Conference play kicks off this weekend when Duke visits Charlottesville for the ACC opener. Before we jump into that series preview, I wanted to take a look at the team's performance and fortunes to date. Fresh off of a two game mid-week sweep of Wagner, the Hoos will enter ACC play with a 7-5 record. Since losing all three games in Arizona to start the season, UVA has gone 7-2 and has one cancelled game against Seton Hall.
My mantra for the team this year is Better In May Than February. The only goal is to make it back to postseason player after a one year absence. Anything and everything on top of that is a bonus.
Going position by position among the batters, here's how I see things. Next week we'll take a look at the pitching staff.
Senior Cameron Comer and junior JUCO transfer Logan Michaels look to be the preferred options behind the plate. Comer, a lefty, and Michaels, a righty, give the Hoos a viable option at catcher no matter who starts at pitcher for the opposition. Freshman Drew Hamrock is getting spot action at the end of some lopsided games.
I'd still like to see Brendan Rivoli, more on him later, get an opportunity at catcher too. However, he appears to be the odd man out for now.
Michaels (.588/.682/.588) and Comer (.263/.516/.368) are one and two on the team in OBP. Comer also leads the team with 11 walks. The power numbers aren't there but neither player looks to be hurting the team at the plate either. Each have thrown out multiple would be base stealers as well.
I'd give the UVA backstops a solid B to date.
Nate Eikhoff is the option at first base this season. Expectations were not high coming into the season. As a rising senior, fans knew what you were going to get with Eikhoff. At first base, you ideally want much more than Eikhoff delivers but not everyone is going to be Pavin Smith or Joe Koshansky.
With a .250/.353/.318 slash line (batting average / on base percentage / slugging percentage), I'm not sure those modest expectations are being met yet. If there was an immediate heir apparent on the roster, I'd probably lobby for them to start getting on the job training. Perhaps the next Wahoo first baseman is to be found in the 2019 recruiting class.
Eikhoff currently has more strikeouts (8) than walks (6) and leads the team in grounding into double plays (3). He is, however, also third on the team in RBI (10).
Maybe I'm being too hard on Nate here, but my grade is C-.
The Nic Kent / Jack Dragum platoon seems to be decided with Kent the apparent victor. Kent has played in 11 of 12 games with 8 starts while Dragum has played in 6 of 12 with 4 starts. Both have provided fielding percentages of 1.000 so everything is good there. And both, at times, have had issues with the turn on double play attempts.
Kent gets the nod over Dragum as the regular at second because his slash line of .267/.395/.300 is superior to Dragum's of .100/.250/.100. On occasion, each has looked a bit over matched against college pitching but Kent, to his credit, appears to be adjusting quicker.
Kent is also a plus runner and has shown a talent for bunting to date.
I'd like to see Kent get on base more often to take advantage of his speed. He has more strikeouts (8) than walks (4) but is also tied for the team lead in HBP (3).
Kent also appears to be the primary backup at short.
Maybe I'm a hard grader but C- seems to be fair on results produced to date. I see a good deal of room for improvement as the season progresses, however.
The good news is that Tanner Morris is following up his breakth5ough campaign in this past summer's Cape Cod League with an All-ACC caliber start to the season. The bad news is that Morris will be the rare draft eligible sophomore this year. Of course, that gives Morris an extra season of draft leverage that most college baseball players don't get. So he'd have to really like the draft situation and signing bonus dollars to depart Charlottesville after this year.
Morris leads the team in homers (3), is tied for second in doubles (4), and tied for the team lead in RBI (14). He has a ridiculous .409/.509/.705 slash line and has more walks (9 - third on the team) than strikeouts (5).
One national college baseball podcast (11Point7) called him the best hitter in the ACC this week. That's high praise, and I'm not sure I'd go that far yet, but it is indicative to the type of season Morris is having to date.
In the field, Morris has committed two errors and sports a .949 fielding percentage. To put that in perspective a bit, the 2018 MLB leader at shortstop was Didi Gregorius at .987. Much like Danny Pinero, the long frame of Morris allows his to get to a lot of balls too. If I was going to be super picky, I'd suggest that I'd like Morris to have a better arm for all of those balls he gets to in the hole.
Morris gets an A to date.
As we predicted here at HOOS Place, freshman Zack Gelof took the job at third and doesn't look to relinquish it as long as he's wearing the orange and blue. He's cooled off a bit since the season opener vs Vanderbilt (4-5, 2 runs, 4 RBI, 3 doubles) but anyone would be hard pressed to maintain that pace. He still sports a more than respectable slash line .319/.424/.426.
Gelof has manned the leadoff spot for the Hoos all season. While not a traditional leadoff man, Gelof fits the profile of the type the Hoos often deploy in that spot. Aggressive at the plate and on the base paths, Gelof's stat line exemplifies this description.
Gelof is tied with Tanner Morris for the team lead in RBI with 14. He also leads the team in stolen bases (5) and attempts (6). And fitting for an aggressive freshman, he also leads the team in strikeouts (12). Not to be cast as reckless, however, Gelof is also second on the team in walks (10).
The only thing missing from Gelof's game at the plate to date is power. He has the frame that hints that it's only a matter of time before he adds that to the repertoire as well.
Gelof needs the most work in the field. He leads the team in errors (3) and has the lowest fielding percentage (.875). But he's also a freshman manning the hot corner. Veteran players across the country also have their hands full handling the action at third.
Gelof gets a solid B+ to date. A little more power and solidifying the defense is all that holds him back from an A
After a successful freshman season, Alex Tappen set a the record for doubles in the Ripken Summer League this past summer. Expectations were sky high coming into 2019. Most optimistic projections for Virginia baseball in 2019 assumed a big sophomore campaign from Tappen.
To say that things have not gone as planned would be charitable. Tappen's slash line to date is .186/.294/.279. He has only 1 homer and 1 double. Ordinarily, those numbers would profile a deep bench player not a potential star.
Tappen's struggles have been as confusing as they are surprising. He's slowly dropped in the batting order, now typically occupying the seven or eight hole. He's been given a day off with the hope that a break would be what the doctor ordered. But is it working?
The answer to that is possibly. In the two game series against Wagner, Tappen batted 3 for 9 (.333) and drove in 5 of his 7 runs this season. The competition was poor but it may be the jumpstart needed to get one of UVA's most important bats on track.
It's difficult to give Tappen more than a D to date. His last two games against Wagner and competent play in right improved that grade considerably.
Cameron Simmons' exploits as a freshman and sophomore are well established. And even though he missed all of the 2018 season with a shoulder injury, it was expected by many that 2017 All-ACC second team Simmons would be the player taking the field to begin 2019.
After an 0-5 debut against Vanderbilt, it was clear that a year away from the baseball field was a difference maker for Simmons and that he would need time, possibly a considerable amount, to regain his prior form.
To date, Simmons is another UVA outfielder struggling at the plate, .217/.308/.370. Simmons, however, is second on the team with 2 homers. Both were crushed and left no doubt that Simmons would be circling the bases at his own pace.
On defense, Simmons has played mostly well as he moves from right to center. The exception was the first batter for Wagner in UVA's 18-9 win when Simmons dropped an easy fly ball that was a harbinger of things to come in the top of the first. Wagner scored 2 unearned runs that inning and chased freshman starter Zach Messinger from the game before he could record three outs. It was one of two errors on the season for Simmons who sports a .931 fielding percentage of the year.
Simmons personifies the Better In May Than February theme. Because of his circumstances, Simmons gets a generous incomplete grade for now.
It's no surprise that sophomore Brendan Rivoli has played an important role on this team. What is surprising is that it's come as the team's primary left fielder. Expectations were that Rivoli would split time between DH and catcher. And while Rivoli has seen plenty of time as the Hoos' DH, he's yet to catch a single pitch to date.
When Rivoli has pulled DH duty, junior Cayman Richardson and freshman Drew Hamrock have taken his place in the outfield. Richardson (.227/.227/.227) has been a bit of a disappointment despite modest expectations. But he has shown a knack for sacrifices, sharing the team lead of four with Nic Kent.
Freshman catcher/infielder Drew Hamrock has received some late game action as catcher to date. But most of his playing him has come in left or as a pinch hitter. Hamrock doesn't have the size to be a full time catcher at the D1 level yet but he's a good enough athlete to contribute elsewhere. Hamrock (.250/.429/.375) does have 7 runs scored, 2 doubles, and is 2 for 2 stealing bases.
Rivoli (.391/.434/.478) is a favorite of HOOS Place because of his compact left handed swing and how the ball noticeably pops off of his bat. We thought he could be a breakout player this year. Early returns are exceedingly positive. With a 1.000 fielding percentage, he's done a credible job in left.
He's also tied with Tanner Morris for the team lead in hits (18) and tied with Morris for second in doubles (4). Rivoli's 9 RBI also places him fourth on the team. The only thing missing so far is the power game. Rivoli will probably never be a slugger but he showed last year that he possesses the power to leave the yard at Davenport Field. With a little warmer weather, it's still expected that Rivoli will clear the fence multiple times this year.
Grades for this group are as follows: Rivoli - B+, Hamrock - C, Richardson - C-
The Hoos have not made extensive use of their bench this season. Players like Jack Dragum, Cayman Richardson, and Drew Hamrock have been covered above. That leaves Devin Ortiz and Jack Weiller for further consideration.
Ortiz was a highly touted recruit and arrived with outsized expectations last year. Not surprisingly, he was unable to live up to the hype. Nevertheless, he still came into 2019 with much of those expectations intact. Ortiz has only played in 4 of 12 games though including 2 starts. Despite only 9 at bats, Ortiz (.333/.400/.667) has scored 4 runs and blasted one homer.
Ortiz also came in to pitch against Wagner Wednesday. He pitched the final 1.1 innings giving up no hits, no runs, and no walks. Ortiz looked confident and crisp on the mound.
Weiller (.600/.429/.600) only has 5 at bats on the season but he's made the most of them. He's collected 3 hits, scored 1 run, had 2 sac flies, and driven in 3 runs.
Both players probably deserve more playing time but at whose expense?
Weiller could be a replacement at first if Eikhoff continues to struggle. His pop and reliability as a left handed bat off the bench probably guarantee his place as a pinch hitting specialist, however. Weiller is a great tool to have in the toolbox and Coach O'Connor will almost certainly keep him in reserve for late game situations.
Ortiz is versatile enough to pitch and play all over the field. He's also started in right for Alex Tappen this year. The sample size is small but it does suggest that Ortiz is probably due more opportunities going forward. As a sophomore, he also possesses future upside unlike a senior like Weiller.
The other main bench players were graded elsewhere so only Weiller and Ortiz will get grades here. The sample size is really small for both. Because of that, I give them each a B until we can evaluate further.
Kent / Dragum: C-