COLUMBIA, SC (TheBigSpur.com) - When the final out was recorded in the 2015 season, it was hard to find a lot of positives to take away from the year. There were streaks snapped and plenty of disappointment but there were also lessons learned and strides made. Pushing away the negative, here are 13 positives taken from a forgettable season that will benefit the Gamecocks in 2016.
1. Schmidt happens: Rising sophomore Clarke Schmidt came into the program weighing 170 pounds and someone I thought would be a role player during his freshman season with the Gamecocks. He was much more than a role player and he very well could be South Carolina's Friday night starter next year.
When Schmidt left campus, he weighed 193 pounds of good weight. He was one who thrived in the workout program and dedicated himself to getting better from the minute he arrived to campus to the minute he left. His first outing in a Carolina uniform, he was 86-89 in fall practice. Against Florida he was 91-94 on South Carolina's team radar gun and hit a 95. The outing against the Gators was just a short relief stint but he was one of few Gamecocks who could get Florida hitters out that weekend.
2. Swipin' 'em: South Carolina had one of its best stolen base seasons in recent memory stealing 63 bases in 77 attempts. In 2014, the Gamecocks were 47-of-65 and in that season, Tanner English was 21-of-24. So the team as a whole is getting better on the base paths. In 2014, only English had more than four successful stolen bases. In 2014, there were five players with at least five successful swipes. In 2003, the Gamecocks had 63 stolen bases but they were also thrown out 25 times while the 2015 team was only thrown out 14 times.
3. Cape bound: Rising junior Gene Cone took on a larger role than he probably needed to as a sophomore as the starting center fielder and leadoff man. Cone handled those responsibilities well enough to earn himself an invitation to Cotuit this summer of the Cape Cod League. Cone's batting average jumped 36 points from his freshman season and he swiped nine more bases as a sophomore than he did his first year on campus.
4. Backstop growing up: Against only SEC competition, rising sophomore Hunter Taylor had an on-base percentage of .400. His batting average was about the same against league and non-league opponents but facing the best pitchers, he was able to have quality at-bats. Defense was his Achilles heel but his number of wild pitches allowed decreased at the end of the season as he took on a greater role behind the plate.
5. Good Moon a-risin': Rising senior Marcus Mooney will be back for South Carolina in 2016 and that's a good thing for the Gamecocks. Mooney showed as a sophomore that he can play the shortstop position at a high level when he committed only 11 errors in 58 games played. An everyday player in the lineup, he was also able to hit .274. Most would sign for that production right now, but he should be able to improve his play after going through the league twice.
This summer, Mooney is off to the Coastal Plains League to play for the Wilson Tobs and hone his craft. He was plagued by injuries in 2015 but the Gamecocks were a better team when Mooney was on the field. South Carolina had a .631 winning percentage with him at shortstop and .526 with others. With a healthy year and consistent starts, which I believe he will get, then that will go a long way in shoring up the middle infield defense.
6. Big, if true: While it isn't a certainty, if rising senior Max Schrock returns to South Carolina, he will provide the lineup with some offensive punch. Schrock as he was as a sophomore, was injured off and on throughout the entire year. But unlike his sophomore season, he continued to produce at the plate. In SEC games, Schrock was 10th in the league in batting average at .354. If he does return, he will be the second-leading hitter expected to return to school in the conference.
Rising senior shortstop Marcus Mooney Schrock did have a rough year defensively making more errors (13) than he did in his previous two years combined. He's proven to be a capable defender and if he can get himself straight in the field and stay healthy - two very big ifs - then he has a chance to live up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon him when he arrived to South Carolina.
7. A plan: One of the biggest knocks of the 2015 team was the group just wasn't physically strong enough. There wasn't enough muscle at the plate to split a gap and not enough arm strength on the mound to blow that fastball by a hitter with two strikes. The Gamecocks finished last in the league in doubles (63) more than double behind league leader's LSU at 135.
The tentative plan is for South Carolina to start practice later in the fall, perhaps much later, to give the players more time in the weight room developing before they take the field. Fall practice could start as late as mid-October and in some years, that's about when the six weeks finishes up.
8. Making gains: Rising sophomore Tyler Johnson is another pitcher who bought into the strength program and made considerable gains. The right-hander put on exactly 15 pounds from his arrival until the time he left campus and added three to four miles per hour to his fastball, which featured a 93 mph bolt in his final appearance of the year. Johnson didn't get a lot of featured innings in 2015 but more offseason strides and a summer in the New England league should lead him to a meaningful role next season.
9. Learn to spell the name: Rising sophomore Clark Scolamiero hardly got a chance early on in his career. By the time he made his first start as a freshman, the other three position players in his class had already combined for 38 starts. It took an injury but Scolamiero became an everyday player late in the season. No, his numbers weren't great but they were better than some who played more than he did. In SEC play, Scolamiero had a .295 on-base percentage and had as many walks as strikeouts. The more he played, the more comfortable he looked on the field. After a summer's worth of at-bats and innings at Wilson in the Coastal Plains League, he should be ready to compete for the starting center field position.
10. B-Murr, Benz or Bentley: It may have been hard to notice but rising sophomore Brandon Murray began to develop a fourth pitch - a curve ball - as the season progressed. He was able to mix it in effectively from time to time as it teamed with a fastball, slider and changeup as a weapon. Murray pitched some big innings as the season went on and finished the year with a 5-0 record and two saves. When the calendar turned to May, he pitched 7 2/3 innings allowing three earned runs on seven hits and five strikeouts with four of the five appearances coming against SEC competition.
11. Crop piece: Pitchers regain their feel at different rates when coming back from Tommy John surgery. When rising sophomore Canaan Cropper took the mound for the first time in a Carolina uniform, he was about 15 months removed from being sliced open and having a ligament from his left wrist removed to put into his right elbow. Over the course of the year, Cropper began to regain the feel for being back on the mound. He seemed to turn a corner when the calendar hit May and in his three appearances over the course of the month, he didn't allow an earned run and only three hits in five innings pitched. He walked two and struck out three.
Cropper, before he went down with his elbow injury in December 2013, was on the path to be the team's closer as a true freshman for the 2014 season. He's inching closer to playing a pivotal role on the pitching staff and a strong summer playing with the Lexington County Blowfish is the next step in the process.
12. Turn two: It isn't a secret that South Carolina struggled defensively in 2015 but what it did as well as almost any school in the league was turn double plays. The Gamecocks turned 31 double plays in league play last season, which was good for third out of 14 teams in the SEC. The team turned 56 overall, which was tied for third against all competition.
13. Leadership: The goal was to provide something tangible for all 13 positives for the 2016 season but this one was too important. I wanted to back up opinions with stats or numbers. It's hard to back up this statement with any kind of proof but I do believe that next year's team will have better leaders on and off the field. Without taking anything away from departing players, some of the younger guys are growing into leadership roles.
The class of rising sophomores is a hard-working group and more of a blue collar bunch than some of the players before them. They're a group that can lead by example, but they also have a few players who can be vocal leaders. Look at Schmidt as an example to help show the way next year. Even though he won't be able to pitch, look for Wil Crowe to be on the roster and around the team. The addition of some junior college players should help bring some toughness and character to a bunch that needs it immensely.