Freshman Ryan Mason emerged as the Cal ace. How good is he? How much better can he get?
Mason is a pro in the making. He's already got a plus fastball with varying velocities and a plus-plus sinker, and he throws a very heavy ball, even when it's not a straight-up sinker. He has enough pop to overpower hitters with his fastball, but he can also pitch to the defense. He's currently working on his four-seamer in the Golden State Collegiate Baseball League, and his off-speed stuff works very well off of what he's got already, so that's going to add yet another dimension to his game. I love his slider, and I think that with some work, it could be a wipe-out pitch. He also has a very advanced approach, and can adjust his plan mid-game if one of his pitches isn't working.
The real X-factor with Mason is his attitude. He's an animal and a fierce competitor on the mound. He wants to win, no matter what, and while he'll let fly with a fist pump every now and then, he knows when to clamp down and reel back his emotions. He's also crazier than a five-seam fastball, and that really works in his favor. He shows no fear, no matter what opponent he's facing, and if the Bears can mount a few more playoff runs, he'll be absolutely money in the clutch.
The big thing Mason has to work on is endurance. He petered out at the end of the 2013 season because he'd pitched more innings than he ever had in a single campaign, and you could see that the late life just wasn't there on his sinker and his slider was a bit flat. The good news there is that the template for conditioning is already there in the program, given what Matt Flemer did to stretch himself from a closer to a starter in 2012.
Other than Mason, pitching was quite inconsistent for the Bears this past season. What other pitchers have impressed you and are poised for a big role in 2014?
The biggest issue with the pitching was that there wasn't much of it, and what little there was, was very inexperienced. That was mainly due to the recruiting hole created by the cutting of the program. The two pitchers Cal brought in, in that 2011 class - Michael Jordan and Robb Woodcock - pitched a combined 2.0 innings in two years, and Woodcock left the team after the 2012 campaign. You can't run a program when you essentially whiff on pitching in any one class, regardless of the circumstances.
Because of that hole, a lot of young pitchers were forced into some roles because of injury or poor performance (Michael Theofanopoulos was uneven at best and then got hurt, and Kyle Porter and Justin Jones did not bounce back, which was something the staff had been counting on), but what a season like that does is that it tests your young talent and makes them grow up a lot quicker. The other side of that coin is that sometimes, a year like that can do a number on a pitcher's psyche, and we won't know what effect 2013 had until fall ball starts.
Mason, obviously stepped up to the plate, and until further notice, he'll likely be the ace next season. Chris Muse-Fisher had a huge sophomore slump after being named a Freshman All-American in 2012, and he - along with Keaton Siomkin - were pressed into innings that they probably didn't anticipate pitching.
On the flipside of those two was Trevor Hildenberger. The side-arming righty was a pleasant surprise at the back end of the bullpen, but then had to move into the rotation, and while his numbers weren't fantastic (5-4, 5.31 ERA), he really showed some good stuff. His change and slider are developing, and when he's kept to the short innings or in the back of the bullpen, he can be a very effective reliever, and the numbers bear that out. As a starter, Hildenberger had a 9.68 ERA, allowing 32 hits in 17.2 innings pitched. As a reliever, he had a 2.70 ERA in 50.0 innings of work.
Collin Monsour also had a breakout true freshman year, going 2-0 with a 2.87 ERA. Monsour has a nice, long frame and can definitely add a few MPH onto his fastball, which is already a very good pitch for him. He has to improve his curve, which flashed at times last year and has a lot of potential. If he continues to work on the change, he's going to be very, very good.
Jake Schulz showed a good spike curve at times last season, but his motion is troubling. He short-arms his pitches, choking off the extra velocity he gets from his solid lower half. He needs to toughen up mentally, as well, and maybe learn some of that doggedness that is Mason's trademark.
Porter, for his part, really seemed to come back into his own later in the year, in the same role he filled as a freshman, which is as an innings-eating reliever. That gave him a big boost of confidence, and it showed. His fastball got up to 87 at times, whereas in 2012, it was barely around 83. Those extra few ticks on the radar gun make his 67-69 mph curve that much more effective, and I can definitely see him in the mix as a weekend starter if he returns to his 2011 form. A lot of his fall-off was due to his awkward delivery, which, for lack of a better term, wrecked the musculature behind his left shoulder at the end of 2011 and in the run-up to 2012, which is why we saw such a decline. Now that he's fully healthy, he'll be a nice change-of-pace between right-handed power pitchers. The fact that Theofanopoulos is also back from a broken hand gives Cal five potential weekend starters, including Jefferies, Haseltine and Mason. Siomkin and Muse-Fisher can move to the middle of the game or mid-week starts, with incoming freshmen Alex Martinez and Alex Schick in the running for midweek starts, as well. That's a big step up from last year, in terms of depth. It's still young, mind you, but I don't see relievers being pressed into service as starters in 2014.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, I'm excited to see what the Bears can get out of Dylan Nelson. He flashed big-time in certain spots last year, tossing six scoreless innings in a 1-0 loss to Rice and serving as a hard-throwing closer with some filth factor towards the end of the year. Again, he was another victim of the lack of pitching depth, shuttled between starter, middle relief and closer, as the situation dictated, and that inconsistency and lack of routine hurt him.