Andrew Checketts is admittedly “a pessimist by nature,” but there were no bah, humbugs coming from UCSB’s baseball coach as the Gauchos broke for the holidays.
“I do like our team, and that’s rare for me this time of year,” he said while contemplating his 10th season with the program.
Checketts returns 28 players who saw action during last year’s 13-2, COVID-shortened season. Another dozen prospects have been added to the mix. The coaches who vote in Collegiate Baseball’s poll know enough about his team to have slotted it at No. 8 this week in their preseason ranking.
“We’ve got the bullseye on us now,” said Checketts, who has led the Gauchos to a record of 289-180-4 and four NCAA Regional berths since becoming their coach in 2012. “We weren’t predicted to be very good last year — weren’t picked in the preseason top 25.
“This poll is the result of the spring we had last year and of getting everybody back. But everybody gets everybody back because of COVID, so it’s really too hard to know what it means right now. I do think we’ve improved through a combination of the guys working hard, getting bigger and stronger, and improving their skills.”
It all starts on the mound with a rotation of right-hander Michael McGreevy, and left-handers Rodney Boone and Zach Torra. They combined last spring for a win-loss record of 7-1, earned-run average of 1.22, and 96 strikeouts in 74 innings. UCSB tied Vanderbilt for the best ERA in the nation at 1.84.
“This fall, the pitchers were ahead of the hitters, almost across the board,” Checketts said. “A lot of that had to do with the hitters missing half of last year and all of the summer. But I also think it was a combination of that with the jumps our pitchers made.”
McGreevy, a first-team All-Big West Conference pick as a freshman in 2019, “made significant strides during the offseason,” he said. His fastball this fall reached 95.7 mph on the radar gun — nearly 4 mph faster than last year.
“It’s not just the peak velocities, he had a lot of 94s and averaged above 93 in the fall,” Checketts said. “He’s always had good command and is an athletic strike-thrower.
“He’s also made an adjustment in his slider and is spiking that — it breaks a little more than it did in the past — and he was also featuring his overhand curveball more this fall. It’s gotten better and he spins it pretty fast. His changeup is pretty good, too.”
Boone, like McGreevy, made three Freshman All-America teams during UCSB’s Big West championship season of 2019. The sophomore left-hander did have a slow start in the fall, Checketts said, while “chasing the velocity.”
“It was the right time, I had no problem with that, but he lost a little bit of who he was,” he said. “But he was outstanding the last three weeks of the fall. His velo is creeping up and his fastball really plays up. When it’s 90 — or even when it’s 86 — it gets tons of swings and misses.
“He’s also got a swing-and-miss changeup. It sometimes feels like you can tell people that it’s coming and they’re still going to have a hard time hitting it.”
Torra, another left-hander, made Collegiate Baseball’s All-America Third Team both last spring and on its preseason team for this year. He’s also upped his game, Checketts said, by adding a slider and another breaking pitch that combines a cutter with a curveball.
“He’s got some things he’s working on and he definitely has an upward trajectory,” he said.
The Big West has discussed switching to a four-game, weekend series each week, with double-headers on Saturday. That could favor a pitching-rich team like UCSB and enhance the importance of a No. 4 starter.
“I think we’ve got more depth in our starting pitching than we even had during our College World Series season in 2016,” Checketts said.
Redshirt freshmen J.D. Callahan, Carter Benbrook, Ryan Harvey and Cory Lewis all had strong showings this fall while competing for the fourth spot. Checketts said he could also slide senior Conner Dand, one of his top relievers, into a starting role.
He has several hard-throwers in the back of the bullpen. Chris Troye, a 6-foot-5 junior, has come back strong from elbow surgery, clocking as high as 99.5 mph with his fastball.
“He gradually built up to that,” Checketts said. “That last inning he threw, I think he knew that he wouldn’t be throwing again for a while so he let it rip. He gets a lot of natural rise out of his fastball.
“He’s added a little cut slider that he’s still working on, which is a good secondary offering.”
Roberts, who went 4-1 in relief with a 2.04 ERA last year, was clocked as high as 92.7 this fall. Clayton Hall, a promising transfer from Merced College, was even faster at 92.9.
Veteran Jorge Arellano is one of four left-handers that Checketts can summon out of the bullpen.
UCSB is also deep in catchers with returnees Mason Eng and Gianni Bloom. Ventura JC transfer Omar Gastelum and freshman John Newman have also entered the mix.
“If we’re playing four-game weekends, we’re going to have to have two guys ready,” Checketts said.
The competition is also stiff at the corner infield spots. Cole Cummings started at third base last year but transfer Bryce Willits, a Freshman All-American while at St. Mary’s, has returned from shoulder surgery. Checketts projects him for the middle of his batting order.
He said one of those two could also slide over to first base to compete against returning starter Kyle Johnson.
The middle infield appears more set with returning starters McClain O’Conner at shortstop and Marcos Castanon at second base, although Checketts wants to get Jordan Sprinkle’s bat into the lineup.
“He’s speedy and a dynamic athlete, and he was one of our better producers during the fall,” he said.
Jason Willow, who is recovered from a shoulder injury that plagued him last year, will move from right field to center. Nick Vogt, who Checketts says has been blasting batting-practice pitches “over the trees in center,” has made a strong bid for Willow’s former position in right.
But he also “likes our options” with returning outfielders such as Christian Kirtley and Steele Ledford, as well as newcomers Zach Rodriguez, Broc Mortensen, and Damian Stone.
“All but Kirtley and Rodriguez are centerfielders, so they’re pretty interchangeable,” Checketts said. “We’ve got a lot of right-handed and left-handed hitting options out there.”
He’s hoping to make use of that depth with a full 56-game schedule. The Gauchos are set to open their season on Feb. 19 with the start of a three-game home series against Sacramento State.
“At the end of the fall, I was optimistic that we’d get to play, based on how our COVID testing and protocol went,” Checketts said. “We had no positive tests. But it made me a little nervous when the Big West canceled fall sports.
“If they cancel spring, too, that would make two years gone for these kids. I hope that’s factored in when they make their decision.
“We’ve proved that we can handle the testing and the protocol. Our administration has been crushing it and our trainers are crushing it.”
Now he just hopes his Gauchos get the chance to crush some baseballs, too.