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What Happened In 2018?

Posted on February 6, 2019, in Baseball by Karl Hess.

For most followers of the Virginia baseball program, the 2018 season was the only down season they've known. The Hoos finished the campaign 12-18 in ACC play and 29-25 overall. It was the first season in Brian O'Connor's fifteen year tenure at UVA that the Hoos did not reach the postseason. It was a disappointing outcome for all and we've never really examined why it happened. There was no single point of failure that resulted in a frustrating 2018 season. Rather, it was a confluence of several factors that prevented the Hoos from reaching their goals. They steadily built upon one another until the goal of a postseason run was lost. In no particular order...

One Run Losses

Last season the Hoos suffered ten losses by one run. One of those was against a nonconference opponent, one was in the ACC Tournament, and eight were in regular season ACC play. Three of them were in extra innings. Coincidentally, they were all by the same score too. In those losses, UVA averaged 3.4 runs per game. 

OpponentScore
Eastern Kentucky6-7
Duke2-3 (11 innings)
Miami2-3 (11 innings)
Miami0-1
Virginia Tech4-5
Louisville4-5
Clemson2-3
Clemson4-5
Clemson8-9
Florida State (ACC Tournament)2-3 (11 innings)

Long Term Injuries

UVA played most of the season without five impact players available. Two were expected to carry a heavy load offensively and were All-ACC level performers.

On the eve of the season opener, it was announced that Cameron Simmons would miss the entire season with an injury to his left shoulder. Simmons was coming off a sophomore campaign where he was second team All-ACC. His .352 batting average was second best on the team and fourth best in the ACC. In ACC play, his batting average increased to .374 which led the team and was third best in the conference. During his sophomore season, Simmons collected 14 doubles, hit 9 homers, and scored 57 runs. Despite missing his entire junior season, Simmons was still selected in the 2018 MLB Draft by the Texas Rangers in the 15th round.

Also in the outfield, starting center fielder Jake McCarthy suffered a wrist injury early in the season against Davidson when he collided with right fielder Alex Tappen late in the Hoos' 12 to 1 win over the Wildcats. McCarthy would go on to miss two months of game action, playing in 20 of UVA's 54 games during the 2018 season. Despite the significant time out of action, he would lead UVA in stolen bases and attempts going 9 for 9. It's easy to see why expectations were high for a healthy McCarthy. During his sophomore season of 2017, McCarthy led UVA and the ACC in triples with seven. That was good for seventh nationally. He also led UVA and the ACC with 27 stolen bases, in 29 attempts. That was good for ninth nationally. And he tied for second on the team with 80 total hits. The professionals also recognized McCarthy's talents as he was drafted 39th overall in the 2018 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks despite his abbreviated season.

On the mound, the Hoos were missing three arms that were expected to provide big time contributions.

Late in his freshman year, it looked like a sophomore Noah Murdock would be the ace of the Cavaliers' pitching staff in 2018. He left a late season start against Miami at Davenport Field, however, during the 2017 season. Murdock required Tommy John surgery and most assumed he would be lost for all of the 2018 season as well. It's easy to see why a healthy Murdock would have contributed mightily in 2018. Earning 2017 All-ACC Freshman team honors, batters hit only .219 against him in 11 appearances (7 starts). He also had a 19.1 consecutive scoreless innings streak during his freshman campaign in starts against Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Notre Dame. In 2018, Murdock was limited to only 13.1 innings in 5 appearances (4 starts). He did manage to strike out 13 in those 5 appearances, however. 

Starting pitcher Evan Sperling missed a good deal of 2018 as well. Sperling won the Sunday starter job as a junior and made five starts before going down with an injury that was often described as forearm stiffness. He looked dominant at times and seemed to have control of his command issues that previously plagued him on the mound. Prior to his injury, Sperling had pitched 26.2 innings while giving up only 12 walks against 40 strikeouts. He was able to come back at the end of the season for a couple relief cameos against Richmond and Wake Forest. He pitched 3.0 innings in those appearances. And while he only gave up 1 walk against 3 strikeouts, he was a bit rusty as expected.

Finally, senior Chesdin Harrington missed the entire season with an undisclosed elbow injury. At minimum, the Hoos were expecting Harrington to be a leader in the bullpen, eating major innings as a middle reliever similar to Alec Bettinger in 2017. There was also a chance he could have challenged for the closer role as well. But Harrington developed elbow soreness during the preseason and never took the mound in 2018. During the 2017 season, Harrington made 18 appearances for the Hoos (16 relief, 2 starts). He compiled a 2.41 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 37.1 innings pitched. He also struck out 38 against only 12 walks. It's easy to see why the Hoos were counting on him to be a major player in 2018. The good news is that the 2019 team will get the services of a healthy Harrington.

MLB Draft Defections

If you follow UVA baseball closely, you'll recognize the names Joey Wentz, Nolan Jones, and Max Kranick. All three were members of UVA's 2016 recruiting class along with players like Noah Murdock, Cayman Richardson, and Jalen Harrison. 

For those that don't obsess about the team enough to get into the weeds of recruiting, a little background.

Wentz was a tall, left handed pitcher from Kansas. He exploded as a prospect during his senior year of high school in which he went 9-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 112 strikeouts. He did not allow a hit during his first four starts as a senior. At 6-5, the Hoos could not hide Wentz from the prying eyes of MLB scouts. He ended up being selected 40th overall in the 2016 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves where he signed in exchange for a $3.05 million bonus (slot bonus for the 40th pick in 2016 was $1.6 million). MLB ranked Wentz the 11th best prospect in the Braves farm system in 2018.  He's received a non-roster invite to participate in spring training with the Braves in 2019.

Jones was always thought to be a bit of a MLB flight risk. Out of Pennsylvania, Jones was a 6-4 shortstop that batted left handed and threw right handed. At UVA, he profiled at 3B and may have started from day one had he made it to Grounds. Instead, the Cleveland Indians drafted Jones 55th overall in the 2016 MLB Draft. In pre-draft rankings, MLB.com rated Jones as the 20th best prospect available in the draft. It's easy to see why as all Jones did as a high school senior was hit .636 in 72 plate appearances over 19 games. He had 5 homers, 5 doubles, 2 triples, 24 RBIs, 26 runs, 17 steals in 17 attempts, 24 walks, and only 3 strikeouts. The Indians were able to sign Jones for a bonus of $2.25 million. Slot value for Jones' pick was $1,159,200. In 2018, MLB.com ranked Jones as the second best prospect in the Indians organization where he does play third.

Max Kranick, a 6-3 right handed pitcher out of Pennsylvania, was assumed to be coming to UVA. That was until he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 11th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. That he went in the 11th round did not necessarily raise any immediate red flags. But the fact that it was the Pirates that drafted Kranick, his "hometown" team, that raised a few eyebrows. Kranick was from Jessup, PA which is about 300 miles away from Pittsburgh. The Pirates were able to sign him to a bonus of only $300,000. Picks in the 11th round onward don't have slot values for signing bonuses, but anything over $100,000 must come out of a team's total bonus pool. Savings from other signings can be used to offset amounts above $100K and that's what happened here. The allure to playing for the Pirates was too much to overcome and off Kranick went. In 2018, Kranick was outside of the Pirates top 30 prospects according to MLB.com. He finished the 2018 season with the West Virginia Power in A ball.

Wentz and Kranick would have been nice additions to a UVA pitching staff that was pretty good in 2018. They could have elevated it to elite status. Jones, on the other hand, would have been a much needed bat in the middle of the lineup. His absence was the most glaring even if he was the least likely of the three to ever enroll.

Anemic Offense

All of the above flow down into this: the offense wasn't good enough to achieve the team's goals in 2018. The Hoos didn't do much of anything good enough last season on offense to win at the level that's expected for the program. Consider how the 2018 offense compared to 2017 (a regional round exit), 2015 (national title), and 2014 (national runner up).

The format for each year is raw stat (Division 1 rank). In 2018, there were 297 teams playing Division 1 baseball. In 2017, there were 295 teams playing Division 1 baseball. In 2015, there were 295 teams playing Division 1 baseball. In 2014, there were 296 teams playing Division 1 baseball.

Stats and rankings courtesy of Stats.Ncaa.org.

Stat2018201720152014
Batting Average.270 (140).321 (5).271 (160).280 (80)
Walks220 (138)255 (63)259 (36)294 (4)
On Base Percentage.363 (133).405 (11).357 (149).375 (41)
Home Runs27 (205)44 (61)35 (98)33 (48)
Home Runs Per Game.50 (214)1.03 (49).51 (150).48 (83)
Runs302 (155)459 (14)357 (57)378 (24)
Runs Per Game5.6 (149)7.8 (10)5.3 (160)5.5 (93)
Slugging Percentage.378 (191).478 (17).371 (183).377 (101)

To keep the stats in context, it should be noted that following the 2014 season, the NCAA introduced a flat seam baseball in order to increase offense in response to the introduction of the BBCOR bat in 2011. The BBCOR bat, which acts more like a wooden bat, was introduced in college baseball largely for safety reasons in order to decrease the exit velocity of a batted ball. The BBCOR bats also helped to offset the "Gorilla Ball" era of college baseball where final scores often resembled football scores because bat manufacturers had introduced more rare and exotic composite metals into their bats used by college teams.

The 2017 team had an exceptional offense led by Pavin Smith and Adam Haseley. And while the 2015 Hoos more closely resembled the 2018 Hoos in a few categories, the 2015 squad still did a few things really well. And that was a team that still got into the NCAA Tournament by the skin of their teeth as a 3 seed at large entry.

2019???

With the departures of pitchers Derek Casey, Daniel Lynch, and Bennett Sousa, the offense will need to take a large step forward in 2018 while the pitching staff finds its feet. It will be a tall task but the return of Simmons will help a great deal, especially if sophomores Tanner Morris and Alex Tappen build on exceptional summer performances. Still, a few other batters will need to emerge as consistent threats. All-ACC performer Andy Weber is the biggest loss on offense from last year besides McCarthy. And 2018 signee Mike Siani, who would have challenged for the starting job in center field, took the money from the Cincinnati Reds after being selected in the 4th round of the 2018 MLB Draft. Expect this team to look much better in May than they will in February.

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