Baseball

Putting a bow on the 2021 Texas baseball season

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After 67 games culminating in a national semifinals appearance, the 2021 Texas Longhorns baseball season is in the books. David Pierce’s program was one run and a few outs short of the 13th national finals appearance in the storied history of Texas baseball, but despite missing that mark the group played a brand of baseball emblematic of the six-time national champion program (with a little bit more pop along with it).

I tend to save my thoughts on the program for the end of the season, maybe interjecting a time or two for notable players or events. So, here we are:

This season gets an A: Pierce’s own words just over a year ago were very indicative of how far he thought the 2020 Longhorns would go in response to an F-grade 2019 season. He constantly praised his team led by Bryce Elder, Zach Zubia, and Austin Todd, and wished he had more games with the team that started 14-3.

Luckily for Pierce and for Texas, he was treated to over five months of a season with this squad. They won the Big 12 conference, were the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and reached the final four. They’ll likely have a player selected in the first round of the draft, and that player — Ty Madden — was the only All-American on the roster.

What Pierce was able to do not only in building this team, but in guiding them to the postseason made for one of the most enjoyable seasons of covering baseball in my nine years of doing this. Where they got, how they played, and doing it amid the backdrop of what was happening in the real world was extremely impressive. Credit goes to his staff too. This team isn’t what it is without Troy Tulowitzki, without Sean Allen, without Philip Miller, and without the rest of the people behind the scenes who are pivotal in the day-to-day operation of all aspects of the program.

Why no A+? Well, they didn’t dogpile at TD Ameritrade. I think that’s the only way a Texas baseball team should get a perfect grade, but that shouldn’t be construed as a knock. This team was awesome. A.

David Pierce needs an extension: Pierce deserves an extension, too, in my opinion. There probably were a lot of Texas baseball fans who saw Tom Herman get shown the door and Shaka Smart escorted to Milwaukee who thought that another season with little to show for it might mean Chris Del Conte would have the opportunity to have his choice for all three of the men’s major sports in 2020-21.

It’s not an opinion I held because 1) coming into this season I thought Texas would top out at the super regional round and 2) I didn’t think that would be good enough reason to make a switch. Pierce didn’t enter this season on the hot seat, but he entered with a lot riding on it.

And did he deliver.

When Pierce was tabbed to replace Augie Garrido in 2016, he received a 6-year contract running through the 2022 season. That’s next season, and a coach who has achieved what he has at Texas shouldn’t have to clear the hurdle of explaining any uncertainty about his future when he recruits members of the 2023, 2024 and 2025 classes this summer.

David Pierce

What would I do? A Tim Tadlock-type deal wouldn’t be prudent at this stage, even believing that the program is on a good trajectory and considering that was likely a pseudo-panic move by Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt to retain the best remaining coach in the TTU athletic department.

But two conference titles and two Omaha appearances should be rewarded with a commitment from Texas that shows they believe in the 58-year-old for the foreseeable future.

The staff should be rewarded, too, which leads me to…

-Continuity is important: I mentioned how much Pierce’s staff deserves credit for the current state of the program.

The college baseball head and assistant coaching carousel hasn’t quite ended, but it appears as if Texas avoided the two biggest threats to pilfer assistants from Pierce’s staff; Rice chose Jose Cruz Jr., and Houston didn’t open.

Just as Pierce is deserving of a reward for his recent successes, I believe Miller and Allen are as well (I am not 100 percent sure what the mechanics of doing so for volunteer assistant Troy Tulowitzki would be, but if it’s available, lob him in that category too).

-Postseason awards: Texas issues several in-house awards at the end of the year. Two, the James and Huston Street Longhorn Award and the Sean Braswell Academic MVP, factor in off-field facets that I’m not privy to. However, there are four others I’m going to take a crack at.

Brooks Kieschnick Team MVP: Ty Madden
Other candidates: Mike Antico, Ivan Melendez, Tristan Stevens, Zach Zubia

I don’t know how it goes to anyone but the team’s only All-American. Don’t worry about the 7-5 record, wins are an imperfect measure of a pitcher’s performance. Madden was dominant for 95 percent of the season and gave it his all every time he went out on the mound.

Antico slumped hard to open the year but became a threat in the box and on the base paths as the season went on. Melendez’s power showcases were exciting, and at one point he was hitting in the .350s. If he played a position, he might have been able to unseat Madden. That’s something to look forward to for 2022. Stevens was remarkably (and surprising) consistent as Texas’ No. 2 starter. Zubia provided one of the more steady bats and gloves in the lineup.

Keith Moreland Offensive Player of the Year: Ivan Melendez
Other candidates: Mike Antico, Zach Zubia, Mitchell Daly

Some of the blasts Melendez sent out of the park this year went as far as any ball I’ve seen watching college baseball. But it wasn’t just his out of the park power, it was his ability to use his strength to make “regular” contact into extra bases. Power like his doesn’t come around Texas too often.

Ivan Melendez

If Antico performed the way he did toward the end of the year all season he 1) might be an All-American and 2) might have been my pick. Zubia was his normal, patient, mature hitting self for most of the season. Daly went from the bottom of the lineup to No. 2 when his average topped out in the .360s. The future of the middle infield looks promising.

Greg Swindell Pitcher of the Year: Ty Madden
Other candidates: Tristan Stevens, Pete Hansen, Tanner Witt

What more needs to be said? This was often the pecking order for the weekend and Witt was then the first arm out of the bullpen. Madden should hear his name in the first round in a few weeks. Hansen battled back from COVID and the resulting pause to enter the weekend rotation, becoming dominant without having dominant stuff. Witt is a weekend arm the next two years.

Spike Owen Defensive Player of the Year: Trey Faltine
Other candidates: Silas Ardoin, Mike Antico, Mitchell Daly

Faltine dazzled with his glove almost on a nightly basis in 2021. It’s why during the College World Series the commentators raved about his ability and even pondered if his glove alone could get him drafted. Faltine’s hard work with Tulowitzki helped him become the defensive wizard he was. His arm at the position is great, too.

Ardoin was a consistent presence behind the plate, helping pitchers with their outing, surrendering only six passed balls all year, and throwing out 20-28 runners. Antico provided great defense in center with his elite speed. Daly helped Faltine provide Texas with a dynamic duo up the middle.

-What’s next?: I think this tweet from OccupyLF is a good place to start. I’ll interject with what I think each player should do, not exactly what I think will happen.

Madden: Duh

Zubia: Though he is one of many who can play an extra year thanks to COVID eligibility relief, there’s something important to remember about the MLB draft and that is underclassmen have much more leverage than seniors. So, while Zubia could return, his value might be higher as a “redshirt junior” than as a “senior.” Plus, six years on campus is a long time. He has shown a patient, mature bat, has power, and offers a much-improved glove at first base. I think it’s a good time to start his professional career.

Antico: I believe he is out of eligibility, and he used this year at Texas as a way to showcase his ability on a larger stage. What an addition he turned out to be.

Williams: Cam Williams LOVES baseball. Pierce raved constantly about his love for the game. And I’m fully certain Williams loves Texas, but kids dream of being pro ball players. Like Zubia, he is also classified as a redshirt-junior and has more leverage than a senior as a result. His glove is fine, his arm needs a little work, but there’s value in a switch-hitting corner infielder. He could play second, too. Go get paid, Hammer.

Wenzel: Out of eligibility

Petrinsky: Finally, out of eligibility.

Melendez: The question I have for Melendez; is his bat by itself good enough to get selected? Right now, I think the answer is yes, but Melendez has a couple of things that make returning the better call. First, he is only a redshirt sophomore, so he could come back for 2022 and still have the “junior leverage.” Second, he played five games in the field this year. He has a great example to follow in Zubia as it pertains to becoming an infielder and allowing Pierce to insert another bat into the lineup to join him.

Stevens: I think he should go. I know he has extra eligibility remaining, but he’s old for a college pitcher. Almost so old, some teams will think twice about picking him despite his stellar season. Go now because you aren’t getting any younger.

Quintanilla: Stay and become a starter? This is one I’m unsure of.

Cole Quintanilla

Hansen: Stay. I know Hansen is draft eligible and had a great year, but if he comes back with 3-4 more mph of velocity on all his pitches, his stock will shoot higher. Plus, doing what he did as a weekend arm all year would boost his profile. He also is just a “freshman,” he can retain leverage for a couple of years.

Todd: This is another one I’m not sure of. Todd loves Texas, but after a few injury-riddled seasons, does he want to give it one more go for year six? He’d be an obvious leader and a centerpiece on next season’s team, but he might also want to begin his pro career even if he goes undrafted. This one is up to Todd.

Kennedy: Stay.

One early crack at the defense:

CF: Eric Kennedy
RF: Douglas Hodo
LF: Dalton Porter OR Dylan Campbell OR Ace Whitehead
C: Silas Ardoin
1B: Ivan Melendez OR Peter Geib
2B: Mitchell Daly
SS: Trey Faltine
3B: Murphy Stehly OR Andre Duplantier OR Peter Geib
DH: Ivan Melendez OR Peyton Powell OR Dalton Porter OR Tanner Witt OR Peter Geib OR (you get the picture)
Friday: Tanner Witt
Saturday: Pete Hansen
Sunday: (competition)