PASADENA (Feb. 13, 2019) – The Caltech baseball team is primed to take a leap forward in 2019 with a new look both on and off the North Field turf.
The Beavers have consistently found ways to improve and now own a pair of SCIAC wins over Pomona-Pitzer Colleges and picked up a huge series win over Providence Christian College in 2018. Heading into 2019, the baseball team has looked increasingly comfortable in all facets of the game and this crop of players has already begun to positively shape the legacy for the team and themselves as individuals.
Rookie Head Coach Kevin Whitehead will take the helm following a two-year stint as a Graduate Assistant at Whittier College and a success-laden career behind the plate at Texas Tech University. Whitehead spent his time at Whittier organizing practices, drafting offseason workout programs and also had a hand in the recruiting process, all of which should help aid the transition to a Division III head coach.
Whitehead will be tasked with installing what he has coined a "culture of competition," while improving a Caltech baseball team two years removed from its first SCIAC win since 1988 but is now looking to set its sights even higher.
"The guys are great to be around," Whitehead said. "They're very energetic. They are willing to do the strange stuff I ask them to do sometimes but they do it wholeheartedly and they're very competitive as well. They really know how to feed off each other and I've really enjoyed the enthusiasm."
This year's roster will feature six players from 2016's historic SCIAC win, three of which are seniors. Catcher Mark Burleson (Ladera Ranch, Calif. / Tesoro), infielder Connor Moffatt (Charleston, W.Va. / George Washington) and left-handed pitcher Jonah Krop (Santa Monica, Calif. / Santa Monica) make up the the core of this year's team from a talent and leadership standpoint. Burleson and Moffatt each hit over .300 as sophomores and will be looking to rebound in the batter's box as seniors. Both players have flashed power, with 40-plus RBI's on their career and three home runs apiece, while Burleson got to showcase his speed as the SCIAC's fourth-leading base stealer from one season ago. The Beavers will also rely on the duo's versatility in the field, as Moffatt has shown an ability to play all over the diamond while Burleson has dabbled in the outfield thanks to the emergence of other backstops.
Krop is coming off a career year as the Beavers' go-to starting pitcher. The senior led the SCIAC in innings pitched in 2018 and is the program record holder in single-season strikeouts (73), wins (4), innings pitched (92.2) and starts (14). Krop will have the opportunity to expand upon his legacy as one of the best pitchers to ever come through Caltech with another strong season, particularly if Caltech is able to improve upon its four wins from 2018.
"Our seniors have been great," Whitehead said. "They have done everything I've asked them and I know that's not an easy thing to do when you're in your final year and a new coach is coming in. Outside of that, Cortland Perry (New York, N.Y. / The Dalton School) has definitely stood out, running the team through warmups to start our practices and he should be influential again this year. I also know that Mitchell Watson (Windsor, Colo. / Windsor) would, and actually could run through a wall for anybody on the team. Our guys really feed off his electricity and enthusiasm as well. For everybody to buy in and support what we're doing really speaks to their character as individuals."
Both Watson and Perry will be players to watch this year. Watson hit a home run on the very first pitch of the very first at-bat of his career last year and finished with a .287/.348/.442 triple-slash line, good for the highest batting average on the team. The sophomore beat out Perry by a slim margin (.285/.354/.346) but Perry's added value on the mound made him last year's Team MVP. The junior pitched more innings than any Caltech player not named Krop and led the team in strikeout-to-walk ratio (38:25). Perry could slot into this year's group of starters once again along with junior right-hander Grant Messner (Lake Forest, Ill. / Lake Forest), who pitched as well as anybody on the roster for a stretch last year, opening the season with seven shutout innings and then went on to keep teams such as Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges and the University of La Verne in check, giving his team a chance to win. Messner has swing-and-miss stuff and throws as hard as anybody on the team, so last year's improved command should allow him to be a force once more if he can stay healthy.
Sophomore Dillon Holder (New York, NY / Horace Mann) could also assist the Beavers in in a variety of roles on the mound as can freshman Pierce Governale (Tampa, Fla. / Berkeley Preparatory School), affording Whitehead the options necessary to field a competitive baseball team with the capability of keeping opponents off-balanced while providing his known quantities the opportunity to keep themselves fresh over the long haul.
"This year, we're going to have some options as far as what we can do on the mound," Whitehead said. "We will be able to mix and match and hopefully not have to ride a couple of the pitchers as much as has been done in the past so we can keep them fresh for later in the season. We want to ease everybody in, and I'm a firm believer that a viable team needs 10 arms to be successful. Since we have 10 pitchers on the roster, that means we will need everybody to be viable, so it's all about positioning our guys for success and giving them the confidence to execute."
Caltech's group of freshmen and sophomores could provide the team with a completely different identity by virtue of seven of the team's 17 players being new additions to the clubhouse. Sophomore Ari Rosner came on strong with the bat at the end of last year and could find himself, along with freshman catcher Dawson Beutler (Omaha, Neb. / Millard West), utilized to give Burleson the needed breather behind home plate. As for the other eight positions on the field, the Beavers will have a bevy of new options, including outfielder William Cook (El Segundo, Calif. / Windward School), middle infielder Max Popken (Westport, Conn. / Staples), second baseman Ryan Ruscansky (Annandale, N.J. / North Hunterdon), left-side infielder Matthew Szedlock (Westminster, Md. / Gerstell Academy) and Spiro Stameson (Newport Beach, Calif. / Newport Harbor), who can slot in between third base and the outfield.
In getting to know the team, Whitehead and his staff have quickly settled on this team's identity -- one which should make them worth watching in 2019.
"Playing here in the past, it was hard to get a true sense of this team's identity," Whitehead said. "From what I've seen since coming here, I've seen a lot of guys who are interested and willing to play up tempo. They're tough, and I don't say that lightly. They will all contribute in their own way and I think you're going to see us be aggressive at the plate, aggressive on the basepaths and throw a lot of strikes. Hopefully, people are going to see a team that is tough, passionate and willing to chip in from every spot in the lineup."
Whitehead and the Beavers will begin their season on Friday, Feb. 15 when they host Providence Christian for a 2:30 p.m. game before battling the Sea Beggars in a doubleheader the following day.