BLANK: Can Virginia’s arms keep up?
Much of the buzz around Virginia athletics in recent weeks has rightfully been about the basketball program. However, as March turns to April and the weather on Grounds improves, eyes will increasingly turn to Davenport Field and the Virginia baseball team..
Fans who have followed the program over the past few seasons will be relieved to find many aspects of this year’s team to be business as usual. When it comes to Virginia baseball of late, that similarity is a good thing.
Coach Brian O’Connor is still at the helm, and there are familiar faces from recent postseason runs in the form of three preseason all-Americans — junior second baseman Ernie Clement, junior pitcher and outfielder Adam Haseley and junior first baseman Pavin Smith. Additionally, the team finds itself in contention for postseason play yet again, as Baseball America ranks the Cavaliers No. 19 in the nation.
However, Virginia’s past successful teams featured an ace anchoring the staff — a proven veteran that can be relied upon such as Connor Jones last year, or Josh Sborz and Brandon Waddell the year before. In contrast, this year’s team doesn’t have a proven ace.
This lack of an ace on the pitching staff is emblematic of a broader uncertainty surrounding the Cavaliers’ staff. Virginia sports a 4.76 earned run average this season as a team, which ranks an abysmal No. 154 in the country. This ERA is almost half a run higher than last season’s ERA of 4.22 and over a full run worse than the 3.49 ERA the Cavaliers managed in 2015.
Virginia’s success on the pitching mound throughout much of the 21st century further highlights the weakness of this season’s team. The Cavaliers had a 2.23 ERA in 2014, which ranked No. 2 in the nation. In fact, coming into the season, Virginia’s ERA of 3.17 since 2005 ranked No. 2 nationally behind Texas, and the Cavaliers have ranked in the Top 20 in ERA in the nation for nine of O’Connor’s 13 seasons.
Despite stability in the coaching staff, this year’s team has not been able to match that success. While there is sufficient talent on the roster — recruiting of pitchers has not taken any noticeable hit — the performance has not been up to their lofty standards.
This is particularly unfortunate, because in almost every other facet, the Cavaliers are well-positioned to succeed.
Virginia has performed well at the plate this season. The Cavaliers have a batting average of .318 — which ranks No. 15 in the nation— and return seven starting position players from last year’s squad, showing they have the experience to keep up the pace.
The Cavaliers are no slouches on defense or the base-paths, either. Currently, they’re ranked No. 3 in the ACC in stolen bases with 37 steals in 43 attempts, and No. 4 in fielding percentage at 97.6 percent.
Despite this success, Virginia’s aspirations are still clouded by their pitching outlook. The Cavaliers will need someone to step up on the mound during the second part of this season.
There are four pitchers who have started multiple games this season for Virginia — Haseley, junior Derek Casey and sophomores Daniel Lynch and Evan Sperling — to varying degrees of success.
Haseley, the only returning starter from last season, has been underwhelming on the mound. While he has led the team at the plate, his 3.60 ERA is up almost two runs from a year ago. Haseley is still one of the best pitchers Virginia has, but he may need to up his game going forward.
Casey, a talented recruit getting his first real action due to injuries, has been excellent, at a 2.16 ERA. Over his five starts, he has given up only one walk, demonstrating exceptional command.
Lynch and Sperling have been problem spots for the Cavaliers among the starters. The two both have ERAs of 6.75, and despite their talents, neither of the youngsters have been able to put it together on the field this season. At least one — and ideally both — will need to improve significantly if Virginia hopes to compete.
Although it could use more depth, Virginia’s bullpen has been strong. Senior Alec Bettinger, junior Tommy Doyle and sophomore Chesdin Harrington all have an ERA at or below 2.03. If Virginia’s staff is to become more competitive, improvements will have to come from the starters.
The Cavaliers have a shot to be good this season. They have the top-level talent, experience and well-rounded play that are the hallmark of good teams. The major question — and one that has become even more pressing of late — is whether their starters are up to the task.
Jake Blank is a Senior Associate Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Jake_33.