In the decade plus that Brian O'Connor has led the UVA baseball program, coaching staff continuity has been a celebrated feature in Charlottesville. When other programs were turning over head coaches or assistants with regularity, you knew what to expect at UVA: O'Connor, McMullan, and Kuhn.
Little did Wahoo fans know that a sea change was imminent when Joe Raccuia resigned as Radford's head baseball coach on August 15, 2019. The August resignation was very late in the college baseball offseason coaching circus. The musical chairs essentially had come to a rest.
Then, a week later on August 22, the Highlanders announced the hiring of UVA pitching coach Karl Kuhn as their new head man.
For the first time since Brian O'Connor replaced Dennis Womack and hired an initial staff, the Hoos had an assistant coach vacancy to fill.
Enter Drew Dickinson from the University of Illinois. Dickinson, whose hire was announced by UVA on September 13, arrived as the Illini's former pitching coach. Dickinson held that position in Champaign the prior eight seasons.
There are tons of biographic stories and press releases easily accessible out there via a Google search. But what should UVA fans expect philosophically from Coach Dickinson? What strategies and tactics will guide the pitching staff here?
I spent time digging to attempt to answer those questions. I read stories, watched videos, listened to podcasts, and picked up a nugget or two here and there. Here's what I determined or was able to wildly speculate about.
The first thing that I noticed is that Dickinson's personality is quite engaging. It wouldn't be surprising to learn that he builds a nurturing relationship with his players. He seems to have built lasting bonds with many of his former players at Illinois. That's not go say that he's a pushover, however. He's intense and highly competitive too. But you likely won't see that manifest itself in the same way UVA fans were accustomed to with Coach Kuhn.
Dickinson's personality and ability to connect will likely pay dividends on the recruiting trail.
Baseball recruiting is such that most of the immediate future classes are already full or nearing completion. While he'll work to maintain or round out those next few classes, we likely won't see the impact of the hire on recruiting until the 2023 classes and beyond.
But once the transition from Kuhn to Dickinson begins to take hold in recruiting, what should we expect from the new regime?
First, get used to the term "dudes". Dickinson only wants "dudes" to sign with the program.
So, what's a dude? It's a fair question. My interpretation is that a dude is a pitcher that loves to compete and has no fear when he's on the bump. We're going to try to maximize the number of those in the program and certainly look to avoid JAGs (Just Another Guy).
The term projectability is something that won't be going away. It's not going to mean a particular body type, necessarily, any longer (Noah Murdock or Zach Messinger types). But what Dickinson will be searching for is projectability in arm action when a prospect is pitching. Dickinson believes that he can spot it after watching only a few pitches. He's talking about a loose and fluid arm action. If you're on the mound popping 95 MPH but your arm is stiff and rigid, expect Dickinson to move on to the next prospect.
Your competitiveness is going to be another big factor that determines if UVA is going to recruit you to pitch for the program or not. Dickinson has relayed his philosophy regarding the number one question he asks a prospective recruit. He'll ask the player what they want to do after college baseball. The answer had better be "pitch professionally". Whether your inherent talent level makes that an option or not, coach doesn't want you on the staff if you don't have the belief or drive to reach for that goal. He figures if you aren't competitive enough to strive to play professionally, then you likely don't have what it takes inside to pitch at a high level in college baseball.
Just because we aren't going to specifically target a particular body type, it doesn't mean we should expect Dickinson to deemphasize athleticism in the pursuit of future Wahoos. On the contrary, it will still be an important discriminating factor. All pitchers, current and potential, will be expected to be able to field their position at minimum.
Mechanics, Usage, and Pitches
With a new pitching coach on the staff, there are bound to be changes to mechanics, pitch types, and so forth. It's the nature of the beast.
One thing that began to bother UVA fans during the end stages of Kuhn's tenure looks to be in for a change. And another that bothered both some UVA fans and certainly parts of the national baseball media is in for a change as well.
We'll start with the latter. The UVA crouch is expected to be no more. It's not something Dickinson utilized while at Illinois. And word is that Coach O'Connor was going to move away from the crouch even if Coach Kuhn was still the pitching coach.
Coach Dickinson is a believer in allowing a pitcher to keep his natural windup and delivery as long as it's fundamentally sound and not an injury risk. On the injury front, don't expect the Hoos suddenly to become one of those programs that put a pitcher at extreme risk by constantly overtaxing their arms. UVA will still be a program that focuses on the long term health and viability of a pitcher beyond all other things.
I don't have enough insight into the program to know if this is a change or status quo. But weekly throwing programs for pitchers will be adjusted on a continual basis to account for their recent workload. It seems like a common sense approach so I'd be surprised if that was a departure. But I could tell that the health of his players was something that Dickinson was a big proponent of and this is just another demonstration of that belief.
Taking that a bit further, Coach Dickinson does not believe in putting unnecessary mileage on a pitcher's arm in the bullpen. If a pitcher gets up to get loose, Hoo fans can reasonably expect that pitcher to be used in the game and soon. The final game of the 2019 season left a sour taste in the mouth of many as Devin Ortiz was left to flounder in the bullpen inning after inning before entering the ACC Tournament finale against North Carolina in extra innings. By that point, Oritz was likely gassed after having warmed up for what felt like half the game. The results were then entirely predictable. We can still expect to see some players doing their side work in the pen during games on occasion but that would be part of their regularly scheduled throwing program.
Turning to the other change to watch, I'd expect to see UVA's slider heavy approach to pitching to become much more balanced. The slider will not be shown the door. That would be crazy. But expect the change up to become a featured pitch in the repertoire of every Wahoo pitcher. There's a very real chance that the changeup will become every pitcher's secondary pitch at some point in their career at UVA. Coach Dickinson believes in the pitch that much.
Dickinson was a two-time All American as a pitcher at Illinois. He accomplished that despite the fact that he walked on at Illinois after a post high school graduation try out as an outfielder. After becoming a pitcher at Illinois, Dickinson made his name via the ability to change speed and location at will. He was able to master that because of an unmatched change up.
We can expect all of our pitchers to develop a change up as part of their skillset. There are numerous change up grips available to a pitcher and Dickinson is ambivalent to which his pitchers use. The key will be the individual pitcher's comfort with a particular grip. They'll then go about perfecting the pitch.
I'm not giving away the farm here because Coach Dickinson has discussed these elements with the media over the years. And word gets around about what coaches and programs like to do.
As mentioned in the prior section, the change up will be used liberally by Wahoo pitchers. Dickinson believes in it so much that he'll call it in an obvious fastball count. Keeping a batter off balance is the name of the game for a pitcher and an effective change up in a fastball count will do just that.
Like we saw under Coach Kuhn, there will still be an emphasis on holding runners at first. Dickinson is a huge believer that keeping the runner at first saves runs. But holding the runner will not be a means to bring the game to a crawl. Those days are over unless, of course, Coach O'Connor has other ideas.
Dickinson is also no stranger to the changing approaches from hitters in the modern game. In a podcast, he specifically addressed the launch angle craze. He believes the best way to challenge hitters seeking additional loft on batted balls is with high heat. It's also the most common counter in MLB as high fastballs often cause swings and misses or harmless pop ups.
A Drew Dickinson bullpen may be something that Wahoo fans will have to get used to.
He's a proponent of a strong bullpen. Dickinson will seek to build a quality pen with well defined roles. But then that's where things begin to get interesting. Think Milwaukee Brewers in the 2018 MLB playoffs.
Over the course of his tenure at UVA, we're going to see pitchers that we swear should be starters operating out of the bullpen. It's a direct result of the importance that Dickinson places on a bullpen. At Illinois, for example, Tyler Jay was easily the Illini's best pitcher from 2013 to 2015. Instead of anchoring the weekend rotation, Jay functioned as the team's closer. You can absolutely expect an Andrew Abbott to continue to be a relief pitcher for the Hoos. It wouldn't surprise to see Chesdin Harrington, UVA's top starter at the conclusion of the 2019 season, in the bullpen as well.
If our best pitcher is in the pen, you can expect that his throwing program will be modified throughout the season so that he'll be stretched out for crunch time. In this scenario, we can absolutely expect to see the top reliever start, or make an extended relief appearance, in a huge regular season or postseason elimination game.
Some may not realize it but the pitching coach has tremendous influence over who gets work at catcher. Earn his trust and see the field. Leave the pitching coach wanting more and it may be advisable to find a new position.
With Dickinson's arrival, the catchers in Charlottesville get a blank slate to work with. And that means Logan Michaels will not have to pull an iron man act. He was afforded some relief from Cam Comer last year but otherwise was a workhorse behind the plate. Brendan Rivoli and first year Tate Ballestero look to benefit the most but even Drew Hamrock may get a little work here or there as well.
I think this is likely an O'Connor change, but the UVA catchers will almost certainly wear the radio ear piece going forward.
But back to Dickinson and how he'll work with the catchers. Expect a good deal of empowerment for the UVA backstops, if they earn it. Dickinson believes that if the catcher is willing to make the effort to master the scouting reports then he should be rewarded in kind. That reward will be the autonomy to call a good deal of the action from behind the plate. Dickinson will reserve the right to call things in crucial moments or big games. But if the way things worked at Illinois are a guide, then the UVA catchers will have the chance to earn an opportunity not often found in college baseball.
The First Year Challenge
While it would be great, don't expect any miracles this first year. Thankfully, the Hoos have a stable of high quality arms to work with. It's not like Dickinson arrived in a situation devoid of talent. But the timing of the coaching change was poor in that it is very unusual for a change like this to happen in August. Ideally, Radford would have made a move and hired Coach Kuhn in late June or early July. The Hoos could have hired Coach Dickinson in turn and he'd have half the summer to learn his roster and evaluate their abilities.
Instead, that window of opportunity was highly compressed before the start of fall baseball. Coach Dickinson and the pitchers had to play catch up this fall and winter. This might have caused some delays in implementing things we'll see beginning in 2021. Or the players and Coach Dickinson will have had to work even harder than they normally do to get up to speed in time to be fully prepared when the season kicks off on February 14 in Pensacola, Florida.
Regardless of how year one turns out, it's my belief that UVA baseball fans will come to enjoy having Coach Dickinson in the program. I think they'll find him a breath of fresh air for a program where many fans had come to feel things were getting stale with the pitching.
It's also my belief that Coach O'Connor may have hired a rising star in the profession. If you take the time to read media reports on the hire and Dickinson's time at Illinois, you'll notice nothing but glowing reports and routinely excellent results.