Kentucky Baseball is a little over a month away from first pitch against Wofford. Nick Mingione and company are looking to build on their breakout season in 2017. Kentucky is ranked eighth in the Perfect Game Poll headed into the 2018 season thanks, in large part, to their dominant pitching staff. Our first position breakdown will be the pitching staff that has put Kentucky as a potential national championship contender. The projected weekend rotation consists of three future pros, Sean Hjelle, Justin Lewis, and Zack Thompson.
The SEC Pitcher of the Year
Spearheading the starting rotation is 2017 SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle. The 6’11” junior returns as a top prospect for the 2018 Draft. Hjelle struck out a team-high 102 batters in 17 starts and 108 innings in his first season as a start. Before conference play began, there was some concern if Hjelle would be able to handle SEC hitting. After the first two weeks, he was struggling against mediocre competition in non-conference play as the team’s top starter. But when the conference slate began, Hjelle flipped the script. Against SEC opponents in the regular season, Hjelle went 7-1 with a 1.90 ERA. The Minnesota-native proved in 2017 that he has the fire and attitude to pitch against the best of the best on Friday nights in the SEC. Although Coach Mingione mentioned on the KSR Baseball Podcast that Hjelle would have to earn the right to start on Fridays in 2018, it is expected that he will return to that role once again.
What makes Hjelle so special? His size? His desire to win? Both have helped him, but the junior righty is extremely talented on the mound. In his first two seasons on campus, Hjelle showed an impressive curve that could drop in and out of the zone with solid command. MLB.com reported that some scouts had Hjelle hitting 98 on his fastball this fall. If Hjelle can add a mid-high 90s fastball into his repertoire, then he may repeat as Pitcher of the Year. Hjelle showed his command of three pitches in the Regional Championship against NC State. In 3.1 innings of work, Hjelle did not allow a baserunner as he helped to clinch the school’s first trip to a Super Regional. With another year to develop under his belt, look for Hjelle to dominate on the mound every Friday night.
Out of 30 selections, two players selected in the 11th round of the 2017 MLB Draft did not sign. One of those players was Justin Lewis. The redshirt junior was drafted 319th overall by the Tampa Bay Rays before deciding to return to Lexington for his fourth season. Lewis was perhaps the biggest “recruit” of the 2017 class. With Lewis returning, the Cats get back a starter that went 6-4 with a 3.56 ERA last season. Lewis has impeccable command as well as one of the top changeups in the conference. He showed his brilliant stuff last February when he took a perfect game into the eighth inning against UC Santa Barbara. After that dominant, early season performance, Lewis continued to shove throughout the year. He started every series finale for UK, including a complete game victory against LSU.
It was expected that Lewis would sign a pro contract following last season. But as the Draft unfolded, Lewis fell to day three where Tampa Bay scooped him up. On July 6th, Lewis announced that he would return to school for one more season. The decision to come back will most likely help Lewis’ draft stock for the 2018 MLB Draft. The 6’7″ righty is ranked in the top 100 prospects by Baseball America and is regarded as one of the top arms in the SEC.
Both Hjelle and Lewis project as high draft picks in the 2018 Draft. But no pitcher on this year’s staff has as high of a ceiling as Zack Thompson. With an effortless high-90s fastball and two more plus pitches, Thompson soared as a freshman. UK used Thompson in midweek games and occasionally out of the bullpen in 2017, but he will most likely be a part of this year’s weekend rotation. Thompson stuck out 96 in only 75.2 innings while accumulating a 3.45 ERA. His ridiculous first year at UK earned him consensus Freshman All-American awards.
Thompson will be a must-see attraction in 2018. The sophomore has another year of fall practice under his belt as well as experience in the NCAA Tournament. Against Indiana in an elimination game, Thompson went seven innings and picked up the win over the Hoosiers. That amount of experience will serve Thompson in 2018. Thompson will fill in Zach Logue’s spot in the weekend rotation in his second season. Of the three projected weekend starters, Thompson has the highest ceiling in the rotation. Look for Thompson to be a driving force in this year’s rotation similar to Zack Brown in 2015.