After a four game series against the Stanford Cardinal in which the Michigan baseball team dropped three out of four, things seem to be heading in a downward direction for the season.
Now standing at 3-8 after a superb season last year where they only lost 17 games total, the Wolverines slow start to the season has largely been due to an anemic offense and inconsistent performances from the pitching staff.
While the team overall has been struggling, there has been some positives from an individual standpoint and some trends that could help put the team as a whole back on the right track.
Tommy Henry Set To Be Major Player
An All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection last season, left-hander Tommy Henry headed into this year with expectations for an expanded role given his performance in 2017 as well as the graduation of a few members of the pitching staff. One of the Wolverines most reliable relievers last season, the only question in Henry’s resume was in regards to the transition that he would make to being a starter and asked to take on a heavier workload.
Though he was coming out of the bullpen, Henry was able to neutralize both left and right-handed hitters throughout the year. He held them to a .263 batting average that included an inflated .364 batting average on balls in play. With regression to his BABIP alone, Henry was looking poised for an even better season. However his other peripheral stats also showed that he could be one of the biggest breakout candidates on the pitching staff.
He walked just 11 batters over the course of 31 innings (3.2 walks per nine innings) and managed 39 strikeouts across that span (11.3 strikeouts per nine). That combination of strikeout stuff as well as above average control boded well for his odds going into this season.
So far, so good for Henry this year. He opened the year off with a five-inning, zero run, five-strikeout day against Army. He struggled in his second start against Arizona, allowing four earned runs and walking three over five innings, but found his groove against Stanford.
Though the Wolverines ultimately dropped the game to the Cardinal, Henry was superb. He lasted seven innings and didn’t allow a run once again, while walking just one and striking out an impressive 10 batters.
Holding one of the best teams in the country scoreless over seven and making them look foolish along the way was the type of breakout performance that could have been expected out of Henry and it will be efforts like this one that could propel the Wolverines back into competition.
Can Kauffman Sustain Hot Start?
Lightly used as a freshman in 2017, right-hander Karl Kauffman was another Michigan pitcher expected to take on a larger role this season. With standout box score numbers over the 13+ innings that he pitched, on the surface it looked like he may be able to make a positive impact as well.
The Bloomfield Hills native sent those expectations in the right direction this past weekend, delivering the Wolverines lone win against the Cardinal in a 5-0 contest. Kauffman’s 6.2 innings, zero earned run and 10 strikeout performance was no doubt promising, but it doesn’t come without concern.
Though Kauffman was able to shut down the Stanford bats over the course of the game, he also coughed up five walks; a problem that also plagued him last season. Over those 13 innings last year, Kauffman walked seven (good for 4.7 walks per nine innings). The sample size from last year was certainly small and it didn’t completely condemn any chances that he had this year — especially because he should still be developing — but that trend has continued into this year even despite the win against the then-eighth ranked Cardinal.
Over 16.2 innings this year he’s walked eight, which amounts to a slightly improved 4.3 walks per nine innings. His inconsistency in hitting his spots is not only a negative in terms of free bases given out, but has hurt him in terms of contact rate, too.
In the Wolverines matchup against Cal Poly on February 25th, Kauffman surrendered nine hits and seven earned runs over just 4.2 innings. He walked just one, but hit two batters and clearly did not have the stuff he need to get outs.
The game against Stanford was a step in the right direction in terms of overall results, but Kauffman will need to find the strike zone more often if he wants to build upon that success. His track record to this point has been steady in regards to his lack of control, but he’s young enough to turn it around.
Engelmann Back Down To Earth
Manning centerfield and hitting in the all-important three hole, Jonathan Engelmann started off this season on a tear. On Baseball America’s Top 50 Freshman Prospects list during the 2016 season, Engelmann had an up and down sophomore season last year that put him in a precarious position for 2018.
His .341 on base percentage was nothing to scoff at, but his .259 batting average left some room for improvement. Throughout the early portion of this year, it looked like he might just be coming into his own at the plate.
Through his first 28 at bats of the season, Engelmann was hitting an impressive .321 with a pair of RBI and three stolen bases. His batting average placed him second on the team behind Christian Bullock, but there were some indications that it could have been a bit of a fluke. His batting average on balls in play was an unsustainably high .391 and his contact rate was all the way down at 67.9%, well below his number of 86.2% last year. He was striking out far more often, but the balls he was hitting seemed to be falling.
As should have been expected, things started to return to normalcy over the weekend against Stanford — though most would not have predicted them to fall to the extent to which they did.
Over the course of the four games, Engelmann went 0-12 during the first three games and somewhat salvaged things with a 2-for-4 with one RBI performance on Sunday. For the weekend he was 2-for-16 with five strikeouts, a singular representation of the team’s offensive output. His batting average took a hit all the way down to .250 for the season, a mark which he should be more comfortably able to sustain over the long haul. While the 2-for-16 performance was not what should be expected, the player he was at the start of the year is likely not representative of what we’ll see either.
If he can find some consistency at the plate and sit around the .260-.265 mark that he did for most of last year, Engelmann is still more than capable of contributing to the Wolverines offensive attack. He may not be a superstar like he flashed at the start of the season, but he can be a productive force.
Michigan returns to play this Friday for a three-game set on the road against Lipscomb. The Bisons are 6-7 to this point in the year and should provide the Wolverines with an opportunity to return to their winning ways of 2017.