Depth and Experience.
Those are the underlying themes for the 2021 Michigan baseball team, which boasts its largest ever roster with 42 players. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent cancellation of the 2020 season, after which the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all spring student-athletes, opened the door for several older players and graduate transfers to be a part of the team this season. The Wolverines are led by 13 seniors and have 10 freshmen.
Due to its conference-only schedule, Michigan has been thrown into the deep end to start the season with every game taking on added importance as it pursues a Big Ten title. This has led to a little bit more consistency and continuity in the lineup than may otherwise be expected at the start of a normal season, especially given the size of the roster and the depth the Wolverines have. Ahead of Friday’s home opener against Illinois, The Daily breaks down Michigan’s roster.
The Wolverines look to be really solid this year with graduate transfer Griffin Mazur behind the dish. Mazur — who was named team captain before he had even played a game — has started the season red-hot, hitting .318 with three home runs and a .516 on-base percentage. Mazur has also been clutch, driving in a team-best 12 RBI, including a grand slam in the opening weekend against Iowa. Michigan has five graduate transfers on its roster, and Mazur has quickly become one of its undisputed leaders.
“The grad transfers have been such a great addition,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “We are going to be in the grad transfer market every year from now on.”
Sophomore Jimmy Obertop has supplied relief to Mazur, catching one game during each of the Wolverines’ doubleheaders. Due to his versatility, Obertop has found most of his playing time at first base. Obertop provides a power bat and has started every game Michigan has played. He has struggled a bit at the plate but is tied for the team lead in at-bats and has two home runs, showcasing his power potential. His placement in the second spot in the lineup to start the season shows the expectations the coaches have for him offensively.
Defensively, both catchers have started the season strong. Obertop has managed to nail all three of the runners that have tried to steal a base against him, and Mazur has caught two of the three runners that have challenged him.
Obertop has led the way at first base for the Wolverines, starting six of the eight games thus far.
Sophomore Jake Marti has also picked up a bit of playing time at first base, starting the other two games. Marti has impressed thus far, leading the team with a .320 batting average and logging a 0.500 on-base percentage. He has led off for much of the season and looks to have cemented himself at the top of the order for the foreseeable future.
“He’s a switch-hitting outfielder/first baseman, very fast, very powerful,” Bakich said. “Raw, athletic, sky’s the limit type of potential, he’s gonna be really good.”
Obertop looks to have this job in hand, but versatility on his and Marti’s part mean that there could be multiple players that rotate in to allow for rotation of a deep roster.
Junior Riley Bertram has started every game thus far at second base for the Wolverines, and has been a solid contributor. While he has not produced much at the plate, hitting just .200, he has been rock-solid defensively.
Sophomore Ted Burton is another player who could get time at second base, as he played one inning there against Purdue. Burton missed the Iowa series due to an illness but is a versatile player who has also gotten time at third base and looks to be one of the first options off the bench for Michigan.
The shortstop position has been locked up so far by graduate transfer Benjamin Sems, a former All-Big 12 second team player at Kansas. Sems has come in and been rock-solid in the middle of the order, posting a .310 batting average with a .412 on-base percentage and .345 slugging percentage. Sems has also flashed the leather multiple times, making nice diving stops and combining on five double plays thus far.
“Sems lived up to the billing of the elite defender that he is,” Bakich said. “He makes a lot of really good plays, very athletic, very sure handed.”
Another transfer has led the way at third base this year in the form of graduate transfer Christian Molfetta. Molfetta transferred to Michigan from Stanford and has started every game at third base. Since the third game of the season, Molfetta has occupied the two-hole in the lineup, hitting .276. Molfetta has provided a solid veteran presence at third base, and while he did make one costly error in the only loss Michigan has suffered this season, has been otherwise perfect in the field. Overall, Molfetta looks to be a well-rounded two-way player.
“(Molfetta’s) a hell of a player and a versatile player. (He) can play the outfield, infielder, catcher, he stepped right into third base,” Bakich said. “And he made outstanding plays defensively, he had a ton of quality at bats. We knew we wanted to get him in the lineup somehow, but the defense he played at third base was outstanding.”
Burton, last year’s starter at third base, also figures to see significant time this season. Burton started 11 of 15 games last season and hit .222.
Michigan has rotated a bit in the outfield, with several different players starting games. With that being said, there is some consistency, particularly with fifth-year senior Christan Bullock providing a spark from center field, and sophomore Tito Flores flanking him on the right or left. Bullock has provided solid offensive production and baserunning from the bottom of the order, leading the team in stolen bases. Flores has been a key contributor to the Wolverines' offense, earning a .310 batting average with a .459 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage from the three-hole.
The final outfield spot has rotated a bit, with Marti making three starts there, as well as sophomore Clark Elliot and senior Logan Pollack both seeing time. Elliot and Marti have also slotted in at designated hitter and seem to round out the starters with Pollack off the bench. Redshirt junior Danny Zimmerman has also seen action in four games in a pinch-hitting/designated hitter role with most of his action coming in the opening series against Iowa.
Elliot started slowly in the Iowa series, before catching fire in the Purdue series and raising his batting average to .316 after starting the season 0-for-8. He recorded six hits against Purdue, including a three-for-four afternoon in the series opener.
Led by redshirt sophomore left-hander Steven Hajjar, who earned several different preseason All-American award nominations including being named to the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Preseason Watch List, the Michigan starting staff looks pretty deep this season. Hajjar will be the ace of the group and has already looked very good in his two outings this season.
“He’s smart enough and mature enough not to read those accolades and get caught up in those awards,” Bakich said. “He’s out there pitching for Michigan, doing it for his teammates, and he’s an outstanding competitor. … That’s part of what makes him successful.”
Michigan also has a solid number two in sophomore right-hander Cameron Weston, who overcame a mediocre first start against Iowa to toss six scoreless innings against Purdue.
The Wolverines have rotated through their other pitchers, as playing four game series has allowed for some mixing of starters and relievers.
The emergence of redshirt junior left-hander Ben Dragani may be a key piece for Michigan this season, as the talented but previously injured Dragani has looked excellent thus far. Dragani has allowed just four hits and no runs in 8.1 innings of work, working as both a starter and long reliever.
“We’re fortunate, we have a lot of quality arms,” Bakich said. “We’re going to have to spread the innings around for our arms, but it’s a good problem to have.”
While it is still unclear what the rotation is exactly, Hajjar is the clear ace and Weston seems the second option. Sophomore left-hander Jacob Denner was masterful in the opening series against Iowa, as he threw five scoreless innings and will also likely contribute. Denner, Dragani and senior right-hander Blake Beers may all see action as starters, particularly in the longer series at the beginning of the season, but look for Dragani to emerge as the number three starter for the Wolverines as the season progresses. If he can take a leap to be a consistent starter, this Michigan team can be dangerous. The other two will likely slot into important bullpen roles as well, and provide depth when longer four-game weekends come or injuries occur.
The bullpen is the area Bakich tinkered with the most in the first few weeks, utilizing eleven different pitchers in relief. Junior Willie Weiss looks to have locked down the role of closer and has delivered by allowing just two hits and no runs in 3.1 innings of work thus far.
Denner and Dragani figure to contribute out of the bullpen in different capacities this year, while graduate right-hander Joe Pace has looked excellent in his three scoreless innings of work. Junior right-hander Keaton Carattini and redshirt junior right-hander Isaiah Paige also have seen substantial action and figure to play key roles.
Junior left-hander Jack White and another transfer in junior right-hander Will Proctor have also each eaten up several scoreless innings and will likely contribute. The nature of the schedule and the depth of the team suggest that there will be a lot of arms that see work throughout the season.