After walking a school-record 318 batters last spring, the Tulane baseball team should be in better position to control its outcomes in coach Travis Jewett's second season.
The reason is simple. The Green Wave pitchers can get the ball over the plate — something they rarely did in a disappointing 27-31 season that fell far short of expectations with a senior-laden roster coming off back-to-back regional appearances.
"It was impossible (to win with the lack of control on the mound)," said junior outfielder Grant Witherspoon, the Wave's lone representative on the preseason All-American Athletic Conference team.
"I think it's going to be night and day with this year's staff compared to last year's. Everyone just has a lot more confidence. These guys can throw it, they can control the ball, we have some back-end guys with good stuff and we've got a lot of guys who can start a game, which is nice."
Tulane had none of those ingredients a year ago, finishing fifth in the AAC while posting the second-highest ERA (5.76) in program history. Picked an all-time low eighth in the nine-team AAC by the coaches this time, the Wave is cautiously optimistic despite having 21 newcomers among the 38 players in Friday's first preseason practice.
That number will have to be pared by at least three to meet the NCAA maximum for roster size before the season opener against Wright State on Feb. 16.
"We're not too worried about all the outside noise," junior pitcher Ross Massey said. "We'll be ready to play each game as it comes to us. Right now we're in a great position. All the focus is on this season. Everybody is ready to go."
Massey was one of the primary pitching offenders last year, going 0-8 while walking 38 in 35.1 innings with an ERA of 9.68 in a mystifying loss of control (He walking just 18 in 90.1 innings with an ERA of 2.29 in a spectacular freshman season). Massey appeared to correct whatever flaw bothered him, allowing zero earned runs in five innings in his final fall scrimmage.
"He's pitching with conviction," Jewett said. "He's confident. There's no steering of the ball. He's throwing hard. The elbow's climbing, the hand speed is good on all of the pitches and he's all around the glove. It's just been a pleasure to watch."
Jewett signed 11 pitchers in an attempt to rebuild the staff, with five freshmen, five junior college transfers and one graduate transfer. Kaleb Roper, a Rummel graduate who spent the past two seasons at Arizona and then San Jacinto College, is expected to fill one of the weekend starting slots. Trent Johnson, another JC transfer, and freshmen Josh Bates and Brendan Cellucci are other possibilities along with Massey and holdovers Chase Solesky and Sam Bjorngjeld.
Two more junior college transfers, Will McAffer and Ryan Green, are the front-runners for closer and middle relief, respectively.
They can get the ball over the plate, too, something last year's opening closer, Ted Andrews (28 walks, 14 wild pitches, eight hit batters in 16 innings) struggled with mightily before departed senior Christian Colletti took over.
"You're a college pitcher," Jewett said. It doesn't mean that you're a Hall of Famer, but it does mean we anticipate when the pitch is called, we're going to be somewhere in the general area of the glove. We were doing it in the fall, and I don't see that being an issue."
With Witherspoon, shortstop Sal Gozzo and third baseman Kody Hoese the only regulars returning in the lineup, Tulane has holes to fill everywhere. Pop is a question mark, as players who accounted for 63 of the Wave's 70 home runs in 2017 are gone.
But Tulane should set the tone on the mound. Jewett said he was in the low teens in terms of viable options a year after only three pitchers boasted ERAs below 5.00.
"It starts and ends with those guys," Witherspoon said. "I've been on the pitching side of it when everyone's eyes are on you. When you're having a good day, it's awesome, and when you're struggling, everyone's a little bit down."