Arizona Coach Jay Johnson On Excitement For 2021, Recruiting During Coronavirus
Like everyone else around college baseball, Arizona coach Jay Johnson was disappointed that the 2020 season got cut short. His team was 10-5 with an offense that still hadn't fully hit on all cylinders yet and a pitching staff that had been a question mark coming into the season but had been effective through four weeks.
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There had been some confounding losses, like a 15-11 defeat at the hands of Rhode Island, but the team had done a lot more winning than losing and there was a feeling that the best was yet to come.
"I really liked the direction we were headed," Johnson said. "I liked the makeup of the team. We never lost two in a row, so the bounce back factor was good for our team."
But as disappointing as it might have been to not be able to finish out the 2020 season, it must be pretty easy for the Wildcats to look ahead in anticipation, as there are many reasons for optimism for this program moving forward.
One is the addition of pitching coach Nate Yeskie, who came over from the same position at Oregon State to help team with fellow Arizona coach Dave Lawn to make run prevention a priority for a program known more for putting up runs in bunches.
Universally lauded as one of the brightest pitching minds in college baseball, Yeskie will have additional time to mold the pitching staff as he sees fit ahead of the 2021 season after his work was already bearing fruit in 2020.
"The first thing that really stuck out was our pitching was much improved in terms of the strike throwers," Johnson said. "Obviously, adding Coach Yeskie was a big-time deal for our program relative to the development of our pitchers."
Perhaps the biggest downside to not playing out the 2020 season from Arizona's perspective is not getting another full season of catcher Austin Wells in the lineup. A draft-eligible sophomore who is considered to be first-round material, Wells is likely to hear his name called early in next month's draft and sign with the professional team that selects him. Losing a player like Wells after just one complete season gives Johnson greater appreciation for the coaches in a different sport.
"The first thing that comes to mind is I know how some of these college basketball coaches feel now, where you only get a great player like that for one season, and honestly, one of the saddest parts, (one of) the toughest ones to get over when the season was ended was 'hey, he's probably not going to be playing for us anymore,'" Johnson said.
Wells, who was hitting .375/.527/.589 in 2020 one year after he hit .353/.462/.552, is the type of hitter you can build a lineup around, and in 2021, Johnson and his staff will have to build one without him.
"I really believe he's one of the best hitters I've ever coached," Johnson said. "His calling card, at least for me, is his adjustability. What I mean by that is if he was down or off, he wasn't off for very long. It would just take a quick reboot session to get him back on track with the things he needed to, and he could immediately take those adjustments into the game and be successful."
The loss of Wells will be a big one, but the NCAA Division I Council's decision to grant eligibility relief to all players, combined with a five-round MLB draft, means that Arizona could get just about everyone else back next season.
That could mean a lineup centered around outfielders Ryan Holgate, Mac Bingham, and Donta Williams, first baseman Branden Boissiere, shortstop Jacob Blas, catcher/infielder Matthew Dyer and infielder Dayton Dooney. It could also mean every major piece from the 2020 pitching staff could be back, including starting pitchers in lefthander Garrett Irvin and righthanders Chandler Murphy and Quinn Flanagan who combined to make for an effective weekend rotation.
The current roster will also be supplemented by an outstanding recruiting class that projects to be ranked just outside the top 10 in the country. That might mean fierce competition for playing time throughout the fall and into the spring, but the end result should be a deeper, more talented team.
They could also be at a bit of an advantage, given their experience, when you consider all of the lost development time for every college program since the season shut down. That is to say that Arizona knows what it has, which might be more than you can say for many programs across the country.
"I think we have a good pulse on what we have within our program with those other players," Johnson said. "We have some good players at some premium positions that will be athletic. We'll have a number of returning players that have gotten significant at-bats because we played a lot of them as freshmen in the 2019 season. So I think you're looking at a group that will have been through some things, even though this season got cut short, that will play with a high level of maturity."
Arizona's recruiting success is no great surprise given Johnson's track record as one of the head coaches most involved in his team's efforts in this area.
Lately, however, thanks to the world being turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, recruiting looks quite a bit different than it did before.
The NCAA has extended a recruiting dead period several times now, and it currently runs through the end of June. That means Johnson and his coaches aren't out on the road, but given how quickly information has changed, it has allowed for time to process everything.
"For now, it's actually been okay to be in a little bit of a holding pattern until we see how this is going to affect it," Johnson said. "(It's a) shorter draft, probably more players coming into every program across the country, potential to be have a little bit older team, which I'm excited about."
Video evaluations can certainly be done during this time, however, and Johnson has worked to take what he can from it.
"When we're looking at young players, I think it it will tip us off to somebody we need to follow up on, and when I say 'follow up on,' maybe research how well they've done throughout their high school career, what does their high school coach say about them, what does, maybe, their travel team coach say about them, maybe opposing coaches, those types of things," Johnson said. "And then what we do with those evaluations is take them into hopefully whatever (happens) this summer or fall, and go see players play. I will always trust our own eyes in seeing players within competition before we really make a decision going forward."
With what should be an excellent team in 2021 and an outstanding recruiting class on the way in, that trust has paid off.