PASADENA, Calif. (Jan. 27, 2017) – With its largest and deepest roster in years, a full four classes of contributing, high-level talent and an insatiable desire to string together a series of wins, Caltech baseball enters 2017 with the confidence that they will finally claim what in recent years have proven to be some elusive games.
The start of the 2015 season carried some lofty hopes, and for the most part the Beavers lived up to them, tying or leading multiple SCIAC games late, including taking the lead in the top of the 10th in an extra-inning defeat – all with just one senior starter, two juniors as regulars and a junior transfer serving as the team leaders. This year's team boasts a radically different composition, chiefly illustrated by the largest senior class in recent memory. No fewer than seven players will conclude their final year at Caltech this season and each one is set to play a valuable role this spring.
"This senior class has been our steady hand as we've shifted from a culture of change to one of evolution," Head Coach Matthew Mark said. "These guys have been plugging away for three years and deserve a great senior season to cap what they've done for this program. It's a mix of starters, role-specific guys and relative newcomers who still have a chance to contribute, which is perfect for the underclassmen to see – they can learn from the veterans, but don't have to feel intimidated or boxed out. Competition instills excellence and brings out the best in all our guys – that's what we believe, academically and athletically."
A standout as a first-year in 2014, Tim Menninger (Norristown, Pa. / Chestnut Hill Acad.) has battled a litany of injuries over his last two campaigns, but finally appears poised to deliver fully on the promise he showed as a rookie. After batting .316 and coming just three hits shy of the program record over 34 games as a freshman, the pitcher-turned-catcher struggled through a .215 average across a mere 42 combined games in 2015 and 2016. Yet now back to full health, he once again is set to split time behind the plate in addition to making a return to the mound as a key left-handed reliever.
Regulars Schaeffer Reed (Miami, Fla. / Westminster Christian) and Harrison Jacobs (Tucson, Ariz. / Catalina Foothills) will provide veteran leadership for a slew of freshmen joining them in the outfield, but first will look to show that their earning full-time roles heading into this spring was no fluke. Both lay claim to some of the top tools on the squad, with Reed's straight-line speed and enviable athleticism making him the favorite to roam centerfield from the outset while Jacobs has led the team in outfield assists each season he has been the primary starter in right field.
"Tim had to be the face of our team for a few years and took that on well, but now we have the players and depth for him to just go out there and hit," Mark said. "Schaeffer had probably the best Fall of all our outfielders; after three years of just trying to keep up as he learned on the job, he's gotten it and is exceeding expectations now as he fights to be a starter. Harrison is the epitome of a solid senior contributor – he has improved something in his game every year and is the one guy I know I never have to worry about out there. Our freshmen outfielders couldn't have a better guy leading them."
The sheer energy and focused mindset Kai Kirk (San Jose, Calif. / Wesleyan Univ.) immediately provided as a junior transfer last year could really begin to pay dividends this year. Not only was he the team's emotional leader within days of stepping on campus, but he shouldered the status as the rotation's ace on the mound and led the team in on-base percentage from the batter's box.
Rounding out the senior core are John Galden (Columbus, Ohio / St. Charles Prep), Matthew Edwards (Canyon Country, Calif. / Canyon) and J.D. Feist (Richardson, Texas / Jesuit Coll. Prep), who rejoins the team after a two-year hiatus during which he became the NCAA's active leader in saves as the men's soccer goalkeeper. Galden has been ever-present on the field in his first three years, two as the team's primary second baseman and last as a reliever, making the most appearances of any non-starter on the staff, and can still be called on to man the keystone in a pinch. Edwards, meanwhile, joins the squad after three-plus years of basketball and immediately becomes an intriguing option on the mound thanks to his lanky 6-5 frame and live, if raw, arm. Thanks to increased depth at nearly every position behind the mound, that's right where each will focus their efforts as particularly useful change-of-pace options in the bullpen.
"Kai was a catalyst for some huge mental growth on this team last year," Mark said. "He's our emotional leader and learned to focus that better late last year; he had some big games for us, and now with some relief help to lean on, instead of feeling like he has to pitch a complete game every start, he can go out and give us seven even better innings and hand it off. John and J.D. will be a lot of help there – they each look so different from our starters that they'll pair very effectively as that bridge to the late innings."
On the heels of two deep, instant-impact freshman classes, this year's group of newcomers could prove to be the missing ingredient as their addition expands the overall versatility of the squad to two-deep at every position, along with their extensive list of prep accolades.
A three-year varsity player in high school, David Adams (Atlanta, Ga. / Holy Innocents' Episcopal) led his team to the 2015 State Playoffs and followed that up with a 2016 Final Four appearance. Alex Corado (San Diego, Calif. / Scripps Ranch) has arguably the most two-way talent of anyone on the squad, as he is capable of playing a strong centerfield or becoming a top reliever.
"David has been competing for a starting corner outfield spot since Day One; he brings some nice pop as a middle-of-the-order guy," Mark said. "Alex could potentially be our starting centerfielder at some point this year, and has the ability to be a key reliever. Even with all that talent, we want to be wary of stretching him too thin early, so he'll have chances to focus on each separately early on and we'll see what shines through."
Another high-ceiling reliever prospect, 2015 Under Armour Pre-Season All-America Tournament invitee Grant Messner (Lake Forest, Ill. / Lake Forest) should instantly slot into a set-up or closing role, while British Columbia Premier Baseball League star Minjae Kim (West Vancouver, B.C., Canada / West Vancouver) has some rust to shake after taking a year off, but will begin as a crucial depth piece both in the outfield and on the mound.
"Grant has real closer's stuff and will be a special arm for us," Mark said. "We haven't had reliable, dedicated relief pitching in the past, but he's our new core. Taking a year off has shown hurt Minjae's consistency, but he is such a fundamental player that it will come back around fairly quickly. He can help us a in a couple ways in the field and on the mound."
Three-time First Team All-Ivy Prep League selection Cortland Perry (New York, N.Y. / The Dalton School) is yet another supremely talented newcomer in this freshman class. Likely to slot directly into the middle infield and challenge for weekend starts, he certainly has the résumé to justify the hype, with multiple no-hitters under his belt and a versatile bat that can play anywhere in the top half of the order. Alexander Wuschner (Farmington, Conn. / Farmington) and walk-on Marcel Griffioen (Sarasota, Fla. / Pine View) also will challenge for time as they continue to hone their game.
"Cortland can do a lot for us in different roles, all at a high level," Mark said. "He's really a shortstop playing second base, which lets us upgrade the rest of our infield defensively. On the mound, he'll start for us and should make an immediate impact – he throws three pitches for strikes and has a great feel for the game. Alex is the ideal team player; he pushes himself and everyone to be better every day and will get his chances to contribute."
A strong junior class solidifies the backbone of this team after years of being skewed heavily toward youth. Two-hole hitter Chris McCarren (Kenilworth, Ill. / North Shore Country Day) has led the team in assists both years as one of the top defensive shortstops in the conference while upping his triple-slash line from .225/.246/.258 as a rookie to a solid .292/.371/.375, ranking third, third and second, respectively. Staying in the infield, Garrett Levine (Columbus, Ohio / Columbus Acad.) and David Watson (Windsor, Colo. / Windsor) are slated to split time at first base this season, with Levine also reprising his role as a high-leverage reliever and Watson again spending time at the designated hitter spot.
"Chris was runner-up for his league MVP in high school and showed last year that he is approaching that level of play here too," Mark said. "Garrett rises to the occasion more than anyone on the team; he was our RBI leader and has the ability to start, but is going to be more valuable to us as the set-up guy in Game One and closer in Game Two of a doubleheader. David had to figure out how to split time between first and DH last year, which isn't easy, but is coming into this season much more comfortable. This was our first true recruited class, and we had to thrust them right into important spots their first year. That's paying off now as they have embraced their roles and are making positions their own."
Now with a year under their belts, last year's group of impact freshmen is primed to build on its impressive debut. With the addition of Perry in the middle infield, converted catcher Connor Moffatt (Charleston, W.Va. / George Washington) looks to be on the move again, this time switching from second base over to the hot corner, where his strong arm and quick reactions should play even better in an infield that has the potential to stay together for a full two years. The rookie ranked second on the squad in assists and posted the infield's best fielding percentage in addition to raking at the plate in his first year, batting .305/.371/.400 with the team's top slugging percentage. Mark Burleson (Ladera Ranch, Calif. / Tesoro) and Jonah Krop (Santa Monica, Calif. / Santa Monica) can expect to continue in their roles as part-time catcher and No. 2 starter, respectively. Burleson brought some much-needed thump to the order, recording the best difference between average and slugging percentage (.102) on the team and tying the program single-season record for doubles (10). Krop, meanwhile, flashed incredible movement on his pitches, showing true top-of-the-rotation potential. As he continues to refine each offering, he could quickly become a force on the mound.
"Connor is one of those guys who gives us tremendous versatility in the field and can be one of the best hitters in the conference, if he isn't already," Mark said. "He was learning second base all last year, but it's a testament to his ability and work ethic how well he played there and I think he can be even more effective at third. Mark will be one of our two regular catchers again after providing a big source of power, and pitchers love throwing to him. Jonah has all the ability in the world, but you saw the wheels spinning at times last year. He's learning to calm down in pressure situations and let his ace stuff play – all his pitches have good life, and he has put together some plain unfair sequences against hitters."
After beginning the year as a reserve, earning a pinch-hitting role and finally breaking into the lineup as a regular, Tucker Reese (Kennett Square, Pa. / Unionville) went on to pace the entire team with a .320 batting average – the second-highest of any Beaver over the last five years – while also contributing in high-pressure situations on the mound. Although getting a slow start to the year due to injury, it is only a matter of time before his impact bat returns to the order at full strength. Another part-timer, Will Werst (Fort Collins, Colo. / Liberty Common), will again fight for innings in relief; the right-hander showed signs of what may come in striking out the first batter he faced in college and proceeded to record 2.1 scoreless innings to start his rookie year.
"Tucker is getting to us a little late this preseason, but he showed extremely well after taking a year off prior to his freshman year, so I wouldn't expect it to be long before he gets back up to full speed," Mark said. "Will made the most of his chances and is an important depth piece for us."
The Beavers open the season with a trio of non-conference doubleheaders leading into SCIAC play, which begins with eighth-place Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges (11-26 overall, 9-19 SCIAC) followed by another non-conference game prior to seventh-place University of La Verne (18-21, 11-17) at the end of February. Caltech also welcomes a pair of East Coast teams over Spring Break and caps the regular season with a three-game series vs. Saint Katherine College at the end of April.
"It's a challenging schedule, but full of opportunity," Mark said. "We're excited to start early – we're kicking off the Division III season – and get into a rhythm before playing some big games. We have some good challenges in the non-conference, including a couple teams from out East, which is always a great experience."
Mark and the Beavers open the season on their brand-new turf field on Sunday, Jan. 29 with a doubleheader against La Sierra University at 11 a.m./1 p.m.