Fall Ball Report: Ole Miss primed for a post season run in 2018
Last fall Ole Miss and head coach Mike Bianco welcomed Baseball America's top-ranked recruiting class to Oxford, MS and promptly placed 4 freshmen in the every day lineup. The young Rebels burst out of the gate, sweeping East Carolina and winning their first seven games. The rest of the season was a choppy affair, as they finished 32-25 overall and 14-16 in the SEC. A regional bid probably came down to winning one or two SEC tournament games. However, they were beaten by Auburn 5-4 in the opener, effectively ending their season.
This year the Rebels return a battle tested squad full of experience.
Assistant coach Mike Clement enters his fourth year in Oxford, serving as the hitting instructor and running the offense from the 3B coaching box. He spent two years at Kansas State (2013-14) and led those clubs to national rankings in numerous offensive categories. From '09-'11 he served as an assistant at Texas A&M under Rob Childress and prior to that, at UT-San Antonio from 2006-08.
Clement started his coaching journey in The Cape with Orleans where he helped them win a Cape League title in 2005 with skipper Kelly Nicholson.
We talked with coach Clement to gain his insights into the 2018 Rebel roster.
There's no question the 2017 season was full of learnings, sometimes painful. For only the 3rd time in Bianco's 17 years in Oxford they failed to reach post season play. Expectations were probably too high for the uber-talented but raw freshman class, as several were counted on to fill everyday positions in the rugged SEC.
"Last year this time we had just 6 juniors and seniors, 29 freshman and sophomore guys. Several freshmen got off to good starts and gained valuable experience, but when we got rolling and they started to scuffle, there wasn't enough experience in the lineup to overcome those struggles". Still, Ole Miss managed to win 14 SEC games and were in the discussion for a regional bid.
Turn the page to 2018 and last years pain will be this years gain.
It starts on the mound where the Rebels will be “as deep as any team I've been on”, returning all but departed LHP David Parkinson (12th round, Philadelphia” from a staff that finished ’17 among national leaders in several categories (3.60 ERA, 25th; strikeout-to-walk ratio, 3rd; 9th in WHIP).
Leading the way is 6’3”, 205lb sophomore LHP Ryan Rolison, who was developed nicely a year ago, starting the year in the bullpen, then moving to a mid-week starting role before finishing with 8 SEC weekend starts. He excelled in all three roles, posting a 6-3 record, a 3.06 ERA and .242 BAA over 61.2 innings.
Rolison, however, was just getting started. "He had a really good freshman year, a Freshman All-American, but to hear scouts, coaches and anyone who saw him in The Cape (Orleans), he clearly made another jump,” said Clement. Indeed, Rolison dominated some of the nations best college hitters over 7 starts & 35.1 innings, going 6-0 with a 1.92 ERA, .156 BAA and 0.89 WHIP. He was named a Cape League All-Star, D1 Baseball’s top Cape Prospect and recently Perfect Games’ #4 overall 2018 MLB draft prospect.
“People talk about him being a top-10 overall selection in the '18 draft but I don't think he'll let outside things affect his business. Ryan completely understands what his routine needs to be for his outings and between starts”.
Another certain weekend starter is 6’7”, 235lb junior RHP James McArthur, a “super intelligent kid, a civil engineering major” who brings 9 SEC starts & 49.1 innings experience back into the fold. While the “super athlete” took a few lumps in the spring, he seemed to find it in The Cape, yielding only 4 earned runs over his last 28.1 innings for Falmouth. McArthur offers “a 90-94 mph fastball, a slider in the zone and will force hitters to beat him” said Clement. “His aptitude to get better is off the charts”.
Sunday will belong to another bruiser in 6’4, 230lb RHP Brady Fiegl, who, according to Clement, probably has the best stuff on the staff. This fall Fiegl was around 92-94 with his fastball and commanded a hard 82-83 mph breaking ball. Yet, Clement believes the changeup is his best offering. “Brady probably drew as much hype this fall with scouts as anyone. He's developed an ability to bury a breaking ball for strike, making him really tough. He’s also a strong leader and was recently named 2018 Rebel co-Captain by his peers” .
Three other high-quality arms will vie for mid-week starts. 6’4”, 230lb sophomore RHP Greer Holston has really filled out since he arrived on campus and offers a power arm and 54.2 innings of 2017 experience.
Fellow sophomore RHP Will Ethridge is yet another big bodied “6’5”, 220 pounder (“our staff looks great getting off the plane”, says Clement) who didn’t flinch one bit in SEC play, finishing with a 2.96 ERA and 9/25 walk-to-strikeout ratio over 24.1 conference innings. Etheridge was also successful in The Cape with Falmouth, posting a 1.15 ERA over 11 appearances.
One freshman to watch is LHP Jordan Folwer, a “skinny 6’3” red-headed left-hander with really, really good command. He pitched this fall at 87-88, but I’d expect him to be 88-92 come spring after he gets through a strength and conditioning program, with a legit three pitch mix. He will have a great career here”. Fowler was Baseball America’s 209th ranked high schooler last July.
The set-up role belongs to senior RHP Will Stokes, a “super athletic strike thrower who makes outs disappear”. He’s made 72 career appearances and was superb last year in 14 SEC situations, as hitters could only muster a .205 batting average against Stokes. “He’s extremely versatile and can pitch in any key game situation. Hitters will have to earn everything they against Will," said Clement.
If that’s not enough, opponents will have to deal with 6’3, 240lb closer Dallas Woolfolk, “who looks like he should be playing middle linebacker,” jokes Clement. This is one tough hombre who enters the highest leverage situations with a “give me the ball and get out of here” look. He attacks with an old school, over-the-top delivery producing a heavy fastball that sits in the mid-90’s, touching upper 90’s when he needs it. Woolfolk also offers a slider and change up with plus command, walking just 5 while blowing away 41 hitters over 37.1 innings, posting a 2.15 ERA, .200 BAA while notching 12 saves. He was Team USA’s closer last summer and should be on most pre season All-American teams.
Turning to the infield, the most glaring need is to replace two veteran leaders and '17 captains 3B Blake Bortles (22nd round, Detroit) and 2B Tate Blackman (13th round, White Sox)
Two freshmen are in the mix at 3rd base. One is lefty swinging Tyler Keenan, a physical kid at 6’3”, 225lb but with “really, really good hands. Tyler has hit about .360 this fall and wasn’t overwhelmed at all,” said Clement. He looks to be the leading candidate at the hot corner.
The other option at 3B is Tim Elko, ranked as the 248th best high school player by Baseball America and a Perfect Game All American. He’ll get plenty of at bats and figures to add real pop.
Across at 2B are two other newcomers competing for the starting role. Freshman Anthony Servideo is a left-handed hitter and “a super athlete, a 6.6 runner and a slick middle infielder” who can also handle SS, if needed.
The other option is JC-transfer Jacob Adams who Clement is really excited about. He’s a “super competitive kid who keeps quiet while playing the game extremely hard”. Adams played for Crowder JC in Missouri, hitting over .300 and leading them to the Junior College World Series, but broke his foot this fall, remaining a question mark heading into the ’18 campaign..
Returning at SS is Grae Kessinger, a top recruit from that ’16 class. The 6’2’, 200-pounder “isn’t a twitched-up guy but a long mover who plays the field under complete control, with a solid arm”. It’s at the plate where Kessinger needs to take the next step, as he hit just .161 in the SEC, striking out 23 times in 87 at-bats.
“He's super selective at the plate, which can get him in trouble. This fall we’ve talked about being more aggressive with his approach. He also has had a steep downward swing plane, trying to stay on top of the ball. We've made a few adjustments, trying to keep his bat in the zone longer. He’s shown real improvement this fall, hitting about .300 and I’d be surprised if he didn't have a strong year with the bat”.
Sophomore Cole Zabowski, a 6’5”, 225 pound left hander, made 24 starts a year ago, mostly at 1B. He offers power potential but will need to increase his productivity this year, as he hit only .143 in 28 SEC at-bats. To that end, Zabowski had a strong summer in the Cal Ripken League, hitting .359 and being named to the All League team.
The other option is junior Nick Fortes, who split time between catcher and 1B a year ago. He made 24 SEC starts and slashed .337/.387/.465 in conference play. "He’ll be in the middle of our lineup every game,” says Clement.
Returning behind the plate is sophomore catcher Cooper Johnson, who also experienced growing pains with the bat, starting the year seven for his first 51 at-bats. “We sat him down for a couple of weeks. Once he got back in the lineup, he made real strides the rest of the way. It’s about confidence with him, managing his emotions and being able to stay even. He’s loosened up his swing this fall and hit about .400”. Defensively, there may not be a better catch-and-throw backstop in America. “Cooper is super competitive, the best defender I’ve ever coached with perhaps the best arm in the country,” said Clement, a catcher in his playing days.
The outfield returns 155 starts from a year ago, led by senior Will Golsan. Golson brings over 630 career at-bats back to Oxford, and slashed .322/.377/.398 in 30 SEC starts. He’s extremely versatile, playing 2B as a freshman, 1B in ’16 and RF last year and will move to CF in 2018. “You can mark him down for hitting close to .300 with a plus outfield arm and a legit 6.7 runner. He can lead off, or hit in the 3-hole. He's just so steady, and his leadership will be huge for us this year”. Golson was recently voted co-captain by his teammates, along with pitcher Brady Feigl.
Right field will belong to junior Ryan Olenek, another versatile lineup piece. The rangy 6'5" Olenek has good speed (10-13 stolen bases), gap power (led Rebels with 17 doubles) a solid glove and plenty of arm. He was a high school shortstop and offers Bianco another option at 3B, if needed. The free-swinging Olenek played well in The Cape, hitting .283 in 33 starts for Hyannis.
Left field will belong to Thomas Dilliard, another highly touted ’16 recruit who was humbled in SEC play. Dillard made 23 conference starts but hit only .149 with a 42% strikeout rate in 74 at-bats. He went up to The Cape to play for Cotuit but didn’t fair much better, hitting .207 with a 37% whiff rate. “He’s worked really hard this fall on specific areas of his game,” said Clement, “shortening his swing and improving his two strike approach. He’s hit .400 and is a real x-factor for us. We’d love to put him in the 5-hole, where he could be a great RBI guy and really make us go”. While the 6’0”, 235lb Dillard “looks like a door frame, he’s a 6.8 runner and quite a good athlete. He really improved his base running this summer and I give a ton of credit to (Cotuit Manager) Mike Roberts up there,” said Clement.
Clement really likes freshman OF Micheal Spears, who sports a short swing and gritty approach at the plate. He’s likely to get plenty of looks this season.
Finally, the school’s administration continues to invest in facilities to ensure the Rebel’s keep up with the “arms race” in the SEC. Back in 2009 and due to overflowing crowds at Swayze Field they invested $20M to extend the grandstand from foul line to foul line.
While those improvements benefited fans, not much was done for the student-athletes, and that matters in high stakes recruiting that is the SEC. That issue is being addressed right now with another $20M expense. “I joke that it's going to be way too nice for our guys”, said Clement. “Our locker room will double in size, we’re adding a 9000 square foot weight room, new training and meeting rooms, its just first class all the way around. The hitting and pitching indoor facility will be done in January and everything should be compete by the end of March or early April. It’s a game changer for us”.
2018 Outlook: The everyday lineup is loaded with high ceiling players who were baptized under fire in 2017. That experience should pay off handsomely.
A few key hitters could make the difference. First is Dillard, a physical and talented fire-plug who appears ready to break out. The other is catcher Johnson, who’s calling card will always be defense. He dug in at the plate over the second half of '17 to raise his batting average above the “Mendoza Line” and has continued to improve this fall. If he can hold his own with the bat, the Rebel bench and lineup flexibility increases significantly.
Pitching will again lead this team. Unlike last year, a dominant Friday guy in Rolison will set the SEC weekend table. Behind him are an abundance of high quality power arms, including one of America’s best closers in Woolfolk. That staff should prove to be formidable for even the most offensive opponents.
Lastly, fielding was an issue in ‘17, as Ole Miss made 37 SEC errors compared to just 11 for their opponents, leading to 30 unearned SEC runs. That’s one “gift” run per game, largesse that simply can’t be repeated. Experience and some new slick infielders should address that concern.
We like the Rebels to reach a Regional, and perhaps host. Once there, they’ll have an opportunity to make a run towards Omaha behind a deep and talented pitching staff.