by John Vittas
Measuring a staff’s “nasty factor” using conventional statistics is tough, but batting average against may be the best bet. Maryland’s BAA was .238 last year, which would have led the Big Ten had they played in it. They allowed only 8.0 H/9 in 2014 and finished in the top half of virtually every pitching category in what could’ve been the toughest pitching conference in the country last year.
From that staff, Maryland returns nine of their top 12 pitchers in terms of innings. The returners represent 276 games, 69 starts and 600 innings worth of experience. But despite all that, a talented freshman class is butting their way into the thick of a crowded competition for innings.
And it is crowded. 18 pitchers are competing for roles on the 2015 staff, including eight freshman. Last year, only 13 pitchers even saw the field. While it might seem logical for the freshman to take a back seat and learn behind some more accomplished arms in 2015, that idea isn’t exactly holding to form.
While the Terps’ coaching staff believes that any and all of the freshman pitchers can make an impact this year, they have a pretty good idea of whose impact might be the biggest.
“I think on the pitching side of things, there’s three pretty quality arms initially that should make a pretty big splash in Taylor Bloom, Brian Shaffer and Willie Rios,” head coach John Szefc said on Friday.
Shaffer, a 6-foot-5 inch right-hander from Pylesville threw four shutout innings in an intrasquad game on Friday, showing good command of three pitches and the ability to get ahead on hitters.
“Shaffer is really athletic,” pitching coach Jim Belanger said. “He’s a strike-thrower, has good velocity, is able to spin the ball, can hold runners, fields his position. When a guy can do that, you feel comfortable putting him into the game.”
Shaffer will be available in relief for the Terps’ season-opening tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Feb. 13-16. He could be the first man out of the bullpen if a starter fails to pitch deep into a game, which would likely make him the first of the eight freshman to step on a college mound.
Another freshman righty who caught the eye of the coaches with his ability to command the strike zone is Crofton native Taylor Bloom. Like Shaffer, Bloom will begin his career in the bullpen, but has the potential to start down the road.
“He can really throw a changeup, can throw three pitches for strikes, command both sides of the plate,” Belanger said. “He’s not going to overpower you, but he’s athletic and has the pitchability.”
Belanger compared Bloom to senior Bobby Ruse, another Maryland native who pitched his way into a vital role with outstanding command.
However, coming into the 2014-15 school year, neither Shaffer or Bloom were considered the top pitcher of the recruiting class. That title belonged to Connecticut lefty Willie Rios, who was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2014 MLB Draft.
“Willie Rios had an injury at the end of the summer where he had to have surgery on his thumb and had a rough fall, which he’s probably never felt before,” said Belanger. “It was probably good for him. It humbled him a little bit.”
But as he’s continued to heal, Rios has returned to old form. Belanger called his most recent outing his best yet. With his velocity back up into the nineties, Rios (like Shaffer and Bloom) is forcing his way into a significant role.
With Opening Day just hours away, the situation remains fluid. In addition to the eight freshman, even four-year veterans like Bobby Ruse and Zach Morris remain unsure about their roles.
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” Ruse said. “I’m going to start the first weekend, we’ll see from there. Coming in relief in the big situations, I love that. But I’ll pitch wherever they really need me.”
That mentality rings true for Ruse on down. It’s that up-for-whatever mindset that has made the Terps’ staff versatile and dangerous.
“We’ve done a good job of developing guys to where when one guy is gone, the next guy just steps up,” Belanger said. “We’ve just been really fortunate to have guys step up in roles.”
And in 2015, it appears that the freshman class will be stepping up sooner rather than later.