It’s a completely different ballgame.
That’s what Michigan coach Erik Bakich will say, what pitching coach Chris Fetter will say, what sophomore right-hander Jeff Criswell will say about transitioning from the bullpen to a starting role.
“It’s going from the mindset of being a sprinter to a marathon runner,” Bakich said. “It’s a totally different way of training, a totally different mindset. You go from an adrenaline junkie who’s gonna go blow it out for one inning to a guy who still needs to have his best stuff and pitch with his best intent, but who has to do it over six or seven innings every time he goes out there.”
That’s the challenge that Criswell has faced this season. With sophomore left-hander Ben Dragani injured, Criswell was next up to fill the No. 3 spot in the Wolverines’ rotation behind junior left-hander Tommy Henry and junior right-hander Karl Kauffman. His solid performance out of the bullpen last year – a 2.23 earned run average and 32 strikeouts over 32.1 innings pitched – made him the natural choice.
He hadn’t been a starter since high school, though. Criswell pitched in relief all of his freshman year, and all of last summer. He only threw more than two innings once in his 24 outings and 32.1 total innings last year.
But over his nine starts this season, Criswell has virtually erased all of those concerns. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in almost a month, since his March 23 start against No. 16 Texas Tech. He struck out 12 batters in Dodger Stadium against a formidable Oklahoma State squad on the tail end of a long and difficult California swing. So far, he’s given up just five extra-base hits on the season over 45.2 innings of work.
His pitches — what Fetter called a “major-league” fastball, and a changeup and slider that are already strong — are looking better than ever. And with the work Criswell and Fetter have been putting in, they’re just continuing to get stronger.
“On any one day, you’ll see three pitches from Jeff that could be at the highest level,” Fetter said.
Criswell has gone at least five innings in all but two of his starts. The two exceptions: 4.2 innings against the Red Raiders — easily among the toughest competition Michigan has faced this season — and two innings in a midweek game against Toledo.
As the season has gone on, Criswell has grown increasingly comfortable going later into games. Over his first four starts, he only went six innings once. In the five starts since, he’s made it almost seven full innings twice. Now, Criswell and Fetter are looking to bring that to eight and eventually maybe even nine.
The Sunday after that Wednesday start against the Rockets, Criswell went 6.2 innings against a Minnesota team that is among the Wolverines’ biggest competition in the Big Ten. With the series tied at the game apiece, the Wolverines needed a win to take the home series and keep up their momentum in one of the toughest stretches of their schedule. Criswell held the Golden Gophers to three hits and no runs while striking out eight — on three days’ rest.
A week later, he took the mound at Ohio State as the Wolverines tried to stave off a sweep by their archrivals. Again, Criswell went 6.2 innings, striking out four and not allowing a single extra-base hit as Michigan went on to win, 6-2, in what Fetter called his best outing of the season.
“With Minnesota and Ohio State, you can see his growth; you can see his improvement,” Bakich said. “It’s been very impressive, and we’ve certainly needed it. Having a guy like Jeff on Sunday gives us a great chance to win or sweep every series that we play.”
But transitioning from a one-or-two-inning reliever to a six-or-seven-inning starter doesn’t happen overnight, even for a player with starting experience. Criswell and Fetter have been working on extending the pitcher’s outings — and keeping his pitches up over longer stretches — since August.
They’ve smoothed out Criswell’s delivery, streamlined his motion, and put an emphasis on delivering power from the legs — changes targeted at delivering the same pitches but using less energy.
“Because he’s using his legs more, and because he’s more efficient in what he’s doing delivery-wise, he’s able to go much deeper in the game,” Fetter said. “He’s still showing the same stuff he had last year in one-inning stints, but he’s able to maintain that now for six, seven innings.”
The bigger challenge for Criswell has been adopting the mindset of a starter. After a year in a closing role, the adjustment back to longer outings was tough, not just physically, but mentally.
“The biggest thing with Jeff was trying to convince him, ‘Hey, you’re still a closer in your mentality. We’re just gonna close out the first inning, and then the second inning, close out the third inning, and keep that up and not look at the long picture about trying to go deep into a game and conserve energy,’” Fetter said. “You’re still using the same amount of energy, the same amount of force. You’re just trying to close out each inning now instead of just one.”
Henry and Kauffmann, both of whom started last year as well, have also helped Criswell make the transition. A converted closer, Criswell’s adjustment centered around mentality more than anything else.
“It was definitely very different for me, but Coach Fetter, Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann have all been huge in helping me along,” Criswell said. “Karl and Tommy both have a couple more years of experience than I do in the starting role, and those guys have been absolutely great to me. With their help, and the work I’ve done with Coach Fetter, it’s just been really good for me.”
As the Wolverines head into the final stretch of their season, having Criswell dominate like this in that Sunday-starter role is more important than ever. The Big Ten race is tightening up, with Nebraska, Indiana and Iowa all looking like strong contenders.
But if Criswell can keep up this improvement — and Bakich and Fetter have both expressed every confidence that he can — the Wolverines have the potential to be serious competitors for the conference title too, and maybe even a postseason run.
“I’m ready to go,” Criswell said. “We’re excited to continue into Big Ten play, and we know that we’ve got some work to do, but we’re going to be ready for the next couple weeks to come. I’m excited.”