Last June, Michigan coach Erik Bakich watched as a program-record 11 players were drafted to the MLB. It was a milestone moment to cap off the fifth season of his tenure in Ann Arbor that has included five winning seasons, two NCAA Tournament appearances and a Big Ten Tournament championship.
“We want everyone to have the opportunity to play professional baseball,” Bakich said. “We don’t hide from it, we don’t shy away from it. We want every player in our program to play pro ball.”
While this philosophy may be for the long-term benefit of the program, the unfortunate reality is that it was always going to make 2018 a tough season for Bakich and his staff.
Even with six of their top seven hitters and three-fourths of their starting rotation departed, the Wolverines could not have anticipated the struggles they have endured in the first four weeks of the season. Last season’s tournament berth is now a distant memory.
“We’d like to think coming into this season that we’ve put ourselves into a position to reload and not rebuild,” Bakich said after a loss to Lipscomb last week. “But clearly we’re rebuilding right now.”
The hope around Michigan, though, is that its rebuilding process will be accelerated by an acclaimed recruiting class that ranked 10th in the nation — an all-time best for a Big Ten program.
The freshman class includes eight of Perfect Game’s Top 400 from the 2017 class, and is headlined by left-hander Ben Dragani and first baseman Jesse Franklin, the Gatorade Players of the Year in Wisconsin and Washington, respectively. Beyond them, right-hander Jeff Criswell and catcher Joe Donovan both turned down major league draft offers to come to Ann Arbor.
Donovan was named an All-American by Collegiate Baseball, while right-hander Blake Beers was All-State California and outfielder Jordan Nwogu was All-State Michigan. The acclaimed freshmen are joined by junior-college transfers Blake Nelson and Matthew Schmidt.
Their start to life in the college baseball ranks has not been as rosy. Blomgren and Franklin — the only two freshmen with over 20 at-bats — are both hitting under .200.
“Some of these guys are dealing with adversity for the first times in their lives,” Bakich said, “and we try to have a mental game toolbox to go to when the garbage is hitting the fan but sometimes it’s easier said than done.
“They’re all seeing what college baseball is all about.”
On the mound, Dragani has been a bright spot for the freshmen with a 2.77 ERA in a team-leading 13.0 innings pitched out of the bullpen. After giving up two runs in each of his first two outings, his recent success has catapulted him into a relief ace role in pitching coach Chris Fetter’s bullpen.
“He’s had success because he’s been aggressive with all of his pitches in the strike zone,” Bakich said. “He’s consistently been a strike-thrower every time he’s been out there and he’s executed the pitch call and game plan. He’s done a nice job. He’ll continue to get more opportunities and may have his role expanded.”
The consistency for which Bakich praised Dragani has been a constant refrain throughout the beginning of the season, especially on the defensive side, where the Wolverines have mixed web gems with little league errors. This emphasis on consistency does not exclude the freshmen, who have been key contributors to Michigan’s erratic play.
Last Saturday against Lipscomb, Blomgren made a beautiful diving catch over his shoulder before allowing a run to score on a bobbled grounder four innings later. Franklin, meanwhile, went 2-for-4 with a run batted-in Wednesday afternoon, but came into the game just 2-for-21 on the season. Criswell has a strikeout in each of his four relief appearances — three of which have been scoreless — but gave up a walk-off three-run homer at Stanford two weekends ago.
Struggling with consistency, though, is understandable for players with less than a month of collegiate baseball under their belts.
“You got kids acclimating to a lot of different areas,” Bakich said. “They’re acclimating to school and academics and social life and trying to make friends. They’re away from home for the first time, and now they’re trying to play in a very good, elite program and it’s a lot of balls in the air to juggle at once.”
Added junior shortstop Ako Thomas: “Very good group of freshmen. I feel like they came in and we took them under our wing. Very willing to learn, always asking questions and I feel honored to be able to answer some of their questions because I was in their situation at one point as well, so just being a leading figure as well makes me feel good and (they’re) just a really good group of freshmen.”
As the freshmen traversed this process last semester, their progress had the coaching staff encouraged coming into the season.
“We’re at a point where (in) our preseason training, we’ve started to see that maturity take place,” Bakich said at media day, “where the younger guys are more physical, they’ve gotten stronger, they can slow the game down mentally. Now, you’re starting to see some of their performance show up a little bit and that’s where there is some encouragement and some freshman that will be in some roles that they’re gonna have some opportunities to compete in early and make early contributions.”
Despite their occasional tribulations, Bakich’s preseason prediction has come to fruition. The volatile nature of baseball prevents it from mimicking the one-and-done factory that is college basketball — freshmen are rarely key contributors in baseball.
The Wolverines, though, regularly pencil Blomgren and Franklin into their daily lineup. Donovan has found his way into over half of Michigan’s games, while Nelson has earned himself back-to-back starts. On the pitching side, Dragani and Criswell have repeatedly found themselves trusted with high leverage situations.
“They’ve been complementary pieces so far, would be the way I would describe it,” Bakich said. “They’re in a learning and growth stage still and they’re paying attention, they’re learning, they’re adjusting to the speed of this game and the level of competition here and some of them are playing more than others.”
Despite a 4-11 start, the Michigan coaching staff — especially recruiting coordinator Nick Schnabel — must be credited for putting together a class that has been ready to contribute since day one.
Recruiting to Ann Arbor is no easy task. The minimum temperature required for outdoor practices is zero degrees, a mark that has been flirted with more than a handful of times over the past few months. As a result, the Wolverines spend the first month of each season on the road — this year, migrating from San Diego to Palo Alto to Nashville over the opening month, and they reside thousands of miles from the sport’s recruiting hotbeds in Florida, Texas and southern California.
Instead, Schnabel and his staff must sell Michigan’s academics.
“The school is certainly one of the main reasons that we can attract (this) type of talent,” Bakich said “… For all those kids out there that are very good students that want to play at a very high level, this is an attractive option for them. So we’ve gotten in the conversation for players that are the best students and the best baseball players.”
Recruiting is a process that compounds, and recently, the Wolverines have been able to use the success of previous classes to reach new heights on the recruiting trail, culminating in their record-setting 2017 class.
“A baseball program that — even though we’re in a hiccup right now — has been ascending,” Bakich said of his team. “And the trajectory has been up so people see the school, they see the athletic department, they see the facilities, they want to be a part of this.
“I think (these freshmen) will all make an impact by the time it’s said and done,” Bakich said. “There’s some guys that are very talented out there. So we’re certainly excited for those guys and their continued development.”
For Bakich and his staff, the job is to ensure that 2017 was not the pinnacle of the program’s trajectory. If that job lies in the hands of their freshman class, they have full confidence.