Through 15 games this season, the Michigan baseball team has kept pace with last year's offensive output. The 2016 Wolverines scored at a rate of 6.35 runs per game, while this year’s edition currently crosses the plate an average of 6.33 times per game.
With seven regular starters returning from last year, this type of production at the plate was expected. But two other players have also stepped up as offensive contributors – senior shortstop Michael Brdar and sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas.
Last season, Brdar and Thomas were new to the team – Brdar as a junior college transfer from Diablo Valley College in California and Thomas as a freshman from Chicago. Despite their lack of experience in Division I baseball, the pair quickly became mainstays in Michigan’s lineup, both appearing in 53 games. However, Thomas and Brdar were relative nonfactors at the plate, ranking just seventh and 10th on the team, respectively, in batting average, and they drove in just 32 runs between them.
This year, the pair lead the Wolverines in batting average, with Thomas hitting .339 and Brdar putting up a .328 clip. Thomas is also tied for second in runs batted in with 10, and Brdar has already eclipsed his home run total from last season with two, while driving in eight runs of his own.
There isn’t anyone in the Michigan program who has forgotten last season’s dismal finish, in which the Wolverines let a NCAA Tournament bid slip out of their hands by losing seven of their final nine games after a 34-12 start. The memory of that slide has manifested itself as a more aggressive mentality for the Wolverines this season.
“There’s no taking the foot off the gas pedal,” Brdar said. “We saw last year the difference was a couple games – every pitch, every moment we have is important. You always talk about that, but we never really saw it until last year.
“We’re more aggressive in everything we do, with running the bases, playing defense, coach calling signs and in the weight room. I think we have more intent with everything we do.”
This new mentality has shown itself most prominently on the basepaths. Michigan was a solid base-stealing team last season, with 60 steals in 83 attempts, but this season the Wolverines have gone from decent to dangerous, swiping 35 bases in 39 attempts to rank sixth nationally.
Leading this improvement has been Brdar and Thomas, who combined to steal just four bases while being caught six times in 2016. However, raw speed was never the issue for the pair – it was instead getting acclimated to the pressures of Division I college baseball. With a full year of experience under their belts, Thomas and Brdar now rank 15th and 26th in the nation in steals, respectively – Thomas with nine and Brdar with eight.
“We’re just as fast as we were last season, but it was our first year, and we didn’t have all the confidence we do now,” Brdar said. “Now when we’re on the bases, we have more confidence, we trust our jumps and trust what we see to be able to actually steal bases instead of being hesitant.”
Added Thomas: “We’ve just been more aggressive this year, trying to get guys in scoring positions as much as we can.”
But a team must be able to reach base in order to steal bases in the first place, and Michigan has excelled in putting runners aboard in a variety of ways. The Wolverines are drawing one more walk per game than they did last season. Thomas (.438 OBP) and Brdar (.418 OBP) have paced the Wolverines with their plate discipline, and they have excelled at making contact as well, having combined to strike out in just 13 percent of their at-bats.
“We can manufacture some runs for sure,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “I like when our offense is very disciplined and doesn’t chase out of the zone, and we’ve got a lot of speed in the lineup that can really get around those bases fast.”
Brdar and Thomas have also formed a defensive bedrock in the middle of the infield. Michigan has committed just half as many errors per game as it did last season, and Brdar and Thomas have been central to this defensive resurgence. Working in combination with each other, the pair has helped the Wolverines turn 11 double plays already, while the Wolverines recorded just 26 for the whole of last season. Thomas in particular has displayed a penchant for highlight-reel moments at second base, while sporting a perfect fielding percentage.
“What doesn’t show up in the boxscore is the web-gem play after web-gem play that he makes,” Bakich said. “The difficult play that you think is a hit that somehow he’s got a glove on it and then throws a guy out, and the double plays that he’s in the middle of with he and Michael Brdar. He is a true sparkplug type guy.”
Michigan shot out to a fast start last season, and this year’s version has done so as well. But a more aggressive mindset in all facets of the game and the evolution of Brdar and Thomas gives the Wolverines hope that they can write a different final chapter this year.