2016 for the Michigan baseball team was a year of growth and learning, more so than most other years. After a surprising Big Ten Tournament title in 2015 and an extremely hot start to 2016, there was some talk of Michigan even hosting a regional in the 2016 postseason, but then the wheels slowly started to fall off the maize and blue bus.
After the first April weekend series, Michigan was 21-6 and had just come off of a 9-game win streak and was entering full-time Big Ten play with high expectations. From that point forward, Michigan played .500 ball the rest of the way and missed out on the postseason entirely, its final loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament. In an interview with D1Baseball’s Kendall Rogers, Coach Erik Bakich said that injuries exposed a lot of concerns with the depth of the roster, resulting in a mentality that couldn’t produce wins down the stretch. So this year, to remedy that situation, it’s not so much about the play between the lines as it is the culture in the dugout and the locker room.
This fall, the workouts are a different beast than years past. No depth charts, no radar guns on pitchers, an increased amount of conditioning; its about promoting a mental and physical toughness in the young Wolverines that will take control so when a pitcher takes the mound, there are no nerves or fears, just scouting reports and making pitches.
1% better everyday.
— Marcus Chavez (@D1marcus__) October 11, 2016
“We’re a lot more invested right now in the classroom environment, learning things and trying to build a culture and foundation for this team… I want there to be an edge about this team,” Bakich tells Rogers.
If you ask me, I think this is the perfect way to go about setting the tone for the 2017 season. Michigan saw five players get drafted last summer and although not all of them signed, two of them were huge hits; 1B/DH/LHP/OF/program legend Carmen Benedetti (who tore it up in his first professional season, but more on that later), and #1 starting pitcher Brett Adcock. Draftees excluded, a number of other key players graduated, leaving lots of questions for starting roles burning in the brains of Michigan baseball fans. But none of that matters to the players; what matters to the players is getting better regardless of depth charts, regardless of attrition, what matters to the players is being the best baseball player they can be when the snow starts to fall.
Michigan had an excellent high school recruiting class for 2016, picking up some of the best pitchers in the state and a few other highly touted Midwest recruits. Right on their heels, Michigan picked up a number of JUCO transfers to bring their total “newcomer class” to 12 players.
- Austin Batka, LHP. A 2014 Grand Rapids Christian graduate, Batka played his last two seasons of college ball at Lincoln Trail College in Illinois.
- Brock Keener, C. After two years of catching at Alvin Community College in Texas, Keener joins an already deep (though mostly inexperienced) stable of catchers. He hit .348 in 37 games last season.
- Miles Lewis, OF/C. After redshirting his freshman year at the University of North Dakota, Lewis hit .360 in 45 games (all starts), as well as going 20-26 in stolen bases.
- Nick Poirier, IF/OF. Poirier is a true utilityman, capable of playing anywhere on the diamond. A 2015 high school graduate, he joins the Wolverines from San Joaquin Delta Community College in California.
- Alec Rennard, RHP. Also hailing from California, Rennard comes from Santa Rosa Junior College, where he went 14-1 with a 1.40 ERA, a batting average against of .181, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 9:1.
Michigan got some more good news in the past few weeks, coming in terms of new commits of future classes. First is a local talent, 2017 Ann Arbor Pioneer outfielder Jordan Nwogu, a near 4.0 student. Nwogu was also recruited by a handful of MAC schools to play football, though he has elected to play baseball for Michigan. By the time he matriculates to Michigan, there will be lots of help to be had in the outfield, making early playing time a definite possibility. As always though, it is nearly impossible to forecast those conditions given how often JUCO transfers make great impacts on a program (see above).
— Jordan Nwogu (@jg500087) September 3, 2016
Following Nwogu was the commitment of Casey Buckley, a 2018 catcher from Long Beach, CA. Despite only being 5′ 11″ and 165 pounds, Buckley has two years to grow into frame until he sees the field at Michigan. Starting with current sophomore Jonathan Englemann and now including Buckley, Coach Bakich has been hitting the California recruiting trail hard, and for good reason. California is one of the top producers of national talent, and not just in baseball, so if Michigan can establish not necessarily a pipeline, but positive relationships with summer clubs and coaches, the future of the program is awfully bright.
Failing to meet expectations like last year’s team can always be a tough pill to swallow. I applaud the approach Bakich is taking to this new and very young team; with a core of only a few upperclassmen leaders, it’s time for Michigan to find a new identity with the younger classes. This identity seems to be one of pitching depth and dominance, because after all, defense wins championships. Losing Benedetti, Adcock, Bruder, Ramsay, Hill, etc. definitely hurts, but a college coach has no time to dwell on the sands of time and necessary evil of graduation (graduating is not actually evil, stay in school kids). It presents a unique opportunity to create a brand new style of baseball. In his 5th year at the helm, now seems like the perfect time for Bakich to start blending his own touch of things with the longest tenured varsity sport and Michigan.
In other news, if you want to get psyched for the 2017 season (regardless of how far away it may feel), check out this fall workout video that assistant coach Nick Schnabel tweeted out. Michigan also launched their official baseball website and recruiting service, the one stop shop for future Wolverines and nerdy fans like myself.
Header photo: Mike F. Campbell