Coach Pete Hughes and the Virginia Tech baseball team are coming off of a historic 2013 season, which was capped off by being selected as a NCAA Tournament Regional Host for the first time in school history. For much of the 2013 season, it didn’t look like the Hokies would make the ACC tournament, much less return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. But the team caught fire at the right time, winning 16 of their last 19 games (prior to NCAA tournament selections) including an appearance in the ACC Tournament Championship Game.
An upset loss to the Blacksburg Regional’s #4 seed, UConn, was not how the Hokies would have preferred to begin their first appearance as a regional host. The Hammerin’ Hokies refused to go down without a fight, winning back to back elimination games against Coastal Carolina and UConn, but unfortunately their Super Regional hopes were thwarted by a very good Oklahoma team. Even so, the 2013 season was a monumental step for Coach Hughes and his program. There is still plenty of work to be done, but the future of the Virginia Tech baseball program is looking brighter than ever.
Coach Hughes will be tasked with replacing significant portions of his pitching staff, as well as his lineup. From a glance, it may not look like much to replace only three members of the regular starting lineup. However, when the three players are your 3-hole hitter and shortstop (Chad Pinder – drafted by the Oakland A’s with the 71st overall pick), your cleanup hitter (Tyler Horan – drafted by the San Francisco Giants with the 252nd overall pick), and your 6-hole hitter (Andrew Rash – exhausted eligibility), that’s a pretty daunting task.
It becomes even more of a challenge when you see that Pinder, Horan, and Rash hit .321, .342 (team leader), and .315, respectively, and were responsible for a combined 30 homeruns and 162 RBIs during the 2013 season. The Hokies offensive cupboard is certainly not empty, but it is safe to assume we will see a vastly different style of offense in 2014. With the exception of C/OF/DH Mark Zagunis (.341 BA/ 9 HR/ 51 RBI) and 1B/LHP Sean Keselica (.307 BA/ 5 HR/ 31 RBI), Virginia Tech will only be bringing back 11 homeruns and 116 RBI from the 2013 lineup.
Next season the Hokies will have to put much more emphasis on quality at-bats, stealing bases, advancing runners, and hitting well with runners in scoring position. If those four areas look like things that any good team should excel at, that is because generally, that is true. With the exception of very few stolen bases/attempts and high strikeout totals, the 2013 team executed very well offensively. But when you have the firepower that Pinder, Horan, and Rash brought to the table, moving runners and stealing bases will not be a significant part of your offensive game plan.
So, Who is Remaining Entering Fall Practice?
Unfortunately, there is not a gentle way to describe significance of losing Pinder, Horan, and Rash for the Hokies offense. However, Coach Hughes and his 2014 lineup will certainly have returning hitters who are more than capable of putting up great offensive numbers, as well as a few others who I believe will surprise people when the 2014 season rolls around.
There’s no better player to start with than rising junior C/OF Mark Zagunis. Somehow Zagunis was often overshadowed during TV broadcasts, in the news, and in the 2013 All-ACC (by overshadowed, I mean….HE WASN’T SELECTED). I’m won’t get into the argument about his lack of 2013 awards, but instead I will highlight some statistics and accolades that Zagunis has collected during his first two seasons in Blacksburg:
2012 (True Freshman Season)
- Batted .344 (1st on the team/7th in the ACC)
- .513 Slugging Percentage (3rd on the team)
- .430 On Base Percentage (1st on the team/8th in the ACC)
- 17 Stolen Bases in 22 Attempts (1st on the team/4th in the ACC)
- Selected to three Freshman All-American Teams – National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (2nd Team), Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Team, as selected by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, Perfect Game Freshman All-American Team (2nd Team)
- All-ACC 2nd Team
- VaSID Rookie of the Year (also named 1st team catcher)
2013 (Sophomore Season)
- Named a Preseason 2nd Team All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association
- Batted .341 (2nd on the team/13th in the ACC)
- .543 Slugging Percentage (3rd on the team/11th in the ACC)
- .433 On Base Percentage (1st on the team/16th in the ACC)
- 62 Runs Scored (1st on the team/T-5th in the ACC)
- 79 Hits (2nd on the team/12th in the ACC)
- 9 Home Runs (3rd on the team/T-8th in the ACC)
- 19 Stolen Bases in 24 Attempts (1st on the team/T-6th in the ACC)
There are plenty more categories that could be listed to show the type of player Zagunis is, but I think you get the point. There are not many players in the country, yet alone the ACC, who are productive in such a variety of offensive categories. And because of Zagunis’ versatility, I have found a variety of sources that slot him as a projected 1st round draft pick entering next season, some of which place him in the top-half of the 1st round. Obviously we are still about 355 days away from the 2014 draft and a lot of things can change, but I believe Zagunis represents a decent starting point for the Hokies 2014 lineup.
The issue that Zagunis and the Hokies will face, as most baseball fans will be quick to point out, is that even the best hitters struggle to produce if they do not have protection throughout the lineup. Working off the assumption that outfielder Gary Schneider will be healthy and decides to return for his remaining year of eligibility, Schneider and rising junior 1st baseman Sean Keselica will represent two critical pieces of the Hokies 2014 lineup.
A solid bat and veteran presence, Schneider also adds much needed speed to the lineup. I am still undecided as to where I think Schneider fits best in the lineup (he can run and has some pop, but is also prone to strike outs), but I know that is a problem Coach Hughes would gladly think of an answer for. Next in line to take some pressure off Zagunis will be Sean Keselica. While Keselica struggled with plate discipline a little down the stretch, I definitely believe he is a quality hitter who is capable of filling multiple roles in the lineup, depending on where he is needed most. I loved him in the two-hole last season, because he is capable of using the whole field, comfortable getting into deeper counts and battling (if needed for a stolen base attempt), laying down sacrifices, as well as bringing a left-handed bat with pop. I personally would love to see Keselica hit third, ahead of Zagunis, because with additional at-bats this summer and fall, I think he is capable of some very good power numbers.
Personally, I think the most important player in determining next season’s success (tied with a few pitchers mentioned below), is Brendon Hayden.
When Brendon stepped on campus in 2011, he was accompanied by arguably the highest expectations of any Hokie freshman in recent memory. Hayden was a highly touted, 6-5 left-handed infielder with outstanding power, and had the type of frame and swing that projected even more promise as he matured. Not to mention that many scouts saw even more promise from him on the mound, where he has flashed a heavy fastball in the 88-90 mph range (more on his pitching in a later article).
After a very good freshman season in which Hayden batted .336 with 10 doubles, 1 triple, and 2 homeruns, his sophomore campaign produced significantly lower offensive numbers, and he struggled with plate discipline and high strikeout numbers throughout the 2013 season. With that being said, I am anticipating that we will see Brendon’s 2014 offensive numbers more in line with what Andrew Rash produced in 2013. Although Hayden will more than likely have higher strikeout numbers than you would like, the numbers he produced in the Northwoods League in 2012 show what he is capable of.
Last summer while playing for the Wisconsin Woodchucks, Brendon batted .343 with 18 doubles, 4 homeruns, 51 RBI, and most importantly, a respectable 37/19 strikeout/walk ratio. For those that are unfamiliar with collegiate summer baseball (players use wood bats), the Northwoods League is commonly considered the second best summer baseball league, behind the well-known Cape Cod League. I am certainly not predicting the trio of Keselica, Zagunis, and Hayden to put up the combined numbers we saw from Pinder, Horan, and Rash last season, but I think they are more than capable of leading a very productive 2014 lineup for the Hokies.
The remaining pieces of the Hokies’ 2014 offense are much more difficult to predict, in terms of who may get significant at-bats and who will hit in various parts of the batting order. It is safe to say at this point that Alex Perez will see his name in the lineup, barring very significant changes and surprises. Perez took his share of criticism throughout the season, but in my opinion second base and the leadoff spot (or possibly the two-hole) are Alex’s to lose.
Perez may have only batted .225 last season, but it is unfair to simply use that stat to write him off. Perez produced an incredible 29/42 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which resulted in a .344 on-base-percentage (.119 point spread is outstanding). Combine those numbers with his ability to use the whole field/hit behind runners, execute sacrifice and base hit bunts, force pitchers into deep counts, and solid speed on the bases (he is capable of significantly better stolen base numbers, but last year’s offense was a different animal), and Perez is a quality top of the lineup hitter.
Next, rising r-junior Kyle Wernicki’s performance down the stretch of the 2013 season adds a lot of promise to next season’s lineup. Wernicki’s season numbers were not spectacular, but if you watched any of the ACC Tournament or Blacksburg Regional, you saw a kid that was getting better every game, has surprisingly more pop than you would expect, and seems to have a very good feel and approach towards hitting.
I think the offseason battle for Tech’s starting shortstop will be fun to watch. Rising sophomore Matt Dauby is regarded as a very solid defender capable of making all the plays needed from a shortstop, and I think he will prove he is capable of a lot more with the glove and the bat than his performance last season shows. Predicting the starting shortstop for any team, let alone an ACC team, is always a stretch. However, Garrett Hudson is a highly regarded shortstop and is part of Coach Hughes’ 2013 recruiting class. Hudson will need to add some weight to his 6’0”, 175 lb. frame before next season to be capable of showing enough offense, but Hudson is a very athletic and slick-fielding infielder who I expect to be capable of challenging for the starting shortstop position.
Another incoming freshman I am very high on is Mac Caples, a 6’0”, 190 lb. third baseman from James River High School (Midlothian, VA). James River has been known for churning out great college baseball players in recent years, and I believe Caples will continue this trend. I’m not sure if he will show enough on defense or offense to challenge for a starting spot by February, but I definitely will not be surprised if Coach Hughes finds a way to get Mac a lot of at-bats next season.
The remainder of the Hokies’ lineup will probably be an ongoing evaluation process throughout the winter, but I really liked what I saw from rising r-sophomore Ryan Burns last season. I am not familiar with Burns’ defensive ability as a catcher (although this is a moot point assuming Chad Morgan returns to school), but I would imagine he will at least be part of the designated hitter platoon, and possibly win the job for himself.
Continuing the discussion regarding the catchers (aside from Chad Morgan), I would not be surprised if incoming freshman Gabe Levanti emerges as the top defensive catcher on the team. Levanti still has work to do on his blocking and obviously adjusting to the college game, but I firmly believe the coaching staff has landed a diamond in the rough with Gabe. After watching just a few of his high school highlights, Levanti is already an outstanding throwing catcher, and I fully expect him to be more than capable of containing the running game as a freshman. However, like any other player, Levanti will have to show he is capable of handling the bat well enough, and continuing to improve on his receiving and blocking to be ready for ACC competition.
Lastly, I believe outfielders Carson Helms (rising junior), Saige Jenco (rising sophomore), and Logan Bible (rising r-sophomore) each bring a different combination of tools to the lineup, but it remains to be seen which one is capable of bringing enough of those tools together to have a chance at quality playing time.