02/22/2017 12:24 PM
The West Coast League attracts top-level talent from the best collegiate programs in the western United States. Still, some of the college squads that send players to the Sweets are more highly-touted than others. UC Santa Barbara, ranked top 25 nationally in the D1Baseball preseason poll, is one of those clubs. The Gauchos will be delivering a pair of right-handed freshman pitchers to Walla Walla. The youth movement continues with both Conner Roberts and Chris Lincoln, who will be counted on to be top arms for the Sweets in 2017.
Roberts, a lanky bullwhip at 6’2” and 160 lbs, has a sterling prep pedigree. Starring at De La Salle HS in Concord, CA, Roberts was named Pitcher of the Year for both the East Bay League and the North Coast Section last spring. His phenomenal stats—10-0 with an 0.79 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 62.1 innings—earned him a spot on California’s all-state second team. Thanks in large part to Roberts’ contributions, De La Salle finished 2016 ranked as the second-best high school program in the state. Roberts’ success at the high school level, plus the top-notch coaching he received at De La Salle, should translate seamlessly into a stellar college career at Santa Barbara.
“The key to pitching is making quality pitches,” Roberts said. “By that, I mean not just strikes but strikes the hitters don’t want to hit. When you do that, you succeed. The biggest difference from high school to college is that when you don’t throw that quality strike, college hitters will take advantage of it more often. That’s why it’s critical to work on quality pitches.”
Roberts will be used as a reliever this year. He cites his slider as his best pitch and says he is most effective when he can consistently spot the inside corner with his fastball. Although he is still working on refining his changeup, he can gas his four-seamer up near 90 mph.
Joining Roberts in Walla Walla is another Gauchos rookie, RHP Chris Lincoln. A product of Rancho Verde HS in Moreno Valley, CA, Lincoln struck out 66 batters in 59.2 innings his senior year. A three-year letterwinner for baseball, Lincoln also played for Rancho Verde’s varsity basketball and football teams. Standing at 6’4” and 175 lbs, Lincoln is still growing into himself as a pitcher. Still, his supreme athleticism and upside give him a ton of projectability on the mound. He was selected in the 13th Round of the 2016 Amateur Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays but chose instead to attend college.
“[Being drafted] was a feeling I will never forget for the rest of my life,” Lincoln recalls. “I actually found out from a friend who texted me congratulations. At first, I had no idea what he was talking about. I had always known [Toronto] was interested, but so were a few other teams so it came as a total surprise to me.”
Even though he was selected fairly highly in the draft, Lincoln felt that attending UCSB would give him his best opportunity to succeed in professional baseball. A few more years of seasoning with top-level coaching and game experience should give Lincoln a sturdier path to The Show. Walla Walla will be an important step in his journey.
“I felt that [Gauchos’ Head Coach Andrew Checketts] would mold me into a more well-rounded pitcher,” said Lincoln, who also added that he would like to improve his command within the strike zone. “The things that made me successful in high school still translate into college ball, all I have to do is believe in my abilities and trust the process.”
So far, the process has yielded a positive outing. Lincoln took the mound for the first time in his collegiate career on Sunday with two outs in the seventh inning of an 8-2 loss to Loyola Marymount. Entering the game with a runner on second base, Lincoln induced a flyout to escape the inning. He allowed one hit, one unearned run, and struck out two in the eighth. Hopefully, it was the first of many late-game appearances for Lincoln this season.
“My biggest strength on the mound would be my competitiveness,” he said. “Having the mentality that there is not one opposing hitter who stands a change against [me] is something that’s really helped me over the years.”
Freshman season will be extremely important for both Roberts and Lincoln as they gear up for WCL action. With a year of college baseball under their belt, the two should be a dominating duo out of the Sweets’ bullpen this summer.