Entering last season’s three-day, double-elimination Big 10 Championship as the number five seed, Michigan Baseball was in the midst of a transition year of sorts.
With starting second baseman Jacob Cronenworth, third baseman Travis Maezes, catcher Patrick Kendall, centerfielder Jackson Glines and designated hitter Kevin White all having departed, there were holes to fill up and down the roster.
While the 2015 team went on to win the Big 10 Tournament as the number three seed and make an NCAA appearance, the 2016 incarnation of the team was not quite as lucky.
This time around as the number five seed, the Wolverines were defeated by Ohio State in both their first and third games in the tournament which sent them home packing rather abruptly.
The end of season result wasn’t nearly on par with that of 2015, but in digging deeper it was clear that there was more room for optimism than solely the overall youth of the team.
Finishing the season overall with a record of 36-21, a couple of bounces here and there could have drastically changed the fate of the team. While matters of luck are impossible to predict, a further analysis shows that the team has the talent to compete once again.
In the first set of Big House Analytics’ series of advanced statistical looks at the Michigan Baseball team, we’re going to start with the most common of all of the ‘new-era’ baseball stats: WAR.
WAR, short for Wins Above Replacement, was created in an attempt to provide a single statistic that encompasses all of a player’s contributions to their particular team.
With base-running, defense and hitting all included, WAR is meant to give a general estimate of a player’s value compared both to the league as a whole, as well as to potential replacement players.
The formula varies, but for the sake of this site we use the calculation provided by FanGraphs:
WAR = (Batting Runs + Base Running Runs + Fielding Runs + Positional Adjustment + League Adjustment + Replacement Runs) / (Runs Per Win)
Given that it is a cumulative statistic, playing more games is a positive as is racking up more plate appearances. For an overall look at Michigan’s team from last year, we have generated WAR totals for each of the position players (pitchers will come in a different story).
Due to the positional adjustments that WAR takes into account (shortstops being more valuable than designated hitters, for example), two of the team’s catchers stood out amongst the top producers from last year’s team.
Along with outfielder Cody Bruder, catchers Harrison Wenson and Drew Lugbauer stood in a class above the rest of their positional player teammates, though first baseman Carmen Benedetti and third baseman Jake Bivens were within striking distance.
In terms of what this means for Michigan moving forward, it’s clear that they’re going to have some major talent coming back. With Wenson, Lugbauer and Benedetti returning to the heart of the lineup, they should be able to slug with the best teams in the Big 10.
Along with those three, Bivens should provide a solid presence atop the order once again, but beyond that things begin to get a bit murky.
Bruder’s spot as the cleanup hitter should be relatively seamlessly filled, but Ramsey’s absence will certainly be felt, much like it was after he went down with an injury towards the end of last season.
He provided a consistent presence in the two-hole, finishing the year with a .298/.405/.414 slash line, and there hasn’t been anyone on the roster that has shown that they can hit at a level that spot in the lineup requires.
Then-freshman Ako Thomas took on that responsibility as the season came to a close, but he’s nowhere near Ramsey’s level with the bat. His strikeout percentage of 15.2% is above average, but he has virtually zero pop and won’t put himself into scoring position nearly often enough for the big three bats behind him to be able to capitalize.
Not all hope is lost for that spot in the order, however, as current sophomore Jimmy Kerr could be a player to keep an eye on the throughout the season. Though he picked up just 32 plate appearances last season, he made good use of them and could push Bivens off to shortstop, while Thomas and current shortstop Michael Brdar create a timeshare at second.
Kerr wasn’t the only freshman from last year’s team that could make a step forward, as the highly touted Jonathan Engelmann is going to be needed to make an impact right away with the departure of two of his teammates from the outfield.
Regarded as a potential top-ten round pick coming into Michigan, Englemann struggled to find a groove last season but still wound up being named to the Baseball America Top 50 list of Freshman prospects.
He’s going to have to be a bit more patient at the plate if he wants to fill a major void in the lineup (his BB% rounded out at 6.4% last year, far below average), but he has the ideal build (6’3, 200 pounds) and swing that projects well for the future.
With Englemann taking the reins in left field and Johnny Slater taking over right, the centerfield spot will likely be up for grabs. Dominic Clementi and incoming freshman Chris Prescott look to be the frontrunners, but with months until the beginning of the season it’s tough to tell.
Whatever the lineup may end up being, around 30% of their positional WAR from last season is headed out the door. Kerr and Englemann possibly stepping into larger roles should negate some of that loss, as should the overall development after another year of experience, but for Michigan to get back where they were two seasons ago, it’s going to take a breakout year from someone.