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2007 KU Baseball Preview - Starting Pitchers

As the 2007 baseball season heats up Rock Chalk Talk will preview the 2007 KU baseball team position-by-position.  Today the starting pitchers.

Departed Talent Career (Hits per 9 / Walks per 9 / Strikeouts per 9) Whip
Kodiak Quick: 21-10 record in 233.1 Innings, 3.51 ERA (9.2 / 3.2 / 6.1) 1.38.
Sean Land: 14-14 record in 206.2 Innings,  5.27 ERA (9.5 / 4.6 / 6.7) 1.57.
Ricky Fairchild: 6-6 record in 95.1 Innings, 5.95 ERA, (10.8 / 3.3 / 4.0) 1.56.
Brendan McNamara: 3-3 record in 51.1 Innings, 3.86 ERA, (8.4 / 4.0 / 7.0) 1.38.

Returning Talent 2006 stats
Nick Czyz (soph): 4-3 record in 49.1 Innings, 5.11 ERA (8.4 / 5.5 / 8.2) 1.54.
Andy Marks (soph): 2-1 record in 33.2 Innings, 5.35 ERA (10.1 / 4.8 / 8.3) 1.66.

Zach Ashwood (Jr): Transfer from TCU.
Andres Esquibel (Jr): Transfer from Palomar Jr. College.
Wally Marciel (Fr): Iolani High School, Hawaii.

No part of the 2007 KU Baseball team is in need of more rebuilding than the starting pitching staff.  Fifty-nine of last year's sixty-eight games were started by pitchers no longer with the team.  The only pitchers returning with any NCAA starting experience are sophomores Nick Czyz (8 previous starts), Andy Marks (one previous start) and transfers Zach Ashwood (11 previous starts at TCU) and Andres Esquibel (three starts in 2005 at San Diego State).

All college baseball teams strive to build a rotation of at least three reliable starting pitchers who can keep the team competitive throughout the key conference weekend series.  Last year was the first in a long while in which KU had a staff this deep.  Of the 27 Big-12 games Kodiak Quick, Ricky Fairchild and Sean Land started all but one.  All three are gone.

The graduation of Quick is the hardest blow.  Quick was the team ace during his entire stay in Lawrence.  Despite being limited to only two years with the Jayhawks Quick ranks #6 in the team's all time wins list (21) and #9 in Innings Pitched (233.1 Innings).  Before 2005 the all time record for wins in a season was 10, a totally reached three times previously (Jamie Splittorff in 1994, Curtis Shaw in 1990 and Terry Sutcliffe in 1978).  Quick won ten in his first year with the Jayhawks, and then broke the record with eleven last year.  He carried the staff.  His season totals for innings pitched for those two years rank #1 (121.1 in 2005) and #7 (112 in 2006) all time.

While not as impressive as Quick, both Sean Land and Ricky Fairchild were both reasonably solid NCAA starting pitchers who could keep the Jayhawks competitive most days.  

It might seem surprising that the first of the three chosen in the MLB draft was Sean Land (9th Round by Minnisota).  Land was the hardest throwing of the trio and, being a lefthander, he must have looked like a partially developed potential gold mine of talent.  In signing the contract Land forfeited his senior year at KU.  Quick was taken in the 33rd round by the Tigers and Fairchild was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Indians.  I cannot find any information on Quick's performance in the minors so perhaps he decided not to pursue a professional career. Both Land (3-5, 4.45 ERA) and Fairchild (4-3, 5.74 ERA) pitched well enough in rookie ball to be brought back for a second season.  If they hope to make it up the ladder 2007 will be a key year.  Before the end of the season they will need to show they can dominate low-A ball and have either made the jump to high-A or at least prove they will be ready to do so in 2008.

In addition to loosing Quick, Land and Fairchild, the Jayhawks were hit with an unexpected blow when promising underclassman Brendan McNamara was lost due to eligibility problems.  McNamara will be pitching at the Juco level in 2007.  Hopefully he will be able to address whatever held him back and return to the team in 2008.

Meet your 2007 University of Kansas Starting Pitchers!
Zach Ashwood starts the year in the #1 slot in the rotation.  For the last two years Ashwood pitched at TCU, compiling decent but certainly not stellar numbers.  He arrives with a career 2-1 record and an ERA of 4.71.  In 57.1 Innings he has built a line of (10.1 / 5.3 / 6.6) with a Whip of 1.71.  In 2005 Ashwood pitched in C-USA where baseball is played at nearly as high a level as in the Big-12.  Last year he was in the Mountain West, a second tier conference.

What stands out as a concern with Ashwood is his control.  On average he gives up more than five walks per nine innings, throws a wild pitch, and hits 1.3 batters.  His strikeout numbers (6.6 per 9 innings) do not compensate for this problem.  He is fairly hittable, allowing a .296 batting average against.  His positive quality appears to be his ability to prevent extra base hits.  Of the 64 hits he gave up at TCU only 24 of them went for more than a single (15 2B, 5 3B and 4 HR).  I calculate opponents hitting .296/.473/.468 against him.  I think a youch is in order.

Hopefully Coach Price and KU will be able to bring out better numbers.  Ashwood was very effective in his first start as a Jayhawk in Hawaii, but less so earlier this week vs. South Dakota State.  I suspect given his numbers that he is a ground ball pitcher who tends to miss the strike zone either low or outside.  He gives up a lot of baserunners, but batters have a hard time driving his pitches.

Nick Czyz holds the #2 slot at this time.  Czyz is the lone returning starter from last year's team, and he looks like he is going to be a good NCAA pitcher.  After struggling with location and pitch efficency last year, he turned it up a notch and finished the season very strong.  It was Nick on the mound the fourth and final day of the Big-12 tournament last year when the Jayhawks took the crown.

Czyz is a hard throwing big left hander.  As his numbers clearly bring out he is hard to hit, strikes out a high percentage of opposing batters but has trouble throwing strike three quickly and reliably.  Opponents hit only .250 vs. Nick last year (Surprising splits, Right .230, Left .306), and had little luck driving his offerings (0.36 HR per/9).  His groundball/flyball ratio is a perfect 1.0, and he is hard to run on, allowing only two of six basestealers to succeed in 2007.  There is a lot to like about Nick, but he will not make the jump from pretty good to truly solid unless he gains more control over his location.  He needs to cut down on his walks, and finish off more batters in four or five pitches rather than attempting to nibble the corners in long plate appearances.

Given his performance last year, if Nick makes an adjustment in his location he should be the staff ace by the end of the season.

Andy Marks probably is in the #3 slot at this time.  Marks pitched in twenty games last year, but only one of them was a start.  Marks is another hard throwing lefty who can develop into a very good pitcher.

Marks tends to induce ground outs (0.7 ratio) and gives up few homeruns (0.53 per/9).  As the sample size of his statistics is fairly small it is dangerous to draw too strong a conclusion from them, but his main area of shortcoming clearly is the high number of walks he gives up (4.8 per/9).  As last year was his first in the NCAA it is reasonable to hope he will improve in this area.  If he does cut down on his walks, and his other numbers remain consistant, Marks should win some games in the Big-12 in 2007. Andy was exceptional in his first start in Hawaii.

One other area in which Marks must improve, holding baserunners.  Twelve of the fourteen men who attempted to steal last year while he was on the mound were successful.  One other concern that I most likely would have expressed had I written this piece before his first game would have been his endurance.  Last year he pitched short stints out of the bullpen.  His 88 pitch victory last weekend in Hawaii seems to have put that concern to rest.

Andres Esquibel enters the season as one of the weekday starters.  This means if he holds this slot all year he will probably start about 10 or 11 games, and also pitch occasionally in relief during weekend games.  The same role Czyz filled last year.

Andres is a big right hander (6 foot 2, 215 lbs) who spent 2006 at Palomar Juco and 2005 at San Diego State.  Trying to use mixed Juco and Mountain West Conference numbers to predict Big-12 performance is extremely difficult, but perhaps some information can be drawn from the numbers I have to work with.

Esquibel started 16 of his 33 games, accumulating 132.3 Innings, so he is used to a workload.  He was hit very hard at San Diego State (8.10 ERA, 40 Innings, 63 Hits, 17/22 BB/K) but was much more effective at Palomar (2.63 ERA, 92.3 Innings, 78 hits, 25/65 BB/K).

Optimistically, the 2006 Esquibel might be closer to what we see this year and Andres might prove to be a reliable pitcher able to eat innings.  His performance in Hawaii was shaky but effective.  Five innings, eight hits but only two runs. He probably does not have a good "out pitch" yet, but he might be a very useful grinder.

The final slot in the rotation is in the hands of freshman Wally Marciel at this point.  What I know about Marciel could fit into a thimble.  He is a left hander from Hawaii.  He pitched fairly well in front of his fellow Hawaiians last week, giving up only three hits and three walks in five innings while striking out six batters and allowing two runs to score.

If injury or ineffectiveness forces any of the above five out of the rotation the most likely candidates to step into a starting role are Juco transfer Hiarali Garcia, freshman Thomas Marcin or KU veterans Matt Lane or Ryotaro Hayakawa.  These players will be examined in the final season preview piece covering the bullpen.

Summing it up
At the end of 2006 KU had a solid rotation five deep.  2007 is a different story.  If Ashwood proves he is as good as Coach Price believes him to be and holds on to the #1 slot, if both Czyz and Marks continue to make progress towards realizing their excellent potential, and if Esquibel and Marciel can carry the weekday load reasonable well the KU pitching staff might surprise the Big-12 and not prove to be such a liability to the team that they offset the explosive power of the offense.  KU was picked to finish 9th out of 10 teams in the pre-season Big-12 poll.  The only explanation for this low ranking is that most in the Big-12 does not expect this batch of underclassmen and transfers to mold themselves into an effective rotation this year.

If KU is going to return to the NCAA tournament in 2007 they are going to need solid work out of at least three starting pitchers.  Once the Big-12 season arrives KU needs to have these men step up and accumulate about 150 innings of not-terrible pitching within the 27 conference games.  KU needs to win at least 12 or 13 of these conference games if they hope to extend their season, and having three stable starters able to keep the team in the game through six innings will be an essential part of reaching that goal.   It is the biggest question mark to the season.  In all likelihood the 2007 KU season will sink or swim based upon what the team gets out of these five arms.

Earlier preview chapters