With baseball season officially starting Friday, I'm going to make several sporadic posts over this week in order to preview the team. For starters, I may suggest going back to my previous podcast with Rich Maloney or my initial reaction to our schedule, which I will probably update my outlook after completing my previews.
Last year's record came in at a less than sterling 30-25, the lowest win total since Rich Maloney stepped on campus. The 9-15 BigTen record is tied for the 6th worst conference record in Michigan history (102 seasons), and the worst since 2000 when the team went 10-18. Obviously last year was a disappointment. So much like football, hockey, basketball, or most other sports that get coverage around these parts, baseball was just as involved in the recent so called "curse of 09-10" as Brian put it in mgo.licio.us.
Michigan came into the season with the usual high expectations, but something was different than years past. After losing 4 players to the draft early, Michigan wasn't able to reload with talent it usually would have (how can you when they get drafted 4 months after signing day and less than 3 months before school starts?). Michigan was starting a true freshman at third base, a key middle reliever's career was cut short by surgery, our right field spot was wide open, our designated hitter came out of nowhere in the form of unknown little brother of MLB player Nate McLouth, and our off the field narrative in the media was "walk-ons lead the team." I think the Ann Arbor News really hit the spot last year in their preseason article:
Many of the would-be run producers are tenured but inexperienced, including corner outfielders Kenny Fellows (fifth-year senior) and Nick Urban (fourth-year junior).
"We have a lot of guys with some potential, but they don't have bios yet," Maloney said. "It's kind of a wild card."
Oh, and what a wild card it was. Consistency was never something Michigan could grasp. Eric Katzman earned the alternate persona of Evil Katzman at least once every two weeks. McLouth fluctuated wildly in terms of plate production. Third base was a carousel between John Lorenz and Tim Kalczynski. Right field was Urban, Oaks, Urban again. Burgoon was injured and the bullpen went by committee. We lost Kevin Cislo and Chris Berset for stretches of the season. Nothing seemed to go right.
Well, almost nothing. Chris Fetter, our senior ace was the one consistent bright spot. Fetter carried the team for most of the season, eating up innings and mowing down line ups. He is responsible for our BigTen best team ERA of 4.80. But there was a lack of depth behind him. Before the season ever started, we lost Ben Jenzen, one of our top relievers from the season before. Left handed freshman Bobby Brosnahan, the pitching gem of the incoming class, was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. For a period of 6 weeks, we lost our closer, Tyler Burgoon with a shoulder bruise suffered trying to make a play on a bunt.
So while Fetter could carry us through a Friday game, Saturday and Sunday became an adventure in the bullpen. Like clockwork, you could set an implosion coming every three weeks. The weeks of Evil Katzman meant the bullpen was routinely called in during the third or fourth inning, sometimes earlier. Our Sunday starting position during the first half of the season was just as inconsistent. Travis Smith struggled, as did Kolby Wood and Brandon Sinnery.
Not until Alan Oaks re-entered the rotation did we gain any extra consistency. By then, Fetter was already showing signs of fatigue from his highest inning total ever.
Dear Ryan, please don't leave us after this season, attrition hurts.
(Photo by Jeremy Cho, Michigan Daily)
On offense and defense, preseason depth hurt here, too. Adam Abraham left for the majors after his junior year leaving a HUGE void at third base. John Lorenz would have had time to red shirt and prepare for the college game. Instead, he and walk on senior Tim Kalczynski ended up playing third base by committee. Timmy Kal had been a catcher previous to this move. That's how bad we were hurting at depth. Neither player was that great offensively, especially not compared to the great player that Abraham was.
Joining these two on the left side of the infield was a first year starter in Anthony Toth. While his size would lead most people to think of Toth as a second baseman, he was given the keys to short stop with no real back up available. Toth did alright at the plate, eventually giving a decent hitter in the 9-hole. On the field, he was about average. He committed quite a few errors, always at the worst time, but he wasn't horrible.
In right field, Alan Oaks began the season sick, missing the first two weeks of the season. This opened the door for a previous back up middle infielder Nick Urban to get the starting nod. This actually worked out well for Michigan. Urban was the better defensive outfielder with great speed. Upon Oaks' return to the lineup, he hadn't regained his swing yet either.
In all, we were missing at least four veteran players from the draft, and another 2-3 players at any particular point of the season depending who were injured.
To complicate things, Michigan's hitters really loved the strikeout this year. Mike Dufek struck out once in every 3.8 at bats, Most players average about 4 at-bats per game for a reference. That's killer for an offense when the clean-up hitter strikes out that much. He wasn't alone, however, as Toth and Oaks were nearly as bad with a strikeout every 5 at bats. Michigan finished second in the conference in team strikeouts, one behind Minnesota. The problem was that Michigan only bat .294 while the Gophers hit .314. That was the difference between a 7th place finish and a 2nd place finish.
On the whole, an outsider looking at our team would have seen one great pitcher, and depending on the weekend, either a couple of average pitchers or several really bad pitchers. On offense, they'd seen a bunch of walk on players, some better than others, and a rotating cast of fill ins.
In the next installment of the previews, I'll examine how our depth has adjusted in the last year after getting a full recruiting class, some players healthy, and some more experience.
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.