When the college baseball season began in February, there were few proven commodities on Cal Poly’s 34-man roster.
Head coach Larry Lee measured his expectations accordingly, knowing a group of 24 underclassmen would have to adjust to the ebb and flow of a taxing four-month season.
The Mustangs came out red-hot, winning 10 of their first 12 — including wins against nationally-ranked opponents UCLA and Michigan — and entered Big West Conference play 17-10 overall.
Cal Poly played some of its best baseball in April, taking conference series against eventual Big West champion Cal State Fullerton, Hawaii and a top-15 UC Santa Barbara team.
But injury-related attrition eventually caught up with the Mustangs when outfielders Alex McKenna and Josh George missed extended time. Those absences were felt during road sweeps at Long Beach State and CSUN, and Cal Poly never fully recovered on the way to a 32-25 finish overall.
“A lot of young players got a lot of time,” said Lee, who completed his 14th season. “The development from freshman to sophomore year is usually pretty big. We’re hoping that if enough of them can take the next jump up, then we can get back to where we were.”
A total of 11 freshmen were in the starting lineup at some point this season, including five who made at least 18 starts. Perhaps that youth played a role in two of the Mustangs key shortcomings, which Lee highlighted throughout the year as poor play defensively and struggling to win on the road.
Cal Poly went 23-8 inside Baggett Stadium, and a stretch of eight consecutive road losses in conference play derailed the Mustangs’ chances of a postseason berth.
Meanwhile, defensive execution was a glaring issue from start to finish.
Cal Poly’s 84 errors were the most in the Big West and the second-highest total in Lee’s tenure. A young team with a thin pitching staff couldn’t afford to give opponents extra opportunities, and they did that time and again in 2016.
Lee also said the Mustangs need to get more physical, more athletic and faster during the offseason. They still managed to finish .500 in the Big West, good enough for fourth place in the final conference standings, two spots ahead of their predicted preseason finish.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be taken care of that are off the baseball field,” Lee said.
Junior college transfer Michael Sanderson took ownership of the open position at third base and started all 57 games there. He was steady at the plate, hitting .296 with 12 doubles and 33 RBI, and will likely be among the team leaders offensively next season.
Freshman Kyle Marinconz also started every game, splitting time between shortstop and second base. Lee said throughout the year that Marinconz is a true college second baseman, but he was asked to play shortstop largely because Cal Poly was getting inconsistent play from that position.
Eventually, junior college transfer Brett Binning took on that role and became the everyday shortstop to finish the season.
Freshman Dylan Doherty figures to contend for a starting spot in 2017, and 27-game starter Cooper Moore could take on an increased role at first base as a sophomore next spring.
Look for freshman catcher Nick Meyer to be one of the leaders of the group moving forward. He started 50 games behind the plate, batted .301 and threw out 22 would-be base stealers, the second most in the Big West.
“Although we’re a very young team, we have a year under our belt, we know what to expect next year,” Meyer said. “We know what to do in the fall.”
Senior John Schuknecht developed into a steady defensive outfielder after three years of rotating between first, second and third base.
He led the conference with 49 runs driven in and tied McKenna for the team lead with six home runs.
Fourth-year junior utility player Brett Barbier moved from first base to the outfield when McKenna and George were injured, and Lee called him one of the team’s better defensive players there.
Barbier’s value to the Mustangs’ offense can’t be overstated.
He posted the third-highest batting average in the Big West at .352, and led Cal Poly in runs (41), hits (70), triples (2) and walks (41).
Though Barbier has another year of eligibility remaining, he plans to graduate in June and seems like a potential MLB draft pick this summer. Schuknecht also hopes to hear his name called in the draft, continuing on a strong tradition of Cal Poly players entering the professional ranks.
“I don’t want to say it was a building year, but it was definitely good to get all these young guys a lot of experience,” Schuknecht said. “It’ll definitely pay off in the long run.”
All three weekend starters are expected to return next season.
Sophomores Kyle Smith, Erich Uelmen and Jarred Zill went a combined 15-12, while freshmen Spencer Howard, Craig Colen and Cam Schneider could break into the starting rotation next year.
Junior reliever Justin Calomeni was dominant over the final month of the season and cemented his status as a likely draft pick. He struck out 61 batters in less than 40 innings on the mound and recorded a team-high eight saves.
All things considered, Lee said he probably would’ve been satisfied with a 32-win season in early February.
He challenged the returners to get better this summer and come back in the fall motivated to chase 40 victories in pursuit of a postseason berth.
“It’s the self-confidence that they need to develop along with their fundamental skills,” Lee said. “We’re going in the right direction.”
Cal Poly Baseball 2016
Record: 32-25 overall, 12-12 Big West
Key departures: 1B/OF Brett Barbier, OF John Schuknecht
Top returners: OF Alex McKenna, C Nick Meyer, LHP Kyle Smith
Key stat: The Mustangs went 23-8 inside Baggett Stadium