When head coach Mike Bianco announced the starting rotation for opening weekend, it didn’t include any of Ole Miss’ starting pitchers from last year. Gone is reliable Saturday man Brady Feigl and hard-throwing righty James McArthur. Gone is Friday night ace Ryan Rolison, drafted in the first round by the Colorado Rockies.
Bianco’s rotation did, however, include another name called early in last year’s MLB Draft: Gunnar Hoglund. Taken 36th overall by the Pirates, the 18-year-old turned down close to $2 million in signing bonus to play ball in Oxford. When he takes the mound this Sunday against Wright State, it’ll be the first time Bianco has started a freshman on opening weekend since 2003.
Ole Miss’ 2019 season may well rest on Hoglund’s right shoulder.
We know the Rebels are gonna hit the ball. Built around the 2016 top-ranked recruiting class, this season’s lineup returns 84 percent of last year’s hit production, 75 percent of home runs and 73 percent RBI.
What we don’t know is how the disappearance of the entire weekend rotation will affect Ole Miss on the mound. Of the three guys slated to start against Wright State, junior Will Ethridge is the only one with DI starting experience, and his is limited to four outings as a freshman. JUCO transfer Zach Phillips is slotted to go on Saturday, with Hoglund following on Sunday.
Bianco will need all three to produce this season, but the development of Hoglund in particular seems key.
Already 6’4 and 210-pounds, Hoglund fanned 105 batters and posted a microscopic 0.27 ERA as a senior in Florida’s competitive high school ranks. He uses that frame to hurl fastballs at 95 miles an hour, and to say he can control it is an understatement: not only did he walk just two of 186 batters last year, he only faced six three-ball counts during his first 50 innings.
“He’s been really dominant in our intrasquad games,” Bianco said during media day. “He’s a guy who possesses a big-time fastball but a good breaking ball and changeup, excellent command. He really can throw the ball on both sides of the plate. For a true freshman, he has a lot of poise.”
(He can hit the ball too, batting .312 with seven homers during his high school career. Look out for him as a two-way player.)
Hoglund was a solid name to monitor from last summer, sitting 88-91 mph with a soft curveball but a clean arm and projectable frame. That projection came quickly, as Hoglund hit 96 mph in a couple early starts and then all the scouting heat came rushing in. I saw him on a colder night working 90-93 mph, a tick or two below where he was the week before and week after I was there. He had consistent above-average life on the heater, and you could easily project his 76-80 mph curveball to above average as well.
His frame is near ideal at about 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, and his arm is a little late to catch up with his delivery but that’s more of a timing issue than a fatal flaw. Hoglund is a two-way threat with a smooth lefty swing and is a good student.
Hoglund is the Rebels’ ace of the future, but it’s easy to see his immediate value this season. Whereas most teams will trot out their third-best starter on Sunday, Bianco will deploy his most talented arm. That’s a tough matchup against a dude throwing in the upper 90s with a knee-buckling curve.
The biggest question is how quickly Hoglund will be able to adjust to major college baseball. Sure, there will be peaks and there will be valleys, but I think the kid is going to be electric in Year 1. If Ole Miss wants to be a serious national title contender come tournament time, he needs to be.