CHICAGO – Over the past several seasons, the University of Chicago baseball team embraced an infusion of youth into its ranks that paid dividends. The Maroons have increased their winning percentage for three years running and finished 2017 with a 22-15 record. UChicago now hopes that the cumulative growth will blossom into even greater success as the 2018 season draws near.
Head Coach John Fitzgerald will have a balanced and deep roster to work with this spring. The fourth-year skipper's roster of 32 players includes four seniors, nine juniors, 10 sophomores and nine first-years.
Even with the graduation of five seniors, the Maroons retain the vast majority of its regular starters outside of third base and first base. The current junior class has plenty of game experience, returning five players who started at least 29 games last year. A couple impactful first-years cracked the lineup as well, and UChicago's offense returned to its hard hitting ways. The 2017 Maroons boasted one of the best offenses in NCAA Division III – they hit for a .334 batting average (11th nationally) with a .412 on-base percentage (22nd). The lineup was productive from top to bottom, and batters only struck out once every nine plate appearances.
"Our guys worked hard on their individual approaches at the plate and embraced the offensive philosophy that revolves around putting the ball in play and working at-bats," Fitzgerald said. "Our strikeouts were down significantly and we put the ball in play with more frequency, which moved runners and allowed us to score multiple runs in an inning. Coach Paul Stevens has done a fantastic job getting our players to understand and execute that offensive philosophy over the last few years, which has made quite an impact."
Three Maroons earned All-Region status at season's end – senior outfielder Maximiliano Larsen, junior outfielder Connor Hickey and junior catcher Ian Bohn. Larsen led the team in batting average (.406), on-base percentage (.500), doubles (18) and walks (22). He also ranked seventh in the nation with 0.5 doubles per game. At the top of the lineup, Hickey set a new school record for runs scored and was top 10 nationally with 1.43 runs per game. He tallied 16 extra-base hits and stole 18 bases on 20 attempts. Bohn was second on the team in batting average (.391), stroked 12 doubles to go with a team-high 35 RBI, and did not commit an error behind the plate.
Junior Josh Parks started in the outfield with a .384 BA, 11 extra-base hits, 26 RBI and 11 steals. Junior Brady Sarkon (.308 BA, 8 2B, 21 RBI) was a regular at designated hitter, and the middle infield was manned by junior Max Brzostowski (.293 BA, 22 RBI) and sophomore Payton Jancsy (.309 BA, 14 RBI, 10 SB).
This year's pitching staff accounts for half the roster count with 16. The entire starting rotation returns, which was composed entirely of first-years and sophomores in 2017. The young arms produced throughout the year. Junior Brenton Villasenor led the way at the top with a 6-3 record, 3.03 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 59.1 innings. He averaged six innings per start and only had one no-decision.
Sophomore Jacob Petersen's debut season featured a 5-1 mark, 3.93 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 34.1 innings. Junior Joe Liberman went 3-2 with 28 strikeouts in 35.1 innings. Sophomore Nate Hendley struck out more than a batter per inning, compiling a 2-2 record in 36.2 innings pitched. The relief corps features five different players who appeared in at least seven games.
With a bevy of first-year pitchers getting in on the action, Fitzgerald was pleased with their overall results. "We asked a ton out of some of our younger arms last year," said the veteran coach. "There were flashes of brilliance and some days in which they struggled, as first-years tend to do at this level. Consistency is what I hope they will be able to harness this year, being a year older and wiser. Brent gave us a ton of solid outings last years, as did Jacob Petersen and Joe Liberman, who pitched the majority of the year with an injury. If our young guys can make the same strides that Brent did between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, we will be in good shape."
Fitzgerald has several big picture themes for his team to focus on in 2018. He hopes health, defined roles and another year under his players' belts will provide the boost. "We need to throw more strikes and do a better job of picking up the baseball with regularity," he said. "Losing three shortstops to injury in the first two weeks of the season last year forced some guys to play out of position due to a depleted bench and necessity. Brzostowski was forced to make the move from second base to shortstop, and Jancsy had to make the move to second base for the lion's share of the season. Both of those guys did an incredible job in a brutal situation, but having them back to more permanent spots will be a true benefit for us this year. Coach Eric Bunnell has done a great job in working with our infielders this winter and I have been very pleased with the results so far."
Nine additional players join the Maroon mix this season. Fitzgerald believes the latest batch of incomers will enhance the squad's talent level, depth and internal competition for playing time. "While some first-years will play major roles this year, as they likely will every season, we will have a better mix which will allow us to bring guys along at a more controlled pace as rookies," he said. "There are a number that will battle for starting spots, as well as playing time.
"College baseball is a completely different animal for first-year players, regardless of the level or area of the country they might have played in previously," Fitzgerald continued. "Between fall ball, strength and conditioning, and the winter/spring season, the volume of work that they do on a daily basis will surpass what they have experienced prior to college. Along with the nuances of campus life, it becomes a crucial year of finding themselves and a routine – both physical and mental – that suits their needs."