The Dirtbags finished last season with the worst record in Long Beach State history at (14-41), but the hiring of new head coach Eric Valenzuela begs the question of how much improvement fans can expect in 2020.
“I don’t think [last season’s struggles] were physical, I really don’t,” Valenzuela said. “The talent is there.”
Valenzuela prioritizes moving forward with a “fresh start” mentality. That mentality, in addition to tangible improvements by his players, should translate to noticeable improvements on the field in 2020.
Of all the areas of the game, pitching is the category where fans can expect to see the most improvement in 2020. But after last season’s performance, that’s not saying much.
Last season the Dirtbags pitching staff allowed a whopping 29 home runs. Opponents’ pitching surrendered just 12 round-trippers to the Dirtbags last season. The group tallied an unimpressive 4.79 ERA in 2019.
Seminaris was the ace of the staff last season despite being only a sophomore. He is a true student of the game, former co-interim head coach Dan Ricabal said, often spending hours watching video of his outings searching for ways to improve.
Seminaris has already increased his fastball velocity 3-5 mph from last season. The increase in velocity not only makes his fastball harder to hit, but also improves Seminaris’ changeup. The changeup looks like a fastball to hitters, so the greater the variation in speed between it and the fastball, the more deceptive it is to hitters.
“He’s growing up, he’s more mature, he’s getting stronger,” Valenzuela said.
Last season, Seminaris didn’t often throw his breaking ball, which is a mix of a curve and a slider, a “slurve” in baseball lingo. Valenzuela said that pitch will be much stronger this year.
“Last year it was sort of a breaking ball to show but it wasn’t something that he had total confidence in,” Valenzuela said. “Now he does. Now he has a breaking ball that he’s definitely confident with.”
Similar to its pitching, the Dirtbags’ batting order figures to feature many familiar faces in 2020, and therefore will be more experienced.
Like most power hitters, redshirt senior catcher Cole Joy struggled with strikeouts last season, but he improved his discipline at the plate this fall. Joy also showed the ability to hit the ball to both sides of the field, forcing the defense to spread across the outfield.
Joy is the second catcher behind junior Chris Jimenez, who doesn’t have as much power as Joy. However, Jimenez hit a booming 400-foot homer in fall ball, sparking hope that he now has the potential to go deep on occasion.
“I have faith in all these guys,” Valenzuela said. “Every guy is scary. I think [senior outfielder] Calvin Estrada, [sophomore outfielder] Chase Luttrell are big guys for us. I think [junior infielder Santino] Rivera is a big guy for us, Chris Jimenez is a big guy for us.”
Valenzuela hopes that the experience of these players along with a new style of offense will generate more runs.
“Our guys are gonna be aggressive,” Valenzuela said. “There’s not gonna be very many sacrifice bunts, we want to have a more offensive approach in driving balls into the gaps and over the fence.”
Last season, the Dirtbags infield featured almost entirely different personnel than the year prior. The lack of chemistry showed in the form of 71 errors in 55 games. However, this season the infield will consist of mostly the same players from 2019. After a full season of playing together, expect the Dirtbags to have better chemistry leading to fewer errors and more double plays in 2020.
Despite these improvements, a trip to Omaha, Nebraska for the 2020 College World Series is a lofty goal, one that is likely not in the cards. The bullpen hasn’t shown substantial improvement during the offseason and it often takes at least a full season for a new offensive approach to be implemented to perfection. Still, this season is the first step in a rebuilding process that fans can and should trust. Expect the Dirtbags to finish third or fourth in the Big West Conference.
“The test of it is how are we gonna deal with success and how are we gonna deal with failure,” Valenzuela said, “that’s what it comes down to.”
The Dirtbags will open the 2020 season at home against Cal Feb. 14 at 6 p.m. at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field.