For the past couple of years, the Boston College Eagles were known as a team headlined by star players. In 2014, it was Andrew Chin's team. Last season, Chris Shaw was the headlining player. As 2016 dawns, Birdball will be led by two players, both righthanded pitchers: Mike King and Justin Dunn.
In college baseball, managing a pitching staff is substantially different from the way people view the professional ranks. A staff ace is designated as a "Friday starter," which means he's the guy who gets the ball on the first game of conference play each week. The three best starters are usually reserved for one game per week, with other long relievers or staff pitching assignments used in non-conference games.
Remember BC's regular season game against UMass last season in which the Eagles destroyed the Minutmen 11-1?UMass used a strategy of one pitcher per inning throughout that game, using five different pitchers in the first five innings. This was done largely to not jeopardize their weekend starters and to get pitchers work outside of conference play.
Boston College's 2016 pitching staff enters the season with a legitimate #1 starter in Mike King and a legitimate end of the game option in Justin Dunn. Both are on a number of different draft boards, and as juniors eligible for the MLB Draft in June could possibly be playing their final spring in Boston College uniforms.
King exploded onto the national scene last year after starting the year out of the bullpen. After pitching out of the pen in his first several appearances, he very quietly wriggled his way onto most ACC pitching leader sheets following back-to-back solid outings against NC State and Duke. The lid on him as the league's best-kept secret blew open when he threw a complete game—a shutout, one-hit win over Georgia Tech—and followed it up with eight more innings of one-run ball against North Carolina.
Heading into his final three starts of the year, King was one of the top pitchers in the league with a 1.88 ERA, his runs mark never getting higher than 3.00 until after his final start of the year, a 4-1 loss to Notre Dame. Following the season, King started five games for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks in the Cape Cod Baseball League, throwing 22 innings with 19 strikeouts to just five walks.
King has a power fastball that can touch into the 90s, and he combines that with a quality changeup and a breaking ball that's extremely tight. He's the prototype of a pitcher who belies the wins-losses statistic, since he only went 1-5 last year (but still had two saves because remember, he started the season in the bullpen), and he's entering this year as the man trusted to carry the Eagles into weekends.
Along with King, the rest of the attention is on Justin Dunn. Like King, it took Dunn about a month's time to develop organically into the role as the team's closer. In 20 appearances last season, he made three spot starts before finishing 14 games for the Eagle staff with five saves. In 47.1 innings last season, he struck out 46 to just 21 walks and allowed only three of nine inherited runners to score.
Like King, his role was defined by a signature performance; unlike King, however, Dunn's took place over a solid month. Once he became the Boston College closer, he went on a tear, striking out 11 and walking one while not allowing a run in six appearances over the majority of the month of April. During that time, he shut down North Carolina and Georgia Tech, pitched solidly against Clemson, and dominated Rhode Island.
Over the summer, Dunn was tabbed as the closer by manager Mike Roberts for the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape League. In 14 appearances, he made seven saves, striking out 18 to just four walks in 18.1 innings. He did absorb three losses, but he left the Cape with a 1.96 ERA.
King and Dunn will garner the headlines and attention, which means BC could be operating on borrowed time with them until the MLB Draft in June.
But the Eagles' pitching staff isn't about two players, and while they have a couple of guys to shoulder the majority of attention, there's a crop of talented arms buoyed by several players' experience.
Senior John Nicklas led the Eagles staff in appearances last season, making 23 trips to the bump in relief. The team's closer in 2014, he enters the season with 62 career appearances.
Luke Fernandes lost the majority of his sophomore season last year to injury, but he led the Eagles in appearances in 2014 with 21 and tied for second on the team with six games. He was an intricate part of the staff before sustaining the injury, providing BC with that midweek reliever coverage against teams like Harvard and Dartmouth. This came after a year in which he made 12 appearances in ACC action, recording a 3.94 ERA against league teams.
Although he's only a junior, it's important to note Fernandes redshirted his freshman season due to a separate injury, making him the same age as the senior class. Even though he's battled the medical bug, he's the type of veteran presence BC really can rely on to mentor the younger staff members.
That leads us, finally, to those younger guys. Teams tend to keep a larger number of righthanders on their staff because they're simply more available. There are six freshmen righties on the BC pitching staff (not including the two lefties), along with one sophomore (Brian Rapp).
This is one of the more star-studded freshman classes for Eagle pitching. Jacob Stevens comes to Chestnut Hill after receiving a call last June from the Philadelphia Phillies, drafted in the 33rd round of the 2014 MLB Entry Draft. A product of Darien, CT, he's the top prospect coming out of the Constitution State, the 76th best righty in the Class of 2015. He already has a power fastball topping off in the low-to-mid 90s, and he's a thick body with a lot of power. When he delivers from the mound, it's nice and easy for the pushoff, which allows him to crank and fire with a good delivery.
Stevens is the headliner of the class, but the arms race for BC escalated in a big way this year with three of the top prospects in their home state. Austin Batchelor was the fourth best righthanded pitching prospect in the state of Massachusetts, the seventh best coming out of the state. He only throws in the upper 80s, but scouting reports talked about how he improved as his season went on. A Malden Catholic product, he actually started his high school career as a catcher, giving BC another option behind the dish if it doesn't work out on the mound.
Thomas Lane, a 6'5", 245-pound bull from Georgetown, Massachusetts, already fires over 90 mph, another All Region First Team selection from the Northeast, ranked 10th (sixth best among RHP). And John Witkowski, 16th best in Massachusetts (eighth among RHP) rounds out the pitching recruitment.
As it stands, the Eagles pitching staff has the tools to be very successful if everything comes together. They have the headliners, they have veteran leadership, and they have young, lively arms. There will be growing pains, but the goal is to have everyone firing when it matters most. And in that, the foundation of the pitching staff has been poured, built, and constructed exactly the way the coaching staff will want it.