ACC play begins this weekend in baseball. The Hoos will host NC State in an enormous matchup to begin conference play. UVA will enter the series with a 10-3 record and six-game winning streak. The Wolfpack are 12-0 and ranked as high as 7th in college baseball polls.
Since we're at a pivotal moment in the season, let's take a look at what's going well and where there's work to do.
Friday and Saturday starters, Griff McGarry and Mike Vasil, are a decided strength. They're throwing more strikes, working faster, limiting their walks (still an issue with McGarry that will never truly go away, but his strikeout ability mitigates it as well), and not getting hit so far.
The back end of the bullpen with Andrew Abbott and Stephen Schoch is a decided strength. It may be the strength of the team. They've been largely unhittable. And they're tied for second on the team in strikeouts behind McGarry. UVA is going to ride this duo a ton this season.
The bats seem to be coming alive. And the lineup 1-9 feels more balanced and potent this year. Tanner Morris was a big loss from last year, but we've seen steady returners (Nic Kent, Logan Michaels), excellent growth (Zack Gelof), and a true impact first year (Chris Newell). Devin Ortiz isn't living up to his preseason hype (he does have a grand slam) but he's been on par to slightly better than anything in the lower end of our lineup last year. Same with JUCO transfer Marc Lebreux. And Brendan Rivoli was hitting well before he went down with an injury.
The team is hitting with more power this year. Could be a function of competition, could be a function of a change in approach, or could be a function of player development. But last season the Wahoos hit a total of 28 homers. UVA is up to 15 on the season already (Christian Hlinka - 4, Zack Gelof - 3, Chris Newell - 2, Jimmy Sullivan - 2, Max Cotier - 1, Nic Kent - 1, Devin Ortiz - 1, Logan Michaels - 1). Last year Tanner Morris and Brendan Rivoli tied with the team lead with 5. Christian Hlinka (a revelation in limited DH at bats to date) has 4 in just 24 at bats. Hlinka will be an interesting case to study because there's no scouting report on him (very limited play as a first year, missed the entire sophomore season due to injury). Teams will eventually get a read on him. How he adjusts will be an important factor moving forward.
The running game is a strength. Coach Mac is always aggressive here, but we have the players to really match the aggression this year. You can't fall asleep or play lazily with Chris Newell, Nic Kent, Max Cotier, Zack Gelof, Drew Hamrock, and Marc Lebreux on the bases. They will make you pay. Newell is 6 for 6 stealing bases. And the team is 21 for 25. Cotier has 3 triples, Gelof has 2, and Newell has 1. One of Gelof's homers is also an inside the park one. Rivoli and Sullivan are also legit threats to steal (both are 2 for 2 on the season).
Bunting has been improved this year. There's room to debate whether or not we should be bunting at all, or in some situations, but it's going to be a feature in our program. Hamrock and Lebreux are particularly good bunters. I think Newell and Cotier could be as well. I feel like Michaels has laid down a nice bunt or two to date too. Lebreux, Newell, and Cotier are legit threats to bunt for a hit. Hamrock is pretty fast so he may be as wellM but he's not going to get as many chances at the plate.
Work To Do
UVA's third weekend starter is unsettled. Chesdin Harrington was the best pitcher at the end of 2019. He'll never blow you away with his stuff, but he's the classic college guy that changes speed / location and lets his defense do their work. He turned down an outstanding job to come back this year to pitch as a grad student. He was the Saturday starter to start the season but was jumped by Mike Vasil quickly. This past weekend he was listed with an OR for Sunday and didn't get the nod. So, he's been passed by freshman phenom Nate Savino. Harrington hasn't missed many bats this year and his control isn't what it was last year currently. Savino has a cannon and great stuff. But he's super raw. He's on a very limited pitch count that's slowly increasing (looked to be 50 pitches Sunday against Dartmouth). He's still learning to pitch in college and he's behind because of his unique situation (early high school graduation and January enrollment). He also looks to be trying to strike out the side on every pitch still. He's going to get better, smarter, and increase his stamina on the mound. The coaches will slowly give him more responsibility throughout the season, but he's going to be treated with kid gloves.
The Wahoos have no OF depth. Going into the season, our OF roster was Chris Newell, Marc Lebreux, Brendan Rivoli, Alex Tappen, Evan Sleight, Jimmy Sullivan, and Drew Hamrock. Rivoli and Hamrock are converted catchers. Sleight is a true first year. Sullivan is a redshirt freshman. Tappen is coming off of injury and a down sophomore season. Lebreux is a JUCO transfer. And Newell is a true first year. So, there was a lot of projecting going on with the OF. And they've played admirably to date, especially at the plate. But now they're currently down to Newell, Lebreux, Sullivan, and Hamrock. I don't know the issue but, Sleight is injured / too banged up to play. And Tappen and Rivoli are injured. Both should be returning soon, but there's no definite date yet. They cannot afford another setback.
The middle of the bullpen is a work in progress. It's clear that Kyle Whitten is the top guy there. He's been up and a little down this year. Mostly up though. Beyond that we're still searching for defined roles and players to step up. We trust Zach Messinger for sure, but he's also a part time midweek starter. Does Harrington slide in as a reliever? Or does he ultimately grab the midweek starting role? I think that Blake Bales and Paul Kosanovich factor in towards the top of the middle relief totem pole. Neither have electric stuff but they mostly throw strikes. The coaches have leaned on each in a tough spot this year and so far, they've come through. Freshman Matt Wyatt is one Oak really likes but he's been inconsistent (and got the start against Richmond this week). Beyond that, it's anyone's guess and there's an entire cast of characters I could list. This is going to be a work in progress, hopefully coming together as the team gets deeper into the year.
The defense has struggled at times. It was much better over the weekend though as UVA only committed 1 error against Dartmouth. Prior to Dartmouth, the Hoos had committed 17 errors and had a .948 fielding percentage (250th in D1). After Dartmouth, they've committed 18 errors and have a .958 fielding percentage (214th in D1). Against Richmond, the defense committed another 2 errors. They now have a .957 fielding percentage (224th in D1). That needs to get a lot better. The OF issues (inexperience and having to play some backups), a new 2B in Max Cotier (3 errors), a new SS in Nick Kent (3 errors), and Zack Gelof (4 errors - it's not call the hot corner for nothing) are the main culprits. The OF should improve as Newell and Lebreux get more experience. Same with Jimmy Sullivan as long as he's filling in for injured starters. Cotier should improve as well with experience - he had one bad game with 2 of his 3 errors.
The walks seem to be taking two steps forward and one step back. Recall that last season the Hoos gave up 4.95 walks per 9 innings (229th in D1). This season, the Hoos have improved to 4.46 walks per 9 innings (166th in D1). It's an observation not based on statistical analysis, but other than Griff McGarry's walks from the starting role, it feels like a large number of the walks surrendered are coming from inexperienced pitchers getting their feet wet in blowouts. The exception to that is the second game of the doubleheader against Bucknell where UVA issued 9 free passes (Chesdin Harrington - 2, Kyle Whitten - 3, Jacob Baldino - 2, Evan Sperling - 1, Cristian Sanchez - 1, Billy Price - 0) in a 14 to 10 loss. As conference play begins and signals a jump in the quality of opponents on the weekend, it's going to be interesting to see how the walks play out. That's especially true as it's worth assuming that bullpen roles will begin to solidify, and the number of pitchers used shrinks.
Heading into the prior week (William & Mary, Dartmouth), I didn't think UVA looked like a regional qualifying team yet. The Hoos had a good week other than the Rivoli injury though. If UVA can bottle this momentum coming off of Dartmouth and Richmond, mostly the offense coming to life in a big way, then things look to be progressing quickly in the right direction. Fans and coaches can expect to learn a lot in the series with NC State this weekend. Those lessons will inform beyond the series win / loss total as the team has an opportunity to measure itself against a peer level program for the first time since the season opener versus Oklahoma.