In their first season under David Pierce, the Longhorns were a better baseball team compared to the 2016 version that failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Finding positive development at UFCU Disch-Falk Field wasn’t difficult this season. Overall, the program is unquestionably moving in the right direction.
However, the unmistakable positive development doesn’t eliminate the pain that comes from coming up just short for a Big 12 Tournament championship and Super Regional. Already, Pierce knows what will be at or near the top of the list when it comes time for Texas to try to improve this offseason.
“Honestly, I thought we did a very poor job in one-run games. So, you have to evaluate that. You lost two-thirds of 24 one-run games. Why is that? We evaluate that and narrow it down to what we think because it wasn’t just pitching, it wasn’t just offensive, it wasn’t just defense; it was an accumulation of different things happening that caused us to lose that game,” the Texas head coach said. “So, we have to go to the mind, and we have to understand where are we mentally late in games and that’s something we really address this fall.”
Pierce isn’t afraid to admit that the season’s end was bittersweet. After all, he probably notices the national championships listed above the left field bullpen more than anyone.
“I’m watching baseball and I’m pissed off,” responded Pierce with a grin when asked if he was pissed off following Texas’s loss to Long Beach State and if he was avoiding the College World Series because of it. “The thing about it is I’m not disappointed in the body of work this year. I thought the body of work, there were some great strides. The only thing that really stings is when you have an opportunity to win a Big 12 Tournament Championship and you come up short; you have an opportunity to put a team away in a regional on the road and you come up short. Those are probably the only disappointments that are so recent. So many things that were great about the year. But we’re still striving to be great. We didn’t reach that point this year.”
The point Pierce is referring to is the true measure of success on the 40 Acres. To get there, player development is a key component. If Texas was a sandwich, the meat in the middle would be a 2014 team squished on both sides by lack of player development before (after the 2011 season) and after (2015-16).
When Pierce arrived at Texas he did so with a reputation as a good evaluator, recruiter, and developer. Seeing his players get drafted isn’t new to him and that includes every coaching stop before he landed in Austin. Texas had 11 players drafted this season, which tied for the most for any school. That kind of development isn’t foreign to Pierce.
“I can’t say that because our third year at Sam Houston I think we had I think eight guys drafted,” Pierce responded when asked if seeing so many players drafted from his team is something he’ll have to get used to at Texas. “So, it’s part of our development. We want the player that’s going to come in and aspire to play in the big leagues. At the same time, we want them to be great where we are. We’ve had some great history of it. Spent a lot of time with it at Rice. In 2004, we had the number three, four, and eight picks of the draft. It’s not new territory. There’s a potential [of] more guys that can be drafted (in the future) because hopefully we’re getting better players.”
A great example of the development at Texas this season came when Morgan Cooper was selected in the second round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not only did Cooper, in his second full season since Tommy John surgery, show better control and command but he also added a slider, which emerged as a plus pitch and swing-and-miss weapon against righthanders.
“I think it was huge. I used to just throw fastball, curveball, and changeup. They were good pitches, but the fastball was 15, 20 MPH harder than my curveball. And it was like well if they saw something slow out my hand, they kind of knew what it was. I always talked about needing something in between to fill that gap from 78-92 or whatever. I need something to get them off my other pitches."
Adding a firm breaking ball for Cooper to use led to him striking out 11.08 batters per nine innings.
“When I started throwing the slider, it was another weapon. It comes out of the hand firm and with a little movement it can fool them or get them off the curveball and fastball. Looking back, it helped me be as successful as I was having another pitch that hitters have to think about. And it’s not something I just show. I can throw it 0-0, or 0-2 and get a strikeout out of it. It’s helped me a lot.”
Sure, hearing Nick Kennedy’s name called out by the Colorado Rockies in the fifth round probably felt like a real kick to the you know what for Pierce and his staff, and Kennedy, as expected, signed this week. The lefty went from 12 walks and an 8.44 ERA in 17.0 inning to 20 walks and a 3.02 ERA in 52.2 innings, and his fifth-round selection is heavily influenced by his development under a new staff, a staff that sparked his transformation by forcing him to throw only changeups during a scrimmage early in the season.
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Does it sting for Texas that Kennedy won't be back? No doubt. He would have been the third rotation piece, and likely left a lot of money on the table by beginning his pro career now. Still, Pierce doesn’t believe part of his job includes recruiting kids back to school. He never has.
“First of all, I’ve never tried to convince a kid not to sign or to sign. That’s not my job. It’s my job to tell them the benefits we offer and what happens in percentages when you look at kids going to school versus not going to school (draft) and percentages of minor league baseball of kids that make it. What I want to do is build that relationship early on, and maintain it. To me sometimes it’s frustrating they put so much stock in an advisor and that advisor has known them a couple months when, especially kids that are already in your program. We’ve sweated with them, worked with them day-to-day. We really want to have that relationship where they trust we’re going to tell them the right things."
When it comes to advice and the pros and cons of a given player’s situation, each individual is different.
“Definitely [there are] fifth rounders that I say, ‘This is a situation you should sign; this is your best option.’ And there’s a same guy that’s a fifth rounder and I don’t think that should happen. So, it’s individual basis.”
What Pierce wants to happen at Texas is this type of scenario – a lot of players from his current team being drafted by professional teams – becoming the norm instead of a one-time thing. The Longhorns want to produce players that are drafted, because that means talent is being drafted. That begins in recruiting.
“I think what you do is if you set up your recruiting class and you depend on first to third rounders you’re setting yourself up for failure. So, what you want to try to be able to do is take that kid that’s a frontline player, a first-tier player that also has some other interests and has the ability to come in here and settle in and become a third rounder,” stated Pierce, alluding to high-upside, talented players as targets rather than a list of sure-fire top picks out of high school. “Those are the ones you really need to keep incoming. You take a couple fliers on some frontline guys that are first rounders, and that’s what happened to us this year with two kids (Landon Leach and Tristen Lutz) that are potentially going to sign. That’s part of it. You’re constantly dealing with the junior college kids and their ability to understand that if they perform as a junior at this level, they have a chance to double, triple their money.”
Speaking of junior college players, Pierce, who was hired too late to truly have a chance to build a 2017 class of majority high school players, signed seven JUCO prospects in his first class. Following the draft, he's added two more in outfielder Duke Ellis and catcher DJ Petrinsky. Blake Pflughaupt already, surprisingly, agreed to terms with the Tampa Bay Rays (29th round selection) and Donny Diaz, a righthanded pitcher, is weighing his options. Regardless, several JUCO prospects will arrive to Austin in the same class for the first time in a long time.
READ ABOUT UT'S LATEST JUCO COMMITMENT INSIDE THE 40 ACRES
“The level means so much to how they get drafted and how their ability is perceived. If you look strictly at high school stats, it’s the worst thing I can use for recruiting because I don’t know what they’re facing,” Pierce stated about recruiting and the advantages junior college players have playing at the college level before going pro. “I know what our guys are facing every day. So, there are so many variables that take place.”
When Pierce arrived at Texas, he stated that he wanted to discuss with UT how it could help the baseball program get more junior college players into school. Every program Texas competes with can dip into that talent pool and plug in players where there are holes left by draft departures.
“I don’t want any junior college player that’s not going to make an immediate impact,” the head coach of the Longhorns said. “I’d much rather have freshmen unless a kid can come in and fill a void. That’s what I utilize the junior college system for – a kid that can maybe help us to fill the void of a loss because of the draft. We want those guys to be ready to compete.”
A healthy Texas program is one that includes those types of players – ones ready to compete, and work towards being a major league player. In the past, Texas sometimes signed players that were content with simply being a college player. Don’t expect that now.
“We want players that come here and aspire to have a great degree and be involved in a great program. We also want guys that aspire to play in the big leagues. So, there’s that fine line. I don’t want any player that only wants a degree or only wants to play professional baseball,” Pierce stated. “So that balance that we’re getting the type of player we want in the program is being represented in this year’s draft.”
While the possibility of losing so much of last year’s roster might frighten Texas fans, it should encourage them too. Successful programs consistently develop players that pro teams want. And Pierce has proven at each stop of the way he can recruit, develop, and produce players that enter professional baseball. Now, he’s working to do that with the backing of arguably the college baseball program.
“I think coach Pierce is going to be here for a long time. He’s a great coach. He puts in a lot of work, him and the coaching staff,” said Cooper. “They watch film constantly, putting together scouting reports, and we come out here (field) and put it all together. If you think about it, he came into a program that didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament last year, and we almost hosted. Yeah, we have some freshmen that helped, but he came in and turned it around and made this a winning program again. I think that just shows how much time he put in and how much he knows how to make a team play. I think moving forward it’s just going to keep getting better and Texas is going to get back to where it needs to be very soon. I’m excited to see what happens.”
As the Texas roster turns over significantly following Pierce's first season, don't expect he and his staff to make excuses. Instead, they're doing what they've done everywhere - find talented players at all levels, get them into the program, develop them, win, and watch them move on to the professional ranks. And it's not a coincidence that scouts, again, took notice of Pierce and his staff's player development.
Texas wants 11 players being drafted not to be something that lingers in the past. It wants it to become the norm.