2014 Kent State baseball preview
The college baseball season began President's Day weekend. The Kent State flashes play Arizona, ranked 33rd to start the year. The Flashes won’t play at home till the end of March which makes perfect sense to anyone who has stepped outside in this frigid Ohio weather recently.
The Kent State flashes are the best college baseball team in the state of Ohio, and it’s not really close. Ohio State is solid, but Kent State puts the most guys into the pros and goes the deepest in the College World Series. They tend to even get the top prospects who choose to stay in state, especially if you’re a pitcher as you know Kent State is the place to develop. They are one of the premier teams in the Midwest.
Last year the Flashes had five players drafted and one of them, Tyler Skulina, got a bonus of $800K which is money typically given to a second rounder. If you think that 2013 was maybe just a random occurrence, in 2012 they had six players selected. The last time Kent State didn’t have three or more players taken was 2004, and the last time a draft happened without anyone from Kent State being drafted was 1998.
If you follow college baseball, then you might have heard how Kent State lost their head coach after last season. Scott Stricklin left to take over a Georgia program which has underachieved for years in spite of the incredible amount of in-state talent. Georgia is a baseball hot bed; they typically put a few high school players in the first round every year.
Stricklin was born in Ohio and played at Kent State before coming to Kent. He was an assistant at Georgia Tech, but he had been the second choice for Kent State when they needed a new coach nine years ago. The first choice was Mike Birkbeck.
Kent State has a huge advantage over most programs because of Birkbeck. He is the pitching coach at Kent State, and one of the best in all of college baseball. He makes more than most head coaches in the MAC and is still underpaid. He was the 2012 Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year. Any person who considers going to Kent State knows Birkbeck and what he brings. He has had chances for promotions or to leave for more money, but in the end he is happy staying near his family and doing what he does best: mold pitchers.
Birkbeck is one of only two former Akron Zips to play in the Majors. He has been at Kent State for 17 years now. His value was shown to me last year when Eric Lauer, who I considered the top high school player in Ohio, was drafted. Lauer commented how his decision was influenced by knowing Birkbeck would stay, so it felt to me that Birkbeck might have meant more than whoever the head coach was. I mentioned a bunch of draft stats earlier, but how about this one: the Flashes have had a pitcher selected in the top 10 rounds every year since 2009.
This year is definitely a transition year for Kent State. They lost their head coach who was eventually replaced by Jeff Duncan who had been an associate coach at Purdue. On top of this they lost their top three starting pitchers by innings in Casey Wilson, Tyler Skulina, and Taylor Williams. Of the nine players to get over 100 at bats they lost four players Derek Toadvine, Evan Campbell, George Roberts, and Jason Bagoly. Roberts had been their top bat the past two seasons. In a good sign for the university half of the players named ended up getting drafted.
So who might be the names to watch of those players who might be rising to fill these voids?
Brian Clark was fifth among pitchers last year in innings, in spite of being a pen arm and is 4th all-time in Kent State history in saves. He was first team all-MAC and put up excellent numbers with a 1.93 ERA and .231 opponents average against. The only knock would be the walks, which is a common issue with young pitchers. He will be the Friday starter for the Flashes this year and according to his coach he was hitting 95 MPH. Add in the fact he is a lefty and this is definitely a player to watch. He has a chance to go in the top three rounds in this year’s draft.
In my top in-state prospects article before last year’s draft I mentioned Eric Dorsch. Dorsch is a huge right hander at 6-foot-7. He only pitcher 22 innings last year and didn’t have eye popping numbers, but his potential was enough to make him a 21st round pick of the Reds. He has had a significant jump in velocity since he arrived, and if he continues to improve I think he should be ticketed to go much higher this year. I hope he gets more innings this year to see what he can do.
Nick Jensen-Clagg is a player who intrigues because he was a multi-sport athlete who could have played college football if he wanted. He was a quarterback at Pickerington and graded out as a two-star prospect by ESPN. His key trait was his accuracy and they describe him as a smart, heady kid. He was fourth on Kent State in innings pitched, and is lined up to be the Saturday starter for the Flashes.
There are also a few interesting arms who didn’t play at all or barely played because of injuries last year.
John Fasola was drafted out of high school by the Dodgers then went to Kansas State. He transferred before last season to Kent State and also suffered an arm injury which he was recovering from. He will be a pen arm this year but can hit the mid 90’s and should be like how Dorsch was for the Flashes last year. He is a redshirt junior who I expect to be around for two years.
Michael Clark had transferred to Kent State from NC State and pitched mostly out of the pen for the Flashes. He has already been drafted twice by the Red Sox out of high school and the Astros after his first year at Kent State. He was injured last season, which was a shame because his role was supposed to expand last year. After just 4.2 innings he was lost for the year. I expect him get every chance to start since he is a redshirt senior. The talent is there which is obvious by his draft record, so he could be a name to watch once he gets all the way back.
The last of the injured arms is Josh Pierce. He pitched only 10.2 innings before injury, but was dominant in those innings. He was recorded hitting the mid 90’s a few times. There was some wildness shown in the fact he hit seven players in those 10.2 innings and walked another six, yet opponents only hit .162 off him. Like any of the arms I have mentioned, the talent is there. The question is how much Birkbeck can help them reach their talent and how much they can grow. I would not be surprised to see Pierce get another year in the pen, because of the experience of the staff in front of him.
I will also throw out the two big freshman pitchers Eric Lauer and Andy Ravel, both of which were drafted but decided to go to Kent State. I think they both should be great down the line, but the issue is there is so much talent in front of them it might be hard to find the innings this year. I mean, they have so much pitching I didn’t even mention John Birkbeck, the son of Mike Birkbeck who PGCrosschecker graded out as a mid-round pick for the 2014 draft.
Now it is time to talk about the bats. This group might not have the sizzle or draft history of the pitchers, but they still have a lot of experienced players.
Alex Miklos was the first bat to jump out at me when I started looking up stats. He was first in slugging and third in on-base percentage last year for the Flashes. He also was 20-for-24 in stolen bases and led the team in home runs. Miklos has a chance to lead the Flashes in every offenseive category this year. The combination of speed with a little pop should be enough to get the junior drafted this year, the only question is when.
Miklos was third in on-base percentage, just three points behind Sawyer Polen. Polen is listed as an infielder for the Flashes and has been a starter since he arrived on campus. This is very rare for Kent State where most players red shirt at some point or spend a year behind someone. Polen was good enough to show up and play. He tied for the team lead in walks along with the second highest on-base percentage, and was second in at bats so even as a sophomore he was hitting at the top of the order. Polen will be counted on as a tablesetter this year.
TJ Sutton is the most experienced bat on the Flashes. He has been a starter since day one, and is now entering his senior year. He has been incredibly consistent for the Flashes, with his junior and sophomore years putting up very close stats. A solid and reliable bat, he will be counted on along with Polen to provide leadership and stability to a young lineup.
Zarley Zalewski will be one of those players who when he gets drafted will get a ton of tweets just because of his name, yet he is much more than an original name. He was drafted out of high school, but decided to attend Kent State. He started at shortstop for the Flashes last year appearing in 39 games. He has some room for growth as he struck out more than he walked and had very little power. He was viewed as a solid shortstop prospect out of high school and not much has changed since. As long as he continues to improve there is little doubt he won’t be a redraft in a few years.
Justin Wagler started 26 games this year, but still finished third on the team in slugging, and tied for second in home runs. His brother also played at Kent before playing in the Astros minor league system for a few years. This year he seems primed to play regularly. He does have some holes to fix though. He had the worst fielding percentage of any regular logging 11 errors. He also had a near three to one strikeout to walk ratio. Yet the power potential should be enough to make sure he gets the needed at bats to try and improve this season. His numbers were ones that really jumped out at me, just because of the power in limited at bats. I will be very interested in seeing if he can break out this spring.
I know I will be taking in more than a few games at Kent State this year. I hope to see many of you there, enjoying the best baseball value you can find anywhere.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
"The Kent State flashes are the best college baseball team in the state of Ohio, and it’s not really close."
KSU is definitely loaded in pitching for the next several years.