We get what we earn.
It’s a phrase Michigan coach Erik Bakich and the Michigan baseball team have taken to heart.
Like any other offseason, the Wolverines will earn everything from playing time and leadership roles to team logowear. Bakich hopes to build off the success of his 2019 team, which was runner-up at the College World Series, after losing five more important pieces of that team to the 2020 MLB draft and adding 20 new players to the roster.
“The past is a point of reference, not a place of residence,” Bakich said.
He already sees potential in his 2021 team, despite its relative lack of seasoning and despite a spring and summer of baseball that was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I haven’t noticed any decrease in performance whatsoever,” Bakich said. “Watching them do some of the very simple activities we’re doing, like taking batting practice or taking some defensive work, it doesn’t look like anyone skipped a beat whatsoever.”
Of his 20 new players, 12 are freshmen, five are graduate transfers and three came from junior colleges. Bakich can afford to welcome so many new players because new legislation passed by the NCAA removed the 35-player roster cap for the 2021 season. Larger rosters can accommodate seniors who chose to stay after being granted an extra year of eligibility and players who weren’t drafted in a shortened, five-round draft, along with incoming freshmen.
“It’s going to be the oldest, deepest, most experienced version of college baseball of any season,” Bakich said of the 2021 season.
He’s not yet sure if a larger roster will mean a larger pitching staff and platoons among position players, or if a deeper bench and bullpen will back up a small, core group of starters. Fall games, which have been canceled, can’t help the coaching staff decide which players are best-suited for which roles.
“It’s good to see them trust their training in that moment and see how they compete in that environment,” Bakich said of fall games. “It’s like a barometer of, ‘Where we are midway through the fall?’ and ‘Are we able to translate everything we’re doing in training into an actual game against somebody else?’”
He’ll organize intrasquad games, but they can’t recreate the feeling of playing another school.
Besides baseball fundamentals, Bakich is also focused on creating team chemistry this fall. The 2019 team had an almost-tangible energy that pushed them from being a good team in the regular season to being a great one in the postseason, so Bakich knows how important this will be for this year’s team.
“Our success is going to hinge on not only our ability to physically play baseball, but how we come together as a group,” Bakich said. “There’s a large segment of our fall just dedicated to that, that involves teaching and classroom time and opportunities to get to know these guys individually, and then to get to know each other.”
The presence of the coronavirus has not stopped team meetings. They are held in an outdoor tent, where players can spread out.
Things will change the most for the Wolverines between Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King weekend, when school will be closed. Players will train on their own during this time, and the result of their individual efforts will impact their standing on the team.
But for now, Bakich is just focused on turning his guys into better baseball players and better teammates.
“They’re certainly excited to be able to get on the field again and run around and do the things kids are supposed to do,” he said.