JMU Baseball’s Pitching Shows Tremendous Improvement

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Nick Stevens

Over the years, James Madison University has seen its fair share of pitchers graduate and continue their careers with Major League Baseball teams. Most recently, Brandon Withers (Oakland A’s), Chris Huffman (San Diego Padres) and Colton Harlow (Colorado Rockies) have taken the leap from the college ranks to professional baseball. We may be able to add a few more names to that list after next month’s MLB draft. The pitching in Harrisonburg has been tremendous in 2019, showing solid growth and development.

If you don’t have pitching, you don’t have much of a shot at winning in the CAA and JMU has plenty of pitching. How good is this staff that few people talk about? Pretty darn good.

Entering Friday’s game against Towson, JMU leads the CAA with a 3.72 earned run average. JMU is one of just two schools (Charleston) with a team ERA under 4.00. It ranks second in strikeouts (424) and has limited opposing hitters to a .233 batting average, the third-lowest mark in the conference. Opponents better not come to the plate hoping for a walk. The 173 free passes allowed are the third-lowest mark in the CAA.

There are still two weeks remaining in the season, but let’s compare 2019 to the previous two seasons.

Embracing the advanced analytical movement that has consumed baseball has proven to take the JMU pitching staff to the next level. These aren’t just small improvements thanks to a deep roster, they show tremendous growth and effectiveness, not only at the CAA level, but nationally.

The NCAA doesn’t offer much support for fans of college baseball, so we have to use stats which are two weeks old, but they still back up my point. As of April 19, JMU ranked 30th in the nation in strikeouts-per-nine-innings (9.6) and 37th in WHIP. Among the ACC and SEC powerhouses and national contenders such as San Diego State, UC-Santa Barbara, Dallas Baptist and TCU, there’s James Madison University, right there with them.

ERA has its limitations and is no longer the best way to evaluate a pitcher, the same goes for opponents’ batting average, but it’s all we have access to. Until JMU starts listing wOBA, exit velocity on batted balls, heat maps and spray charts, we have to use the numbers shown above. However, they still paint a pretty picture.

I know the good information is out there, like the spin rates, release points and vertical/horizontal movement for each pitcher, and while I would pay to dig into that data, I don’t need it to see the improvements on the field.

Kevin Kelly, a junior, is averaging six innings per start and has recorded a 3.56 ERA and 1.17 WHIP while racking up 64 punchouts in 65.2 innings. Once teams battle through Kelly’s multiple arms lots, wicked movement and high baseball IQ, they are faced with, arguably, the best pitcher on this staff, Nick Stewart.

Stewart is just a sophomore and looks stronger than he did in his dominant freshman campaign. Stewart is 4-3 with a 2.40 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and has limited opponents to a .193 batting average. He’s allowed just two home runs in 56 innings and one of those was a hanging curveball down Broadway, a mistake Stewart very rarely makes.

After making a name for himself in the Cape Cod League last summer, Kelly has had plenty of pro scouts in attendance during starts and will likely be taken at some point in this year’s draft. If he isn’t selected – or is taken later in the draft and decides to return for his senior season – both Kelly and Stewart will sit atop the 2020 starting rotation, another year older and wiser.

Sunday starter Joe Williams graduates after this season, but the odds-on favorite to replace him in the rotation next season is sophomore Justin Showalter. Showalter’s numbers aren’t bad, but I don’t care about his 2019 numbers. He has great movement on his fastball, has a solid feel for his secondary pitches and comes from one of the top high-school programs in the state of Virginia, Turner Ashby High School, which has produced multiple MLB draft picks.

No offense to Kelly/Stewart/Williams, but when the ball is turned over to the bullpen, it feels a bit like Christmas morning. Shelton Perkins, Brett Ayer, Dan Goggin, Nick Robertson, Matt Marsili and Grayson Jones have combined for 136.2 innings this season, sporting a 2.51 ERA and 202 strikeouts. Major League Baseball teams have been unable to put together a trustworthy bullpen this season, but JMU figured it out.

  • Shelton Perkins (JR)- 34.2 IP, 2.86 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 56 strikeouts, .206 average against
  • Brett Ayer (JR)- 29 IP, 1.24 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 42 strikeouts, .160 average against
  • Nick Robertson (SO)- 20.2 IP, 0.87 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 37 strikeouts, .107 average against
  • Grayson Jones (SO)- 18 IP, 2.00 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 22 strikeouts, .214 average against

Do you see the commonality among all four of these pitchers, other than the elite numbers? None of them are seniors and they may all return next season. Nick Robertson is a redshirt-sophomore, which means he is draft eligible and scouts have drooled over him this season. One scout, in particular, giggled while gathering video footage of Robertson. I don’t blame him, it happens.

Robertson is on pace to break Brett Ayer’s JMU record for lowest opponents’ batting average in a season (.116) and is three saves off the single-season record (10).

The two seniors, Goggin and Marsili, will be difficult to replace. They are power pitchers with big fastballs that teams have difficulties in catching up with. Two bad outings have skewed Goggin’s numbers, so they don’t accurately reflect the type of pitcher he is. Both have been noticed this season and have a shot at being drafted. Replacing their intensity won’t be easy.

Baseball is a difficult and maddening game. The wins may not have been there as often as this team wanted, but the improvement has been there. The improvement is real and there’s still plenty of room for more of it. There isn’t a single pitcher on the roster who has reached their peak potential. It’s not a knock on anyone, but a testament to how good they already are and how elite they can be.

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