Notre Dame Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022
Notre Dame enjoyed a breakout 2021 season, going 25-10 in ACC play to win the league’s regular-season title, hosting a regional for the first time since 2004 and coming up just one game short of a trip to the College World Series for the first time since 2002.
The trick in program building is taking that first taste of success and turning it into sustained success over the long haul. It will take some time for Notre Dame and coach Link Jarrett to prove that out in South Bend, but at the very least, after really only losing two key pieces from last season in slugging first baseman Niko Kavadas and righthander Tanner Kohlhepp, the Irish are in position to be just as good in 2022.
Before they can do that, however, they have to answer these five questions.
Does the offense change at all with the departure of Kavadas?
Last season, Notre Dame’s offense was often centered around first baseman Niko Kavadas and his ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark at any moment. He hit 22 of the team’s 66 total home runs, and partially as an opponent response to that, his 50 walks were more than double the total of anyone else on the team.
There’s no doubt that having a Kavadas-centric offense worked. The proof is in the pudding with how good the Irish were last season. But even if other effective run producers exist in the lineup next season, it’s extremely unlikely that a slugger as productive as Kavadas emerges, simply because he was one of the best handful of sluggers in the country in 2021. And that might mean that the Irish score runs a little bit differently moving forward.
“I think you’re a little bit more across the board similar in what you want to do, “Jarrett said of the makeup of the 2022 lineup. “The game took on a different shape when (Niko) was on deck. The game took on a different shape when he was at the plate, and the game took on a different shape when he was on base. There were some obvious power guys in the college game, but he was right up there at the top, I would say. Running was not his strength, (and) the intentional walk was an obvious choice when people could do it, so as much as I like to run, sometimes it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to try to run with him on deck or with him up because you wanted him to be pitched to, so there was a lot more thought in managing his position in the batting order and where we were in the game at the time than if the players are a bit more similar (in skill set).”
While it remains to be seen how a different offensive approach affects the team’s output next year, there’s something to be said for the possibility of it being a better fit for what Jarrett wants to do.
While the coach at UNC Greensboro, his teams were always dynamic offensively, often thanks in large part to speed and aggressive baserunning up and down the lineup, which isn’t something Notre Dame was necessarily able to do with Kavadas in the middle of the order.
And furthermore, Notre Dame already has the pieces in place to make a more aggressive offense work. The Irish stole 65 bases as a team last season, and they were fairly evenly dispersed throughout the roster, with five different players swiping at least seven.
Fifth-year senior center fielder Spencer Myers would seem to be the key to a more speed-based Irish offense in 2022. He led the team in steals last season with 15, and if he really gets going, he has a chance to do much more damage. During the shortened 2020 season, for example, he had 15 stolen bases in just 12 games while getting on base at a .492 clip.
Notre Dame will miss Kavadas, but his departure does give the Irish a chance to reinvent themselves on the fly.
“Replacing 60 RBIs is hard,” Jarrett said. “I hope that with everybody back and some very talented young lefthanded bats here and players that we were trying to get in the lineup last year but weren’t, we can pick up some of the slack and maybe have another dimension where we do have more of a chance to run with that spot in the lineup and maybe it becomes more complicated to deal with us.”
How good will the lineup be?
Even if the Notre Dame lineup doesn’t really add a new dimension next year, it should still be a very productive group.
The outfield should be a particular strength for the Irish. Myers will return to center field. He hit .295 with a .370 on-base percentage last season after getting off to a slow start. He had at least one hit in 22 of the Irish’s final 23 games, including five total hits in the Starkville Super Regional.
Also back to man the outfield corners are fifth-year senior Ryan Cole and fourth-year junior Brooks Coetzee. Cole had a breakout campaign in 2021. After hitting zero home runs in his first three seasons on campus, he hit nine last season, good for second on the team, and he led the team in hitting at .336. Coetzee had a similar breakout experience in his first season as a full-time player, hitting .274 with six homers and 11 stolen bases.
Fourth-year junior Carter Putz, an infielder by trade but a DH last season, was second on the team in hitting at .305 and was third in slugging at .492. His bat is one the Irish will want in the lineup again.
Third-year sophomore third baseman Jack Brannigan might have as high a ceiling as anyone among Notre Dame position players. He was solid last season, hitting .295 with 12 doubles and six homers, and this summer he followed that up by hitting .282 in the Cape Cod League.
Defensively, the Irish will also be very solid up the middle of the field, where that kind of thing is most important. Fifth-year senior catcher David Lamanna is back behind the plate and the middle infield is in place with the return of fifth-year senior second baseman Jared Miller and fourth-year junior shortstop Zack Prajzner, who made just nine combined errors last season.
We know what to expect from this group, and that’s that it should be one of the best lineups in the ACC and perhaps the country.
Does the coaching staff handle the pitching staff the same way as last season?
The short answer is that it’s still to be determined, because for Jarrett and pitching coach Chuck Ristano, handling the pitching staff is less about having a specific usage plan ahead of time and more about matching up the best arms on the team with the biggest moments.
That approach is precisely how Notre Dame ended up with its unique pitching plan last season. Precisely one pitcher had a set role, and that was John Michael Bertrand, who took the ball basically every Saturday of the season on the way to putting up a 3.21 ERA in 92.2 innings.
Everyone else just pitched when they were asked to pitch. Kohlhepp had the second-most innings on the team despite starting just one game. Lefthander Will Mercer started the second-most games of any pitcher behind Bertrand, and he ended up fourth on the team in innings pitched. The Irish really only had seven pitchers who threw significant innings in 2021, but that's all they needed.
“What we did last year with the pitching staff was the most unselfish, remarkable piece of work I’ve ever seen from a college team,” Jarrett said. “I tell the guys up front, the value of a starter versus a guy that pitches in the fifth versus the guy that pitches in the ninth versus the guy that throws on Tuesday, every one of these outs is critical. Don’t ever put in your mind as a pitcher a premium on ‘hey, I’m the starter on Friday or I’m the starter Saturday or I’m the closer.’ We just weren’t built that way.”
With every major mound contributor except Kohlhepp back in the fold in 2022, the coaching staff could choose to run it back using a similar approach. But the coaches should have other usage options at their disposal given the improved depth from newcomers alone, with righthander Ryan McLinskey from Seton Hall, righthander Austin Temple from Jacksonville and lefthander Matt Lazzaro from Houston all coming in with lots of experience, plus the arrival of two freshmen who were ranked on the BA 500 before the draft in righthander Roman Kimball and lefthander Jack Findlay.
You couldn’t blame Jarrett and Ristano for approaching building a pitching staff the same way as last season given the results, but with some newfound depth, it won’t be a surprise to see many more pitchers getting a shot at important innings next season.
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In what area can Notre Dame make a jump?
We’ve established that the Notre Dame pitching staff was effective last season, and as a group, it put up a 3.95 ERA.
But it had that success despite not really being a pitching staff that missed bats. Just two of the seven pitchers who got significant innings last season, Kohlhepp and righthander Liam Simon, averaged more than a strikeout per inning, and as a team, the Irish had just 370 strikeouts in 421 innings.
That’s a tough way to live in a sport that is increasingly strikeout-centric, and that’s something that Jarrett would like his team to improve upon.
“We have to find punch out capability,” Jarrett said. “We were very effective pitching in all areas, but the strikeout is the biggest weapon you have on a team. When you can punch people out, when your pitchers can strike out opposing batters at a high rate, that’s the ticket, and we have to get better at that.”
The biggest help in that regard might actually come from guys who were on the roster last season.
Simon, now a third-year sophomore, throws extremely hard, and Jarrett predicts that he’ll hit 100 mph before it’s all said and done, but he walked 24 in 25.1 innings last season, which made it difficult for the coaching staff to lean on him even as he had the best strikeout rate among the top seven arms. Having Simon throw strikes more consistently, which would likely lead to increased usage, would lead to more strikeouts right away.
The same can be said for Brannigan. Using a fastball that was clocked as high as 98 mph last season, he punched out seven in four innings, but had his opportunities limited due to similar consistency issues and the fact that he was also the team’s full-time third baseman.
It’s unlikely that Notre Dame immediately turns into a pitching staff that stacks up strikeouts by the dozen next season, but Jarrett being so clear about it being an area he wants to address means that it’s a safe bet that improvement will be on the way.
What are the expectations for the incoming transfer class?
In a short period of time, Notre Dame has earned some benefit of the doubt when it comes to pitchers it pulls from the transfer portal. Bertrand’s success after transferring in from Furman is well documented, but the Irish also got some good work last season from Central Florida transfer lefthander Joe Sheridan, including 14.1 combined scoreless innings to begin the season against Clemson, Virginia and Duke.
McLinskey, the righthander from Seton Hall, was the Pirates’ Friday starter each of the last two seasons, and in 2021, he had a 2.81 ERA across 12 starts. His stuff is also plenty good, which should help in Notre Dame’s quest to strike out more batters. His fastball averaged 90.6 mph last season, touching as high as 95, and his changeup induced a 45% whiff rate.
Temple was limited to two appearances last season due to injury, which means he’s been limited to six appearances over the last two years when you consider the 2020 season being shortened. When he’s been on the mound, however, he’s showcased good stuff, including a fastball up to 95 mph.
Lazzaro, a former teammate of Bertrand’s at Furman who spent last season at Houston, had arguably his best season of college baseball in 2021 despite moving up in competition level, with a 3.66 ERA with the Cougars in 19.2 innings, primarily as a reliever. His fastball is mostly a high-80s offering, but it can get up to the low 90s, and historically, his changeup has been his best swing-and-miss pitch.
Those three check a couple of different boxes for Notre Dame. They represent important depth as the Irish look to rely on a larger number of pitchers next season, and all three provide hope for more swings and misses in 2022. Both McLinskey and Lazzaro struck out more than a batter per inning in 2022, and Temple certainly has the stuff to join them in that regard next season.
“Somebody is going to have to take some of those (available) innings,” Jarrett said. “Maybe it’s McLinskey, one of our grad transfers from Seton Hall. Maybe it’s Temple, one of our grad transfer righthanders from JU. Matt Lazzaro from Houston. We have some grad guys, somebody is going to have to pick up (and) elevate the stuff in traffic, mid-game, late-game situations.”