With South Carolina baseball poised to begin full-team practices for the 2019 season, the state of coach Mark Kingston’s pitching staff remains as undefined as he left it in the fall.
The Gamecocks have just over three weeks before they open the season on Feb. 15 against Liberty. The starting pitcher for that game will “probably” be sophomore Carmen Mlodzinski, Kingston said Wednesday.
Beyond that, there are six other players Kingston is considering as starters — though that may change as he considers some radically unconventional approaches.
During the offseason, the USC coaching staff spoke to several MLB teams to stay “a step ahead, not a step behind, on what the latest ideas are,” as Kingston put it. Among those teams were the Tampa Bay Rays, who pioneered the use of an “opener,” a relief pitcher who starts the game, throws one or two innings and then makes way for the traditional “starter.”
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What Kingston got from his talks with the Rays was that the “opener” strategy is a way to overcome starting pitching that’s not quite as good as a coach wants while also utilizing a deep bullpen.
“The starter starts his outing at the bottom of the order and it rolls over, and he gets to face the bottom of the order twice before he has to face the top of the order twice,” Kingston explained. “There’s a lot of mathematics to it. At the end of the day, what we took from talking to the Rays, you just try to maximize and give yourself edges. If your best guy is pitching against the bottom of the order, you’ve given up to much. You want your best guys pitching against the best hitters as often as possible.”
At the same time, Kingston mentioned the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves as two other MLB teams he spoke with during the offseason, and neither of those teams utilized the “opener” as much as the Rays did. He also said if three pitchers distinguished themselves over the course of the preseason as ones that can work through major innings, then he will not hesitate to use a conventional approach.
“Until we know for sure that we have three workhorses on the weekend to just hand the ball off to and say we’ll see you in the seventh inning — we don’t have that yet, doesn’t mean we won’t — but what we’re just trying to do is study what the latest strategies are for winning games,” Kingston said. “At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to win games, and Major League teams now, through the use of analytics and studies of statistics and trends, are starting to figure out ways to be creative if you don’t just have (Clayton) Kershaw and Chris Sale to throw out there every day.”
For opening day, at least, Kingston has Mlodzinski, USC’s most experienced returning starter from last season, who he believes has taken tremendous strides toward becoming an ace.
“Physically, he looks much better. He looks like an SEC guy,” Kingston said. “Last year, I think he was trying to get to that point. He has a very mature calmness about him right now, but also married with being a great competitor. I just think everything you can grade a pitcher on, he’s gotten better.”
“I look back on last year and try to learn from everything that happened,” Mlodzinski said. “I added a pitch, added a cutter to my repertoire, so that was a huge change going from three pitches to four pitches, and that just made everything that much better for me.”
The other six names Kingston said he and pitching coach Skylar Meade are considering for the starting spots are freshman Dylan Harley sophomores John Gilreath and TJ Shook, juniors Reid Morgan and Hayden Lehman and senior Ridge Chapman.
Of that group, Morgan, a right-handed junior college transfer, and Chapman might wind up as power-throwing set-up men for closer Sawyer Bridges, Kingston said.
“I think we have a chance to have a really good back of the bullpen, and that’s another strategy, if you don’t feel like you can have an unbelievable starting rotation ... you really stack the back of the bullpen,” Kingston said.
Lehman is another JUCO transfer who has a proven track record of winning on that level, with an 8-1 record last year. Shook, after an uneven freshman year, looks much improved, and Harley is “a name that not many people are aware of right now, but by the end of the season, everyone will know who he is,” Kingston said. The head coach also mentioned freshman Wesley Sweatt as a likely contributor this year.
With that logjam of potential starters and the possibility of an unusual or unique approach to it, Bridges said the entire staff needs to move past worrying about their traditional individual roles.
“People on pitching staffs in general get caught up so much in roles, just everybody thinking, ‘Hey, I gotta be a starter, I gotta be a middle reliever, I gotta be a closer,’ whatever,” Bridges said. “It makes guys almost compete against each other to where it’s ‘I need to get ths role, I need to get this role.’ Pitching’s just getting outs. If we all just focus on getting outs and not worrying about who’s gonna be where ... I think we’ll be alright.”