The Virginia Tech baseball season is just about a month away from opening day on February 14. I talked with head coach John Szefc and assistant coaches Ryan Fecteau and Kurt Elbin at length to discuss a variety of topics about the Hokies. This is part two of a three-part article series in the leadup to the start of the season.
The ACC baseball schedule can be a grind. It eats away at even the best of teams. Those teams that survive are the ones with the player personnel in place that provides a combination of depth and talent.
Last year, Virginia Tech had talent within the confines of English Field, but once a slew of injuries knocked out Nick Menken, Reagan Teegarden, Carson Taylor, and Luke Horanski throughout the season in short order, the Hokies didn’t have the depth to make up for it.
Heading into the 2020 season, head coach John Szefc believes the team is in a much better place from a player personnel standpoint to survive the gauntlet that they will face.
“We’ve been working for two and half years now to get it in a good position,” Szefc said. “To begin, I would say our player personnel is in a much better place than it has been. It was in a pretty good position last year, then we ran into all those injuries we had. This year, we’re a little bit deeper. I believe our pitching and our defense is in a much better place than it had been in the past. Both skill level and depth wise. We could maybe afford to lose a guy and be OK.”
Ryan Fecteau has already gone above and beyond in commanding a pitching staff that is putting up respectable numbers in Blacksburg. In Fecteau’s first year as the pitching coach in 2018 the Hokies ended up with a 5.61 ERA. Last year’s staff collectively tallied a 3.98 team ERA, a full 1.63 points lower than the previous year. That was the best team ERA since 1984 when the Hokies went 41-17.
The Gilmanton, New Hampshire native expects more of the same this year after working closely with the group over the fall.
“The core of the pitching staff all returned,” Fecteau said. “We pretty much lost [Nic] Enright and [Luke] Scherzer, but the majority of our innings returned especially with [Ian] Seymour and [Chris] Gerard.”
The Friday night starter and workhorse of Virginia Tech’s rotation, Ian Seymour, returns for his junior season. As a sophomore, Seymour started 13 games and compiled a 4-5 record with a 3.97 ERA. He struck out 81 batters to just 24 walks over 70.1 innings pitched.
Fecteau noted that he’s going to carry an even bigger workload in 2020, largely thanks to the place he is physically because of strength and conditioning coach Brian Neal. Otherwise, the focus for Seymour centers on refining his arsenal to become an elite pitcher in the ACC.
“Seymour has always had a really good change up,” Fecteau said. “We’ve made some adjustments with the fastball, trying to pitch a little differently with it, pitch a little more swing-and-miss mentality instead of pitching to contact with it. His cutter has been a great pitch. He just started throwing it last year, so I think that thing is going to keep getting better. It’s more just how well he can repeat his delivery. His stuff has always been good. It’s just a matter of is he going to really go to a different level with his command, or is he just going to continue to pitch around the zone?”
Southpaw Chris Gerard is expected to return to the rotation after a standout year as a freshman with a 2.77 ERA over 12 starts. The final weekend starter is a toss up, but expect JUCO transfer Anthony Simonelli to throw his name in the hat. The right-handed hurler comes from St. John’s River CC, and he previously started six games as a freshman at Coastal Carolina.
“He’s the guy, it’s a low-to-mid-90’s fastball with a power breaking ball, so I think he’s the guy that he’s probably got a lot of pro potential right now,” Fecteau said of Simonelli. “I think he’s going to step in and be an immediate impact guy for us.”
The Hokies’ bullpen starts and ends with Zach Brzykcy. The stuff has never been lacking for Brzykcy, who fires a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90’s along with a wipeout slider. It comes down to reigning his stuff in, and the junior began that work this summer in the Cape Cod League, winning Relief Pitcher of the Year in college baseball’s premier summer league.
“He came in with a big-time arm and didn’t know how to pitch yet. He needed to gain some confidence,” Fecteau said. “His sophomore year I thought he made a huge jump. We put him in some big situations right out of the gate that first weekend last year… Then, we were just in so many close games and we couldn’t really just wait around for closing situations. We had to start bringing him in in the seventh inning if we felt like the game was on the line.
“The way our team is shaping up, I think we can have him in more of that role this year where he has a little bit better expectation with where he’s going to be used in the game. The Cape Cod league, he proved he can be in the zone really effectively with awesome stuff. I think he had one walk the whole summer.”
Filling out the backend of the bullpen will be a few veterans in seniors Jaison Heard and Peyton Alford, along with juniors Ryan Okuda, who posted a 1.69 ERA over 32.0 innings, and Nolan Wilson.
“Pitching staff in particular, there’s some guys in that staff that have made that staff a really experienced, quality ACC staff,” Szefc said. “A lot of it is because of some guys on there that have progressed quickly over the last three semesters.”
So who are those newcomers who could play a large role? Fecteau specifically mentioned lefties Henry Weycker and two-way player Gavin Cross as having emerged in the fall. Freshmen like Stephen Restuccio and Mike Grupe possess arm talent that could grow into shape during the season.
“There’s some freshman, guys that have a ton of potential, it’s just a matter of how they’re going to return after an offseason of going home and taking a little break,” Fecteau said. “A lot of those freshman make a jump in this two-month period [from winter break to the season beginning].”
Virginia Tech’s offense sputtered down the stretch last year in large part to the aforementioned injuries. The Hokies batted .263 as a team, which was second to last in the ACC. Tech jumped up five spots with a .380 on base percentage. With 2020 on the horizon, hitting coach Kurt Elbin is preaching a simplified mindset to the players.
“For guys to make jumps, they have to be more consistent,” Elbin said. “They have to be better at being themselves every single day. That’s what I challenge them with. You don’t have to hit for more power, you don’t have to hit for more average. You just have to be more consistent guys from a clubhouse perspective, on the field and off the field. That’s what is going to make them jump.”
The lineup will be centered around three returning sophomores in Nick Biddison, Kevin Madden, and Carson Taylor.
Biddison was Mr. Utility for the Hokies in 2019, starting 25 games as the catcher, 23 in center field, two at first, one at third and one in left. He slashed (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) .281/.453/.500 with eight home runs and 38 RBIs as a freshman.
“He had a really good summer in the Peninsula,” Elbin said. “He came back a better player. His swing is simpler. He’s more comfortable in the box. He knows what he needs to work on. He knew his downfalls last year as an offensive player.”
Madden will return to third base where he started 50 games last year. He led the Hokies with 62 hits in 2019 and was second on the team with batting average, slashing .316/.362/.423.
“Madden played a little bit in the summer, but came back and lifted all summer,” Elbin said. “He’s 20 pounds stronger. He’s a big dude now. He looks different. He played well this fall.”
Taylor is back after starting 36 games last year, with 21 at first, 14 at catcher, and one as designated hitter before a hit by pitch off his hand caused him to miss the final 13 games of the season. He slashed .290/.389/.413 as a freshman.
“Taylor hit I think .600 [in the fall]. He had the best fall from a coaching perspective, one of the best falls I’ve seen from a hitter,” Elbin said. “It was pretty impressive. He didn’t get out.”
Taylor is expected to catch more in 2020, and he made major strides defensively in the offseason. He’ll be joined by freshman Cade Hunter in controlling the pitching staff behind the plate.
“Carson Taylor developed drastically from his freshman fall to his freshman spring and throughout the summer,” Szefc said. “If you’re struggling behind the plate, it’s not going to bode very well for your pitching staff. We have a freshman back there too, Cade Hunter, who will really complement Taylor. The two of those guys work very well together handling the staff. They’re fun to watch catch, both of them. I think that will really help the pitching and the defense in general.”
5-foot-8, 160-pound freshman Fritz Genther is expected to fill the void left at shortstop with the graduation of Nick Owens. Like Fecteau, Elbin also noted that Gavin Cross is going to be a special player as a two-way star. Elbin was also high on JUCO transfers Spencer Palmer to find a role as a corner infielder and Brennan Reback to bring a dimension that the Hokies haven’t had before as a player who stole 61 bases in two years at Central Arizona JC.
“I like a lot of our newcomers,” Elbin said. “I think we have probably 12 or 13 guys that we feel comfortable throwing in the lineup. So it’s deep as deep can be as long as we stay healthy.”
With talent and depth at a place where Virginia Tech hasn’t been before, each member of the coaching staff explained that 2020 could be a special season. Results of the past will caution the fanbase from believing too quickly, but those at the next level are already buying into what’s built from a player personnel perspective in Blacksburg.
“We go from playing the last two seasons and finishing with sub-.500 records, and not having a competitive record in the ACC. That’s a black and white fact,” Szefc said. “Now, you have a handful of guys on our roster, if you were just hanging around our offices the last two days, we’ve had four days of Major League scout meetings where guys will come in and visit with our guys about the upcoming draft and get a feel for who they are and get to know them.
“You go from a team that had a couple guys drafted last year late in the teens and in the 20’s, nothing in the top 10 rounds, and now you’re looking at a group that just from a talent perspective would appear to be dramatically more talented on paper. When you talk about unique, that’s a pretty dramatic change in a short period of time.”
“A lot of it is because you have these guys who are draft eligible when last year they weren’t, but they’re also a year better, a year more experienced, and clearly the professional people think the same thing. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be driving all the way to Blacksburg to meet these guys. I think one of the ways the program makes a jump is with more talented, experienced players who have a genuine care about the outcome. Not saying that they didn’t last year, because they did, but I think this group has a genuine care to how this season ends and where it’s going.”