Arizona Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022
Arizona won the Pac-12 regular-season title with a 21-9 record last season and advanced all the way to the College World Series for the 18th time in program history. But the ensuing offseason was one of transition for the Wildcats.
After coach Jay Johnson departed for the open job at Louisiana State, Arizona alum and former big league manager Chip Hale took the helm, his first coaching job in college baseball. Top power bat Jacob Berry followed Johnson to Baton Rouge via transfer, and a whole host of Arizona’s top contributors, led by first baseman Branden Boissiere and starting pitcher Chase Silseth, departed through the draft.
On paper, that seems to suggest a bit of a rebuilding year in Tucson, but enough of an intriguing, talented roster returns that a deep run to the postseason in 2022 certainly isn’t out of the question. These are five questions the Wildcats will have to answer next season on the way to achieving their goals.
How does Chip Hale adjust to college baseball?
Hale is one of the latest head coaching hires in a recent trend of hiring coaches whose experience is almost exclusively in professional baseball. Just this offseason, in addition to Hale, Arizona State hired Willie Bloomquist and Rice hired Jose Cruz Jr. from the pro ranks.
After a big league playing career for the Twins and Dodgers from 1989-1997, Hale coached in MLB for five different organizations, including as manager of the Diamondbacks in 2015-2016, and he won a World Series with the Nationals in 2019.
Teaching the game doesn’t change regardless of level, and Hale’s experience tutoring big leaguers is a definite value add for the players on Arizona’s roster. He also has the advantage of understanding exactly what Arizona baseball is all about. He won a CWS with the Wildcats in 1986 and is still the school’s all-time hits leader.
“The actual teaching of the kids is all the same, and just the communication,” Hale said. “That’s been a really good part of it."
But the college game is different in a lot of ways. There are NCAA rules to abide by, there are time limitations on how much the players can practice with coaches in a given week, and recruiting, of course, is unlike anything in the pro game.
“A lot of the recruiting, learning that part” Hale said of what has been an adjustment so far. “The limitations on time and making sure that we’re on and off the field at the right times, and what I have to turn in if I go to dinner with somebody, there’s a lot of things that you’ve got to really watch and be careful.”
Hale understands that there will be a learning curve in his first year with some of those things, but he’s also got a lot of help. In retaining pitching coach Dave Lawn, who was on staff at Arizona with Johnson, and bringing in longtime college assistant Trip Couch, he has a full-time staff steeped in what it means to be successful at the college level.
Hale’s adjustment to college baseball will have to be evaluated over a number of years rather than through a one-year sample. But with a talented roster at his disposal and a veteran coaching staff ready to help him navigate a new world, if Hale can successfully translate his teaching acumen from his days in the pro game to Tucson, there’s no reason the Wildcats can’t be successful in year one.
What’s next for Daniel Susac?
Sophomore catcher Daniel Susac has been working closely this fall with Arizona volunteer assistant coach Toby DeMello, who in addition to working with hitters is also the Wildcats’ dedicated catching coach, a role he also held previously at Sacramento State.
The goal is for Susac to become as polished a defensive player as he is an offensive threat. The tools aren’t necessarily in question in that regard, and he has the intellectual curiosity that it takes to want to get better, but catching is a craft full of nuance and small adjustments that make a big difference.
“Physically, he’s good to look at when you talk about scouting and profiling guys for the next level,” Hale said. “He’s a big guy, he’s got big hands. He’s got massive power at the plate. He’s got an arm that is as good as anybody in the big leagues right now, but more impressive to me is just the mental capabilities he has and how mature he is for his age. The things he talks about, the things he asks questions about are pretty impressive for where he’s at.”
Offensively, Susac was an immediate contributor as a freshman last year, hitting .335/.392/.591 with 24 doubles, 12 home runs and 65 RBIs. With just 19 walks last season, there are improvements to be made in working counts, but he only struck out 47 times in 242 at-bats, so it’s not as if he’s swinging and missing a ton.
With the departures Arizona had in the lineup after last season, the expectation is that Susac will be the centerpiece of the Wildcats’ offense next season. He’s proven that he’s ready for that responsibility, and if he can make some strides defensively, it can only help him on his path to being a high draft pick next summer.
Who is a breakout player to watch in the lineup?
Sophomore outfielder Chase Davis fits the bill here. The Elk Grove, Calif., native came to Arizona with much fanfare as the No. 55 player on the BA 500 ahead of the 2020 draft, but because of a crowded outfield in Tucson last season, he didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself.
He played in 27 games, although he started just one of them, and went 7-for-30 at the plate. He similarly struggled over the summer in the Northwoods League, hitting .207/.359/.405 in 33 games and 116 at-bats.
The tools are hard to miss, though. He has light tower power from a loose, whippy swing, which he showed off by hitting eight home runs in the NWL’s home run derby in July. Over the summer, he also showed good plate discipline with 25 walks, which helped his on-base percentage get up to a respectable .359. He brings a lot to the table defensively as well, with a plus arm that should allow him to play anywhere in the outfield and enough speed to handle center field. There’s also no doubt about him physically, as he has a solid 6-foot-1, 211-pound frame that he takes care of famously well, dating back to his prep days.
“Really impressive stuff,” Hale said of his early impressions of Davis. “Great arm, runs well, big-time power, hits the ball from line to line, should put up big numbers. If you look at the summer numbers, they weren’t (big), but they should be. So there’s work to do and he’s working hard at it.”
Davis still has a lot to prove with the bat. There’s no doubt about that. Having plus raw power and good defensive tools will be tough to justify in the lineup every day if he struggles to hit much above .200, even as the outfield is now wide open for Davis to grab a starting job.
But if his hit tool shows improvement in 2022, which would allow him to get to more of that power in games and help him draw even more free passes, Davis could be a ready-made replacement in the Arizona batting order for some of those proven producers that departed in 2021.
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Who will lead the weekend rotation?
It’s still extremely early in the competition, but sophomore righthander T.J. Nichols has to be seen as an early favorite to take over Friday starter duties for the Wildcats.
The top pitcher in Arizona’s 2020 recruiting class, Nichols was solid in his first season in the program, putting up a 4.77 ERA in 60.1 innings in a swing role, and he seemed to get better as the season went on. In his final six outings, which included three postseason appearances, he gave up two runs in 17.1 innings, including giving up one run in 5.1 innings in the clinching game of the super regional against Mississippi.
In terms of having the stuff to be a Friday guy, it’s a no-brainer. Nichols’ fastball averaged over 94 mph last season and touched 98. He pairs that with a slider in the low 80s that had a greater than 50% whiff rate last season. In a perfect world, Nichols would incorporate his changeup a bit more in a Friday starter role after he threw it just a few dozen times last season, but even if he doesn’t, that fastball-slider combination will be enough to get lots of hitters out.
“T.J. Nichols has been impressive,” Hale said. “He’s a guy that should pitch at the next level, with pretty much ease, but again it’s about development, it’s about us and Dave Lawn developing these guys in a way to make them high draft picks and guys that have a chance to play in the big leagues. At the college level, his stuff is going to be as good as there is out there. We just have to have these guys pitch with no fear.”
Fifth-year senior lefthander Garrett Irvin could also turn out to be the leader of the weekend rotation based on his experience alone. He took the ball as a starter every weekend last season, 18 times in total, with a 4.58 ERA in 88.1 innings to show for it.
Irvin has a more traditional four-pitch starting pitcher mix, with a fastball in the high 80s, touching the low 90s, two distinct breaking balls and a changeup. That’s not stereotypical Friday starter raw stuff, but no one on the pitching staff is more battle-tested than Irvin at this point.
Whether it’s Nichols, Irvin or someone else entirely taking the ball on Friday nights for the Wildcats next season, the coaching staff has options, and that’s good news for a program for which the pitching staff is almost always playing catchup to the offense.
Who will anchor the bullpen?
It didn’t draw the attention of Berry transferring to LSU and won’t attract eyeballs in the same way that a competition in the weekend rotation will, but quietly, Arizona’s bullpen will require some rebuilding in 2022.
Righthander Vince Vannelle graduated. So did righthander Preston Price. Lefthander Gil Luna was drafted by the White Sox. Fellow lefthander Randy Abshier is no longer with the program after he and Luna were suspended late last season due to an off-field issue. Another lefty, Riley Cooper, joined Berry and Johnson at LSU. That’s five pitchers, all primarily relievers, who each threw at least 21.1 innings in 2021.
Some key relievers from last season return in fifth-year junior righthander Quinn Flanagan (3.99 ERA, 38.1 IP), third-year sophomore righthander Chandler Murphy (4.29 ERA, 63 IP), who could also get in on the weekend rotation competition, and third-year sophomore righthander Dawson Netz (4.50 ERA, 34 IP). But the true anchor of the Arizona bullpen in 2022 could be Loyola Marymount grad transfer Holden Christian.
The lefthander developed into one of the best relievers in college baseball last season for the Lions, putting up a 0.97 ERA with 56 strikeouts and a .124 opponent batting average in 37 innings. When it was all said and done, he allowed a run to score in just three of his 21 appearances.
He doesn’t have traditionally overpowering stuff, with a fastball that sits in the high 80s and touches the low 90s, but he still manages to get outs at a high level using that pitch nearly 80% of the time, thanks in part to some funk in his delivery. His primary offspeed pitch is a curveball in the mid 70s that last season had a 34% whiff rate, equal to the whiff rate on his fastball.
“To bring in a guy like Holden Christian from Loyola Marymount who’s done it at that level and done it late in games, that’s going to help us a lot because we did lose some guys, let’s not forget about that,” Hale said.
Whether he ends up in a conventional closer’s role or does something else on the staff, Christian is likely going to be a go-to arm for the Wildcats early and often in 2022.