Hokies Baseball 2022 Season Preview
First pitch for Virginia Tech baseball is less than a week away!
The Hokies will be looking to build upon an up and down season that saw the Hokies make their way into the national spotlight as a fun, exciting, and promising young team. After starting the season 19-9 (14-7 in the ACC), the Hokies' lack of pitching depth and some untimely injuries were exposed and finished the season 27-25 (16-20), missing out on the NCAA Tournament even after reaching as high as #17 in the D1 Baseball rankings.
It's hard to be too disappointed in the 2021 Hammerin' Hokies. Head coach John Szefc has built this program from the ground up, literally. The electric factory that was English Field last spring was nationally recognized, and the Hokies had huge wins against power programs like UNC, Miami, Florida State, and Virginia. Regardless of outcome, the baseball program found its spark last season. invigorating a local community that had been patiently waiting for Hokie sports to return since the start of the pandemic.
For the 2022 season. the Hokies will have to rely on a mix of experience and youth. The team is led by consensus first team All-American CF Gavin Cross. Cross led the Hokies with a .345/.415/.621 slash line while also leading the ACC in steals (9) and triples (5). He also led the team in homeruns (11), hits (70). runs (48), doubles (13), and total bases (126). He also had a fielding percentage of 97.8% with only 2 errors for the whole season. To say Gavin Cross is a really good baseball player is a gross understatement. If things go to plan this season, Cross will leave Blacksburg in the argument of best Hokie baseball players of all time.
D1Baseball, the leading college baseball publication and ranking service, lists Cross as the #5 collegiate prospect in the upcoming MLB draft. Considering Cross is a left-handed, 5 tool player (which means he can run, hit for power, hit for average, throw, and field), that's hardly a surprise. For a program that was consistently at the bottom of the ACC and hasn't had a first team all-American since 2003, Cross is a program changer. But it's not all on his shoulders.
The Hokies have a good amount of talented players that can make plays at the highest level of collegiate baseball. Combine them with a pitching rotation that should have a year of development under its belt, and the Hokies should be one of the most competitive teams in the ACC. Looking deeper, let's start with a position by position breakdown for the Hokies:
The Hokies will be without all three of last season's weekend starters: Peyton Alford, Anthony Simonelli, and Chris Gerard. Top closer/reliever Shane Connolly has also graduated. That's your four inning leaders gone. That's a heck of a lot to replace. This is the number one area of concern for the Hokies in 2022, and its why they're considered one of the biggest question mark teams in the ACC.
The top arm in the starting rotation looks to be Griffin Green, a 6'3" righty with an above average fastball and a wicked slider. Green spent the summer in the Cape Cod league playing with the Brewster Whitecaps along with fellow Hokies Nick Biddison and Gavin Cross. There, Green really stepped up his game and helped lead Brewster to the league title. If all goes to plan, Green should be the Friday night starter for the Hokies.
Outside of Green, the Hokies have a cluster of guys that have a lot to prove in starting roles. On the experienced side, Jonah Hurney, Ryan Okuda, and Grant Umberger are guys who pitched a decent amount last season and could find there way into starting roles. However, only Okuda has any significant starting experience with 7 games started last season. To add to those guys are some key freshman and transfers that will need to be ready to play this spring.
Brady Kirtner is a redshirt freshman who showed a lot of great stuff in the Valley League this summer playing for the Charlottesville TomSox. He's a wiry pitcher with exceptionally high spin rate. Fellow TomSox pitcher Christian Worley has increased his velocity from last season and looks to compete for some starting time.
Another redshirt freshman to look out for is Kyle McKernan, who originally committed to Furman before their program was cut last season due to financial constraints. He's a work in progress that you could see play in some mid-week games and gain valuable experience.
Mostly, though, the Hokies will have to take an unorthodox approach to starting pitching in 2022. They simple don't have four or five dudes that can go out and give you 5+ innings against ACC competition, at least not yet. In many cases, you may see the Hokies work much like the Tampa Bay Rays of 2020 and use a committee approach. It's not ideal, but it's worked at both the collegiate and major league levels before. Last season. Notre Dame finished 25-10 in conference play with a similar strategy. And that 2020 Rays team? They won the American League.
The Hokies have two solid arms returning out of the pen this season in Graham Firoved and Matthew Siverling, and they need to be almost perfect for the Hokies to have a shot at winning in the ACC. Senior Graham Firoved posted a 3.48 ERA last spring with 36 K's over 20.2 innings. He has ridiculous spin rates on all three of his main pitches: four seam fastball, curve, and changeup. Last season I coined Firoved as the 16th member of OPEC, because all he does is throw GAS. I stand by that. Firoved will most likely act in the closing role this season and finish in the top 4 in innings pitched.
Matthew Siverling looks to be the Hokies best option as a set-up reliever, and their go-to arm in lefty vs lefty situations. Siverling was up and down last season, posting a 5.52 ERA and allowing a .312 batting average. Most of that came towards the end of the season, when really no Hokie pitcher had their best stuff. With his command, Siverling should sit much more in the low 4's range for ERA coming out of the pin and lower that batting average to the mid .200's.
The Hokies have recruited pitching very well recently, and it may show fruit this spring. Tyler Dean is a true freshman from Roanoke who can throw mid-90's with ease. He played collegiate summer league with the Tri-City Chili Peppers in the Coastal Plain League and got some early exposure to the college level. Dean has all the potential in the world, but struggles slightly with his fastball command. Dean could see the mound some this spring in blowout games to get some good experience, but he's mostly a guy for the future. Fellow freshman T.R. Williams and Drue Hackenberg are really talented, but coming off of some time away from the field. Williams, from Page County, VA, could have been a high draft pick out of high school but dealt with a rare medical issue that sidelined him. His comeback to the mound has been sensational, and well worth a read when you get the chance.
Another guy coming off of injury is Henry Weycker, who was a stud at the beginning of last season before getting injured. Weycker may be the best arm in the bullpen, and could even see some time as a starter. If the Hokies need a flawless inning or two, Weycker may be the guy called upon.
The outfield will be the strength of this team, both in the field and in the batter's box. The aforementioned Cross will make the move from right to center this spring due to his natural ball-tracking ability, which may come in handy in a ballpark in Blacksburg that can be very windy. Cross was named ACC pre-season player of the year by D1Baseball, and may very well be a top five to ten draft pick. There's not much more to add, honestly. He's just really freaking good at baseball.
Alongside Cross is plenty of talent, flexibility, and experience. Nick Biddison, Carson Jones, and Jack Hurley can all play left or right field. Biddison, who starred for the Hokies as a freshman and sophomore, struggled coming back from injury last season and was never himself 2B. Biddison should be back to 100% this season and will act as more of a utility player for the Hokies in the field. Jones was a promising freshman last season. Not only did Jones field his position well, but he showed his potential at the plate and improved his game mightily this summer playing with fellow Hokies Tyler Dean and Cade Swisher on the Tri-City Chili Peppers.
But the guy to watch other than Cross in the outfield in Jack Hurley. Hurley was a true freshman last season and played with incredible fire and tenacity. He can hit for both average and power and can be a pest on the bases. The only thing holding back Hurley was his patience at the plate, where he led the Hokies in strikeouts with a whopping 64 strikeouts. In the field, Hurley has a great arm and will be an everyday starter at either left or right this spring. If he can avoid the high strikeout numbers, he's a all-ACC caliber player.
Also in outfield will be Cade Swisher, Jonah Seagears, and JMU transfer Conor Hartigan. Swisher worked on his fielding in right field this summer and improved tremendously, but in ACC games will most likely be a DH. Seagears and Hartigan provide great depth and experience to the outfield, along with Brennan Reback, a speedster who suffered a knee injury early last season.
Overall, the outfield will be the strength of the Hokies both in experience and depth. One injury here or a hitting slump there won't impact the team too greatly, which is a welcome comfort for Szefc and the coaching staff.
The 2021 Hokies had a team fielding percentage of 0.962. That's horrid. That was last in the ACC and 231st nationally. You can't win with that.
This season, the Hokies will look to sure things up, especially on the right side of the infield. However, questions still loom about exactly who will see the majority of the outs at first and second. For either spot, the conversation begins and ends with Nick Biddison. Biddison can play anywhere on the field, as was mentioned above in the outfield section. Where he may be most needed is at first base. The Hokies lost starting 1B T.J. Rumfield to the MLB, and have no obvious backup for the position. Biddison would be an unconventional 1B to say the least. His realtively short frame combined with his tendency to hit for average instead of power is the polar opposite of a modern 1B. However, the Hokies just need sure-fire gloves in the field, and Biddison has the potential to bring that even though he struggled last season at points.
Other than Biddison, veterans Lucan Donlon and Nick Holesa could see significant time at 1B. Holesa dealt with a back issue last season but still managed to start a good amount of games. Another option would be JUCO transfer Scott McDonough, who can hit for power much like Rumfield did last season.
Replacing Biddison at second will most likely be Penn transger Edaurdo Malinowski. Malinowski was a stud for the Penn Quakers hitting .347 as a freshman (named Ivy League Freshman of the Year in 2018) and .354 as a sophomore. Last season was cut short for the Ivy League, so Malinowski has some rust to knock off. However, his a rangey athlete who will pair wonderfully in the middle infield with star SS Tanner Schobel.
Schobel racked up an OPS of .800 last season as a true freshman and added 7 HR. He also starred in the Cape Cod league this summer, hitting over .300. He's a better athlete than he looks, and has shown the ability to make some spectacular plays in the field. If Schobel continues to progress, he could be a real star.
Third base is another question mark for the Hokies after two year starter Kevin Madden surprisingly transferred to South Carolina after last season. The most likely candidate to start at third is true freshman Carson DeMartini. DeMartini is a special prospect out of Virginia Beach and showed it this summer in the Coastal Plain League. He has power well beyond his years, and shows great patience at the plate. In fact, DeMartini hit a 420' bomb to straight center this summer against fellow Hokies freshman Tyler Dean in a Coastal Plain League matchup.
Behind the plate, Cade Hunter is the guy. Hunter dealt with injuries last season and his absence was felt tremendously. His adds an undeniable swagger to the Hokies lineup, and has worked to become a better defensive player this offseason. Backing him up will be Gehrig Ebel, who saw valuable game time last year as a freshman.
As for the designated hitter role, the Hokies have a fair amount of options. Ideally, Cade Swisher would be the guy. Swisher has great potential as a power hitter and proved it last season. Veteran Jonah Seagers and JMU transfer Conor Hartigan could also find their way into the mix as well as whoever is not starting at 1B between Biddison, Holesa, and Donlon.
Around the ACC
The ACC continues to be one of the top conference for college baseball in the country. This season, the ACC boasts 6 teams in the D1Baseball Preseason Top 25. The conference doesn't have a clear cut national title contender, but last season NC State and UVA got hot at the right times, and there's not reason to believe another ACC team won't do the same this season.
The championship favorite for the regular season and tournament in Charlotte is a toss up between NC State and Florida State. The Wolfpack have to replace their top 5 hitters and one of the best shortstops in the nation, Jose Torres. For the Seminoles, they will rely on pitching this season more than their traditional reliance on power hitting.
Outside of the favorites, perennial powers Miami and Georgia Tech are strong contenders for Super Regional births. Last year's surprise tournament winners Duke are also ranked in the preseason top 25 and boast the preseason Freshman of the Year in the ACC, SS Alex Mooney. As for other preseason accolades, Gavin Cross is the favorite for Player of the Year, and Florida State's ace Parker Messick is the favorite for Pitcher of the Year.
Prediction for the Hokies
The Hokies may be the toughest team to predict in not only the ACC, but in all of major college baseball.
The star talent is undeniable. Cross, Schobel, and Hurley could play at almost any school in the country and guys like Biddison and Hunter have potential to find their way onto 2nd and 3rd team all-conference rosters. The issue for the Hokies is the entire pitching staff is a massive question mark. There is virtually no information to go off of other than summer league performances. 90% of the pitchers wearing orange and maroon are either coming off of injury or have little to no college experience. The pitching staff will take a step back, but how big of a step back? No one knows.
At one point last season, the Hokies were looking like a team that could potentially host a Regional in the NCAA Tournament. The energy around the team was electric, and they had already gone through tough ACC series like Miami, UNC, and Florida State. What happened next was a bombshell. The Hokies crumbled down the stretch and missed the tourney entirely.
So, which team was the real Hokies? Well probably a mix of both. The good news for the Hokies is that there is a full non-conference schedule in 2022, so plenty of opportunities to win some easy games as well as add to the tournament resume with some key non-conference games against a ranked ECU team and local rivals Liberty. The Hokies also end the season with a road series at UVA, a slew of non-conference games against Marshall, Villanova, and Liberty, then home series against Duke and Louisville. Those are pretty good teams, but certainly not at the top of the ACC this season. That could be a big opportunity for the Hokies to make a late push not only in the ACC, but also for the NCAA Tournament.
Truthfully, last year the Hokies were a year ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, with success at the college level comes recognition at the professional level which resulted in the Hokies losing their top two starters early to the MLB draft.
Predicting the best case ACC record for the Hokies, I'd say somewhere just above .500 is a good measuring stick, let's call it 16-14. With a mixture of cupcakes and difficult matchups in the non-conference schedule, I think this Hokies team can get to around the .750 mark in non-conference, around 18-7. That's a ceiling of 34-21 on the year which would most likely have the Hokies as a 2 seed in the NCAA regionals.
The floor for the Hokies? Well, it's low, I'm afraid. If the Hokies can't find solid pitching in the ACC, then a 12-18 record is very much in play. That would be towards the bottom of the conference and, quite frankly, a huge blow for a program with a lot of momentum.
The most likely outcome? I do think the Hokies can finish 15-15 in the ACC, which would have them middle of the pack in the ACC. For non-conference, the Hokies will struggle to be consistent with their backup pitching rotations and may suffer an upset here or there. 15-10 is a reasonable prediction for that. So, that leaves the Hokies at 30-25 for the year with a handful of really quality wins in one of the deepest leagues in the country. I think that's enough for the Hokies to sneak into the NCAA Tournament as a bubble team and continue to build up the program.