The start of Michigan baseball coach Tracy Smith’s tenure has not gone as anticipated by some, opening to a 6-9 record. And he would be the first to admit it, calling its home-opener loss on March 8 to a 2-8 Oakland team “embarrassing.”
But this isn’t really Smith’s squad. With multiple players transferring away from the program, MLB Draft picks and injuries that have thinned the roster, he was dealt the equivalent of a seven-deuce Texas Holdem hand for this season.
“I think it’s been well documented,” Smith said at Michigan Media Day Feb. 9. “A little bit of shortness to the roster piece that happened there. … We may ask you if you’ve not played this position, ‘Hey you might do it this year,’ or you haven’t pitched since high school, ‘Guess what, you might have to give us some innings this year.’ ”
Utilizing position players like third baseman and Mitch Voit as pitchers in order to fill a Wolverines staff that had a 7.00 ERA last year, and has only managed a 6.10 ERA so far this season, is a microcosm of the strenuous climb Smith was faced with upon taking the job in Ann Arbor. This is despite taking over a program that won the Big Ten Championship last year and was a few outs away from the NCAA Super Regionals.
Yet with so many challenges, Smith hasn’t been afraid to combat them. He just needs time to do so. And everyone should give him that time.
So how should the 2023 Michigan baseball team be evaluated?
Smith was hired by Michigan on July 3, well after the 2022 recruiting cycle ended. Following former coach Erik Bakich to Clemson, shortstop and captain Riley Bertram and right-hander Willie Weiss transferred to the Tigers. Michigan also lost three key players to the draft, including outfielder Clark Elliott.
This left senior catcher Jimmy Obertop, who briefly entered the transfer portal before withdrawing, as the intended centerpiece of Smith’s lineup card for this season. But then he suffered an elbow injury in fall practice, which has kept him out of competition so far and will likely continue to do so until the end of March at the earliest. Even when he returns, he will only be able to be the designated hitter given the nature of his injury.
To attempt to fill these voids, Smith had to scramble late in the transfer portal, acquiring graduate shortstop Cody Jefferis from San Diego and junior catcher Gabe Sotres from Michigan State. But these temporary fixes cannot fully compensate for the Wolverines’ overarching deficiencies.
Nonetheless, Smith is trying, and that should count for something. With such a depleted roster, there is only so much a first-year coach can do.
The limited pitching depth has loomed large, as Smith inherited just two returning pitchers that threw over 70 innings last season in junior left-hander Connor O’Halloran and junior right-hander Chase Allen. Yet two solid starters cannot last any team, let alone Michigan, for an entire weekend series.
“When you got Connor O’Halloran and Chase Allen on the mound that aren’t walking guys and pitching in the zone and being aggressive, that’s the difference,” Smith said after Michigan’s 9-4 loss to UCLA. “So we’re not giving free bases, which we gave a ton of free bases the last couple of games. That’s the difference.”
To make up the difference, among many more, Smith will need time to recruit to bring in talent that can blossom over time within the program. And his experience before coming to Michigan should help with that.
After his departure from Arizona State, where he took the Sun Devils to four regional appearances, Smith became CEO of Diamond Allegiance, an organization that works to improve the travel ball system. Smith can utilize those relationships with younger athletes to recruit in future years. But that takes time.
“I’ve recruited my entire life through the travel ball organizations,” Smith said. “But through this company that I was the CEO of last year, I was interacting daily with all the top leaders and top organizations of all the top travel ball clubs all around the country. So now when I’m back in coaching it’s given me unbelievable access and relationships that I didn’t have two years ago.”
Building these relationships over the past two years can be pivotal for Smith at a school like Michigan, where luring talent to the colder temperatures provides an additional layer of difficulty. But the Wolverines have already seen flashes of young potential in freshman center fielder Greg Pace Jr. in addition to Voit. With time, these centerpieces can be building blocks for Smith if he can match them with high-ceiling recruits in future years.
As Smith molds the program in his image, the bones of it have already been in place through the strong culture he inherited despite the many positional weak spots the Wolverines have. That’s even showing up in their newest faces
“Obviously I’m gonna help the team as much as possible, whatever that is,” Voit said at Michigan Media Day. “At the end of the day stats are stats, but wins are wins and I’m trying to get as many wins as possible for this team.”
And that culture has already been on display. Smith publicly called the team out after striking out 13 times against Golden Grizzlies pitchers, questioning “if it bothers us.” Instead of wilting, Michigan showed mettle in two resilient wins against UAB the following weekend. In the second game against the Blazers, Voit pitched 3.2 scoreless innings and posted two RBI, including the game-winning sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth inning, to earn himself his first collegiate win as a pitcher.
Keeping the team motivated amid a six-game losing streak is what coaches are there for, and these games showed that the Wolverines are still buying into what the new coaching staff is selling.
If the team stays in lockstep with Smith and the coaching staff, Michigan baseball’s upside can grow in the future as Smith is able to further leverage his background in the travel ball landscape to procure prospects on the recruiting trail.
Successful talent development and a unified team culture translate to winning baseball. But the talent for the Wolverines isn’t there yet, so don’t expect a repeat of last year’s Big Ten Championship run. Rather, evaluate this season on if Michigan continues to fight hard throughout the season and show flashes of youthful upside if their roster deficiencies further compound and put them out of Big Ten contention. For Smith to stay on schedule in building back up the program, the Wolverines have to stick together.
The Michigan baseball program, which was a game away from a national championship less than four years ago, has the puzzle pieces spilled out on the table to eventually become an annual Big Ten Championship and NCAA Tournament contender once again.
Tracy Smith just needs the time to snap those pieces into place.