Coming off two straight super regional appearances, Duke might have its best team yet in 2020, with an experienced and powerful lineup and the deepest pitching staff of the Chris Pollard era. Knowing that, the Blue Devils take the No. 15 ranking in D1Baseball.com's preseason top 25.
Below are a few facts to consider when breaking down the 2020 Duke club:
2019 record: 35-27
Coach (record at school): Chris Pollard (233-173 in 7 seasons)
Ballpark: Durham Bulls Athletic Park (10,000)
Postseason history: 8 regionals (active streak: 2), 3 CWS trips (last in 1961), 0 national titles
In this preview of Duke's 2020 season, we've graded the Blue Devils in each characteristic of the game: Hitting, power, speed, defense, starting pitching, bullpen and experience/intangibles. But before we begin, let's present our projected lineup for Duke in 2020.
Duke's projected lineup
|C||Michael Rothenberg, Jr.||.269/.390/.481||11||52||3|
|1B||Chris Crabtree, Jr.||.263/.356/.394||3||32||7|
|2B||Grant Norris, Fr.||HS — Somerset, Pa.|
|3B||Erikson Nichols, Sr.||.255/.325/.318||2||38||2|
|SS||Ethan Murray, So.||.305/.391/.445||5||40||6|
|LF||Rudy Maxwell, So.||.257/.353/.439||4||21||4|
|CF||Chase Cheek, Sr.||.293/.380/.403||1||24||20|
|RF||Joey Loperfido, Jr.||.261/.361/.389||4||18||8|
|DH||Matt Mervis, Sr.||.274/.357/.421||6||31||2|
Duke's weekend rotation/closer
|SP #1||Bryce Jarvis, Jr.||5-2||3.81||75.2||94||37||1|
|SP #2||Cooper Stinson, So.||1-4||5.47||54.1||78||43||1|
|SP #3||Henry Williams, Fr.||HS — Darien, Conn.|
|Closer||Thomas Girard, Jr.||1-5||2.33||46.1||61||18||9|
Grading the Blue Devils: Just as scouts grade prospects using the 20-80 scouting scale, we use a 20-80 scale to evaluate teams in our top 25. A score of 50 in each category is average, relative to a typical NCAA tournament team; 55 is slightly above-average; 60 is above-average (plus); 70 is well above-average (plus-plus); 80 is top of the scale, historically strong. Accordingly, 45 is fringe-average or slightly below-average; 40 is below-average; 30 is well below-average; and 20 is the extreme in that direction.
Duke returns eight players who logged at least 150 plate appearances from an offense that started slow last year but came on strong down the stretch. Look for this offense to be far more prolific than the unit that ranked 10th in the ACC in scoring in 2019.
Murray, a first-team Freshman All-American a year ago, is the best pure hitter on the team, with few holes in his right-handed stroke, and Duke coach Chris Pollard said he played like an All-American for most of the fall. He’ll likely serve as the engine that makes the Blue Devils go out of the leadoff spot, and Joey Loperfido’s outstanding bat-to-ball skills and ability to slash hard liners the other way makes him a good fit in the 2-hole. Duke’s offense struggled while Loperfido was injured in the first half last year. He didn’t put up the numbers he’s capable of after his return, but his presence in the lineup still helped Duke’s offense gel in a big way late in the season.
Chris Crabtree and Matt Mervis join Loperfido as mature, physical run producers from the left side of the plate, and the switch-hitting Michael Rothenberg is also particularly dangerous from the left side. Speed merchant Chase Cheek is yet another talented lefty bat in this lineup, albeit with a much different tool set — he’s a contact-oriented hitter with good small ball skills. Maxwell is an obvious breakout candidate, a very physical 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-handed hitter who showed excellent feel for his barrel all spring. Right-swinging Erikson Nichols and Grant Norris are scrappers who should be able to hit situationally and keep the chains moving toward the bottom of the lineup.
ALL-DECADE TEAM: Which ACC stars made the conference's All-Decade team?
The outfield picture is far from settled, and several other candidates for jobs could be useful offensive pieces. Junior Steve Mann has some strength and athleticism in his compact 6-foot frame. The Devils have been waiting for him to show more consistency at the plate, but he could blossom with regular playing time. Sophomore RJ Schreck had some good moments as an injury fill-in last spring; he’s a grinder with some feel for his barrel from the left side. Fourth-year junior Chris Dutra has battled injuries for the last two years and is hungry to earn playing time in 2020, and he has shown the ability to grind out mature at-bats.
Rothenberg was Duke’s only double-digit home run hitter a year ago, but expect the Devils to hit for quite a bit more power with a more mature lineup in 2020. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Rothenberg smacked 11 homers last year, coming on strong down the stretch after a rough first half, and continued to show off his bat speed in the fall. In Duke’s final fall scrimmage, I saw him rip a single to right that exited the bat at 101 mph, then scorch a double to the right-field corner with a 107.7 mph exit velocity. He’s a contender to lead the ACC in homers as a junior.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Mervis has plus raw power from the left side and looks primed for a huge senior year after starring in the Cape Cod League and in the fall. Crabtree is 6-4, 230 and has flashed lefty pop at times, but the Devils are still waiting for him to drive the ball more consistently — this could be the year his strength translates. Maxwell is yet another behemoth in this lineup at 6-4, 225, and it’s only a matter of time until his righty power shows up; look for a jump from him this year as well.
Murray surprised somewhat with his pop as a freshman, and Pollard said he flashed “big-time power” at times this fall, making him a solid bet to reach double figures in homers. The same goes for Loperfido, who has great strength to the opposite field, making him well suited to take advantage of the Blue Monster in left field at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Athletic sophomore Damon Lux, who is right in the mix for an outfield job, also has tantalizing raw power but lacks experience. Mann and Dutra also offer occasional right-handed pop.
Duke ranked in the middle of the ACC pack in stolen bases last year and isn’t blessed with outstanding speed this year, but there are still some good runners. Cheek is a well above-average runner who swiped 20 bags in 23 tries last year, and he’s by far the biggest threat on the basepaths. Loperfido is an above-average to plus runner underway and picks his spots well on the basepaths (he was 8-for-10 in steals last year). Duke can maximize its speed by playing Lux, Mann or Schreck in the outfield instead of Maxwell; Lux has particularly good speed. Norris and Murray are both solid runners as well, and so is redshirt sophomore Wil Hoyle, who will battle Norris for the second base job.
Loperfido’s injury caused some guys to play out of position early last year, so the Devils finished with a lackluster .969 fielding percentage. But they should be better this spring. Murray is one of the nation’s top defensive shortstops, with very good range, instincts, actions and a rifle arm. Norris is a future shortstop with a legitimate 70 arm, which should help him turn the double play as well as anybody in the ACC. His defensive prowess gives him a leg up over fellow second base candidates Thomas Keehn, Hoyle and Graham Pauley.
Rothenberg will do the vast majority of the catching, and he’s got a chance to be one of the top catchers in this draft class because he owns an easy plus arm and has developed nicely as a receiver and blocker. Maxwell continues to improve as a defender behind the plate and should spell Rothenberg from time to time. Maxwell doesn’t run great and is still learning to play the outfield, but the Devils would love him to win a job out there to keep his bat in the lineup.
ALL-AMERICANS: Which players made D1baseball's preseason All-American list
The entire outfield mix is up in the air, especially since Cheek missed the fall while recovering from a torn ACL suffered last May and having a minor setback in September that resulted in a second procedure to remove some scar tissue. The Devils hope he’ll be back to full strength by the time the season starts, but if not, Loperfido figures to hold down center field, where he looked good this fall after playing second base last year and first base as a freshman. If Lux winds up in the lineup, he gives Duke a second premium defensive outfielder to go with Cheek; that duo plus Loperfido in some configuration would give the Devils enviable range in the grass.
Nichols is as steady as it gets at third base — his advanced instincts, body control and accurate arm will keep him in the lineup even if he slumps at the plate. Crabtree offers a big target at first base but led the team with 11 errors a year ago. He and Mervis (who has shown soft hands on defense) could rotate at first and DH.
Starting Pitching: 60
Duke’s weekend rotation has enormous upside if Bryce Jarvis and Cooper Stinson can take the leaps forward that the coaches anticipate and Henry Williams proves as good as he looked in the fall. There’s some uncertainty here, but the potential reward is huge. And there’s good depth of other starting options should any of those projected weekend guys struggle.
Jarvis came into his own down the stretch last year, pitching brilliantly on a national stage in super regionals against Vanderbilt, then turned down a strong overture to sign with the Yankees as a draft-eligible sophomore. He elected instead to spend the summer adding strength, trying to increase his velocity and improve his breaking stuff, and his hard work bore immediate fruit in the fall, as his fastball jumped from the 89-92 range to the 94-96 range every time out, his slider flashed plus, his curveball became another legitimate weapon, and his signature changeup remained double-plus. Scouts who saw him in a scrimmage against Coastal Carolina reported that he looked like a first-rounder, and he’s a strong bet to become an All-American as a junior.
BRINGING THE HEAT: 22 college baseball flamethrowers who topped 96 this fall
The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Stinson is a behemoth like his older brother Graeme (a former Duke star), and like Graeme he has power stuff, with a 91-94 fastball and the ability to miss bats with his slider, which helped him rack up 78 strikeouts in 54.1 innings as a freshman, though he walked 43. Stinson separated his non-throwing shoulder when his scooter was hit by a car in the offseason, keeping him out for most of the fall, but he was back throwing bullpens again in November and feels great.
Williams, the centerpiece of Duke’s 2019 recruiting class, appeared ready for primetime already during an outstanding fall. Tall, lean and projectable at 6-foot-5, 190 pounds, Williams has a clean, easy arm action from an over-the-top slot. He worked downhill at 90-93 for most of the fall, and his fastball plays up further because of its high spin rate (2400-2500 rpm range). He also flashed a hammer breaking ball at 79-81 with 11-to-5 shape and a spin rate up to 2511, as well as good feel for an 83-85 changeup.
The likely midweek starter and most obvious potential alternative on weekends is senior lefty Bill Chillari, who has made 23 starts over the last two seasons. Chillari is steady Eddie, a finesse southpaw with an 86-88 fastball, solid changeup and breaking ball. Sophomore righty Jack Carey is another candidate for a starting role. He can work in the low 90s when he’s at his best, and his 82-83 changeup is his best secondary pitch. But he made big progress this fall with his 79-83 slider, and he threw some very good ones in the fall world series.
The other starting candidate is senior righty Eli Herrick, who was 91-92 in his final outing of the fall. He pitched heavily off his high-spin fastball last spring and gets a lot of swing-and-misses up in the zone, but he lacked a reliable secondary pitch to keep hitters from sitting on the heater. But like Carey, he made a lot of progress with his slider this fall, and Pollard said it looked like a plus pitch at times.
Pollard says this is the deepest pitching staff he’s ever had, which will be a major asset in the bullpen. But in addition to depth, the Blue Devils also have a premier closer in Thomas Girard, who sits consistently in the low 90s every time out and owns one of the best breaking balls in the ACC, which was the driving force behind his 61 strikeouts in 46.1 innings last year. Assuming Stinson, Williams and Chillari hold down starting roles behind Jarvis, it means Carey and Herrick will give Duke two more very good pieces in the bullpen, with swing-and-miss stuff that would play in the late innings and the ability to lengthen out and pitch multiple innings as needed.
Scouts have always liked two-way talent Mervis best as a pitching prospect — and he was excellent off the mound in two scoreless innings in our fall look, pounding the zone at 91-93 and showing an improved 81-83 slider along with a firm changeup that remains a work in progress. After logging just eight innings a year ago, Mervis should see much more mound action as a senior, likely as a key setup man. Also keep an eye on redshirt freshman righty Jimmy Loper, who has progressed well in his return from Tommy John surgery. He showed good command at 87-89 in the fall but could add velocity as he continues to build strength. His best pitch is a 79-81 mph changeup with good arm speed, and he also showed a promising downer curve at 75-76.
Strike-throwing junior Matt Dockman, a finesse lefty with funk and deception as well as advanced command of his fastball and a plus changeup, is a proven bullpen rock from the left side. He’s also one of Duke’s most trusted firemen, and his outstanding pickoff move and unflappable demeanor help him thrive with men on base. And sophomores Aaron Beasley and Kyle Salley give Duke two more useful options from the left side. Salley works at 86-88 from a three-quarters slot, but his calling card is a 73-77 mph breaking ball with serious bite (spin rate in the 2700-2800 range), which makes him very tough on lefties. Beasley has some funk in his short three-quarters arm action and crossfire delivery, and his 86-89 fastball showed good riding life up in the zone in the fall, though he still needs to refine his sweeping slider and changeup. So Duke can mix and match with a variety of looks from both sides off the mound.
With eight veterans returning in the lineup from a team that just went to its second straight super regional, Duke has outstanding experience in its position player group. Jarvis, Chillari, Dockman and Girard give the pitching staff a proven veteran core as well, taking some pressure off the less established arms who will assume bigger roles on the mound. Under Pollard’s leadership, Duke has shown a knack for getting better as the season wears on, and that was especially evident last year, when the Blue Devils recovered from a 3-9 start in ACC play to finish 15-15 and snag an at-large spot before winning the Morgantown Regional. That turnaround was a galvanizing, formative experience for Duke, just as vital for the makeup of this club as the two trips to supers. So there’s no questioning Duke’s toughness; the only thing it lacks is Omaha experience.