PASADENA, Calif. (Feb. 12, 2016) – A deep and talented roster that boasts considerable experience while still relatively young has the Caltech baseball team on the verge of becoming a force in the SCIAC entering the 2016 season.
"This is going to be an exciting year," Head Coach Matthew Mark said. "This is the most depth we've ever had, the most experience – not by age, but innings played by both returning and new talent – and we are capable of a lot more than people may realize."
Along with a half-dozen new faces on the team, former Double-A shortstop Omar Pena joins the coaching staff as an assistant. His professional experience and baseball acumen have already begun to have a strong effect on this young squad.
Senior Daniel Chou (Blue Bell, Pa. / Wissahickon) is the lone four-year returner, with the team's other two seniors, Mike Klionsky (Boca Raton, Fla. / Atlantic) and Dylan Schultz (St. Louis, Mo. / Clayton), having joined the squad as juniors. The centerfielder was one of four players to set a new program record for games played in one season (37) and recorded another program-record 136 at-bats as the Beavers' leadoff hitter last season. He has also earned three of the program's four NCAA wins in his career – the most of any Caltech pitcher in at least the last 43 years – while leading the team in stolen bases all three years and compiling 83 career hits and 44 runs.
"Chou is the catalyst for this team," Mark said. "He has seen our progression from the beginning stages to where we are now, on the verge of really breaking through. In his first few years, it he had a bad day, we probably had a bad day. Now, he is accompanied by some serious talent and doesn't necessarily have to be the guy every game."
Schultz walked onto the team halfway through the season and was an immediate contributor, finishing the year tied for third on the team in walks drawn and assists as he split time between shortstop and left field. A true utility player, he could see time at any number of positions after an offseason of training and full preseason. Klionsky, a wiry 6-2 lefty, tossed only three innings while being introduced to the game last year but showed promise, including 2/3 of a scoreless frame against the University of La Verne and 2/3 of an inning of one-hit ball at Chapman University.
"Dylan is going to compete for time at several spots and do a lot of things for us in his second year," Mark said. "He has done really well this offseason after two years off from the sport but has a big baseball background to draw from. Michael is probably our most improved player over the last two years, coming from zero baseball experience to where he has a chance to earn some innings in a deep staff. Even without having the experience, he wants to be a star and is getting better every day."
With Chou penned into center field and the leadoff spot once again, juniors Harrison Jacobs (Tucson, Ariz. / Catalina Foothills) and Jared Reed (Miami, Fla. / Westminster Christian) are likely to flank him at the corners the majority of games. Jacobs made the switch to right field from first base last season and registered the third-best fielding percentage on the team while legging out two triples and smashing five doubles. Although still fairly new to the sport, Reed vast toolset and off-the-charts athleticism saw him swipe six bases and record the squad's fourth-best on-base percentage (.295).
"Harrison has been an everyday player since getting here and is continuing to grow offensively," Mark said. "He should progress even more with guys pushing him for playing time. Jared probably has the best tools of anyone on the field in most games. The game is really starting to slow down for him too – he's asking baseball questions now rather than just trying to survive out there."
The entire infield returns with the added benefits of depth and flexibility. The sophomore trio of Garrett Levine (Columbus, Ohio / Columbus Acad.), Chris McCarren (Kenilworth, Ill. / North Shore Country Day) and David Watson (Windsor, Colo. / Windsor) each stepped right onto the field and locked down positions in the middle of the order from Day One, with Watson leading the team in batting average (.240), McCarren making 99 assists as one of the top defensive shortstops in the conference and Levine pacing the squad in runs, OBP and doubles, coming just one shy of the single-season program record with nine. Levine also threw 56 innings, including a pair of six-strikeout performances, and earned the program's first save since 2000.
"Garrett really came into his own last year, especially late in the season," Mark said. "McCarren has put in a lot of work in the offseason and is entering this spring extremely focused. He is really blossoming under Coach Pena. Watson could be our secret formula; he has all the ability in the world. His bat should be very dangerous further down in the lineup and we're continuing to work on improving his defense, but the 6-6 frame is a good starting point already."
Junior John Galden (Columbus, Ohio / St. Charles Prep) is also back and will split his time between second base and the mound thanks to the flexibility created by freshmen Connor Moffatt (Charleston, W.Va. / George Washington) and Tucker Reese (Kennett Square, Pa. / Unionville). Galden's 2015 season was shortened by injury, but the second baseman ranked sixth on the team in batting average and made 32 assists while tossing 12 2/3 innings in relief.
"We're glad to have John's experience back after he missed the second half of last season," Mark said. He has played a lot of innings the past two years."
Moffatt is a converted catcher who will look to lock down the starting job at second base, while Reese will split his time as backup at third base, designated hitter and relief pitching.
"Connor has the kind of bat that could break a lot of records by the time he's done here," Mark said. "With his awareness and quick release defensively, our middle infield should turn a lot of double plays. Tucker will slide in at third whenever Garrett pitches and will see time in a lot of games for us."
Junior Tim Menninger (Norristown, Pa. / Chestnut Hill Acad.) is essentially another newcomer entering 2016 after missing a significant chunk of last season due to injury. A rookie sensation who led the 2014 squad in hits, doubles, total bases and slugging percentage while ranking second in batting average, fewest strikeouts and on-base percentage, the former prep pitcher once again tops the Beavers' depth chart at catcher.
"Tim exceeded expectations as a freshman and is ready to pick up where he left off," Mark said. "He's been tearing the cover off the ball in game situations."
Menninger will have the luxury of serving as the DH during doubleheaders thanks to the presence of freshman Mark Burleson (Ladera Ranch, Calif. / Tesoro), with Moffatt and freshman Will Werst (Fort Collins, Colo. /Liberty Common) also capable of stepping behind the dish if needed. Burleson boasts a litany of tools, including good speed and excellent receiving skills.
"Mark is a super interesting player with a lot of tools and ability, which will be especially useful as a catcher," Mark said. "He is a great leader for us behind the plate. Will is going to be another versatile piece and will see action in the outfield and on the bases too."
The late-season heroics of Second Team All-SCIAC starter Derek Kearney will certainly be missed, but the 2016 staff is nothing if not reloaded. Levine and Chou, the team's No. 2 and 3 starters last year, are set to slot in as the No. 3 and rubber-arm reliever/closer thanks to the addition of a pair of southpaws in junior Kai Kirk (San Jose, Calif. / Wesleyan Univ.) and freshman Jonah Krop (Santa Monica, Calif. / Santa Monica). Kirk has already racked up 30 collegiate innings after spending two years at Wesleyan University and as a finesse pitcher is the perfect foil to Krop, a lanky lefty with true swing-and-miss stuff. When not starting, Kirk will spend some time at the corner outfield positions too as Mark seeks to keep his advanced bat, speed and leadership on the field.
"Kai is a super competitor, a real commander of game situations," Mark said. "He has also brought a great, fresh perspective to the team with his prior experience. Jonah is raw but has tons of ability and could learn to really pile up strikeouts before long."
After a whirlwind rookie season, Levine should thrive in more of a complementary role as he continues to alternate between slugging at third base and toeing the rubber. With Chou able and willing to throw as many innings or consecutive days as asked, plus Reese and junior Chris Bradley (Half Moon Bay, Calif. / Junipero Serra) leading a relief staff that stretches as many as seven deep, opposing batters will not be getting a single inning off this year.
"Garrett was asked to do a lot of tough jobs as a rookie, but I'm really excited to see him be able to focus more on specific roles," Mark said. "He's a good mix of Kai and Jonah, commanding the strike zone and able to induce ground balls. Tucker might get a chance to start here and there and is unique on our staff – he works fast with offspeed stuff and throws three pitches for strikes. Bradley's athleticism quickly shone through after he joined in March; he showed no fear that a lot of guys in his situation would have."
Having the ability to slot as many as three newcomers anywhere from third through sixth in the lineup while moving returners to the back of the order and shifting pieces around from game to game should allow Caltech to string together rallies and put up some big innings. With the deepest rotation and relief corps in recent history limiting opposition lineups as well, the Beavers could be primed for a significant step forward.
"We're at the point where we're looking to compete to win series, not just individual games," Mark said. "We were close in a handful of games last year and the margin is so thin, we're ready to take on that challenge. Our nonconference schedule is small but they're all good games and we are treating every one as its own opportunity. We were working on polishing things throughout last year, but this season we're entering with some polish already."
Mark and the Beavers open the season on Sunday, Feb. 14 with a doubleheader against La Sierra University beginning at 11 a.m.