Photos by Nhi Casey
PASADENA, Calif. (Jan. 29, 2015) – With the top two hitters, three pitchers and seven of nine regular starters in the field back from the 2014 squad, the Caltech baseball team is ready to start a new chapter in its history.
"In my first two years here, we really focused on learning the system and how to compete," Head Coach Matthew Mark explained. "Now we're ready to win. We're bringing up the strength of schedule against some other good academic teams, including that school out East, and are ready to garner some national attention. Changing the history of the program is right where we want to be."
The Beavers boast an enviable mix of experienced, veteran leadership extending straight up the middle of the field and an infusion of possibly the most talented freshman class in program history.
Sophomore Tim Menninger (Norristown, Pa. / Chestnut Hill Acad.) headlines the squad after finishing just three hits away from the single season record with 37, while also leading the team with six doubles and a .402 slugging percentage, ranking second in batting average (.316) and OBP (.380) and third in RBI (12). Recruited primarily as a pitcher two years ago, his athleticism made the transition to catcher seamless, and the new backstop is primed to build on last year's extraordinary rookie campaign.
"Tim has really come along offensively in just one year of focusing on hitting, and is starting to see how to call the game from both sides," Mark said.
The only other holdover on the diamond will be at second base, where sophomore John Galden (Columbus, Ohio / St. Charles Prep) returns to his natural position at the keystone after serving as the team's everyday third baseman last year.
"John is a hard worker who has really made some strides over the summer and fall," Mark said. "He's much more at home back in his true middle infield position, and will help turn over the bottom of the order."
A trio of high-upside freshmen will make up the rest of the infield in 2015, starting at first base with 6'6" 230-pound lefty slugger David Watson (Fort Collins, Colo. / Windsor). The mammoth rookie compiled a .400 batting average over three years in high school as a three-sport athlete and, unsurprisingly, projects for huge power and is a big target for throws on defense.
"David has already made a huge impact in preseason," Mark raved. "He has great hands, enjoyed a very successful high school career and, most importantly, understands what it takes to win games. Along with Tim, we could have two future all-time leaders in program history together three years."
The brand-new left side of the infield holds just as much potential. Chris McCarren (Kenilworth, Ill. / North Shore Country Day) and Garrett Levine (Columbus, Ohio / Columbus Acad.) will anchor the shortstop and third base spots, respectively, with each capable of making an impact on both sides of the ball.
"Chris and Garrett are big additions for us," Mark said. "Chris is something special at shortstop, even more so than we expected. He's a great student of the game and a leader through his play who can bat anywhere from 1-4 in the lineup. Garrett is a perfect complement, bringing huge power potential for the 4 or 5 hole. He can really drive the ball, locks down third base for us and is a vocal leader on the field and in the dugout. On top of that, he comes from a great summer program where he has done nothing but win for the past four years."
With limited depth on the roster, senior Oliver Curtiss (Hudson, Ohio / Western Reserve Acad.) will be a crucial backup, particularly at second base, where he started roughly half the season last year, and is likely to see time at DH.
The entire outfield is set to be manned by returning players, with junior Daniel Chou (Blue Bell, Pa. / Wissahickon) the big name in centerfield after leading the team with a .336 batting average, .427 on-base percentage, 22 runs and 13 stolen bases in 2014.
"Dan is our true leader – guys look to him for a lot of answers," Mark said. "He had a rough freshman year but then bounced right back with the top average on the team, and can hit anywhere from 1-3."
Sophomore Harrison Jacobs (Tucson, Ariz. / Catalina Foothills) returns to his primary position in right field after manning first base last season. His well-rounded game should secure a spot where the Beavers have not had much stability for some time.
"Harrison can be something special from the left side of the plate," Mark said. "He plays smart on defense too and is coming off a great summer in the Tucson collegiate league."
Left field will be handled by a pair of seniors, with 2014 RBI leader Ryan Casey (Valencia, Calif. / Valencia) and ace Derek Kearney (Carlsbad, Calif. / La Costa Canyon) platooning. Casey can play all three outfield positions, but will be the top option at his natural position in left with Kearney on the mound and brings a needed mentality for driving in runs, while Kearney will be eager to get in a full season after missing half of 2014, during which he still batted .308 from the cleanup spot with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in 12 games.
"We're really excited to have Derek back this year, and along with Ryan, we should always have a big bat present in the 7-8 area in the order," Mark said.
Sophomore Schaeffer Reed (Miami, Fla. / Westminster Christian) is another option in the outfield, particularly in center when Chou takes the mound. A regular on the soccer team at Caltech, Reed appeared in 27 games in his first year playing baseball, spending most of his time in right field.
Kearney and Chou are slated to be regular weekend starters, with Levine likely to slot between them. Kearney was able to make just four starts last year due to injury, but as the only player on the roster with a career ERA under 10.00 and a positive strikeout to walk ratio at 58:50 should have no problem taking the ball to start each SCIAC series.
"Derek has a chance to break some records this year," Mark said. "He's a standard fastball-changeup guy who has great location, doesn't get rattled and has pitched in some big games for us."
Chou boasts both of the Beavers' lone wins in back-to-back seasons, and as such could be a pivotal rubber game starter as Caltech takes that next step toward picking up some conference wins this spring.
"We're counting on Dan in a big spot, but he has really been a No. 1 for us in the past and has the mentality to close the door in game three of a series, or take us into the next series on a good note," Mark said.
As big an impact as Levine is expected to make as a position player, his performance on the mound could be even more effective after he was recruited heavily for his pitching ability.
"Garrett has rare in-game experience for a recruit, and has pitched on some big stages, including on an international tour last year," Mark beamed.
Junior Michael Klionsky (Boca Raton, Fla. / Atlantic) rounds out the roster as a first-year player, but is already well ahead of where many rookies would be and boasts a tantalizing ability to throw strikes as a lefthander.
"Michael is new to the team and really comes from a tennis background, but as a lefty and already throwing strikes, he'll get some innings for us," Mark said.
The Beavers will trot out some combination of their other field players in support of the rotation where needed, with Watson, Galden, Casey, Jacobs and Curtiss all heavily in the mix after each returning player threw at least a handful of innings last year.
"Our older guys know what to expect at this point, and we have the freshmen to bring what we've needed," Mark said. "We've shown various aspects of competing at a high level in the past few years, getting out to a good start, finding a hot stretch or finishing strong, and now we're ready to put together a strong nine innings consistently."
Consistency will of course be key with such a shallow roster, but this young Beavers squad's combination of experience and talent could make this a truly historic season.
"We're looking to rewrite the record books this year," Mark said. "Even with such a young team, you might be tempted to look further into an obviously bright future, but we're going to thoroughly enjoy the present because this year is going to be special.
The Beavers open the season with a doubleheader against St. Katherine's University on Saturday, Jan. 31 at 12 and 2 p.m.