Brian Shaffer toed the rubber and stared down Michigan third baseman Drew Lugbauer. After getting the sign from catcher Justin Morris, Shaffer delivered the 2-2 pitch for a called strike three, closing out the eighth inning with his tenth strikeout of the day. The right-hander’s eight innings of two-run ball Friday night led the Terps to victory in their first conference game of the season.
It was the second-straight ten-strikeout performance for the Pylesville, Maryland, native, whose dominance on the mound has been a catalyst for the Terps’ success this season. A week prior, he turned in one of the finest starts of his career, whiffing ten Princeton Tigers while allowing just three hits over eight shutout innings.
Shaffer is coming off a fine sophomore season, his first full year as a member of the weekend rotation. Despite spending much of 2016 as the Terps’ Sunday starter, he arguably was the best hurler on the staff, leading Maryland with 103.2 innings pitched and eight wins while posting a 2.60 ERA and 75 strikeouts. The Terps went 10-5 in games that he started, the team’s best mark behind any starter.
After his impressive 2016, the junior was tapped to replace Mike Shawaryn, the most successful pitcher in Maryland history, as the team’s Friday night ace. In his three years in College Park, Shawaryn totaled 307.1 innings pitched, 307 strikeouts, 30 wins, and a 2.61 career ERA en route to being drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 5th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. His most dominant season on the mound came as a sophomore in 2015, his first year as the Friday night ace, when he was named a First-Team All-American after going 13-2 with a 1.71 ERA and 138 strikeouts.
But despite the large shoes to fill, Shaffer hasn’t skipped a beat since taking over as the Terps’ Friday starter. Six starts into the season, Shaffer has proven that he is a bonafide ace, duplicating the beginning to Shawaryn’s best season in a Terps uniform.
In his first six starts of 2015, Shawaryn, known in College Park as “The Unicorn,” posted a 5-0 record with a 2.29 ERA and 47 strikeouts. Through as many starts this year, Shaffer leads the Big Ten with a 1.77 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 40.2 innings pitched, to go with a 3-1 record.
He has pitched at least six innings in all but one outing, the season-opener against Ball State, and has won each of his last three starts, all at home. He hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any start, and is averaging eight strikeouts per outing. His only blemish on the season is a tough-luck loss at LSU in which he allowed three runs over 6.2 innings.
One of Shaffer’s most notable changes from a year ago is his strikeout rate. In 2016, he struck out 6.52 batters per nine innings, a respectable, but not eye-popping, number. But this year, the right-hander has increased his K/9 ratio to 10.74, right on pace with the 10.7 mark that Shawaryn posted in 2015. By missing more bats, Shaffer has lowered his paltry .209 opponents’ average last year to a meager .184 in 2017. This tops any single-season mark that Shawaryn put up; his best was .195 last year.
While just six starts in, Shaffer’s 2017 has the making of a season for the record books. Pending a deep playoff run, with the K/9 rate he has posted so far he could have a shot at breaking Shawaryn’s single-season record of 138 strikeouts, as well as Jake Stinnett’s 2014 record of 118 innings pitched. Shawaryn’s 1.71 ERA, the best for any Terps’ pitcher since 1981, could also be well within reach.
Just how attainable these marks are depends on the Terps’ success, as more games played means more innings pitched and strikeouts. But if the last year and a half are any measure, Shaffer is going to have a big impact on Maryland’s success on the field, and therefore on his own quest for the record books.