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2021 UConn Baseball Preview: Starting Pitchers

North Carolina transfer Ben Casparius highlights the weekend rotation for the Huskies.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Two and a half years removed from taking the field as North Carolina’s starting third baseman in the College World Series and putting in a game-winning 2-for-5, three RBI night at the plate against eventual champions Oregon State, Ben Casparius is at a different school, in a different state, playing an entirely different role on this year’s UConn baseball team. Now, after an extremely long delay, he’s the Huskies’ Friday starter in a long line of great Friday starters.

Casparius’ transfer saga was rendered all but moot by the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling the season, but for a while, the UConn coaching staff thought he was a lock to start opening day. He had high praise last fall, with head coach Jim Penders touting his “explosive” fastball. “If he throws it bellybutton or higher, it looks like 100 when it’s 93 [mph],” Penders said. His competitive streak and his command of the strike zone are legit, too.

However, before COVID-19 shut things down, Casparius’ waiver was eventually denied, however, and after the cancellation of the 2019 season it was in doubt as to whether he would play for UConn at all with the MLB draft on the horizon. But as the shortened draft took place, he wasn’t selected in the first five rounds, so it wasn’t worth it for him to go to the league.

Casparius returns to UConn as their clear-cut Friday starter, in a long line of tremendous pitchers under coach Josh MacDonald, from Carson Cross in 2015 to Anthony Kay, Tim Cate and Mason Feole. The Connecticut native went to Staples High in Westport, where he went 5-1 his senior year and won a state championship, earning the Gatorade Player of the Year award. He had a stellar freshman year at North Carolina with a 1.69 ERA and a .118 batting average against, but faltered his sophomore year and started to weigh his options, eventually ending up on Penders’ doorstep.

Casparius is about as good of a pitching prospect as any to come out of Connecticut in recent years. His fastball sits 93-94 miles per hour, and it a few different variations; a four-seam, a sinker and a cutter are all in his arsenal. Then, you have the breaking pitches, including a curve, a slider and a wipeout changeup. Most elite college pitchers have three-to-four pitches that they’ve gained mastery of, so if Casparius can mix and match six of them, you might as well forget about it.

“You may have a chance to see something special every time he touches the ball,” MacDonald said. “I think he’s about as athletic of a pitcher as we’ve had, everything comes very easy to him.”

What’s it like to be at the plate facing Casparius? The reviews are in, and they’re not great.

“It is the worst experience I’ve had to face this fall and this winter,” UConn slugger and Co-Big East Preseason Player of the Year Kyler Fedko put it bluntly. “I mean, he’s probably has struck me out 10 of the last 12 at bats and it makes me so mad.”

Outside of Casparius, there will be plenty of opportunities for others to make their mark in the starting rotation. The Huskies have 61 games scheduled this year to try and get ahead of any possible COVID cancellations — seven more than the usual 54, and will be further tested by the conference play format: four-game weekend series for seven straight weeks with a few midweek games thrown in.

UConn’s Saturday starter looked somewhat undecided at the start of 2019, but redshirt junior Joe Simeone made it his own over the course of 13 played games. After two unremarkable seasons out of the bullpen as a freshman and sophomore where the less that’s said about his ERA the better, Simeone began to transition to life as a starter. Through four starts in 2019, he posted a 3.00 ERA and held opposing pitchers to a 1.89 batting average. Simeone continued this promising trend in the fall scrimmages, posting a 1.89 ERA and 12 strikeouts through 15 innings pitched. Small sample size, sure, but there’s enough there to suggest that Simeone is more comfortable in a starting role than coming out of the bullpen.

Simeone has a sinking fastball that sits in the high 80’s to low 90’s, a curveball, a changeup and a slider that he breaks out occasionally. When he’s on the mound, he puts a tremendous amount of effort into every pitch, and that’s visible even by the fans in the stands.

“When [Simeone] takes the ball, you know [that] when his day is done, we’re not questioning whether or not he gave his all. He’s gonna go out there, he’s gonna compete, he’s gonna leave it out on the field,” MacDonald said.

Redshirt sophomore Jimmy Wang, who burst onto the scene in the 2019 season, will also stake a claim to a starting role in 2021, according to the UConn baseball staff. Originally from Beijing, China, Wang made his name as a UConn player when he joined the team via walk-on tryouts in the fall of 2018, and had a solid first season as a weekly starter. He was 2-2 with a 3.91 ERA, getting into some sketchy situations but ultimately performing well for his first season at the Division I level. His 2020 season was derailed by injury, but an extended offseason and solid fall (3.43 ERA and 18 strikeouts through 21 innings) means he’ll be ready to go for the spring.

Wang, as expected from someone who walked into Penders’ office without a lick of Division I college experience, was a bit raw that first year. Still, his 95 mph fastball and wipeout slider were effective in his first season, and he was able to add a changeup to his arsenal that first year. The coaching staff is looking for a little more refinement from Wang, some thing that’s essential if he is to reach his full potential.

“He seems to have matured a little bit in terms of how he goes about and approaches pitching [and] navigating his way through games, which is exciting,” MacDonald said.

Elsewhere in the rotation, the Huskies will have multiple newcomers ready to make an impact. Another player in competition for a weekend spot is Austin Peterson, a junior who transferred in from Wabash Valley Community College in Illinois this summer.

Peterson only made two starts at a junior college level before the season was cancelled due to COVID, so the real picture of his career comes from his time at Purdue before that. He worked out of the bullpen for the Boilermakers, pitching 25 games and earning an impressive 9.19 K/9 ratio. Like Simeone, his fastball sits low 90s and he has multiple breaking pitches. Peterson had a bout with COVID-19 earlier in the fall, but he remains on track to be an important starter for the Huskies this season.

Sophomore Will Lucas is an interesting contender for a weekend starting spot. He was heralded as a two-way player as a freshman coming into the 2019 season, but was used mainly as an alternative to Conor Moriarty at third base. He never really got going at the plate, however, and the infield corner defense wasn’t fantastic either. Lucas emerged from the 2019 offseason as a starting pitcher, with a fastball in the mid-80s, a slider and a curveball to boot.

Freshman Pat Gallagher is another interesting prospect that could see time as a starter, either on Sunday or a weekday. The 6-foot freshman from Leominster, Massachusetts was an all-state hurler in high school and appeared in four relief appearances in his first year at UConn.

Predicted Rotation:

Friday: Ben Casparius

Saturday: Joe Simeone/Will Lucas

Sunday: Jimmy Wang