Fall Ball Report: North Carolina pitching staff one of America's best heading into 2018
There may not be a more stable college baseball program in America than that of the University of North Carolina. After all, current skipper Mike Fox is only the third Tar Heel head coach since Walter Rabb took over in 1947.
Rabb won 540 games, then passed the torch to Mike Roberts in 1978, who won another 780 games until Fox was hired in 1999.
All Fox has done is win 840 games and make 16 post season appearances, including 6 Omaha trips and two National Champion runners up finishes.
Following '15 & '16 seasons that ended uncharacteristically without a Regional berth, the Tar Heels stormed back in 2017, recording the 4th lowest ERA in the nation (2.96), committing only 49 errors in 63 games (.979) and posting their best-ever 23-7 ACC record. That record earned them a #2 national seed and host of the Chapel Hill, NC Regional.
Dreams of Omaha, however, were dashed quickly and in stunning fashion, losing twice to upstart Davidson, including 2-1 in an elimination game in front of 3000 Heel fans at Boshamer Stadium.
This year the Heels lose three major pieces from that '17 team in top MLB draftees RHP J.B. Boukouskas (15th overall, Astros), SS Logan Warmoth (22nd overall, Toronto) and CF Brian Miller (36th overall, Miami).
Those are gaping holes to fill.
The cupboard is far from bare, however. Fox and long time assistant Scott Forbes landed Perfect Game's top ranked 2016 recruiting class that included elite arms in right-handed starting pitchers Gianluca Dalatri, Austin Bergner and Tyler Baum.
All three flourished as freshman under the leadership of first-year pitching coach Robert Woodard, while proving to be remarkably durable, combining to throw 293 innings over the '17 spring and summer seasons.
Many believe the trio will form America's best weekend rotation in '18.
Woodard is no stranger to Chapel Hill, having smashed the pitching record books here as a four-year starter between 2004-2007, going 34-5 without a single loss at home. He's also intimately familiar with The Cape, pitching three dominant summers (2004-06) for Chatham (career 0.847 WHIP in 106.1 innings) and legendary coach John Schiffner and also serving as pitching coach for Kelly Nicholson and Orleans in 2012.
Woodard joined Mike Fox's staff in '10-'11 before a year at UNC-Wilmington, three as the Virigina Tech pitching coach (2014-2016) before returning to Carolina following the 2016 season.
We caught up with Coach Woodard to get his impressions of the 2018 roster, a look at recently concluded fall ball and, of course, insights into his deep & talented pitching staff.
It starts with Dalatri, who was a workhorse a year ago, making all 10 ACC weekend starts while logging 97 innings on the year. He finished 7-3 and showed advanced pitchability in walking only 19 while striking out 85. The 6''6" 240lb zone pounder was also impressive in three starts for the Team USA over the summer.
Dalatri's simple, low effort delivery through a 3/4 slot is repeatable in producing a fastball that sits 90-92, touching 94 ("He can dial up the fastball when he needs it".) D1 Baseball ranked him the #8 prospect from the loaded Team USA roster. Pretty heady stuff for a youngster who will enter the '18 season as a 19 year old. "He's just a special person. So consistent, so calm. His pulse never goes up", says Woodard.
Bergner has a projectable 6'4" body with electric stuff , delivered with a drop & drive style through 3/4 slot with loose arm action. He tossed 48 innings in the spring, striking out 45 while allowing only a .202 batting average against. He was then flat dominant in The Cape with Chatham, holding opponents to a .202 batting average while posting a 1.16 ERA and 30 whiffs in just 31 innings. His fastball sat between 94-96, touching 97.
"I'm really proud of AB. He didn't have success right away, but kept battling and really matured throughout the year", said Woodard. "His curveball is developing. We've worked on throwing that pitch harder, changing the shape a bit. When he can throw it in hitter's counts he can be really dangerous, especially coupled with a plus fastball and changeup that have both life and depth."
Baum is a premium athlete with a loose, medium effort delivery who went 7-0 over 15 mid-week starts, limiting hitters to just a .208 batting average. His command took a step forward in The Cape for Harwich, posting a 10/43 BB/K ratio and .228 BAA over 43 innings, earning him an All-Star appearance. Woodard loves his consistency. "We know what we'll get each day. He goes about his business with a sense of purpose". The lanky 6'2" right-hander has also added 15 pounds "in all the right places" since he enrolled and seems poised for a big year as a weekend guy.
The closer is redshirt sophomore Josh Hiatt, a 2017 All-American after silencing ACC hitters to the tune of a 0.29 ERA, .136 BBA and 7 saves over 30.2 innings of conference play. "We threw Josh out there in the toughest situations against the best hitters, and he thrived.", said Woodard. Hiatt notched saves in his first three career appearances, against offensive juggernaut Kentucky no less, and never looked back.
While Hiatt is only 5'11", 176lbs, you won't find a more fierce competitor on the hill. "He's just so mentally tough and rarely beats himself" said Woodard. "Nothing he throws is straight, and it all comes out of the same arm tunnel". The right-hander pitched for Orleans in The Cape last summer, holding batters to a .138 BAA in posting a 2.73 ERA.
Three other experienced juniors return after successful spring campaigns and summers in The Cape.
Junior RHP Taylor Sugg "rolls out of bed throwing 90-92 with a good breaker and change" and is highly capable of shutdown innings in critical spots. He produced quality starts in elimination games for both Carolina in the Regional and Orleans in The Cape and finished last spring with a 1.95 ERA and .229 BAA.
Fellow right-hander and Orleans teammate Brett Daniels simply gets good hitters out time and again. As a freshman he posted a 2.17 ERA and .227 BAA over 37.1 innings and repeated that success last year (2.68 ERA, .228 BAA in 40.1 innings). For Orleans, opponents hit only .190 against him. "Brett's in great physical condition, is consistent in his preparation and knows when to slow the game down to get through jams" said Woodard.
Tireless worker Rodney Hutchison, Jr is a 6'6", 227 strike thrower who logged 58.2 innings of work in '17, with a 17/53 walk-to-strikeout ratio. "Rodney is the first guy in for workouts, the last one to leave", says Woodard. "He wants to be really good, if not the best and really feeds off the competition here". Hutchison Jr. was sensational in The Cape with Chatham, silencing top bats over 30 innings in posting a 0.60 ERA.
Woodard is really high on returning RHP Hansen Butler, who sat out '17 after a minor shoulder issue was cleaned out surgically. Before the injury Butler was firing fastballs in the mid-90's range. He entered the fall in superb condition with "the ball coming out of his hand great, a fastball up to 88-89 along with a plus changeup and breaking ball".
Also in the mix for innings are JC-transfer Cooper Criswell, a 6'4" strike-thrower, highly touted freshman righty Joe Lancellotti, who's been up to 94-95 this fall, two-way freshman Ben Casperious, "a highly competitive, physical bulldog" and instate freshman RHP Kyle Blendinger, who attacks at 89-91 from a low-3/4 slot.
Handling the pitching staff will be junior catcher Cody Roberts, who returns after hearing his named called in the 38th round of the '17 MLB draft by Miami. He's a plus catch-and-throw backstop who handles the bat well, slashing .282/.367/.409 in ACC play while striking out just 17 times in 103 conference at-bats.
Sophomore 1B Michael Busch , a former middle infielder, returns to provide strong defense and a solid bat. The lefty swinger came on in ACC play, hitting .260 with 17 RBI in just 50 conference at-bats. Woodard believes he may be the team's best clutch hitter.
Senior 2B Zach Gahagan suffered through a difficult '17 season following invasive surgery for a blood clot that involved removing a rib, robbing him of weight and strength in the spring. He still managed to smack 7 homers and drive in 42 runs. "We could have lost him to the draft (39th round, Cincinnati) and are thrilled to have him back", said Woodard. "He's put on good weight and had a great fall with an OB% of .500 with real power".
Just as important, Gahagan offers leadership following the departures of Warmoth and Miller, having logged over 700 at-bats between his spring seasons and two summers in The Cape with Brewster. In '17, Gahagan & teammate Kyle Datres helped lead Brewster to the '17 Cape League title.
Datres , a junior, started every game last year, mostly at 3B, and busted out with 7 homers, 13 doubles and 51 RBI. "He's one of our best athletes", says Woodard. Datres spent time at SS this fall and looked comfortable doing so.
If not Datres at shortstop, returning infielder Ike Freeman could be the guy. "He's had a great fall after putting 8-10 quality pounds" says Woodard. He looks to improve on his .174 average of a year ago.
Two outfield position are locked down.
Junior Brandon Riley has been a starter since he arrived on campus and returns after an impressive '17, hitting .317 with 21 extra-base hits and a team leading 52 RBI. He's a smart base runner and an intense battler in the box, evidenced by a 37/34 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 224 at-bats. Riley, who hit .256 for Orleans in The Cape, is also an instinctive defender who may slide over to the CF position in '18.
Sophomore Ashton McGee handled ACC pitching beautifully a year ago, hitting .333 in 120 at-bats with a 17/24 BB/K ratio against some of the nation's best arms. He's been working out in left-field this fall and looks to stick in that spot come February.
Two intriguing pieces offering Fox tremendous lineup flexibility are JC transfer Dylan Enwiller from Yavapai Community College in Arizona and returning sophomore Brandon Martorano.
The rangy 6'2" Enwiller can play either CF or 2B, and with legit his 6.6, speed perhaps offset the loss of Miller's dynamic base-running.
Woodard believes Martorano, a 30th round MLB selection out of high school, to be "one of the best catchers, with Cody, in the entire ACC. At the same time, he's also a really, really good outfielder". He could see time in CF as well.
2018 Outlook: Despite losing three high-profile stars, the Tar Heels have plenty of talent on hand. The pitching staff is as deep and talented as any in the country, good enough to win some weekend series almost single-handedly.
The staff won't have to be perfect, however, as the Heels have proven ACC bats in Riley, McGee, Datres and Roberts. Busch appears ready to take another step forward.
The offensive upside rests with the potential of a healthy Gahagan. Now at full strength, the senior is capable of hitting 10-plus dingers and driving in a boatload of runs.
Should Martorano fully tap into his talent and Enwiller comfortably handle CF duties, the Heels seem poised for their first Omaha run since 2013.
Once there, few teams will want to face this pitching staff over a prolonged tournament.