What began to look like a promising year, ended up being another season of mediocrity for the Oregon Ducks baseball program. Oregon’s early-season success struggled to translate into conference play. Despite finishing the regular season 27-29 and missing postseason baseball for the fourth-straight year, there is still optimism within the future of the program.
Ducks’ hot start
Oregon’s 2019 started about as well as could be hope. Besides dropping the season-opening series 2-1 to Texas Tech, (who started and finished the regular season ranked No. 8 in the nation) the Ducks played superb during their stretch of none-conference games. Following the series loss to the Red Raiders, Oregon rattled off a two-series sweep of both St. Mary’s College and Loyola Marymount. By the end of March, the Ducks were six games above .500. By mid April, through the first third of their conference schedule, Oregon was 21-12, nearly 10 games above .500 with all signs pointing upward.
Impressive freshman class
Thirteen freshman signed letters of intent heading into the 2019 season, consisting of four pitchers, four infielders, three catchers and two outfielders. Five of which played 35 or more games during the regular season.
Freshman Sam Novitske, the third baseman turned shortstop, provided arguably the biggest impact to Oregon’s lineup. The shortstop out of Pleasanton, California started in 56/56 games during the regular season as the lead-off hitter. Novitske reached base in 49 of the 56 games played, boasting a .401 OBP. Along with the third highest OBP on Oregon’s roster, Novitske hit .300, good enough for second-best on the team, while scoring 48 runs and 21 RBI’s.
Among the four fielding freshman that saw considerable playing time, outfielder Tanner Smith exhibited the most power at the plate. The outfielder out of Newport Beach, California found his place second in the lineup behind Novistke, hitting .284 with 4 HR’s and 12 XBH’s total. Smith finished with 35 RBI’s and 35 runs scored each, while closing-out the season slugging .432 in 54/52 GP/S.
Two other freshman along with Smith and Novitske qualified to meet the required minimum of 2 PA/G and 75% of games played, second baseman Max Foxcraft and C/OF Aaron Zavala. Zavala the catcher/outfielder, out of Keizer, Oregon, hit as the designated hitter for much of the season early on. In his 43 games played, Zavala averaged .273 with 17 RBI’s and 22 runs scored. The Oregon native accumulated nine extra base hits and ended the 2019 campaign with a .338 SLG% and .356 OBP. Zavala started the season on a tear, but a mid-season swoon at the plate forced former head coach George Horton to replace him in the lineup mid-way through the season.
Foxcraft, the second baseman from Newport Coast, California saw more playing time than Zavala, starting in 46 of 48 games played. While the freshman saw a high volume of playing-time, he had his struggles at the dish, hitting .155 with 16 run and 16 RBI’s scored. The bat might not have felt great in his hands in 2019, but Foxcraft was able to reach base at twice the rate, with an OBP of .315.
Three freshman saw ample time on the mound for the Ducks as well. Tyler Frazier, the righty out of Corona, California started six games and appeared in 11. In his 11 appearances on the mound Frazier was 0-2 with a 6.91 ERA and a 1.88 WHIP in 27.1 IP. Keaton Chase the right-hander out of San Diego, California led all freshman in appearances (26). Chase ended 2019 second on the team in wins, going 4-1 with a 6.04 ERA and 1.89 WHIP; he also led all freshman in strike outs, fanning 22 batters in 28.1 IP.
Another notable freshman arm out of the bullpen was the righty out of Irvine, California, Christian Ciuffetelli. Appearing in 20 games, starting in one, Ciuffetelli closed-out the season 0-1 allowing an ERA of 8.49 and a 2.60 WHIP. While the young relievers might have struggled in some aspects during their first taste of collegiate ball, the experience will prove to be invaluable in seasons to come.
Other notable freshman that saw playing time in 2019:
- Kyle Froemke, INF: AVG .160, OBP .263, 8 RBI’s and 5 runs scored in 35 appearances and 10 starts.
- Vinny Tosti, OF: In 23 games, 5 started, Tosti hit .194 with 4 RBI and a run scored. Tosti has chosen to enter the Transfer portal and will no longer play for the Oregon Ducks. It hasn’t yet been decided where he’ll play in 2020.
Steer’s record setting season
If the season didn’t turn out quite the way you had hope, and no one would blame you if it hadn’t. At least you got to appreciate what will probably be remembered as Spencer Steer’s record-setting farewell tour. Named to the first team All-Pac-12 and Pac-12 conference All-Defensive team, Steer was arguably the best player on the field in a Ducks uniform. Ending the season as the team’s triple-crown leader. Steer hit 6 HR’s, 57 RBI’s accompanied by an AVG of .349. His 20 XBH, .456 OBP and .502 SLG% were also team-highs, showing a complete dominance at the plate.
Though Steer is only in his junior year, he was selected in the third round by the Minnesota Twins (your’s truly’s hometown team) with the 90th overall pick. As much as everyone would love to see Steer return for his senior season, it’s probably not in his best interest. The slot value for Steer at his selected position is $657,600. And while it’s roughly half of what fellow drafty and teammate Ryne Nelson potentially signed for. It’s more than likely, “definitely worth it” as Steer’s teammate reiterated in an interview with Ducks Sports’ Steve Mims.
Steer’s 57 RBI’s on the season set the program’s all-time single-season record passing Seattle Mariners’ Ryon Healy for sole possession of the record. The shortstop who returned to his former position of third base mid-season also set the programs’ career-RBI record with 129. Breaking Mitchell Tolman’s previously heard record from 2013-15.
No one can doubt the effort put in by the young men on the mound, but unfortunately the results just weren’t there. While there were bright-spots in an otherwise tough season, the pitching staff as a whole struggled. As a team they ended the season with a 5.93 ERA and 1.73 WHIP. Finishing the season with a -61 run differential. As an offense Oregon averaged 5.73 runs per game. When the offense seemed to thrive, very few times, especially during conference-play, was Oregon’s pitching staff ready to answer.
The Ducks allowed 10 or more runs in 10 games this season, while allowing a season-high 28 runs against the Arizona Wildcats, May 5. Beyond the exception’s of Nelson, (3-4, 4.29 ERA, 1.55 WHIP and 104 SO in 65.0 IP) and Robert Ahlstrom, (5-7, 3.93 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 63 SO in 73.1 IP) Oregon’s pitching struggled in big situations. 2020 will be a good opportunity for the Ducks to revamp a rotation and staff that still has a few solid young arms to build around. Players like Ahlstrom, Kenyon Yovan, Nico Tellache and Cullen Kafka.
The high felt through the first two months was quickly and abruptly met by a late April and May that saw Oregon winning only six games. They finished out the regular season with a 6-17 record following a seven-game win streak through April 6-13. Oregon’s conference schedule took a toll on them going 10-19. Over the final stretch of the season the Ducks went on a five-game losing streak and two four-game losing streaks.
The ability to bounce back after a loss had essentially disappeared. Only stringing multiple wins together once, with only a two-game winning streak through the entire month of May. A tough-ending conference schedule that saw 15 road games in the final month and a half proved too much; pushing them below .500 (27-29) for the first time since facing No. 8 Texas Tech in the season opening series.
Oregon and head coach George Horton mutually agree to part ways:
After a tough season of extreme highs and lows, the Oregon Ducks and head coach George Horton have mutually agreed to part ways. The University announced the decision to decline a one-year option in his contract Tuesday, May 28. Horton coach the Ducks for 11 seasons finishing with a career record of 373-378-1 (.496). He led the Ducks to five regional appearances and one Super Regional. Totaling four 40-win seasons with a program-record 48 wins in 2013.
Some of the top names in the hunt to replace Horton as head coach:
- Andrew Checketts: Horton’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator for 2009-11 before being hired on as UC Santa Barbara’s head coach. He was named the Big West conference coach of the year in 2019 and led the UCSB Guachos to the College World Series for the first time in 2016.
- Gary Henderson: Led Mississippi State to the College World Series last year as interim head coach, but was not kept on, on a full-time basis in 2019. Was out of coaching any kind of college ball this past season. Henderson worked with Oregon’s athletic Director Rob Mullens at Kentucky as the programs head coach for 2009-16.
- Pat Bailey: Named Oregon State’s interim head coach in 2019 while former Beavers’ head coach Pat Casey “took a year off”. If Casey doesn’t return, the Ducks can reach out to the former Beavers HC for an interview. OSU has confirmed they’ll go on a Nation-wide search for their new head coach if Casey doesn’t return, leaving the door open for the Ducks to pursue him and Pat Bailey as well. Bailey coached No. 16 Oregon State to a 36-18-1 record and were just recently eliminated from the 2019 Regional Playoffs.
A Look Into 2020
Spencer Steer and Ryne Nelson Drafted
Nelson was selected with the No. 56 pick in the second round by the Arizona Diamondbacks, while Steer was taken 90th overall in the third round by the Minnesota Twins. Nelson has already signed his big-league contract and won’t be rejoining the Ducks in 2020. Steer has still yet to sign his contract with the Twins, but the likelihood of him turning down over half a million dollars to return to the Ducks is highly unlikely.
Is this freshman class ready to take the reigns?
Oregon returns 8 of 9 starters on the field in 2020, presuming Steer takes the paycheck and joins one of the Twins’ minor league affiliates. Oddly there’s only a single senior on the 2019 roster, so the Ducks will only lose one player to eligibility, not just monetary incentives. The fate of the program for the foreseeable future will be in the hand of one of Oregon’s largest recruiting classes. Five of which played in 35 or more games during the regular season, while three freshman threw 23 or more innings pitched.
Oregon is set to lose only four players, two to the draft, one to eligibility and one to the transfer portal, potentially setting themselves up for an improved 2020. They’ll have to replace two major contributors, but the young cast that surrounded Steer and Nelson in 2019 possess the talent and potential to do so.