Duke baseball 2024 season preview

Fran Oschell III is one of many talented pitchers Duke can employ this season.
Fran Oschell III is one of many talented pitchers Duke can employ this season.

Overview

Following an expectation-defying season finishing one win short of a trip to the College World Series, head coach Chris Pollard has revamped the Duke roster in hopes of achieving the ultimate goal this time around. Entering the season ranked No. 12 in the country, the Blue Devils have their eyes set on reaching Omaha, Neb., for the first time since 1961.

Picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, Duke finished the 2023 season with a 39-24 record and a regional championship in Conway, S.C. After winning game one against Virginia, the Blue Devils ultimately dropped their third Super Regional in five seasons. Duke was largely powered by an atypical yet dominant pitching staff — and most of the arms return for the 2024 season.

The most detrimental losses for the Blue Devils come around the infield, as all four of the starters from last season have moved on from Duke. First baseman Luke Storm and third baseman Andrew Fischer both elected to transfer out of the program while middle infielders Jay Beshears and Alex Mooney were both selected in July’s MLB draft. MJ Metz, who split time between first base and designated hitter, has also moved on after playing his graduate season for the Blue Devils. In response, Pollard and his staff brought in a slew of transfers from all levels of college baseball to compete for the open spots on the diamond.

After suffering a season-ending elbow injury shortly into conference play, junior ace Jonathan Santucci headlines the returners for Duke. Fellow preseason All-American hurlers Fran Oschell III and James Tallon also remain in Durham, and senior catcher and captain Alex Stone will once again anchor the battery in his fourth season as a Blue Devil.

Duke will return to Conway to start the season for Baseball at the Beach, where it will take on Indiana, George Mason and No. 18 Coastal Carolina before settling into its nonconference slate. The real gauntlet, though, will come when the Blue Devils reach league play, as they will meet a loaded ACC that holds five other top-15 teams. There will be no time for Duke to ease into conference play, as it takes on four of those five squads in each of its first four ACC series. -Elliott Jarnot

New player to watch: Kyle Johnson

Despite the impressive amount of returning talent around the diamond, Duke will expect some instant contributions from newcomers as well. This season, the most impactful fresh face could very likely be freshman two-way player Kyle Johnson, who is expected to start in the outfield while also pitching a solid number of innings for the Blue Devils. 

Before arriving in Durham, the Leesburg, Va., native was tabbed as the 46th-best prospect in the nation according to Perfect Game, but the hype train has only sped up since he stepped on campus. After an impressive fall, the frosh was tabbed as the No. 1 impact freshman in the ACC for the 2024 season by D1Baseball. Consequently, Johnson was also predicted to be the ACC Freshman of the Year by the same outlet. 

“Guys that have stood out, I think Kyle Johnson is at the top of that list. He was really good on the mound for us, up to 96 in multiple outings from the left side, throws a ton of strikes, really athletic delivery, he's always had a good changeup and started to figure out the slider as the fall went on,” Pollard said at the team’s preseason media day. “But what he brought to the table offensively I think was a really pleasant surprise and he's very much in the mix to get a lot of at-bats as a true freshman in addition to what he's going to do on the mound.”

Johnson is expected to start in right field from day one, and will also likely be the midweek starter for the Blue Devils. If his skills and production from the fall can carry over instantly to the regular season, he will quickly become one of Duke’s best players, and possibly one of the best youngsters in the nation. -Caleb Dudley

Returning player to watch: Fran Oschell III

Following a dominant sophomore campaign, Oschell returns as the headliner in Duke’s nationally elite pitching staff. Last season, the 6-foot-7 reliever allowed only three earned runs in his 39.1 innings on the hill, good for a staggering 0.69 ERA. He ended strong, capping the season with an incredible stretch of 14 innings of work without a single run allowed. This stretch included a notable postseason win against Virginia in the opening game of the Charlottesville Super Regional where Oschell fanned three and allowed just one hit over his 2.2 innings en route to the win. 

The Malvern Prep product throws one of the best fastballs in his class. It sits in the mid-90s, although Oschell has been able to push to 98-99 on occasion. His high RPM produces a four-seamer with impressive carry — the predominant reason for its 39% whiff rate last season. Where room for improvement remains is in Oschell’s offspeed options. If he can come out of the offseason with a more defined curveball and lean more heavily into his changeup, opportunities for opposing offenses will dwindle even further.

The Phoenixville, Pa., native’s demonstrated talent and success last year demanded sky-high expectations for the 2024 season. Oschell accordingly earned Perfect Game Preseason All-American honors while being tabbed the No. 2 relief pitcher according to D1Baseball and the No. 52 2024 draft prospect in Prospect Live’s rankings. Living up to these projections and performing as one of the nation’s best arms will be critical to the overall strength of the Blue Devils through the season. -Josh Alms

Most anticipated matchup: at Wake Forest, March 8-10

While there are a number of incredibly talented teams in the ACC, it is likely true that none are better than Wake Forest, a team less than an hour down the road from Durham. The Demon Deacons sit atop both D1Baseball and Baseball America’s preseason rankings, and for good reasons. The squad from Winston-Salem, N.C., made a run in last year’s tournament, making it to the semifinal of the College World Series before dropping in the 11th inning to eventual national champion LSU. Now, despite losing some talent in the offseason, Wake Forest is ready for another go at the trophy.

Led by returning first basemen and projected high first round draft pick Nick Kurtz, this team is strong all over the field. Kurtz is an offensive powerhouse who hit .353 last season with 24 home runs and 69 RBI. He is also a patient player at the plate, capable of drawing his fair share of walks. His athleticism and 6-foot-5 frame serve him well in the field, making Kurtz an early frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year. In the bullpen, a few names jump out. Junior southpaw Josh Hartle will be looking to have another strong year after anchoring the squad from the mound last year, and Tennessee transfer Chase Burns will also likely be an impact player. 

The reality is that Wake Forest is the team to beat in both the conference and likely the country. The Demon Deacons are well above average at every position on both sides of the ball, and will be a dangerous team when the Blue Devils face off against them in March. Coming in early in the year as Duke’s first ranked series, this Wake team will serve as an excellent litmus test for the Blue Devils. If the squad from Durham can march into Winston-Salem and escape with a win and a close game or two it is a sign of legitimacy, while if the visitors get blown out, it might require some retooling and reevaluation for Duke. Either way, it will be one of the most important series of the regular season for the Blue Devils. -Martin Heintzelman 

Best-case scenario

A year ago, our beats wrote preseason that the best-case scenario for the Blue Devils did not include a trip to the NCAA tournament. None of us predicted a winning conference record, and only one beat predicted Duke to make the ACC tournament (shout-out Elliott). We were all proven significantly wrong. This time around, while the team still has plenty of question marks, we are unanimously higher on the Blue Devils.

Last year, Pollard and pitching coach Brady Kirkpatrick put together a staff that, without any dominant starters, finished the season with the 18th-best ERA in the country. Duke returns a number of its arms, as well as key pieces at the plate. A healthy Santucci can help give Pollard more freedom with his bullpen, and the transfers along the infield are poised to make a splash.

The ceiling for this team will be determined by health and consistency, but if the Blue Devils can play to their potential, they can head to Omaha for the College World Series for the first time in more than 60 years. From there, it’s anyone's guess. -Dom Fenoglio

Worst-case scenario:

In the spirit of looking backward to look forward, the 2022 Blue Devils provide a good picture of this team’s floor. That squad had considerable potential and expectations, but finished 10-20 in the ACC and failed to make the conference tournament.

I do not think this team will repeat that showing, but at the end of the day, it is hard to win baseball games. The drawback to Pollard’s unique pitching system is that it is volatile to under-performances and injuries. If a few arms are not clicking at the same time, the bullpen could lose its footing and unravel. In that case, Duke’s departures from the top of the lineup — namely Mooney and Beshears — will not be there with an answer.

The Blue Devils face a gauntlet to start ACC play: No. 1 Wake Forest, No. 10 Clemson, No. 13 N.C. State and No. 14 Virginia. Failing to find their footing in that stretch could spell disaster, lead to a near-.500 ACC record and force early exits in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. -Dom Fenoglio

Predictions

Fenoglio: 37-18 (19-11 in the ACC), Loss in Super Regionals

Alms: 39-16 (20-10 in the ACC), Loss in Regionals

Jarnot: 42-13 (21-9 in the ACC), 1-2 at College World Series

Dudley: 40-15 (21-9 in the ACC) 2-2 at College World Series

Heintzelman: 44-11 (23-7 in the ACC) 2-2 at College World Series


Dom Fenoglio | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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