The Frogs return the bulk of a starting pitching rotation that was as good as any in the country last year, and will only add to it’s lethality with the insertion of freshman Nick Lodolo. And while Brian Howard, Mitchell Traver, Jared Janczak, and some combination of Lodolo/Charles King/Jake Eissler will get the bulk of the innings, Jim Schlossnagle and pitching coach Kirk Saarloos will have plenty of options in the pen when the need arises.
The Frogs figured out early on that they had the heir apparent to flame-thrower Riley Ferrell in true freshman Durbin Feltman, who grabbed hold of the role and never relinquished it, notching his first career save against Abilene Christian in late March on his way to a perfect 9/9 campaign.
Feltman is as good as it gets at the collegiate level - while not the imposing figure of Ferrell on the mound, he has incredible presence and a calmness about him in the biggest of moments that is rare for a player that young. He was in pressure spots time and time again in 2016, notching post-seasons saves to clinch the Big 12 Tournament, against Gonzaga in the Regional round, against Texas A&M to send TCU to the College World Series, and in their dramatic opening game win against the Red Raiders in Omaha.
A first team Freshman All-America, Feltman also earned All-Freshman and All-Big 12 honors in his first season in Fort Worth. He was second on the team in appearances with 27, throwing 24 scoreless innings and finishing with a team-best 1.56 ERA. He struck out 49 batters while walking 11, allowing a scant 15 hits in 34.2 innings of work. He also did this:
Best part of his pic is the fans realizing the thumbs down!!!— Paul Arebalo (@PaulArebalo) June 13, 2016
Aggies giged pic.twitter.com/fH5VwKJPYX
The New Faces:
The bullpen is still a bit in flux, as Schloss and Saar figure out which two of the four potential starters end up beginning the season in a relief role. It’s a great problem to have, as two of the aforementioned trio of Lodolo/King/Eissler will make for young, but dynamic long relief candidates. My best guess is that Lodolo is just too good to keep off the field, and he starts as the Tuesday night/midweek starter - though Traver and Janczak will certainly be on notice. King is a kid with absolutely electric stuff - the freshman out of Coppell stands 6’5” and rated as a top ten prospect in Texas. He has a five pitch arsenal and can throw from multiple arm slots, and was recruited by pretty much every major program and the entirety of the Big 12 before choosing the Frogs. He will likely see a few starts early in the season, but be groomed to take a full time role as a sophomore.
Eissler doesn’t come in with quite the hype of Lodolo or King, but mostly because he pitched outside of the baseball hotbeds, growing up in Colorado. Ranked the eighth best prospect in the state, he had a 1.28 ERA as a senior, striking out 81 in 60.1 innings. Another intriguing fresh face is 6’4” lefty Dion Henderson, a 24th round draft pick by the Reds who hails from Detroit. With a low-90’s fastball and a devastating curve, he will only improve as he gets older and stronger - but don’t be surprised if the Frogs trot him out early and often.
The Returning Stalwarts:
The two Daltons form the heart of the relievers, as both Brown and Horton can both start or come out of the pen. Horton, who was 8-0 in 12 starts and one relief appearance in 2016, likely moves to long relief, or can be a superb one or two inning guy in a pinch. After boasting a 2.58 ERA in 59.1 innings or work, it’s hard to believe he won’t at least compete for a starting job, but the front end is just so loaded he’s likely to focus on being a reliever heading into the season. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff (just 27 strikeouts to 17 walks), but the potential is there and the lefty will be given time to develop in what is just his sophomore year. Brown, on the other hand, was a reliever from the start, but after struggling in the early part of the season, was saddled with a 5.00 ERA. He threw only 9.0 innings over the course of 10 appearances, becoming a very hit or miss player - literally, as he both struck out 11 players and surrendered 11 hits. He has the big arm and the big movement, but was too easy to get squared up on. Schloss has commented on how good he’s been through the early stages of practice, and if he can be more consistent, he becomes a huge matchup weapon for those high-pressure circumstances where you need a guy to come in and get one out.
Sean Wymer, a sophomore righty out of Flower Mound is another guy who will need to step up in year two, after going 3-0 in 16 appearances (two starts) with a 4.68 ERA and a 39/15 strikeout/walk ratio. He gets a lot of movement out of his throws but can be a little wild (15 walks, 32 hits allowed in 32.2 innings), and just needs to be more consistent in 2017.
Ryan Burnett is the elder statesman of the group; the redshirt junior has pitched in 41 games in his career, compiling a 1.71 ERA in 52.2 innings of work - striking out 56 and allowing only 11 walks. He became a cult hero of sorts in 2016, compiling a win and a save in the CWS after it was revealed he was pitching on a torn ACL. Burnett was money throughout the post-season as a whole last year, striking out three of four batters he faced against OSU in the Big 12 tournament and throwing 2.1 innings of shutout relief in the championship game against West Virginia. He earned a win against Gonzaga in the Regionals, and retired all three batters from A&M that he faced in the Supers. He was a perfect ten for ten in the Frogs’ win over Coastal Carolina in the second game of the CWS. With such a young group behind him, Burnett will be called upon to not just pitch well, but be a leader for the relief staff. He has shown that won’t be a problem.
With so much hype around the starters - and rightfully so - it’s easy to forget about the pen. But this group of dynamic players, though young, can be real difference-makers for TCU throughout the season, and especially in the post-season when the games come fast and furious and pitching depth rules all.