Kendall Rogers (KR) is probably the top journalist (depending on how you classify Sorenson) when it comes to the national college baseball circuit. Rogers works primarily for Yahoo! Sports now, and runs the "Destination: Omaha" blog, similar to "Doctor Saturday" in the college football world.
In KR's most recent post, he examined the keys to Michigan bouncing back. In the opening paragraphs, or in many cases, stand alone sentences with little or no meaning (a personal pet peeve of mine in sports writing), he discusses Michigan's past few years with a pretty solid overview, discussing our success in 2007, our fall short in 2008, and the drop off in 2009.
In this post, I'm going to delve a bit deeper into his five keys, and attempt to cover the keys I find a bit more important. KR does a good job of summarizing programs, but he really doesn't have the expertise or in depth knowledge to really comment, and I'm hoping I can help supplement his descriptions.
His first key:
Forget about last season -- It seems we've had to say this about many teams the past few weeks, but Michigan joins the list of teams that needs to move on and forget about what transpired last season. The Wolverines welcome back a plethora of seasoned players both at the plate and on the mound. To say the least, this team will be ready to play in the spring. Personally, I think it'll be interesting to see how motivated this team will be. Knowing coach Rich Maloney as well I do, this club likely will be very fun to watch. Don't look for a letdown from the Wolverines.
That's about as vanilla as you can get. Yes, last year was unimpressive, I get that. But forgetting about it isn't really the answer. If anything, I think KR hit a bigger nerve with me when he mentioned the motivation of the team. Michigan was one of the most talented teams in the Big10 last year, but they continually struggled against some of the lower tier teams. I sometimes wondered just how motivated the guys were, but that's something I don't know about either.
There were stretches during the season in 2009 where I wondered if the guys just got down and couldn't pick it back up. Be it injuries, no one really solidifying third base, a depleted bullpen, whatever it was, I kept waiting for us to get a spark last year. That spark never came, and I felt like perhaps that was an indication that the team wasn't motivated enough. That was just my feeling, and I welcome the opinion of those who saw more games in person. I just know something was missing there.
Moving to key two:
Replace ace pitcher Chris Fetter, weekend rotation must reload -- The Wolverines have the tough chore of replacing ace pitcher Chris Fetter in the spring. Fetter started 13 games last season and compiled a 3.26 ERA in 94 innings. He also struck out 103 and walked 17 and limited opposing teams to a .257 batting average. Michigan welcomes back a pair of starting pitchers in Eric Katzman and Travis Smith. Katzman started 14 games last season and had a 3.53 ERA in 74 innings. He also struck out 64 and walked 41 and limited teams to a .248 batting average. Smith, meanwhile, started eight games and tallied a 4.50 ERA in 50 innings. Teams hit .333. The Wolverines are in good shape if this unit rises to the occasion.
That's also another obvious one, and one I'm not sure the Wolverines are going to be able to answer. To say last year's weekend rotation was disappointing would be an understatement.
Eric Katzman was a marginal number two starter compared to the last few seasons at Michigan. He was almost so inconsistent that his inconsistency became consistent. It seemed, as the season went along, that dubious "Evil Katzman" showed up every third week. Those "Evil Katzman" moments generally lead to a 3.2 inning start with 3 walks and 4+ runs. In the two weeks of non-evil, Katzman tended to make it about 5-6 innings and only 2-3 runs. That's alright, but his overall season really taxed our bullpen. By season's end, he would be demoted to the third starter. Katzman's summer was cut short due to an injury, I believe to his collar bone. He hadn't been pitching well in his few appearances there either. It'll be interesting if he can keep a solid hold on his rotation spot this season, and I think he'll still be a pretty solid number 2 or 3 pitcher for us.
Travis Smith was promising to start the season, but he just couldn't hack it by the time Big10 play rolled around. He was replaced by a few different experiments, including Kolby Wood, Brandon Sinnery, and most notably Alan Oaks. Wood and Sinnery were promoted up from the mid-week starter role on occasion to pitch on Sundays, primarily in an effort to split the Sunday game between two pitchers (one would throw 5 innings, the other 4 innings). This didn't work out all to well either, leaving the weak part of our bullpen to try and soak up more innings on back-to-back days.
When this failed, Maloney tried Alan Oaks back on the mound. Oaks had some success previously on the mound, mostly in high school, but also in relief during the 2007 NCAA run. Oaks ended up being the most effective pitcher (other than Fetter) to close the season, generally lasting 6 to 7 innings, saving the bullpen. He also did really well this summer, and he's one who I think has the best shot of taking Fetter's ace role. He's got a hard fastball and a pretty good slider.
After Oaks and Katzman, it's anybody's race for the 3rd starting spot. I think my preliminary guesses are Sinnery or Smith. Smith struggled mightily this summer in the Texas Collegiate League, but his fastball is just hard to pass up. Sinnery is still young, and I just haven't seen him throw enough as a starter to give him a nod just yet.
One of the hunches I've had for a while is we see a return of Tyler Burgoon to the rotation. Burgoon, our top closer over the last year and a half, started his career in the Michigan mid-week starting role half way through the 2008 season. He had some success there before being converted to a setup man and then closer. Burgoon has a couple good pitches, including a fastball, slider, changeup, and split fingered fastball (Quag, anything I'm missing?).
As for Kolby Wood, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make the transition to the closer role. He's developed a palm/changeup like pitch that has been devastating batters over the summer. He's still in contention for a starter role, but he was so spectacular as a closer this summer, I really feel like that's where he needs to go, especially if it frees up Burgoon to eat up starting pitching innings.
Speaking of bullpen, key three:
Bullpen must show some improvement -- The Wolverines actually return some solid relievers in the spring, but still have some work to do. They finished last season with a 4.82 pitching staff ERA because of some inconsistency issues with several relievers. Mike Dufek and Matt Miller are returning relievers to remember. Dufek is a two-way player and appeared in just 11 games last season. However, perhaps the Wolverines will choose to increase his role after he compiled a 2.70 ERA in 16 2/3 innings. Miller, meanwhile, appeared in 23 games and had a 3.70 ERA in 41 1/3 innings. Other returning relievers to watch include Tyler Burgoon, Brandon Sinnery, Alan Oaks, Kolby Wood and Matt Gerbe. This unit must be better outside of Dufek and Miller.
The bullpen is one area I'm not particularly worried about this year. Along with the aforementioned Burgoon and Wood as potential closers, Matt Gerbe and Matt Miller both made considerable noise this summer as closers. This summer was the summer of Michigan closers, even Sinnery got involved in the save fad. All of them did extremely well, and that really has me feeling good going into next season. And even with all of those players, we still have Mike Dufek available to close. That's a pretty stacked set of closers.
The one area that I'm not sold on is our left handed pitching. Other than Katzman as a starter, none of our other lefties have really produced at the college level. Matt Broder started for his lower-level summer league team and performed quite well, making me wonder if he will take the long relief slot. Bobby Brosnahan did pretty well this summer himself, and he may become a left handed specialist (in college, they tend to pitch a whole inning rather than just one batter).
Our only left handed reliever with college experience is Jeff DeCarlo. He's still working on bringing his college ERA below 8.00. The stat I like to use to describe DeCarlo is his hit by pitch numbers. Last season he hit one for each inning he pitched. He had 5 hit batsmen and 6 walks in 5 innings pitched. But he was an Academic All BigTen player in 2008!
Moving on to key #4:
Several hitters must rise to the occasion -- The Wolverines have the luxury of utilizing returning hitters Ryan LaMarre, Anthony Toth and Mike Dufek. However, they don't welcome back a plethora of solid hitters. LaMarre batted .344 with 12 homers and 62 RBIs last season, Toth batted .313 with 24 RBIs and Dufek batted .304 with 17 homers and 59 RBIs. Other returning hitters include Chris Berset (.296), Coley Crank (.294), Nick Urban (.288), John Lorenz (.267) and Alan Oaks (.228). Perhaps newcomer Derek Dennis, a very talented freshman, can give the Wolverines a boost at the plate. Michigan finished last season with a .294 batting average.
Again with the blatantly obvious statements – batters rising to the occasion? Duh. Anyway, I think Chris Berset is going to be a big key in all of this. Berset missed a few weeks with a broken finger during the middle of the season, and that really limited his numbers. I don't think he's a .330 batter by any stretch, but I think something near .305 is definitely doable (like his .301 his freshman year).
Other players that could end up contributing at the plate include Garrett Stephens, one of the top hitters in the Prospect League this last summer. I'm really high on the kid's hitting, and I can't see how he doesn't either start at first or start as the DH. Coley Crank had been DH'ing, but he was doing just alright. Stephens really shined at the end of the season at first, and I think he's got a future there.
Out of all of the returning hitters, the one I'm most worried about is Lorenz at third base. He struggled all of last season, forcing a platoon with Tim Kalczynski. His hitting was really weak, and his defense was just as suspect. If he doesn't step up his game this season, we're going to be playing musical chairs at third base until someone can hold it down. I wouldn't be surprised to see Mike Kittle or even Kevin Krantz making appearances early in the season at the hot corner.
As far as the freshman go, I'm not sure what to expect out of any of them. Dennis obviously was drafted really high, but it's yet to be seen how he'll perform in his first year on campus. It'd be nice to see him and maybe even Biondi solidify their place in the lineup, as we really need a leadoff and #2 hitter to step up. I have a feeling those two and Anthony Toth will combine to make the #9, #1, and #2 spots in the lineup. Their speed and high average hitting will hopefully translate to plenty of RBI opportunities for LaMarre and Dufek.
Speaking of those two, KR's fifth key:
Find more power production -- One thing that hurt Michigan last season was its lack of power. The Wolverines finished last season with just 55 homers. Returning hitters Ryan LaMarre and Mike Dufek accounted for 29 of those 55 homers. In other words, some returning hitters or newcomers must step up from a power standpoint. More power would make life much easier for the Wolverines both at the plate and on the mound. We'll see if some newcomers have some pop.
I'm not as concerned about the power as I am that combination at the top of the lineup. Last year's team was definitely a power based team, and that didn't translate to wins. Michigan had trouble sustaining innings, and they particularly struggled with strikeouts. Dufek struck out once in every 4 at-bats, Toth once in every 5. That's just not going to cut it. Sure the homeruns look awesome, but we really need to work on consistency and raising the averages. Power hitting is plenty more powerful with runners on base, and that's not a luxury Michigan had last season.
Author Note: Jump to Ecclesiastes 1:5 to roll right into more analytical thinking. No, no preaching here…well maybe a little.
Author Note 2: Additional data for historical context of Michigan achievement patterns added in Back to the Future section before the Penn State recovery discussion.
In 9th grade, I had just arrived in Ann Arbor after spending two years abroad. It was January, right before mid-term exams or some other teapot tempest of youth, and I sat there in 9th grade English class watching a lesson plan, ahem, about a story the class had apparently read and discussed a few days before. Skeletor, as the other kids called her due to her impossibly gaunt physique as well as the fact that her face had no skin or muscle on it, was at her desk doing whatever, looking up only when the conversations got loud enough to distract her.
I think I was the only one watching the movie, maybe that mousy girl was too, because I had no friends to talk to since I had just arrived in Ann Arbor ad I had to pass the time somehow. Either that or I was a hopeless social outcast, which, absurd. Anyway, besides being bored out of my effing mind, all that I remember was thinking, "Damn, that kid's pretty tough."
The movie was a film adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines's short story "The Sky is Gray". The story is set deep in the segregated south of the '30s or '40s and was first published in 1963 and so it is dense with racial and social themes, but the reason the story stuck with me had nothing to do with any of that. I remember it because of the dignity and poise Gaines's characters displayed in that story. Especially Octavia the mother of the 8 year old protagonist, James.
There are many episodes from which to draw but the most vivid for me comes towards the end of the story as Octavia and James are headed home. They're standing outside and a cold gust of wind causes James to flip his collar in an vain attempt to keep the wind's bite off his neck. I still have never been able to reconcile the fact the story was set in a cold winter in Louisiana, but whatever, poetic license, suspended disbelief, and all that. Anyway, Octavia tells him to put his collar down by saying something like "...only bums do that. And you're not a bum. You're a man." Then she stands there stoic, eyes up, shoulders back pinching the brim of her hat so it wouldn’t blow off.
From time to time, I'll see or hear something that reminds of that story and this time it was a Ohio State v. Michigan hype video of all things. In the video, chunkums opens with Rudyard Kipling's poem “If” set to music and images. The whole poem is dead on point for Michigan's situation right now, both the fan base and Rich Rodriguez. Frankly I can’t help but relate that poem to other things around me: the Big Three, the World Economy, Detroit. These lines are particularly compelling:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
To make things interesting I decided to post it on here. Its not the greatest poem ever written, so feel free to add any comments you might think of to help me improve it.
On a sunny winter day in Michigan
My team ran under a banner that read Go Blue
Hoping desperately for a win
And deeply enraged by that terrible scarlet hue
And then Mr Sweater Vest took the field
With his quarterback who thinks everyone murders and steals
Claiming that his team would never yield
With the traitor linemen who eats pizza at all five meals
And on some players final Senior Day
Tate and Vincent made a good read
And Graham and the D came to play
But the enemy still took the lead
In the end the Wolverines did not defeat their foe,
But hey, at least they don't have to live in Columbus O-H-I-O
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this, and Go Blue!
That's a pretty good record of good play from All-American kids that didn't end up transferring/quitting or pulling a Benedict Arnold. An especially big haul (9 contributers)in 2003 and 2004 probably directly contributed to the stellar 2006 season.
I'm hoping all the 2009 talent (10 All-Americans) will emerge en force in the 2011 season and we will see an 11-0 spread 'n' shred edition of the Maize&Blue destroy the Buckeyes the next time they come to Ann Arbor...maybe on the way to a National Championship.
AUGUSTA, Ga. – ESPN and The Augusta Sports Council announced today (Monday, Nov. 23) that University of Michigan fifth-year senior punter Zoltan Mesko (Twinsburg, Ohio/Twinsburg HS) is one of three finalists for the 2009 Ray Guy Award, presented annually to the nation’s top collegiate punter. Mesko is joined as a finalist by Georgia’s Drew Butler and Florida’s Chaz Henry.
Mesko is the second Wolverine to be named a finalist for the award. Hayden Epstein was a finalist during the award’s inaugural season (2000). Mesko was a semifinalist last season. He looks to become the fourth punter in Big Ten history to win the award, joining Wisconsin’s Kevin Stemke (2000), Purdue’s Travis Dorsch (2001) and Ohio State’s B.J. Sanders (2003).
A preseason first-team All-American, Mesko is sixth nationally in punting with a U-M season record 44.5-yard average. He has helped the Wolverines list second nationally in net punting with a 40.9-yard average. Mesko has been extremely proficient in all phases, with 17 punts over 50 yards, 18 fair caught, three touchbacks and 15 downed inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. He has punted 52 times for 2,312 yards, including a 66-yard season-long punt against Western Michigan.
Mesko has already been named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and is a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award and the Danny Wuerffel Trophy. He was a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, presented by the National Football Foundation, and is a candidate for Academic All-America honors after being selected CoSIDA Academic All-District IV first team earlier this month.
The 10th annual award will be announced live on ESPN during the Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards Show on Thursday, Dec. 10. The 2009 winner of the Ray Guy Award will be honored at a banquet by the Augusta Sports Council and The Augusta Chronicle in late January 2010.
1994, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. Each of these was a bitter pill to take, ruining an afternoon and often more. But I don't recall a loss in which Michigan brought less to the game and came away with real reason for optimism. Yes, I realize how awful it is to look at a loss to the Ohio State University and sift amongst the rubble for a moral victory, but that is a realistic approach when your only conference win is against a team better known for basketball, lead by a bubble gum-throwing coach.
So, may I present some thoughts from grim Saturday and the hind-sighted look at the season:
- Against an admittedly Tressell-led team, the previously pourous defense allowed two offensive touchdowns. I recognize that the Sweatervest had faith in his defense and with good reason, but the Wolverine defense made Pryor look like an athlete attempting to play QB. We, as fans,
-Vincent Smith is going to be a great back in this offense.
-Roy Roundtree seems to have good hands and awareness, if not breakaway speed.
-I, you, and all the good people who love the light side of the force are REALLY going to miss Brandon Graham. 14 defensive points allowed. Nearly turned back the Buckeyes from the goal-line singlehandedly. Was absolutely unblockable all year.
-& the Space Emperor.
- Obviously the five turnovers. That's unacceptable in any game, even with a freshman QB. But remember, the 2-1 TD to INT ratio for the remainder of the year was the anomaly. We knew going into the season that starting a freshman QB would lead to big errors. For much of the year, we were lucky. Against Notre Dame, it did not hurt us, and it enabled the team to tie up Michigan State. The daring decisions didn't come back to bite us. But the bad game yesterday notwithstanding, there was obvious improvement from the beginning of the season to the end.
- The secondary severely limited any ability to blitz. This makes me think about the third and goal, in which the Michigan defense allowed a screen pass for a TD. Before the play, I was hoping for a three man rush or a two man rush with a two man spy, forcing Pryor to throw in to a limited field with coverage. Obviously, that's not what was called, and that provided the touchdown that eventually sealed itl
-The offensive line did little to open up holes in the Buckeye defensive front. However, I don't recall a game since Tim Biakabutuka in which the Michigan O-line ran roughshod over the Buckeyes. If you watch the National Championship game in 1997, the future All-Pros on that line struggled to move the Buckeyes. This is nothing really new. (Correction, the 2003 game was also an exception, Chris Perry rushed for 154 yards against one of the best rush defenses. But I believe that was the first game in 10 years in which Michigan truly owned the run game.)
I spent Sunday evening watching the Eagles and Bears with an Ohio State alum who is working on a PhD from Drexel (i.e., not a "Git-R-Dun" type). His take from the game was essentially, "if you keep Forcier from throwing the ball without discernment, that team will be good." He also didn't realize that Molk, our starting center was injured since PSU.
Excuses are not good. But realism is not only looking at the negatives, but also assessing the reasons why those negatives took place. When the Boston Celtics lost in the playoffs this past June, it was not "an excuse" to recognize the fact that Kevin Garnett was not on the court. If you attempt to assess your place as a team, you must take all factors into account. First, the starting center on this Wolverines team has not played since a few plays in the Penn State game. Centers don't get acclaim, just as DT's such as Ndomakon Suh don't win the Heisman Trophy. But when they aren't playing, they make a big difference. I think it's fair to say with Molk present, the Offensive Line is able to open up holes better, and probably pass protect better down the stretch of the schedule. Second, the best running back on the team did not play in the Ohio State game. Brandon Minor's injury kept him out of the game. We all wanted to see Minor Rage one last time, one more time at home, but the football fates are cruel in ways we could only have dreamt about five years ago.
I hope this game gave you renewed hope for the big picture in the way that I received it. The game of ball is glorious. The Wolverines will begin to have stability in the defensive coaches for the first time in nearly five years. The Michigan team will return a starting quarterback for the first time since 2007. This is an off-season in which the team needs its fans. Stay true, those who stay true will watch champions.