves and Kelly, the way they affect the game on the bases is something that’s pretty special,” Michigan State head coach Jake Boss, Jr. says. “The single-season stolen bases leader at Michigan State (Kelley’s 33) and both of those guys were instrumental in setting the team stolen base record. We’ve been around for 134 years, so anytime you set a record, I think it’s something that’s pretty special.”
Then you have a sophomore in Justin Antoncic (.270 BA, 14 SB) and a freshman in Zach Iverson (.252 BA) right in the middle of the lineup. Neither of them put up numbers you would expect from the spots in the lineup where you traditionally place your biggest run producers, but there were times when each of them were doing some heavy lifting offensively.
Antoncic, in fact, had one of his best offensive weekends for the club against what was their toughest non-conference competition. In the Big Ten/Pac-12 tournament up at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, he went 6-for-15 against Washington, UCLA, and Arizona. Iverson, meanwhile, forced himself into the starting lineup every day by hitting .303 going into the team’s series against Niagara in mid-March, and he had a ten-game hitting streak later in the year that stretched from April 7th to April 25th.
Another freshman infielder, Ryan King, played a significant role, hitting .259 in 38 games, 37 of which were starts. And while neither of them were standouts offensively in their respective first years in the program, the catching duo of Adam Proctor and Nic Lacayo is also slated to return, giving MSU some stability at one of the most important positions on the field.
Getting a healthy Ando back will be huge as well. He hit .281 with a .353 on-base percentage in a full season in 2017 and was hitting .286 in 16 games in 2018 before going down to injury. Dan Chmielewski didn’t miss nearly the time that Ando did in 2018, but he was shuttled in and out of the lineup over the second half of the season and didn’t appear in either of the team’s games in Omaha after hitting .223 on the season. A return to his steady form of 2017, when he hit .275 with 11 doubles and went 12-for-13 in stolen bases, would be a welcome sight for the Spartans.
A linchpin piece could also be Marty Bechina. Through his three seasons in East Lansing, he’s been productive. As a freshman, he hit .260 with 11 doubles, followed that up with a sophomore season where he got on base at a .396 clip with seven home runs, and in 2018, his average was down to a career-low .247, but he had six homers and a career-low 30 strikeouts.
Even still, it seems fair to assume that there’s more production in there somewhere. In the summer of 2016, he hit .316 with Kenosha in the Northwoods League, with 16 doubles and six home runs, while also winning the league’s home run derby. Last summer in the Cape Cod League, he hit .262 with eight homers for Falmouth. Perhaps, after being passed over in this year’s draft, his senior season will be the stage for the talented Chicago native to put it all together.
Clearly, there will be plenty of familiar faces back in the lineup, and steady improvement just from those who are already in the fold in East Lansing should bring about better offensive production in 2019. Boss understands this is the area in which his team needs to show the most improvement, and maybe there was even a little hint things were already heading in the right direction with the way they finished the year.
“We weren’t pleased with where we were offensively,” Boss says. “I don’t think that’s any secret. I think there’s some mechanical things that we need to change with a few guys. They have all summer and all fall to work on that. I think we got pull happy a little bit too much, especially early in the season, and then it was kind of tough to kind of get back to staying in the middle of the field, which is what we’ve always tried to do. There will be an emphasis on that, obviously, in the fall.
“I thought we did our best job of competing at the plate the last couple of weekends, fouling balls off, getting deep into counts. Take a page out of Minnesota’s book, really. You watch those guys hit, you can’t strike them out, and if you do, you’ve thrown ten pitches to them.”
On the pitching staff, let’s get the departures out of the way first, because they are pretty significant. Gone is Ethan Landon, a three-year contributor who threw 218 innings with a 4.09 career ERA, mostly as a member of the weekend rotation. Also moving on is Jake Lowery, who’s been as steady as steady could be in the bullpen over four years. He appeared in 91 games in an MSU uniform, throwing 153 innings with a 170/43 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 3.06 ERA.
Finally, there’s Riley McCauley, the most dynamic arm on the 2017 Michigan State pitching staff. An experiment to move him into the weekend rotation early in the season didn’t quite take, but upon being moved into a bullpen role again, he flourished. From a period of time between April 8th, his first appearance back in the bullpen, against Nebraska, and May 13th, when he threw a scoreless two-thirds of an inning against Minnesota, he didn’t allow a single earned run, and during which time he knocked his ERA down by nearly a run-and-a-half. That came after a 2017 season where he had a 2.10 ERA and a 49/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25.2 innings. A 14th-round selection of the Chicago Cubs in the draft, McCauley is now in pro baseball.
At the same time, this isn’t an empty cupboard situation from a pitching standpoint.
With Landon gone, Mason Erla, a redshirt freshman in 2018, is a natural fit to slide to the top of the MSU rotation. He went 6-4 with a 3.73 ERA and a .216 opponent batting average, and he saved some of his best work for last. Against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, he threw six innings, giving up one hit and one run along the way. The Hoosiers didn’t have a hit against Erla in that game until the sixth inning, when a Matt Lloyd RBI single broke up the no-hitter and the shutout all at once.
He had some other nice outings along the way against the likes of Pepperdine (5 IP, 2 H, 0 R), Niagara (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 9 K), Rutgers (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R), and Ohio State (5 IP, 6 H, 1 R), but considering the opponent and the moment, his start against IU stands out as likely his best work.
“Mason has got a chance to be very good,” Boss says. “I think he’s had a tough road the last couple of years. He got hurt playing football in high school and missed his senior year. Made two starts for us (in 2017) and then left the game in, I think, the second inning of his second start with a torn lat. So basically missed all of last year as well. Didn’t pitch in the fall for us. He just kept getting better and better and better as the year went on.”
As predictably good as Lowery was out of the bullpen last year, there’s a statistical argument to be made that the returning Mitchell Tyranski was actually the more effective reliever of the two last year. He threw 44.2 innings over 27 appearances with a 2.42 ERA, five saves, a 54/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .227 opponent batting average.
With three different outings of at least four innings, he has some versatility, which gives the MSU staff some options. He could be the next Lowery in terms of being a bullpen stalwart for four years (Tyranski had 17 appearances in relief in 2017), or perhaps they move him in the same direction as McCauley and give him a crack at starting games, knowing that they can move him back into a relief role if need be.
Another key piece returning is Mike Mokma, who stepped up into the rotation when McCauley moved back into the bullpen. He had some growing pains in the role initially, but put his best foot forward late in the year when he threw 5.1 innings against Minnesota, giving up six hits and two runs, and threw seven innings against Ohio State, giving up six hits and one run.
He’ll give the coaching staff some options as well. He clearly showed some development as a starting pitcher, but he was quite good in a relief role earlier in the year. Over the first month of the season, from February 18 to March 16, he had a 0.68 ERA out of the bullpen.
Perhaps the 2019 season looks, on the mound, a little bit like the 2018 season looked in the field, with several young players we haven’t been introduced to yet holding down important roles. But even if that’s the case, there’s still a foundation here for success with that unit, especially given this program’s proven ability to develop pitchers.
Just in the last five years, they’ve developed and put Alex Troop, Joe Mockbee, Walter Borkovich, Nathan Witt, Cam Vieaux, Dakota Mekkes, Jeff Kinley, Anthony Misiewicz, Mick VanVossen, Andrew Waszak, and David Garner into pro baseball.
Add it all up and you have a situation where Boss is confident the future is bright.
“We were playing four and five freshmen at times during the course of the year,” Boss said. “Not only freshmen, but a couple of sophomores in Gleaves, Kelley, and Antoncic. We were running out freshmen and sophomores seven out of nine guys, I think, at times this year. We’ve made some young mistakes all year long, that’s to be expected, but the key is now they can go out and play summer ball and get better, and come back next fall a little bit more seasoned and ready to compete…A lot of youth, I think we’ve got some incoming kids that are very, very talented as well that will push the returning guys, so we’re excited about the future.”