Five storylines for SDSU’s Baseball season

Irvin Weems hauls in a deep drive against Fresno State. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

Eldridge Armstrong (left) has an electric arm and will be counted upon in the bullpen. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

1. Can SDSU rebound from a disastrous 2022?

Calling last season underachieving would be an understatement. The Aztecs finished 18-38. It was the fewest wins overall, and the only time the program failed to reach 20 victories since at least 1970.

“(2022) was more of a growth year for us,” head coach Mark Martinez told EVT in an exclusive interview. “I didn’t expect us to be as bad as we were. But, ultimately, it had to do with the youth, the wide eyes, and not really handling success very well and not handling adversity very well. I guess if failure breeds success, we should be pretty good this year.”

There were signs, though, the team hit rock bottom and started working their way towards success. SDSU was 7-25 over its first 32 games. During that span, it did not win back-to-back games. Over the final 24 contests, the Aztecs were 11-13. They won three series, including two on the road and one at home against eventual Mountain West Tournament Champion, Air Force.

The main culprit for the team’s demise was youth. SDSU’s 2022 roster had only seven upperclassmen. With only two seniors and five juniors, the Aztecs depended on an inordinate amount of underclassmen.

Brian Leonhardt from Eastlake High School celebrates with his teammates against San Jose State last year (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

Twelve pitchers threw double-digit innings a season ago, and only four were upperclassmen.  Combined, the dozen players threw 451 of SDSU’s 499.1 innings. Nine of those pitchers and 72.5% of that production is back in 2023.

At the plate, the youth movement was even more pronounced. Seven of the eight players with 100 at-bats last year were underclassmen. Eastlake High’s Brian Leonhardt was the lone upperclassman. Every one of the most counted-upon hitters returns in 2023. 

“It’s going through those thunderbolts throughout the season and learning how to deal with it,” Martinez said. “Early in the season last year, we didn’t deal with those really well. The 0-4’s, you give up a two-run home run, it’s a day-to-day grind, and the game comes at you pretty quick. You don’t have a whole lot of time to recover. You start feeling sorry for yourself. You start going down a rabbit hole of frustration. No adjustments are being made. I think we started to learn that a little toward the back end of the season. We did play better. Some of the key ingredients were some guys we’re going to see this year. Hopefully, they have big years this year.”

2. Who replaces Troy Melton?

Lost in the challenges of an 18-win season was the tremendous year Troy Melton had for the Aztecs in 2022. Judging by the number of MLB scouts in the stands for his starts each of his starts, Melton was supposed to be in the minor leagues last year. Instead, a subpar 2021 led to another year on the Mesa and a chance for Melton to overcome the struggles from two seasons ago. Melton responded with a sensational year culminating with the Detroit Tigers selecting him in the fourth round of the MLB draft.

“It speaks volumes of (Melton’s) character,” Martinez explained. “He also went through some arm trouble there early in the season. He didn’t start right away early in the season. So, even dealing with that was, I’m sure, a mental grind for him. He answered the bell. He had an under-two ERA until his last outing. That’s hard to do in our conference when you play at elevation in a lot of places. ”

TJ Fondtain is starting the opener against Arizona State. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

With Melton starting the year with the Single-A Lakeland Flying Tigers, Martinez is turning to last season’s Saturday night starter, junior TJ Fondtain, to assume the Friday night ace role Melton vacated. On paper, it is a natural progression. Fondtain led the Aztecs in innings pitched, and games started in 2022. His ERA (4.58) and record (3-7) might not scream ace, but a deeper look into his year suggests that with improvement in key areas, he is primed to become one of the best pitchers on the west coast.

Opponents only had 66 hits in 279 ABs (.237 average) against him. Fondtain’s issue was he gave up an inordinate amount of home runs. A dozen balls left the yard when Fondtain was on the mound. It was the most by an Aztec since at least 2018. Should the junior southpaw continue to produce outs while reducing the number of home runs and walks (31), Martinez will have found his next ace. 

“TJ Fondtain will throw Friday nights for us,” Martinez said. “A big left-hander, 6 ‘5, 215-pound guy. He’s grown in our program. It’s been nice to see how he’s developed, especially on the pitching side. He’s just done a really nice job. His velo has had an uptick. He’s throwing with confidence. He controls the run game. He’s the right Friday guy. Heartbeat doesn’t get over 60, I don’t think. Things don’t get him too up or down.”

3. Will the offense hit for more power?

Among the 293 teams in the country, SDSU’s 275 runs scored in 2022 ranked 248th. Adding context to that futility is the Mountain West is known as an offensive-driven league with only one school (SDSU) with a team ERA under five. The Aztecs finished last in the conference in batting average, at-bats, runs, hits, extra-base hits, RBIs, and slugging percentage. They were in the cellar by significant margins in each category.

“What we need to do is grow in our at-bats,” Martinez said. “We didn’t do that last year very well. We got better at the end of the year, but a lot of strikeouts last year, not a lot of traffic, and didn’t find ways to move runners. That’s one of the battle cries for us: get the ball in play.”

Cole Carriage had a .388 average last season. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

One area where SDSU will certainly need to improve is hitting for power. They finished 261st in the nation in home runs (29), 231st in doubles (85), and 115th in triples (12). To find more wins in 2023, the Aztecs do not need to jump into the top 50 in the country. They simply need to improve enough to score runs without having to string together three or more successful at-bats.

Here again, the youth of last season’s squad gives hope. Power increases with age. There is every reason to expect an increase in overall batting average and slugging percentage simply because the key contributors are older.

“Absolutely,” Martinez replied when asked if the lineup should have more pop in it. “We tweaked our weight room schedule to allow that. We’re definitely hitting that part of it. That’s definitely in the forefront. James Chassin, our strength and conditioning coach, has done a great job with what we’re doing.”

“We’re going to continue that throughout the spring. One of the things we’re trying to get our hitters for sure is getting them there four days a week. We’ve seen a lot of great things happen in the weight room. The ball comes off differently when you have a little strength. When you get a little bit older, that man strength kicks in; it equates to balls getting to the wall and, in some cases, gets over it too.”

Aiding in the search for power are North Carolina State transfer Brady Lavoie and Fondtain, who Martinez said has real MLB-caliber power. Lavoie, a La Costa Canyon grad, returned home after a season with Wolfpack. Fondtain hit .339 and had a pair of home runs in 62 at-bats last year. If he has his expected impact on the mound and is able to contribute more at the plate, he could become a fan favorite at Tony Gwynn Stadium. 

4. Will the pitching step up?

The Aztecs pitching in 2022 was above average. While every other team had SDSU’s offense to improve its numbers, the Aztecs pitched against statistically better hitters and still led the conference in ERA. SDSU was one of two MW teams with a sub-six ERA and the only one below five. Their 4.97 team ERA was 89th in the country.

“Chris Canada is a guy, who had to earn his spurs as a freshman last year,” Martinez said. “He’s a real big left-hander, a 6’6 guy. He earned starting based on good outings. He pitched against Long Beach last year. We beat them. He turned that into a starting role. Had a great summer; he’s extremely fit. You have an experienced guy right there (as the Saturday starter).”

Pancho Ruiz has started 67 games in his Aztecs career. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

If SDSU is to rebound quickly and contend for the Mountain West title, it will likely be because its pitching takes another step forward. A leap in production, even in a conference where the majority of games are played at altitude, is also possible if the expected strength of the staff materializes. The Aztecs could have as dominant of a backend of the bullpen as any team in the country.

Twice during three-game weekend series, Martinez expects to have the luxury of rolling out an elite seventh (Eldridge Armstrong), eighth (Robert Brodell), and ninth (Kelena Sauer) inning reliever.  Add into the mix a bevy of other talented arms that are competing to be a starter or have an important role in the bullpen, and most nights, the recipe for success will be leading after six innings.

“Having just those three guys that can bounce back-to-back days or twice in a weekend helps myself and coach (Shaun) Cole sleep a little better at night. It’s really nice to have that luxury. Not many programs can say they have three dynamic arms coming out of the bullpen,” Martinez said.

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5. Defense wins championships

SDSU led the MW in numerous statistical pitching categories. They were first in ERA, fewest hits allowed, fewest 2Bs allowed, fewest HRs allowed, lowest BA, and most strikeouts. Given these superlatives, they were surprisingly second in runs given up. The Aztecs surrendered 27 more runs overall than Fresno State because their defense committed the most errors in the conference. SDSU allowed 71 unearned runs in 2022; only two MW teams had more.

This is another tension point for the team. If Martinez and his staff are able to correct this issue, it will directly impact the pitching production, but it will have an indirect result of raising the morale of the team. Baseball is a punishing game on the psyche. Every positive play breeds confidence and provides elasticity when bouncing back from inevitable failures. 

Caden Miller gets under a tag against SJSU. Miller has started 106 games in his Aztec career. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

“We didn’t catch it very good last year,” Martinez said. “We were last in the conference in defense. Some guys played out of position. We just weren’t very good at that aspect.”

Hope for improvement rests on the fact SDSU will depend on its best players for growth. Caden Miller, Cole Carrigg, and Pancho Ruiz will bat near the top of the order and pace the Aztecs offensively. Defensively, these Aztec stars are expected to play in the middle of the field, where good baseball defense starts.  

Ruiz is the primary catcher. An offensive first player coming out of high school, Ruiz slashed a.309/.413/.459 in 2022. After growing pains his first two seasons, Ruiz is now a veteran, playing the toughest position on the field, and 2023 should bring his best version to date behind the plate.

Miller has been a fixture at second base since his true freshman season. He has played some shortstop but is well-suited for the right side of the infield. His double-play partner will be a newcomer to the program. Southwestern college transfer Xavier Gonzalez has the reputation of a terrific defender.

Cole Carrigg is expected to man CF this year after playing primarily in the IF in his career. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

SDSU’s biggest star is expected to roam center field. Carrigg, the preseason first-team all-conference selection and one of the top prospects in college baseball, is a tremendous athlete who has moved around the field during his two years on the Mesa. He will continue to get spot starts at catcher, but after excelling in the outfield during the summer in the Cape Cod League, Carrigg intends to let him cover the outfield this season. 

Martinez said Carrigg’s range in center is as good as anyone he has ever coached, which includes the Red Sox’ Greg Allen, who has played in 282 MLB games primarily on the strength of his defense. Carrigg has been so good at the position Martinez slid last year’s very capable starter Irvin Weems to right field.

“Looking at a very short snapshot, we’re pretty good on the mound,” Martinez explained. “Knock on wood, we’re pretty good defensively. We’re catching it. We’re playing really good solid defense in our inter-squads. When you don’t give extra outs to a Division I team, it makes it harder for them to move traffic. More experience on the offensive side should bode well for that too. You don’t feel like you have to play catch up all the time because you know you can create runs.”

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