South Carolina baseball last reached the NCAA tournament in 2018 and advanced to within one win of a trip to the College World Series. The Gamecocks that season featured a rotation with two MLB draft picks in Adam Hill and Cody Morris, along with solid bullpen arms in Ridge Chapman, Eddy Demurias and Graham Lawson.
But USC’s staff, while effective, was lacking in one area — velocity. D1Baseball.com compiles an annual list of every pitcher it sees firsthand throw at least one fastball at or above 96 mph, and only one Gamecock made the list that regular season: Chapman. USC pitchers Morris and Hill could reach the mid-90s as well, but on the whole, South Carolina’s staff wasn’t known for being overpowering.
Flash forward three years, and that reputation has changed. As coach Mark Kingston’s Gamecocks prep for Opening Day on Friday against Dayton, his staff is stocked with “power arms” — and is one of the prime reasons USC is ranked in the top 20 of most preseason polls.
“You had a few guys who were in that 94-95 range and touching a little bit higher than that,” Kingston said this past fall of the 2018 pitching staff, “but now it seems like you have arm after arm after arm that we bring out to pitch in intrasquad (games). We have 10 guys who have touched 95 so far this fall, and probably 15 guys who have touched 93 or higher.”
The shift isn’t just happy coincidence. From the time Kingston was hired before the start of the 2018 season, he has talked about assembling a staff full of pitchers who can light up a radar gun.
“I think he kind of made no secret about it. He wanted to build a program around power arms and power bats, that those are the ingredients to win in the SEC.” D1Baseball.com editor Aaron Fitt told The State. “And really that’s kind of the same approach you see in the big leagues now, you know, and I think it’s kind of trickled down from from there.
“You watch Major League Baseball games, it’s just one guy pumping 98 mile per hour gas and everybody’s swinging for the fences. That’s kind of where the game is headed. And I think Kingston actually recognized that probably before a lot of other people did. And it takes some time to get your guys in, get your pipeline really flowing. But it’s flowing now. And that’s how they’re going to build this program going forward.”
Gamecocks and recruiting
As Fitt said, a large part of South Carolina’s velocity surge is from an influx of talented freshmen. Right-handers Jack Mahoney and Travis Luensmann and left-hander Magdiel Cotto had all thrown fastballs in the mid-90s before they even arrived on campus, and fellow rookies Jackson Phipps and Will Sanders were both in that group registering in the 93-mph range this past fall.
“Certainly you see the guys that show up as 18-year-old kids on campus that can already light up the radar gun. But more often it’s something that does develop over the course of a college career. There’s no question about the time in the weight room — we usually see guys make big jumps freshman year to sophomore year,” Fitt said. “I think that’s usually when you see the biggest jump. But this South Carolina class, I mean, you’ve got some big arms that are true freshmen.”
All five of those freshman boast impressive size. All but Mahoney, who is 6-foot-2, stand 6-foot-4 or more, and they all weigh at least 208 pounds. Generally speaking, bigger pitchers tend to throw harder.
On that 2018 squad, there were eight freshman pitchers — none weighed more than 198 pounds. Five stood no taller than 6-foot-1.
Cotto, Sanders, Phipps and Mahoney in particular are all expected to play big roles right away for the Gamecocks. While they are unlikely to crack the weekend rotation, their velocity could serve them well in short spurts out of the bullpen, or they could take turns developing as midweek starters.
“They’re all going to pitch important innings,” Kingston confirmed. “Who gets the start on a Tuesday, you know, it could be any of them. It could be Sanders, it could be Phillips, it could be Mahoney, it could be Cotto. They’re all extremely talented. And I think they all will get a lot of innings out of the bullpen because especially with our schedule, you’ve got to be as good as you can be at all times for every inning. And there may be some type of rotation where one guy starts Tuesday this week, and then the next guy, next week.”
While the freshmen provide an exciting glimpse of a high-powered future, they’re not the only ones capable of throwing hard. Some upperclassmen, such as redshirt juniors Thomas Farr and Andrew Peters, are junior college transfers who came to USC with live arms, more evidence of the recruiting emphasis Kingston has made since his arrival.
But there have also been those who came to South Carolina not especially known for throwing hard who developed heat over time. The biggest success story in that regard under Kingston has been Carmen Mlodzinski, who went 31st overall in the 2020 MLB Draft.
When Mlodzinski arrived on campus in 2018, he was 6-foot-1, 198 pounds. He was talented but hardly overwhelming. By his sophomore season, he had added an inch of height and 18 pounds of muscle, before an injury derailed what was supposed to be a breakout year. Undeterred, he added even more muscle during the layoff, hitting 231 pounds by the start of his junior season. His velocity rose to the range of 95-97 mph.
“He’s a bigger kid, and … not that he wasn’t already big before he had gotten hurt last year, but he’s put on a lot of weight, like 230-plus pounds,” pitching coach Skylar Meade said of Mlodzinski before the 2020 season. “And his average fastball is almost three and a half miles an hour harder this fall than it was even last year. And he threw hard before, but I just think he just exudes a lot more power in his delivery.”
Mlodzinski’s moved on now, but the Gamecocks might have another development success story on their hands in redshirt sophomore Julian Bosnic. Bosnic arrived on campus at 201 pounds, having topped out in the low 90s on his fastball. He was still recovering from Tommy John surgery, though, and didn’t pitch at all his first year. His redshirt freshman campaign in 2020 got off to a decent start before being the season was cut off by COVID.
Now, Bosnic is 218 pounds and in the range of 93 to 94 mph. Physically matured, he’s expected to be the lone left-hander in the Gamecocks’ weekend rotation.
“Last year, I felt a little off still. I think coming back from TJ surgery that I felt like the ball was come good on my hand, just the velocity wasn’t there,” Bosnic said. “And just the more reps I got into the season, the better I started to feel. And when it did get cut short, I think it was kind of a little blessing, it let my arm heal up a little more, taking a few weeks more off. And then coming back to this season, I feel a lot stronger.”
Other pitchers who have increased their velocity since arriving on campus include seniors Parker Coyne and Cam Tringali and junior Daniel Lloyd. All have gained at least 20 pounds at USC, and all have hit at least 95 mph. Kingston credited that improvement in part to strength coach Billy Anderson.
“We place an emphasis on big, strong guys who throw hard, but Billy Anderson is the best in the country in terms of getting guys stronger,” Kingston said. “I have great confidence in Skylar Meade with helping our pitchers develop, not only in velocity but also learning the craft of pitching. I just think it’s all of the above. It takes a lot of different factors for improving. Recruiting, strength gains and the daily guidance of Skylar — all those things are very important.”
USC pitching ‘up there with just about anybody’
With the shortened MLB draft in 2020, the amount of talent returning to college baseball for 2021 is high — particularly when it comes to SEC pitching. Vanderbilt has a pair of projected top-10 picks in Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter. Florida got MLB talent back for another year unexpectedly in Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich. Ole Miss, Auburn and LSU all had starting pitchers named to both D1Baseball and Baseball America’s preseason All-American teams.
And yet, South Carolina should have the arms — and velocity — to match up with them, Fitt said.
“It’s right up there with just about anybody,” Fitt said of the Gamecocks’ power arms. “The sheer number of big arms that they have, I put them in the in the same category as the Floridas and the Mississippi States and there’s a couple of programs out there that have a lot of velocity. South Carolina’s in that mix. I mean, it’s a lot of guys that were 95-plus this fall.”
At the same time, just having a stable of power arms isn’t enough, Kingston said. Now that pitching 95 mph isn’t enough to stand out, it comes down to who can mix that speed with stuff.
“I think what you’ll see, what our fans will see, is this is a staff that has a bunch of our power arms,” Kingston said this past fall. “So my emphasis to our group is pitch building will still never go out of style, and some of the tiebreakers for you guys in terms of who gets more innings may be your pitchability — you walk less guys than your competitor, you throw your breaking ball. … Those things are still important.”
There’s also the question of how these pitchers’ stuff translates in actual games. For all the talent and depth the Gamecocks boast, last year’s abrupt ending means pitchers who would have gotten starting experience in the SEC are still mostly untested against conference lineups.
Going up against each other, though, and competing for innings through the fall and preseason has been invaluable in pushing each other, projected weekend starter Thomas Farr said.
“We got talented arms everywhere. So I think the competition week in and week out is really pivotal for us to just keep on getting better and to be able to compete with those upper echelon SEC teams for sure,” Farr said.
South Carolina baseball Opening Weekend
Who: No. 18 South Carolina vs. Dayton
When: 4 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday
Where: Founders Park in Columbia
Watch: Streaming online on SEC Network Plus via WatchESPN