The Michigan baseball team is known for pitching.
The Wolverines’ 2021 ace, Steven Hajjar, was drafted in the second round of the 2021 draft by the Minnesota Twins. When a team loses an ace, though, it’s hard to fill those shoes. Of course, this year’s team has junior right-handers Cameron Weston and Jacob Denner, but finding a third rotation pitcher has been difficult. Instead of going to a freshman, Michigan coach Erik Bakich got creative.
The answer: senior right-handed relief pitcher Willie Weiss.
“The plan is to become a starter,” Weiss said.
Last season, Weiss held a 2.63 ERA with a 4-2 record in 27 innings pitched. He was known for his two-pitch combination of a low to mid 90 mph fastball and his low to mid-80s crossbite slider. As a closer, this worked very well as he could throw with “max effort” to close out a game. But as a starter, stamina is key, and stamina necessitated variety. The trick to becoming a starter for Weiss was to develop a third pitch.
“I’ve been working really hard on developing a third pitch and being able to just have a third pitch as an option,” Weiss said. “It’s hard to be a starter with two pitches, so that was a big emphasis this year.”
Michigan will have non-conference games for the first time since February of 2020. While more games mean more opportunities to knock off top opponents, it also means more arms. Last season, The Wolverines only had three-game weekend series. This season, the team will be traveling a lot and playing in weekend series plus midweek games. The role of a starting pitcher will be very important, so the more experienced pitchers available, the better the team will be.
The idea of switching a relief pitcher to a starter wasn’t a new idea the coaching staff had this offseason. It was in the works for the past three seasons. More than that, Bakich has tried with another player before Weiss.
“It’s a role that we experimented with Jeff Criswell moving from the bullpen to a starter in 2019 and it worked out really well for Criswell,” Bakich said. “Willie can do it. He’s a veteran pitcher. He’s pitched in some high leverage games and some of the closest margin-type situation games. He’s got all the experience and he’s the right type of kid that has a work ethic and a mentality. He could make that switch, no problem.”
In 2019, Criswell emerged on the scene as a starter when then-sophomore left-hander Ben Dragani got injured. Criswell was next up to fill the No. 3 spot in the Wolverines’ rotation. In nine starts, Criswell hadn’t allowed an earned run in almost a month, including striking out 12 batters against Oklahoma State.
Given Bakich’s success in the past, he’s looking to strike gold once again. But it may take time.
Weiss is a formidable reliever, but because of his inexperience, Bakich wasn’t ready to officially call Weiss a starter just yet. Weiss may be in a hybrid role to start the season where he could see action as a starter and from the bullpen. Either way, he will play a pivotal role on the mound this spring.