The Michigan baseball team still faces several unknowns, like when its season will start and how many games it will play, but its coaching staff is now locked in.
Two coaching jobs became open when former pitching coach Chris Fetter took a pitching coach position with the Detroit Tigers and former volunteer assistant Ako Thomas took a coaching job with the Red Sox Double-A affiliate. Michigan coach Erik Bakich officially filled them last Friday, when the team announced that Steve Merriman, who was the pitching coach at Michigan in 2002 and 2012, will take over as pitching coach and Brandon Inge as volunteer assistant. Both have decades of baseball experience as well as expertise in the use and application of technology and data in coaching.
As part of a diligent search process that included a month and a half of research, Bakich called Merriman for his advice on who would be a good fit to succeed Fetter. Given Merriman’s position, Bakich assumed a return to Ann Arbor was unlikely.
At the time, Merriman — “a leading voice in modern training methodologies and data-enhanced coaching,” according to mlb.com’s Thomas Harding — was the minor league pitching co-coordinator of the Colorado Rockies, and Bakich thought he was on the “fast track” to a coaching position at the mothership. He already had experience coaching at the major league level: in early 2020, Merriman helped create and operate a pitching lab at the Rockies’ spring training facility, where he used Rapsodo technologies to analyze Rockies’ starters.
“So when he said that he would have interest, I was so excited, because he was one of those no-brainer type of candidates,” Bakich said.
Merriman was among the three final candidates, each of whom met with players in Zoom meetings.
“He had a little bit of a unique approach,” Bakich said. “Instead of putting together some type of PowerPoint with a bunch of information, he just took a few minutes in the beginning of the call with each guy to get to know them and ask them questions. A really personal touch, and they really appreciated that.
“Starting about 12 minutes in, I got the first text that this is our guy. And by the end of the Zoom call, all of them were just thrilled at the opportunity to potentially work with coach Merriman.”
In addition to his skills in cutting-edge coaching techniques, Merriman has other qualities that Bakich wants in his pitching coach. Merriman is renowned for his skills as a communicator, for example.
“If I have questions, he can relay the information in a way I understand it,” Rockies’ starter Jon Gray said in an interview with mlb.com.
Merriman will play a vital in-game role, too, creating game plans and calling pitches. Bakich said Merriman’s experience as a pitching coach and scout will help him attack opposing hitters’ weaknesses and develop his pitchers’ strengths.
To stay at the game’s highest level for 13 years, Brandon Inge had to do “all the little things,” Bakich said.
He was a super-utility player, a Swiss Army knife who played every position besides pitcher (although he threw gas as a closer in college). He was equally versatile on offense, hitting for average (0.287 in 2004), power (27 homers in 2006 and 2009) and stealing bases (nine in 2007).
Bakich got to know Inge when the two worked together to chair the ChadTough Foundation Gala last May.
“I was super impressed in these planning committees for the event of what a good dude he is,” Bakich said. “He’s so generous with his time in serving the community that he’s a part of.”
The financial security from a long and lucrative career made Inge an even more attractive candidate for the largely unpaid position, especially given that the COVID-19 pandemic would make finding a second job for a volunteer assistant more difficult. But Bakich said that even without a pandemic, Inge would be his first choice for the opening.
“Maybe the best thing about him is that he’s one of those old school throwback, tough, competitive, gritty types of guys, a ‘put your nose in the dirt and get it done’ kind of guy,” Bakich (who’s considered to be one of those types as well) said. “You can tell if you were one of his teammates, you’d love being on his team. And if you weren’t, you probably didn’t like playing against him.”
Inge may be an old-school guy, but he’s embraced new-school coaching methods. Like the rest of the Michigan coaching staff, he holds a certification from the Titleist Performance Institute. He’s especially knowledgeable about the physiology of hitting.
He’ll mainly work with the catchers but will also assist assistant head coach Nick Schnabel in coaching the hitters.
“He can throw BP all day long,” Bakich said. “And the information he has regarding hitting is extremely valuable, being a guy who’s reinvented his swing and has a lot of great ideas on what type of approaches to certain pitchers will help.”
Both coaches have made large contributions in their first few weeks on the job.
“(Merriman) is seeing efficient movement patterns in guys, and some limitations that they may have physically, and creating corrections to make their delivery or certain pitches just a little bit better,” Bakich said.
And Inge noticed some pitchers accidentally tipping their pitches during a scrimmage before the athletic department’s two-week shutdown.
“I’m just glad both those guys are on our team,” Bakich said.
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