2017 Season Preview: Part I - Pitchers
One year after winning the regular and postseason Patriot League crowns and collecting 43 wins, the expectations are high once again for the Navy Midshipmen in 2017. Picked second in the preseason Patriot League poll, 12th-year head coach Paul Kostacopoulos and his staff will work with a roster that returns nine starters, six on offense and three in the pitching rotation. Led by that experience, the Mids will look to incorporate a large freshmen class that will help the team’s depth and versatility. Navy is in search of a Patriot League record eighth championship as it is currently tied for first with Army with seven titles over the first 25 years of the conference. The Mids have reached the postseason in each of the past six seasons.
Similar to past seasons, a good mixture of talent across the classes has helped Navy go into 2017 with three quarters of its starting rotation intact. While 75 percent returns that one senior to graduate from the rotation will leave a large hole as two-time All-American and MLB Draftee Luke Gillingham departs after a standout four-year career. Over his last two combined seasons wearing the blue and gold, Gillingham hurled over 175 innings, struck out 204 batters and won 16 games. The senior duo of RHP Kyle Condry and RHP George Coughlin, as well as the reigning Patriot League Rookie of the Year sophomore RHP Noah Song will give the Mids a very solid foundation to lean on, especially early on as the team auditions a few different arms for the fourth and fifth starting roles that see time in weekend and midweek action. Kostacopoulos notes sophomore LHP Rece Goodman and freshman LHP Austin Rader as early favorites for roles at the back of the rotation.
Condry has been a consistent member of Navy’s staff over his first three years on the team. A versatile pitcher who has seen time in both starting and relief roles, he is projected as a full-time starter for the Mids in 2017. In 15 appearances with 10 starts in 2016, Condry went 6-1 with a 3.76 ERA and 61 strikeouts over 64.2 innings pitched. Amongst Patriot League starters with 50 or more innings pitched, he ranked fourth in wins, fifth in strikeouts and sixth in ERA.
“Kyle has really developed a lot over his four years,” remarked Kostacopoulos. “Over the fall he worked on and now really has good feel for his changeup. His fastball has enough to be effective versus the opposition. The key for his success this season will be getting ahead in counts and making good pitches.”
Unlike his classmate Condry, Coughlin has been a mainstay in the starting rotation for the Mids since midway through his freshman season. A starter in 33 of his 40 collegiate appearances, Coughlin has really locked in on missing bats over his past two seasons with 134 combined strikeouts and opponents’ batting averages of .238 in 2015 and .257 in 2016. In the hierarchy of Patriot League starting pitchers, Coughlin posted the fourth highest strikeout total (62), fourth lowest ERA (3.09) and threw the fifth most innings (70.0).
“George is a difficult at bat for opponents because he mixes three pitches that keep batters off-balance and from getting in a flow in the box,” said Kostacopoulos. “Location and differing his speeds is important to George’s plan of attack.”
The most heralded of Navy’s three returning starting pitchers, Song is looking to improve off of a 2016 season that saw the California native earn Freshman All-America honors from both Louisville Slugger and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, in addition to his nod as the Patriot League Rookie of the Year. Finishing his first collegiate campaign with a 9-3 record, 2.75 ERA, 57 strikeouts and .182 opponents’ batting average over 75.1 innings pitched, Song joined the Mids’ starting rotation on the fourth weekend of the season and never looked back. The right-handed pitcher had a hand in five of Navy’s 12 shutouts with three complete game shutouts and two more combined efforts. Nationally, Song ended 2016 ranked top-50 in the NCAA Division I in three categories: hits allowed per nine innings (13th-5.85), WHIP (16th-0.96) and total wins (43rd).
“Noah has had a really good offseason,” noted Kostacopoulos. “He has really good stuff and can get outs with his fastball and breaking ball. There is a lot of life in his pitches and that makes for uncomfortable at bats. The one thing that we’re looking for him to continue getting better at is controlling his pitch count.”
The underclass duo of left-handed pitchers Goodman and Rader will initially see relief and midweek duties as the team won’t need a fourth weekend starter until Mid-March with a four-game series versus New York Tech.
Goodman has a slight experience edge on Rader as he hurled 10.2 innings over four appearances in 2016. Goodman, a California southpaw made starts at Towson and Georgetown before seeing relief action in the NCAA Tournament versus No. 17 North Carolina State. Rader joins the starter competition after a strong high school career in northwest Virginia at Woodgrove High School. Rader garnered Second All-State Group 4A honors as a senior last spring.
“Rece and Austin are the two players we’re looking at right now for the end of the rotation,” said Kostacopoulos. “Both are lefties so that is important in diversifying our rotation, especially in a four-game conference series. Rece was able to gain some important experience last season with a few starts and then some innings in the NCAA so that should help him. Austin has impressed us in the preseason and has really thrown the ball well, especially since coming back from winter break.”
Graduation and commissioning into the United States Marine Corps took with it two of Navy’s most used and successful relievers in recent history. The duo of Sam Sorenson and Andrew Bartek left the program ranked first and fourth all-time in appearances, respectively as Sorenson took the ball in 87 contests and recorded 11 wins and 14 saves, while Bartek pitched in 63 games with nine wins and four saves over his four years.
The 2017 edition of Navy’s relief corps will be a mixture of experience and inexperienced arms that will be competing for a variety of different roles.
“Our bullpen is our biggest work-in-progress right now,” remarked Kostacopoulos. “We won’t have that classic look with a closer and designated setup men, but as a team everyone will compete and fulfill their assigned role when the time comes. We have good depth, but as a whole we’re fairly inexperienced so getting everyone reps will be important, especially in non-conference play.”
RHP Jett Meenach is the most senior of the 11 pitchers, who are initially slated for work out of the bullpen. An infielder during his freshman season in 2014, Meenach transitioned to the mound prior to the 2015 season and he’s been a revelation for the Mids since as he’s posted an 8-0 record with six saves and a 2.65 ERA in 47 games over 78.0 combined innings pitched the last two years. A durable reliever, who can pitch multiple innings, Meenach will be trusted in high-leverage late-inning duty for Navy.
“Jett is our most experienced bullpen arm and has done a good job for us in the back end over the past two years,” remarked Kostacopoulos. “His ability to keep his pitches low and get ground balls is such an important asset for us.”
Sophomore RHP Andrew Sauer is the second in line to get the call for late-inning action as 2017 begins. After a slow start to his career with intermittent appearances over the first two months of play, Sauer came on down the stretch for the Mids with three postseason outings resulting in 5.0 innings of scoreless, six strikeout ball. He pitched 2.0 innings versus Bucknell in the Patriot League semifinals before tossing 3.0 for Navy in the NCAA Tournament.
“Andrew is a young, but very talented arm in the bullpen,” said Kostacopoulos. “He came on late in the year and will be leaned on quite a bit for us, especially early on when we are still structuring our staff.”
Sharing a similar career arc to that of Meenach, junior RHP Sean Kamhoot is looking to reinvent himself as a pitcher after a quiet two seasons as a positional player. Possessing a strong arm from his days as an outfielder, the junior has worked with pitching coach Bobby Applegate to work on the particulars of being an effective pitcher at the collegiate level and has impressed those around the program with his potential.
“After two years as a position player, Sean has really emerged this offseason,” remarked Kostacopoulos. “He has a heavy fastball that will surprise batters. He’s still learning some of the intricacies, but he has a lot of potential.”
Senior LHP Brian Wikoff is shaping up to be the Mids’ top left-handed reliever in 2017 after being sidelined due to an injury during 2016. After seeing sparse action as a freshman in 2014, Wikoff started expanding his role in the bullpen as a sophomore and hurled 11.0 innings with 11 strikeouts, while holding his opponents to a .233 batting average. Last season, Wikoff stayed active with the club as a student manager.
“Brian is coming off an injury, so shaking that rust off and getting his mechanics back will be important at the start,” Kostacopoulos said. “As the season advances, he could prove to be a vital left-handed relief option for us.”
Navy’s second most active returning reliever from 2016 is sophomore RHP Jackson Zoch. The California native appeared in 15 games and threw 22.1 innings as plebe. Zoch showed glimpses of swing-and-miss potential as during one stretch of competition he recorded seven strikeouts over 3.0 combined innings. Trusted in conference play, the right-hander pitched in four of Navy’s five regular season Patriot League series.
“Jackson has been dealing with some soreness over fall ball, but has been able to give it a go this preseason,” commented Kostacopoulos. “He was one of our more used relievers last season so he brings back with him some important experience.”
Junior RHP Colin Brady will serve as another experienced option for Navy out of the bullpen as the third-year pitcher has seen time in both starting and relief assignments. Over his first two seasons, Brady has pitched in 25 games with nine starts in midweek action over 54.0 innings.
“Colin has received quite a bit of work in both starting and relieving roles over his first two seasons and we envision him filling that swing role again,” said Kostacopoulos. “He has shown glimpses of his talent, but just needs to show better consistency.”
Amongst the group of young, inexperienced relievers that will provide depth and slowly get competitive collegiate reps in 2017 include one sophomore in J.P. Colton and four plebes in the form of Nicholas Elder, Jamie Honeycutt, Trey Seabrooke and Thomas Wilson.