As we approach the 2018 NCAA Baseball season, TCR will be previewing the Illinois Fighting Illini Baseball team’s roster. From starting pitchers all the way down to bullpen catchers, we will be providing an in-depth look at what to expect from the team this season.
Today’s preview focuses on the Illinois pitching staff, who is coming off a rocky 2017 campaign. With a starting rotation that had very little collegiate experience to a handful of injuries, the pitching staff left a lot to be desired last season.
Heading into 2018, both the floor AND the ceiling are a little higher for the Orange and Blue.
Head Coach Dan Hartleb has two transfer starting pitchers to lock down the middle of the rotation and his ace is back from injury. With a bullpen that is consistently solid, this could be a season for this pitching staff to prove they’re moving forward. Let’s meet the guys:
Cyrillo Watson (Sophomore RHP)
This budding sophomore has shown consistent growth since he stepped on the rubber last season in Champaign. With a 3.79 ERA in 8 starts in the Northwoods League last summer, Watson showed better command of his fastball, which maintained its high 80’s velocity throughout his starts.
Watson’s strikeout pitch is a low 80’s slider that has decent movement away from the plate. As he continues to fill out his 6-foot-1, 185 frame, Watson is going to be a key starter deep in the rotation again this season.
Ty Weber (Sophomore RHP)
Standing at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, Ty Weber is built like a major league starter. This redshirt sophomore brings a four-pitch repertoire, including a 12-6 curve and a “floor-dropping” changeup.
His fastball has room to grow in velocity, but we’ve seen an increase in speed since last season (high 80’s cheese). It’s critical that Weber is able to vary the speeds between his changeup and the high-gas, or hitters will pounce on him early.
A 2016 Amateur Entry Draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds, Weber needs to show us he can improve on a 1.56 WHIP and 9.42 hits per nine innings. His ceiling is VERY high if he can create a larger gap between pitches, and we anticipate a breakout season from the young righty.
Andy Fisher (Redshirt Junior LHP)
Fisher sat the 2017 due to NCAA transfer rules, but will be one of two transfer pitchers joining the starting rotation this season. The lefty pitched in the Northwoods League last summer, racking up a 6-1 record including 51 strikeouts in 51 innings pitched over 8 starts. Fisher is not going to overpower hitters with his fastball (90mph at the most), but his wide release creates a deadly 1-2 punch in his changeup and slider. As a pitch-to-contact starter, Fisher reminds us more of an Andrew Cashner or a Ty Blach with his approach. He’s a MUCH needed “veteran” addition to the starting rotation.
Quinn Snarskis (Junior RHP)
One of the most exciting additions to the 2018 rotation is a junior right hander from St. Joes. Snarskis was named a 2017 Northwoods League All-Star as Kenosha’s ace in the rotation. Throwing 24 strikeouts with a 1.60 ERA, Snarskis could be THE addition Coach Dan Hartleb needed to make this starting rotation one of the Top 5 in the Big Ten. With a four pitch arsenal that includes a wicked curveball and a low 90’s fastball, Snarskis is the veteran depth this team needed.
Sean Leland (Redshirt Junior RHP)
Leland is a redshirt junior that transferred from the Louisville Cardinals. By our account, Coach Hartleb will use Leland in the starting rotation to help give his young guns some rest in-between starts. Though after sitting the 2017 collegiate season, Leland returned to the Cape Cod League last summer as a long reliever. Having a “Mike Montgomery” type of player is never a bad thing, and is a big reason why the Illini are glad to have him on staff.
Ryan Schmitt Redshirt (Sophomore RHP)
He may be a smaller guy, but don’t under estimate his ability. Ryan Schmitt only stands at 5’9”, but his fastball is one of the toughest to hit in this Illinois bullpen. His two-seam sinking fastball clocks in at a consistent 90+ mph, and a slider that bites HARD at the plate makes him a tough reliever to face. Despite tipping his throwing motion when he’s throwing his changeup, Schmitt racked up 23 strikeouts with a 1.39 WHIP in 2017. Expect Schmitt to be a key role in the bullpen heading into this season.
Zak Devermann (Junior LHP)
The “lefty specialist” in the bullpen, this middle reliever isn’t just known for finding a cat in the team’s bullpen. Zak has a pair of off-speed gems with a sweeping curveball and a changeup that has caused a lot of weak ground-outs. Devermann doesn’t have a lot of velocity, but his ability to create soft contact at the plate makes him a perfect “set up” pitcher.
Ryan Kutt (Freshman RHP)
One of the highest freshman recruits in Illinois baseball, Ryan Kutt is poised to make a splash in his first season for the Illini. The 6’3” 195lb freshman has a four pitch repertoire including a low 90’s fastball, a high 70’s changeup, and a slider that should give him plenty of tools in his first season. His breaking pitches are the biggest points of development for the young freshman, but we’re totally sold on his ability to bring the heat this early in his career. Kutt will be a fun player to watch for years to come.
Quinten Sefcik (Redshirt Junior RHP)
After moving to the bullpen last season full-time, Quinten Sefick slowly started rounding into form during Big Ten play in 2017. He finished the season with a 1.50 WHIP and a 4.53 ERA, and struggled with his command allowing 0.89 K-BB as a reliever. If Sefick can find his release and adjust his fastball command, you will see more and more of him in middle inning relief efforts in 2018.
Ryan Thompson (Sophomore RHP)
One of the best freshman relievers in the Big Ten last year, Ryan Thompson is coming off a less-than-stellar season with Rochester in the Northwoods League as a starter. Assuming that Coach Hartleb brings him back as a long reliever this season, Thompson can continue to develop his high 80’s fastball while seeing a good chunk of time on the mound.
Jackson Douglas (Senior LHP)
Following a disappointing 2017 season, Jackson Douglas pitched well over the summer with Quincy in the Prospects League. With 37 strikeouts and a 1.44 WHIP, Douglas is trending in the right direction heading into the 2018 NCAA baseball season. As one of two lefty relievers, Douglas needs to grab the reins out of the bullpen this season if Illinois wants to shut down opponents in later innings.
Zack Jones (Sophomore LHP)
Zack Jones is a very promising subject out of the bullpen. He’s not a high-velocity guy (mid 80’s at most), but his breaking ball falls off the table and his changeup creates enough of a velocity gap to freeze hitters. Jones pitched in three games in the Northwoods League, establishing a 0.93 WHIP and a 3.0 K-BB ratio. Even though he got roughed up as a freshman last season, we think Zack Jones could take a big stride forward in 2018.
Joey Gerber (Junior RHP)
This 6’4” 215lb right hander is going to anchor the bullpen once again. Joey Gerber saved 8 games last season for the Illini, with 43 strikeouts and a 1.43 WHIP over 27 appearances. His summer in the Northwoods League was even better, with a 1.02 WHIP across 4 saves in 20 appearances. Only thing we would like to see is better command from Gerber, as his strikeout to walk ratio continues to drop below 2.0. If Gerber gets the ball and attacks hitters early, Gerber is poised to put together another 40+ strikeouts and 10+ saves for the orange and blue.
***UPDATE 3:33 2/6/2018***
Luke Shilling will be out for at least the first half of the season with a broken hand according to multiple sources. He will be out “several weeks” and will likely return as a bullpen pitcher. For more information on Luke, see our preview below:
Luke Shilling (Junior RHP)
He’ssssss baaaaaaackkkkk! The 2015 first team All-American and 20th round draft pick (Texas Rangers) sat out a good chunk of the 2017 season with an injury after starting seven games for the Illini. At 6-foot-5, 250, Shilling stands with players like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Baumgarner and Jake Arrieta when it comes to size. He touts a mid-90’s fastball, a reliable changeup and a wicked 12-6 curveball. His issue? Command.
Shilling’s stats left a lot to be desired in his seven starts last year, including a team-high 37 walks in 29 innings pitched. A 7.14 ERA and a 1-2 record left scouts and fans wondering if we would see Shilling return to dominance once he’s healthy.
As a draft eligible player at the end of the 2018 season, this is Shilling’s year to step back into the national spotlight. There was some flashes of hope in last year’s struggles, as Shilling struck out 30 hitters in the 29 innings pitched. His curveball is one of the nastiest pitches in the NCAA, and his velocity continues to rise (up to 97 mph in off-season workouts).