UCSB Baseball Season Preview Pt. II: The Pitching Staff

Noah Davis
Noah Davis

This is the second of a two-part series previewing the upcoming UCSB baseball season. Today we take a look at UCSB's talented pitching staff, while Monday we looked at the team's position players. Due to forecasted storms, UCSB will now open its season with a three-game set at LMU starting on Thursday, Feb. 16. The Gauchos' home opener will now be Friday, Feb. 24 against Tulane. Single-game and season tickets are available today and can be purchased by calling 805-893-UCSB or by clicking here.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Heading into a new season, any college baseball coach would be thrilled to return two-thirds of the weekend rotation and the top reliever out of the bullpen while bringing in a top-10 recruiting class, which is the case for Andrew Checketts and UC Santa Barbara. 

However, there is no escaping the fact that UCSB's pitching staff in 2017 will have to make up for the loss of one of the most dependable arms in program history in Shane Bieber, who signed with the Cleveland Indians organization after being selected in the fourth round of the 2016 MLB First-Year Draft.

Bieber, whose 23 career wins rank third all-time at UCSB, was a coach's dream. He was near-certain to pitch into the eighth inning or later every time he took the ball, he rarely beat himself or made unnecesarry mistakes (career 1.14 walks per nine innings), and he took a big step forward each year after making the weekend rotation as a true freshman.

While the Laguna Hills native will surely be missed, the Gauchos are equipped to replace him with a stable of arms that has a balanced mix of experience and young talent, headlined by right-handers Noah Davis and Joe Record and southpaw Kyle Nelson

A year after showing flashes of brilliance as a freshman Saturday starter, Davis will make the move to Friday this year. The 6-2 righty was 7-4 with a 4.46 ERA in 2016, but showed dominant stuff when he was healthy and on his game, such as when he allowed just one hit in back-to-back starts in early March or his dazzling one-run, eight-inning showing against conference rival Long Beach State on Apr. 2. 

Despite being just a sophomore, he has experience that few others in college baseball can share, as he started and earned the decision in UCSB's first-ever College World Series victory, a 5-3 triumph over No. 3 Miami back on Jun. 20. 

Since UCSB's time in Omaha, Davis has recovered his health – he was hampered down the stretch with a foot injury – and taken a step forward as a big-game pitcher.

"Noah has shown a lot more consistency, he sure looks like a Friday guy," said Checketts. "He's improved his change-up and added a slider that we think can be a good out-pitch for him."

Another lock for the rotation will be Record, a 6-3 righty out of Placentia, Calif. The redshirt junior served as the Gauchos' sunday starter a season ago, going 6-5 with a solid 3.91 ERA. 

A year of starting experience combined with an uptick in stuff has Checketts and the media thinking he is due for a big year. 

"Joe has come a long way in his time at UCSB," said Checketts. "He's seen a significant increase in velocity since last year, and is throwing more strikes which should allow him to better be able to put guys away."

After those two rotation staples, the roles on the staff are less defined. 

The biggest wild card is Nelson, a stud left-hander who has excelled as a swingman over his first two years with the Gauchos.

The junior lefty was named to three Preseason All-America teams as a reliever as well as the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Watch List, but his future may be as a weekend starter.

Nelson will start the second game of the season-opening series against LMU. The hope is that he will remain there and give the Gauchos a right-left-right rotation, but the option remains to move him back if the bullpen needs shoring up.

The San Francisco native was 7-2 last year with 10 saves, and he had an outstanding 0.75 ERA in 25 outings as a freshman. He also set a school record with a streak of 49 innings without allowing an earned run over his first two years. 

Other candidates fighting for starting spots include Chris Clements, Willie Traynor, and Steven Ledesma, a trio of strike-throwing right-handers. 

Clements, a junior, opened the 2016 season as the team's midweek starter, but didn't appear after Mar. 29 due to injury issues. He was effective when healthy as a freshman (2.16 ERA), and has added velocity to his high 80s fastball since then. 

Traynor redshirted last season, his first on campus, but was a two-time All-State selection during his time at Newark Memorial High School. 

Ledesma had a stellar season as Santa Barbara City College's ace in 2016, going 7-4 with a 2.15 ERA and 100 strikeouts in just 96 1/3 innings. He has the ability to throw all of his pitches for strikes, including a sinker and multiple change-ups.

Heading into the new season, UCSB's bullpen as currently constituted will be green but full of talent. Last year, Nelson and three seniors (Justin Kelly, Trevor Bettencourt, and James Carter, all of whom were drafted) pitched the majority of relief innings for the Gauchos. 

Sophomore righty Kevin Chandler (3.77 ERA) stands as the sole member of the Gaucho bullpen who tossed more than 15 innings last year. 

However, the other pitchers in the pen have plenty of credentials to their name. 

Freshman righty Chris Lincoln was picked in the 13th round of last year's draft by Toronto, and has all the looks of a future Friday ace. He has shown a good change-up in fall workouts and has the stuff to get outs as a true freshman. 

Another freshman draftee, southpaw Ben Brecht, stands an imposing 6-7 on the mound and is a candidate for long relief and Tuesday starts. The Illinois native has shown advanced fastball command. 

Freshmen Shea Berry (touches 91 MPH, has a solid slider) and AJ Woodall (strong command, can long relieve or get out lefties in matchup assignments) are also in line for significant innings. 

The Gaucho pitching staff possesses a good mix of proven commodities and high-upside arms that should combine to be successful this year and down the road. The increased responsibilities for Noah Davis, Kyle Nelson, and Joe Record combined with the potential blossoming of the Gauchos' many promising newcomers ensures that the Gauchos' staff will be worth paying attention to.