For fans of college baseball, it's finally game week! And as UVA embarks on the 2020 season, there is just one goal for this season - postseason baseball. Everything is secondary to the pursuit of returning to postseason play for the first time since 2017.
So, what's it going to take to achieve that singular goal? Betting pitching and hitting, obviously. But, where exactly, must those improvements come?
Ball 1, Ball 2, Ball 3, Ball 4 - Walks
Coach O'Connor identified walks as the number one reason the Hoos did not live up to expectations in 2019. For any fan that watched UVA last year, it was difficult to disagree with that premise. Any improvement will make a difference in outcomes. And it's been a focus of the offseason.
But how bad were the walks in 2019? Really, really bad.
Of 297 Division 1 teams in 2019, UVA ranked 229 in Walks Per 9 Innings. They ranked 247 in the raw number of walks.
|Stat||Walks Per 9 (D1 Rank)||Total Walks (D1 Rank)|
|Virginia||4.95 (229)||273 (247)|
The Walks Per 9 Innings were second worst in the ACC. Only Boston College was worse at 5.19 Walks Per 9 Innings.
The total talks ranked 11th in the ACC. Wake (275), Duke (284), and Boston College (297) all allowed more total walks than the Hoos.
What did the walk numbers look like for UVA in 2014-2018? The 2014-2017 runs captures UVA's last postseason appearance, the defense of their College World Series title, the 2015 CWS national championship, and the 2014 national runner up which was the best team in the country by all accounts. The 2018 season is the first season under Brian O'Connor that UVA did not participate in the postseason.
|Year||Walks Per 9 (D1 Rank)||Total Walks (D1 Rank)|
|2014||2.88 (36)||200 (168)|
|2015||4.13 (197)||277 (287)|
|2016||3.63 (104)||217 (164)|
|2017||4.03 (153)||234 (201)|
|2018||3.79 (98)||205 (96)|
It's important to note that the NCAA introduced a flat seam baseball in the 2015 season with the goal of bringing more offensive balance to the game after offensive stats decreased with the introduction of BBCOR bats in 2011.
The raw number of walks is interesting but since teams do not play the same number of innings, the raw totals can be misleading. Thus, the more important figure is Walks Per 9 Innings as it controls for the number of innings a team played.
The Walks Per 9 Innings in 2019 stick out like a sore thumb, both in number and rank. The 2015 team certainly struggled due to a combination of well documented injury issues and being the first to use the new baseballs. But even it did not approach the levels seen in 2019. Plus, they got their act together and won it all. So, yeah.
But what happened in 2019 is not sustainable going forward if the Hoos are to return to their winning ways. And it's one of the reasons why fans were growing restless with Coach Kuhn's approach prior to his departure to Radford. New Pitching Coach Drew Dickinson can earn substantial goodwill should he show improvement here. And it would be difficult not to.
But that improvement is imperative. We know the UVA defense will be solid or better. If we see more of the same from the pitching staff in 2020, however, it's going to be difficult for the team to reach its goals.
More Explosive Offense
With UVA teams, it seems that it always comes back to the offense. With the baseball team, that's going to be no different in 2020.
Quite simply, the Hoos have to find easier ways to score runs. That doesn't mean SEC-style gorilla ball. That's never going to fly in Charlottesville. The ballpark dimensions make it prohibitive. And the preferred athletic profile of UVA baseball recruits doesn't lend itself to that type of mashing.
A great deal of attention was paid to UVA's team batting average in 2019. The Hoos finished at .292 for the season which tied for second in the ACC with Louisville. And that .292 average was thirty-second nationally. But batting average isn't a particularly good way to measure an offense's effectiveness in baseball. You can go 2 for 4 every day, hitting .500, and still not accomplish much of anything if all you're doing is hitting singles with no one on base.
Instead, let's take a closer look at runs / runs per game, doubles / doubles per game, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. We'll get a more accurate look at UVA's offense.
|Stat||Raw Number||D1 Rank|
|Runs Per Game||6.4||76|
|Doubles Per Game||1.89||68|
|On Base Percentage||.376||76|
That paints the picture of a more average to mediocre offense than you would assume had you just relied on the batting average press clippings.
This UVA offense will not have Tanner Morris and Cameron Simmons. They're both playing professionally now. Morris was the best hitter for UVA last year. And Simmons, who missed the entire 2018 season with a shoulder injury, did earn Second Team All-ACC honors in 2017. But it was clear that Simmons was not all the way back during the 2019 season.
So why might there be optimism for a more explosive offense in 2020?
First, three of UVA's four best hitters from last season return in Brendan Rivoli, Nic Kent, and Zack Gelof. If you can expect natural growth from the trio then the lineup will start from a good place. Each player also has pretty significant breakout potential this year too.
Next, you have Devin Ortiz. Judging from his scorching performances over the summer and fall, Ortiz has broken out. It's now time for that to be on display in games that count. In his media appearance on February 12, Coach O'Connor was pointing to Ortiz to be an offensive leader on the team.
In 2019, Ortiz only had 19 at bats. Based on everything we've all heard; his bat must be in the lineup at all times this year. And if those 19 at bats in 2019 increase to something like 200 in 2020, an entirely reasonable expectation, then excellent offensive production should follow.
Next, the team has added several players who have the potential to have nice seasons at the plate. Based on either recruiting hype / high school production, or production at the JUCO level, the additions of Chris Newell, Tate Ballestero, Max Cotier, Marc Lebreux, and Walker Jenkins can have a positive impact on the offense's production.
This collection of players also fits the athletic profile of the type of player that thrives in Disharoon Park's spacious confines. They can all run. They can all drive the ball in those large outfield gaps. It feels like the coaching staff was very intentional in assembling this sort of roster.
The last piece of the puzzle is Alex Tappen. Tappen impressed as a freshman in 2018. Then he broke the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League record for doubles in a season that summer. However, he was never able to put things together in 2019. Mired in a season long slump, Tappen then suffered an injury that shut down his season just when he began to show a sign of improvement. The Hoos will need Tappen to rebound if they're to reach their offensive peak in 2020.
Finally, I've heard through the grapevine that certain players have more of a green light to hit for power this season in advantageous counts. Between this and the roster makeup, it feels like the staff knows they need to be more potent on offensive. The high batting average is great, but again, if all we're doing is hitting singles then it's not doing much to win games.
The potential is there for this team to have a meaningful season. But there are still enough questions on the board that you cannot guarantee we'll see postseason baseball in 2020. Those questions, in large part due to all the roster additions, are what makes the 2020 season so compelling. To me, it feels like the staff went about building a roster that they expect can compete and win at a high level. It's my expectation too.
I wouldn't make reservations for Omaha. But I can see this team hosting a regional with a few breaks. For this season to be a success, the minimum expectation must be postseason play.