Ranking things is so hot right now. When there is nothing else to do in sports, we rank things; teams in the preseason, players in the Big Ten, heck, even ESPN is in the midst of releasing their list of the 100 greatest baseball players ever in the middle of the season. It gives us a debate and keeps the conversation going even when there isn’t anything new to report. It even gives us a definitive sense of, well, closure for a lesser word. When things are neat and tidy and organized in their respective spots, we can rest easy knowing everything is where they belong, and that includes players/teams.
So I’m joining the club by ranking Michigan’s best baseball players of all time. Well, not ranking, but making a list of the best starting nine in Michigan baseball history. So kind of a ranking.
Disclaimer: This list is based on statistics/careers while each player was at school. Some of the best Michigan lettermen didn’t play professional baseball, so a starting nine determined on their merit while a student versus a starting nine based on alumni in the MLB would be a completely different list. You can resume your countdown to football season right after this.
Weekend Rotation: Zach Putnam (2006-2008), Jim Abbott (1986-1988), Steve Howe (1977-1979)
- Zach Putnam played right across the street from campus for Ann Arbor Pioneer and won three varsity letters for Michigan between 2006 and 2008. As part of the Magical Maloney era, Putnam was a part of three conference title winning teams and two tournament title teams, winning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2008, only the second pitcher in program history, and All-Big Ten First Team honors in 2007 and 2008, and All-Big Ten Second Team in 2006. Internally, Putnam won the Geoff Zahn Award (program’s most valuable pitcher) in 2007 and 2008, and also won the Ray L. Fisher Award as the team’s most valuable player. Putnam is 8th in program history with 23 wins, 13th in with 194 strikeouts, and 9th with a 3.12 ERA. Putnam has played 6 seasons in MLB, finding a home with the Chicago White Sox, with whom he owns a 2.82 ERA in three seasons.
- Jim Abbott (pictured, right) is a household name among Michigan families. Born without a right hand, Abbott taught himself to throw left handed and put a mitt on his throwing hand as the ball was traveling to home plate, making the average defensive play difficult.
Physical obstacles aside, Abbott was one of the best pitchers in program history, earning multiple accolades from his three seasons in the mid-80s: 1987 Golden Spikes Award (the Heisman Trophy of collegiate baseball and the only Michigan player to win the award), 1988 Big Ten Player of the Year, 1988 All-Big Ten First Team, and back-to-back Zahn Awards in 1987 and 1988. Statistically, Abbott is 5th in program history with 26 wins, 6th in history with a 3.04 ERA, and 8th in complete games with 13. While his career at Michigan was nothing short of spectacular, his crowning achievement came in September of 1993, when he threw a no-hitter as a member of the New York Yankees. His #31 jersey is retired.
- Steve Howe led his late 1970s Wolverines to a berth in the 1978 College World Series, much behind his left arm. Earning All-Big Ten First Team and Fisher Award honors in 1978, Howe threw 98.1 innings, won 11 games, and struck out 92 batters that season en route to an electric 1.74 ERA, all of which are still Top Ten in program history for a single season. For his career, he is 6th in program history in innings pitched (265.2), 4th in wins (27), 1st in complete games (31 [!]), 12th in strikeouts (196), and 2nd in ERA (1.80) As a professional, Howe was selected in the first round by the Dodgers, with whom he won the 1980 Rookie of the Year award. He won a World Series title with the 1981 Dodgers and the 1996 Yankees, terrific bookends to a solid career.
Honorable Mentions: Geoff Zahn, Mike Ignasiak, Brett Adcock
Catcher: Bill Freehan (1961)
Named All-Big Ten First Team in his only season at school in 1961, Freehan set a program record batting average at .446 and slugged .785, which is still 5th in program history for a single season. The program’s internal award for the best hitter is named after him and his glorious 1961 season. His #11 jersey is retired.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Matheny, Jake Fox
First Base: Carmen Benedetti (2014-2016)
If you have been keeping close attention to the program in the Bakich Era, you know all too well about Benedetti, who was one of the best two-way players in program history. Named All-Big Ten First Team in 2015 and Second Team in 2016, Benedetti is 3rd in program history with 56 career doubles, 25 of which came in the 2015 season, which is the 2nd best single season total in program history. He also knocked in 71 runs in 2015, which is one shy of the program record for a single season. He led the 2015 tournament winning team with a .352 batting average.
Honorable Mention: Kyle Bohm, Nate Recknagel
Second Base: Jake Cronenworth (2013-2015)
Picking the recent choice over program great Ted Sizemore is a difficult choice, but Cronenworth’s durability and reliability put him on this list. Cronenworth began turning heads his freshman year at Michigan, earning Freshman All American honors from four national postseason outlets (Collegiate Baseball, NCBWA, Baseball America, Perfect Game), as well as the Big Ten Freshman Team, and continued to perform a high level for the rest of his decorated career. Named to All-Big Ten Second Team twice in his career, the St. Clair native also is the program’s best closer as well as second baseman. First in program history with 12 saves in a single season and second in history with 27 in his career, Cronenworth anchored the team in their 2015 run to the Big Ten tournament title. In 2015, he played in 64 games, collecting 91 hits (3rd most in program history in a single season), scored 62 runs, and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player and the Big Ten All Tournament Team. Collecting 211 hits across his three seasons, Cronenworth’s pure lefty swing and smooth fielding made for a tremendous leader and building block for Coach Bakich and the program’s future. Cronenworth continues his success in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system, having just been called up from Low A Bowling Green to Advanced A Charlotte.
Honorable Mention: Ted Sizemore, Chris Getz
Shortstop: Barry Larkin (1983-1985)
Larkin is the most successful player to come out of Ann Arbor (and he almost played football, too), but he is also one of the best players in program history, regardless of position. To begin with the lengthy list of accolades, Larkin was named Big Ten Player of the Year and All-Big Ten First Team in 1984 and 1985, All-Big Ten Tournament Team every year at Michigan (including the 1983 tournament MVP), the Ray Fisher Award in 1985, and the Bill Freehan Award and Ted Sizemore Award in 1984. Statistically, Larkin’s offensive numbers in the top ten in multiple categories, a skill that transferred to his professional career when he won 7 NL Silver Slugger awards. In 1985, he hit 8 triples and 16 home runs, which rank 2nd and 6th in program history for a single season (respectively), 150 total bases (3rd), and 66 RBI (5th). Throughout his career, his .361 batting average is tenth in program history, and he is also 3rd in triples with 13, 12th in home runs with 26, 14th in RBI with 136, and 6th in runs with 172. His #16 is retired.
Honorable Mention: Leif Mahler
Third Base: Brock Koman (2000-2003)
Though Koman played in one of the valleys rather than the peaks of Michigan’s colorful program history, his achievements are still not to be taken lightly, much like Mike Trout’s excellent 2016 season that’s being wasted on the Angels. Koman was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team three straight years from 2001-2003, twice at third base and once at shortstop, as well as the program MVP in 2001 and 2002. Winning the Freehan Award three straight seasons, Koman hit 21 doubles in 2003, 14 home runs and 60 RBI in 2001, and is first in program history in doubles with 72, second in program history with 276 hits, and fourth in RBI with 183. Also named one of the team captain’s in 2003, Koman led the team in average from 2001 and 2003, making first year coach Rich Maloney’s job much easier.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Cervenak, Chris Sabo
Outfield: Hal Morris (1984-1986), Ryan LaMarre (2008-2010), Jason Alcaraz (1996-1999), Rick Leach (1976-1979)
- Hal Morris played along side Barry Larkin for two seasons and benefitted from the Hall of Famer’s offensive prowess. In 1985, Morris hit .421, which is 5th in program history for a single season, and slugged .863, which is 2nd in program history. Throughout his three seasons at Michigan, Morris compiled a .373 average, good for 3rd in program history. He was named to the All-Big Ten First Team and the Sizemore Award winner in 1986.
Ryan LaMarre (pictured, right) has made news recently after getting called up to the majors by the Boston Red Sox, but let us not forget his amazing career at Michigan. He was awarded the Freehan Award in 2009 (making the All-Big Ten Second Team) and 2010 (making the All-Big Ten First Team), when he led the team in batting average with a .344 and .419 average (respectively). His 2010 .419 average is 6th in program history for a single season (right behind Hal Morris) and was named to the Big Ten Tournament First Team the same year.
- In 4 seasons at Michigan, there are few players that did more than Jason Alcaraz on the field and there are even fewer who did more in the classroom. In addition to two All-Big Ten First Teams, an All-Big Ten Second Team, 1996 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and two All-Big Ten Tournament Teams, Alcaraz was named to the Academic All Big Ten team three times in his career. He won the Freehan award his freshman year, hitting .356. He compiled some very impressive career statistics, finishing with 272 hits (3rd in program history), a career .345 average, 54 doubles (5th), and 153 RBI (8th).
- I did not know until writing this post that Rick Leach was a multi-sport athlete at Michigan, the very same Rick Leach who quarterbacked the football team and finished third in Heisman voting in 1978. For as good as he was at football, he was an even better baseball player with U of M, earning All-Big Ten First Team Honors in 1977, 1978, and 1979 in centerfield as well as the Ray Fisher Award in 1977 and 1978. He led the team in batting average three seasons, hitting .345 in 1976 as a freshman, .316 in 1977, and .404 in 1978, which is tied for ninth best in program history for single season batting average. A first round draft pick of the Tigers, Leach played 9 professional seasons before retiring in 1990.
Honorable Mentions: Casey Close, Patrick Biondi
As far as the batting lineup goes, I feel completely lost. It’s like trying to make a lineup for the MLB All-Star Game; everyone has a case for hitting cleanup (well, mostly) and really, you can’t go wrong, but here’s my best:
- Jake Cronenworth, 2B
- Ryan LaMarre, DH
- Barry Larkin, SS
- Brock Koman, 3B
- Carmen Benedetti, 1B
- Bill Freehan, C
- Hal Morris, OF
- Jason Alcaraz, OF
- Rick Leach, OF
Thanks for taking a break from football to read this. Back to your countdowns, everyone!
Header photo: mgoblue.com