The No. 10 Michigan baseball team has completed a grueling stretch of 15 games at exclusively away and neutral sites, coming away with an 8-7 record.
“(We haven’t) played a cupcake schedule like a lot of teams have done,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “A lot of teams have just beaten up on a bunch of bad teams. We’ve played all (NCAA) Regional-caliber teams.”
The Wolverines have used matchups against this stiff competition to experiment with everything from the batting order to the bullpen. Thirty-one out of 36 players on the roster have stepped between the lines. Veterans have surprised and freshmen have stepped up. Ahead of the home opener this Friday, The Daily breaks down the roster.
Catcher: Junior Joe Donovan has received most of the starts behind the dish in 2020. He’s primarily in the lineup for his defense — posting a .992 fielding percentage on the season — and has been relieved by freshman Jimmy Obertop, who projects to be the more offensively capable of the two. He’s needed only 34 at-bats to reach three extra-base hits.
“I like the fact that he’s got big juice in his bat,” Bakich said of Obertop. “(He) can hit a double or extra-base hit at any time, really put a charge into a ball, very mature approach for a young kid. He’ll be in there somewhere, and his versatility makes him even more valuable.”
Obertop has found more work at DH and first base so far, but proved a capable substitute for Donovan in limited time donning the tools of ignorance. The pair’s biggest weakness has been the stolen base; they’ve combined to throw out only six of 21 base thieves.
First Base: Redshirt senior Matthew Schmidt, hero of the season opener, has been the primary starter at first base. But thanks to zero multi-hit games aside from Vanderbilt, his average has been sliding toward his 2019 clip of .167. He’s not making productive outs, either, striking out a team-leading 17 times.
Although he’s made just one error in 99 chances, his empty trips to the plate have caused him to cede playing time to a thus far defensively-perfect Obertop.
Second Base: Sophomore Riley Bertram has started every game at the keystone sack, committing just one error to the tune of a .985 fielding percentage. He’s had a hand in a team-leading 11 double plays. It’s that kind of strong defensive play that gives Michigan’s pitchers confidence to pitch to contact.
“Just fill up the zone, trust in the defense,” redshirt sophomore right-hander Isaiah Paige said after an appearance against Pepperdine last weekend. “Having the guys behind me that I do, it’s not too hard to just throw strikes and let everything else play out.”
Bertram’s slash line of .208/.290/.283 far from pops off the page, but his team-leading 10 RBI do. Since runs create wins, Bakich has been wise to leave Bertram in a heart-of-the-order role despite his unsavory percentages.
Shortstop: Junior captain Jack Blomgren has started at the position in every game so far, hitting second or third in the order. He’s ridden a team-high 11 walks to a team-high .444 on-base percentage — an improvement over his .417 clip from 2019 — and has shown increased power with four extra-base hits, tying him for the team lead.
Blomgren has also been an integral part of the team’s defense. While he has committed four errors in 78 chances — two of which came on a bases-clearing play that handed Stanford an irrevocable late-inning lead — he’s also played hero with the leather, shutting the door on a Cal Poly rally on Feb. 15 with a game-ending assist.
“I think he’s a star, just a stud,” Bakich said of Blomgren last month. “Tough dude, just a playmaker, and any coach would want to have him.”
Third Base: Freshman Ted Burton and sophomore Cam Hart have split starting time at the position.
While Hart doesn’t have a single extra-base hit to his name, he’s been immaculate in the field. Burton has been the yin to Hart’s yang; his eight RBI — second highest on the team — have come with six errors and a .739 fielding percentage. They are both righties, so a matchup-based platoon is unlikely. This will be a position battle to keep an eye on.
“They both have shown some flashes of being very dynamic players offensively and defensively,” Bakich said of the pair.
Outfield: There are so many mouths to feed in the outfield. Junior Jordan Nwogu has transitioned into an everyday outfielder from his former spot at designated hitter. In his sophomore campaign, Nwogu performed well in each of the three offensive tool categories, but didn’t accumulate much of a sample size in the outfield.
“I like the tone it sets, having that strapping dude walking up to the plate to lead off the game with a double or a homer,” Bakich said of Nwogu at the team media day.
Come hell or high water in the outfield, Nwogu’s .353/.389/.456 slash line ensures him a prominent role in the offense. But he’s handled 28 errorless chances and is tied for the team lead in outfield assists, implying that his abilities with the leather aren’t far behind those in the batter’s box.
Junior Jesse Franklin projects to be the starting center fielder and an important piece in the offense once he finishes rehabilitation from a skiing-related injury. Bakich hopes he will return in early April. Franklin made just one error in 147 chances in 2019, along with a team-high 51 walks and podium finishes in homers (13) and RBI (55), making him a versatile threat at the plate.
Nwogu and Franklin are locks for starting jobs, but Bakich has discovered a lot of additional depth. Freshman Clark Elliott and redshirt sophomore Danny Zimmerman have started at the corner outfield positions, tallying three extra-base hits apiece and playing perfect defense. Senior Dominic Clementi can play outfield, but has been the main designated hitter. Senior Christian Bullock’s career .255 average would rank third among the 2020 team, but he’s only started in only two of seven appearances; he’s mainly contributed as a pinch hitter and late-inning defensive reinforcement.
“(I) liked the depth of some of our position players, some of the interchangeable parts, especially in the outfield,” Bakich said after the MLB4 tournament on Feb. 16.
When the outfield is producing at the plate and playing clean defense, as it is now, Bakich will be faced with a head-scratcher every time he prepares the lineup card.
Starting pitchers: Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffman teamed up for 254 innings last season before getting drafted just three picks apart. Only junior right-hander Jeff Criswell is left of the rotation that powered the Wolverines through Omaha.
Luckily for Bakich, he hasn’t had to experiment much with the starters before finding a consistent rotation. Criswell has lifted the lid on every series thus far, earning two quality starts in four tries and has helped his own cause with sterling defense while handling a pitching staff-high six chances.
Behind him has been redshirt freshman left-hander Steven Hajjar.
“I was waiting a long time to go out there and play with the guys,” Hajjar said after his collegiate debut against Arizona State, in which he earned the win and helped hold projected first-round pick Spencer Torkelson hitless. “Got to watch all last year all the success. It was great to finally be a part of it and be out there with the guys.”
With a 2.70 ERA on the season and a rotation-leading 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings, Hajjar has given Bakich every reason to continue trotting him out as the game two starter. He’d doubtless have more than two quality starts if his innings leash was a little longer, and even his lone dud of the season — three innings, two earned runs and four walks against Cal Poly — is an off day which Hajjar worked himself out of.
The game three starter has been junior right-hander Blake Beers.
“Blake Beers is a candidate for guys that may be one of those question marks that can emerge into a prominent role,” Bakich said on the team media day. He was being conservative.
Beers has pitched to a rotation-leading 0.87 WHIP and a .187 batting average, the crown jewel of his young resume being his eight scoreless frames to win the rubber match of the series against Cal Poly. While his starting role may be in jeopardy upon the return from injury of redshirt sophomore left-hander Ben Dragani, the preseason No. 3 starter projection, Beers’s ability to limit baserunners and eat up innings will certainly give Bakich food for thought in this regard.
Bullpen: This is the area in which Bakich has done the most tinkering, trotting out 10 relievers in the first 15 games. Freshman left-hander Jacob Denner has emerged as the primary long reliever; he’s pitched 12 innings over five appearances to a 3.75 ERA. Four of the five were multi-inning affairs. Redshirt senior left-hander Benjamin Keizer leads the team in appearances with eight, but his 1.58 WHIP is the highest of all pitchers with more than 10 innings pitched. Along with his spot start, Weston has been called upon in some of the most high-leverage situations, pitching to a microscopic 0.90 ERA in 10 innings.
Sophomore right-hander Willie Weiss, who saved a team-leading nine games and held batters to a .180 average, is still injured. When he returns, he figures to handle the majority of save situations.