TCU Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
In 2020, Texas Christian had a team with an extremely high floor and a ceiling that could have gotten the team to the College World Series if things broke the right way.
In 2021, the Frogs are going to run it back with basically the same group of players. This time, the floor is even higher for the club. It’s hard to imagine a scenario, barring catastrophically poor injury luck, where TCU isn’t better than it was a year ago, and with a couple of extremely talented recruiting classes joining the fray the last two years, the ceiling is higher as well.
These are five pressing questions for TCU ahead of the coming season.
Who is the biggest breakout candidate on the pitching staff?
According to coach Jim Schlossnagle, we should be looking at third-year sophomore lefthander Austin Krob.
Last season, Krob excelled in a relief role, throwing 11.2 scoreless innings with 15 strikeouts compared to just four walks and a .179 opponent batting average. His best performance of the season came in TCU’s win over UCLA, which also happened to be his last appearance of 2020. In that outing, he threw 3.1 scoreless innings, giving up two hits and one walk with five strikeouts.
If the season were to begin today, Krob would have a spot in the weekend rotation, which is no small feat given the depth of pitching the Horned Frogs return in 2021. And actually, had the 2020 season continued apace, Krob might have earned the spot at some point last season.
“(Krob) was really gaining confidence and was probably headed towards the rotation, and he has taken that and really run with it,” Schlossnagle said. “He’s going to be in our rotation for sure. Whose spot he takes, I’m not sure yet. Austin Krob is a name that you’re really going to start to hear a lot about.”
TCU has had a good run of left-handed pitchers in its recent history, from the likes of Matt Purke and Brandon Finnegan to Nick Lodolo more recently, and Schlossnagle thinks Krob has a chance to be every bit as good as those guys.
If the lefthander ends up making good on that promise, he’s suddenly the type of workhorse ace you want at the front of an Omaha-caliber rotation.
How will the rest of the rotation shake out?
We now know that Krob is in good position for locking down one spot in the rotation, and that already makes it a crowded competition given that the team also returns all three members of last season’s weekend rotation in fourth-year sophomore righthander Johnny Ray, fourth-year sophomore lefthander Russell Smith and fifth-year senior righthander Charles King.
But Schlossnagle and pitching coach Kirk Saarloos have a number of other options beyond those four pitchers, and frankly, the scheduling format for the 2021 season might make it to where it’s a requirement to have four or even five starting options you feel really good about.
“A lot of this is going to be dictated by what the college baseball season looks like, not just in the number of games played, but also how it’s structured,” Schlossnagle said. “For example, you’re probably starting to hear a lot about conferences talking about four-game weekends, so playing four games in a weekend is certainly going to either expose how deep your pitching staff is or the lack of depth in it. So, for us, shoot, I’m hoping we get to play five games a week, because at least for right now, I’m not saying we’re going to be perfect or we’re even going to be the best, but I like the number of pitchers that we have and how talented they are, and I just want to have enough innings for them to continue to shine and help us win games, and especially for the younger players, to help them develop.”
Two other pitchers to watch in the competition are second-year freshman righthanders Riley Cornelio and Jacob Meador, both of whom were highly-regarded recruits arriving ahead of the 2020 season who pushed for time on the mound at this time last year.
Cornelio was one of the most talented players in the 2019 draft to end up on a college campus. He worked primarily as a midweek starter for the Frogs last season, and despite some issues with walks, ended up with a 0.87 ERA in 10.1 innings. Currently the 60th-ranked college prospect for the 2021 draft, he has the talent to push for a bigger role in 2021.
Meador didn’t have as much buzz upon arrival at TCU, but he quickly established himself as a competitor for major innings in the spring, and as the 2020 season approached, he was in the thick of the race for a weekend rotation spot. Ultimately, he pitched in relief and appeared in three games out of the bullpen, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him back in the mix to start games next season.
That’s to say nothing of a fresh group of newcomers from the nation’s 13th-ranked recruiting class that includes righthanders Cam Brown, Storm Hierholzer and Braxton Pearson, all of whom were ranked in the BA 500 going into the draft.
When it comes to starting pitching, TCU has options. That’s always a good problem to have, but especially going into a 2021 season where there’s some uncertainty about the format of the season.
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Is there a power conference program more experienced than TCU?
It’s hard to imagine there being a more experienced power conference program out there, as TCU welcomes back a whole host of players who have been in college baseball for five or more years.
The righthander King, fellow righthander Dalton Brown, lefthander Haylen Green, outfielder Hunter Wolfe, catcher Zach Humphreys, and infielders Austin Henry, Conner Shepherd and Gene Wood have all played at least five seasons at the college level.
And beyond being simply experienced, every player in that group has been a big part of TCU’s club at some point in the past, and perhaps all of them will play a big role in 2021. When you’re talking about winning at a CWS level, talent wins out, but when you have as much talent as TCU does, being extremely experienced can be a separator.
“Older players, they’ve been around the block, so nothing phases them,” Schlossnagle said. “If they have a bad day, it’s just on to the next day. They’re able to get to the middle. They never get too high, never get too low, but they also have a great hunger because we still have four players, I believe, that were on our last (College) World Series team, so they’re able to relay those messages, but a lot of those older players were guys that were signed with the intent of getting us back to Omaha. They know the standard here.”
Will newcomers be able to break through?
On one hand, with the level of experience TCU returns, it seems unlikely that this would be a team featuring newcomers in immediate starring roles. On the other hand, Schlossnagle and his staff have now put a top-five recruiting class and a top-fifteen class on campus in the last two years, and it seems reasonable to expect there to be breakout stars from those groups of players.
Although he declined to name which freshmen are those who have earned the recognition, he mentioned that competition for playing time has been such that, if the season started today, there would be a couple of instances of newcomers starting over incumbent players.
“The selfless attribute of some of our older players may get tested because on a team that returns a lot of older players we have some young players that are really pushing for not just playing time, but an opportunity to be in the lineup on opening day,” Schlossnagle said. “Opening day isn’t here, but if opening day was today, we would start two freshman position players for sure, and maybe three.”
Depth is already going to be a strong point for this TCU team, but having a couple of freshmen jump into big roles right away, therefore pushing some returning veterans into part-time or utility roles, would take the depth to the next level.
Who is a breakout returning player to watch in the lineup?
Third-year freshman outfielder Porter Brown stands out here. To this point of his career, he’s had nothing but incredibly bad luck. As a freshman, he was on a track that Schlossnagle thought at the time might end in him being named the Big 12 freshman of the year, only to have his season cut short due to injury after 16 games.
In 2020, he got off to a slow start, but before he could get going again, the season was canceled and he wound up hitting .189/.283/.302 when it was all said and done. He was also set to play this past summer in the Cape Cod League, but those plans were scuttled when the Cape canceled its season.
Brown’s potential has been apparent from the minute he arrived at TCU, but injuries and general misfortune have kept him from showing it. He and the rest of the Horned Frogs hope that 2021 will be his breakout season.