After a dreary start to the season, no one is more excited to hit the reset button with a clean conference record than Michigan. Originally tabbed as the No. 2 team in the Big Ten, the Wolverines (6-16 overall) are in desperate need of momentum.
Michigan coach Rich Maloney — in his ninth season with the team — said he’s never seen a team begin a season in such a slump (Michigan is hitting .248 with under four runs per game). Fifth-year senior captain Anthony Toth sparked some controversy when he called out the team’s effort, saying his teammates are “cutting corners.”
With a chance to forget the non-conference schedule, the Wolverines begin their pursuit of rectifying the season in their chase for the program’s 36th Big Ten title, and first since 2008. Here’s a position-by-position look at this year’s team:
As the only newcomer to the infield, redshirt junior Garrett Stephens came in with big shoes to fill. With just 12 career starts — only two of which came at first base — it’s his job to fill in for former captain and All-Big Ten first baseman Mike Dufek. Stephens had a red-hot start to the season — he’s still second on the team with 11 RBI — while working his way up to the clean-up spot, but has since cooled, now hitting near the bottom of the order with a .250 batting average. In a lineup that severely lacks the ability to drive in runs, Stephens will be looked upon to rediscover his swing.
Toth, who started in each of the 134 games over the last three years, is now a staple in the lineup and the heart and soul of the team. Despite any extra-base power, he manages to get on base, steal bases, and play stellar defense. Toth isn’t a superstar, but with a history of clutch hitting — he has seven career game-winning hits — and uncanny leadership, he’s the kind of guy every team needs.
In his third year as the starting third baseman, junior John Lorenz is off to a slow start. A solid fielder, Michigan had high hopes for Lorenz coming into the season, as he started in the top half of the lineup. But due to a meager .304 on-base percentage, the junior is now hitting near the bottom of the order.
Expectations are sky-high for sophomore Derek Dennis, Michigan’s most talented player and highest-ranked prospect, but Dennis has struggled to find consistency. While his .407 on-base percentage is encouraging and the reason he’s been hitting in the three-hole, it’s time for Dennis to show the ability that ranked him in the top 10 for shortstops coming out of high school. Dennis has improved his range and anchors Michigan’s defense, which will be counted upon if the Wolverines continue to struggle at the plate.
Freshman Michael O’Neill has done everything Michigan could’ve asked of him and more so far. O’Neill is the closest thing the Wolverines have to a five-tool player. While his power — like the rest of the lineup — is light, he hits for average (team leading .333 batting average with hits in 20 of 22 games), has speed (he leads the team with 12 steals), has a superb arm (an impressive four assists from the outfield) and boasts excellent range. Currently the clean-up hitter, O’Neill has been the only quality producing batter thus far. If he keeps his pace, he should be named to the freshman All-American team and be a future mainstay as an All-Conference outfielder.
Sophomore Patrick Biondi has been steady thus far, but his hitting is below last year’s numbers when he was named to the freshman All-American team. Biondi’s on-base percentage is down .70 percentage points to .354 — not what Michigan needs out of its leadoff hitter, though he does lead the team with 12 RBI. Biondi is second on the team in steals with nine and covers centerfield with ease. He has shown his ability to bunt for a hit and will need to continue finding ways to get on base if Michigan has any chance of breaking free from its lack of offensive production.
To say there’s been a drop off in the production in left field from last year is like saying the Wolverines start to the season wasn’t great. Replacing last year’s All-Big Ten left fielder Ryan LaMarre, a .419 hitter, Maloney has gone to left field by committee — with no one sticking. Freshman Alex Lakatos — also a pitcher — is hitting just .233 in 10 starts. Redshirt sophomore Kevin Krantz is hitting just .214 with just 12 hits and 18 strikeouts in 18 starts. At this point, it seems any production from left field will be a nice addition to the bottom of the lineup, but it shouldn’t be counted on.
In another colossal drop-off, the Wolverines replaced Chris Berset and his .373 average with a catching platoon. Junior Coley Crank, who’s primarily been the designated hitter, was recently moved to catcher to try to produce something behind the plate. Crank’s numbers were superb last year — he hit .324, and led the team with a .596 slugging percentage and 14 homeruns. But this season, Crank is hitting just .208. Redshirt freshmen Zach Johnson and John DiLaura and freshman Cole Martin began the season as the primary catchers, but are hitting a dismal .164 combined.
The Michigan starters have been inconsistent to say the least.
Maloney shuffled the rotation a bit, but has seemed to settle on three for now: redshirt sophomores Bobby Brosnahan and Tyler Mills and sophomore Kyle Clark.
New pitching coach Matt White, a former first-round pick, has seen his staff plagued with injuries — seniors Kolby Wood and Travis Smith are both out indefinitely (Smith recently had surgery). The lefty Brosnahan was the early season ace, but has since been anything but. Though he’s shown recent signs of promise, Brosnahan is just 1-5 with a 7.39 ERA. Command has been an issue — he’s walked as many (14), as he’s struck out.
Mills is Maloney’s favorite pitcher to talk about, describing him as “electric.” He’s shown flashes, but inexperience has sometimes turned the electricity into a power outage. He’s 1-2 with a 4.60 ERA. Clark has come on nicely as a newcomer to the rotation, also going 1-2, but with a very respectable 3.42 ERA.
Opening weekend starters — junior Brandon Sinnery and sophomore Ben Ballentine — have seen little action after struggling last month.
After being overworked in the first few weeks due to struggling starters, the bullpen has settled in a bit.
Junior Keven Vangheluwe has 2.81 ERA and 17 strikeouts in just 16 innings and freshman Jake Engels has a 2.89 ERA in seven appearances. Lakatos, Maloney’s other favorite pitcher with an “electric arm,” will serve as the closer.
But as Maloney warned, he may be too good to stay in the bullpen. Maloney called the righty a “workhorse,” saying he could close out games in four to five inning appearances. Lakatos has shown promise with 11 strikeouts in 13.1 innings, but his 12 walks and a 7.43 ERA need to improve before he can truly be counted upon in save situations.