To look out the window you wouldn’t think it, but Friday is the start of baseball season for West Virginia. The Mountaineers, dodging the cold weather in their home state, open the season today in Atlanta with a four-game series against Georgia State.
That’s not a typo. It’s baseball, not snowball, season and it promises to be a really good one.
Because last year’s season ended so prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, players didn’t lose a year of eligibility, meaning there are a lot of carryover players.
Then Major League Baseball opted to do two things. They cut their draft back from nearly 40 rounds to just five, meaning that hundreds of young players who would have been drafted weren’t, sending them either off to try and begin their college careers or to continue the college career they already had started.
Then the big leagues also cut way back on minor league affiliations, dropping leagues including the New York-Penn League in which the West Virginia Black Bears play. That gave players who wanted to get into professional baseball no place to play and so the talent level swelled throughout the college game.
It certain has affected WVU.
“You like to think they thought that through when they created the backlog that isn’t going to go away for a while, especially for us,” Mountaineer coach Randy Mazey said. “We had 12 freshmen last year and 12 or 13 came in this year. That’s 25 freshmen on a team where you have a 35-man roster. That doesn’t work.”
Therefore, something has to give.
“In a nutshell, kids are going to be looking for places to go. As a result, the transfer portal in baseball is really going to blow up,” noted Mazey. “All those freshmen coming in expected a lot of older players not to be here, giving them opportunities. A lot of them that thought they were going to play right away now aren’t going to.
“You know in today’s world how kids are … if they don’t play right away they go somewhere else where they can play right away. The unintended consequences of that year is going to show up in the transfer portal in the next 3 or 4 years.”
For an idea of what is going on, WVU baseball is ranked No. 14 in the D1 Baseball.com Top 25, the program’s highest preseason ranking ever.
Before any celebration starts, however, the Big 12 coaches picked the Mountaineers to finish SIXTH in its own league.
And so it was that coach Randy Mazey comes into the season with a built-in incentive to stress to his team a lack of respect, even though that’s not really the case, given the strength of the Big 12.
However, he doesn’t believe he needs to use it.
“I don’t have a problem making them mad,” he admits. “I do that on a daily basis. Making them mad is not the issue.”
Instead, he sees that things have changed in the sport.
“West Virginia always played for national respect,” he explained. “When you got some, you have to reverse strategies. If you are going to be ranked that high and people think that highly of you, you can’t ever take a day off trying to be that good. You can’t sneak up on people the way we used to at old Hawley Field.
“We have to be ready to play every day, regardless of who’s on the schedule.”
The Mountaineers open a 48-game schedule that surely will undergo numerous changes as games get canceled due to weather and COVID protocols.
It begins with a preseason All-American left-handed pitcher in Jackson Wolf who, in last years abbreviated season, finished No 3 in the Big 12 with a 1.05 ERA and held opposing batters to a .157 average.
“Wolf has matured a lot,” said Mazey, who enters his ninth season heading the Mountaineer program. “He was always in the shadow of Alex Manoah. Manoah was always in the spotlight. Once Manoah left, Jackson has taken it upon himself to try and be the guy on this staff.
“He started off really good last year and I actually think he’s better now than he was last year. We made a few more adjustments with him and he is pitching well right now. I expect him to have a pretty good year,” Mazey said.
Sophomore left-hander Jake Carr and sophomore right-hander Tyler Strechay will join Wolf in the first weekend rotation.
With so many young players, WVU’s experience is vital and fifth-year infielder Kevin Brophy, who has started games each of the last four years, is there to provide it.
“I try not to get into the heads of the players and figure out what they are thinking, but as I look at Brophy he’s the butt of all the jokes about happy 29th birthday and I tell him ‘you were a sophomore when I got here eight years ago.’” Mazey said. “He has a great temperament and personality and kind of gravitates to the new guys in the program, who look to him for work ethic and how to get through. His leadership qualities with young guys are probably his strongest assets on this team.”
Mazey sees this as very important.
“This is a tough time to be freshman in college. You got no social life, obviously. That’s good from a baseball standpoint, but kids are kids and they need a social life and interaction. They need to be around people. That’s pretty tough on them,” he said.
The top newcomer, however, is not a freshman but fifth-year transfer Hudson Byorick, who figures to bring a lot to the offense.
“We signed him because of his analytics, believe it or not,” said Mazey. “You know how much I love technology. If you follow me on .. what’s it called, Twitter? Or Instawhat or all that Snap stuff, I hate technology. He was one of the top 20 analytics guys in the country as far as batting average, walks, runs scored. When you see him, he looks like a guy who hits doubles and homers.
“But when you dig into the analytics, his strikeout/walk ratio, his on base percentage makes him valuable at any spot in the lineup. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a guy like him who can’t run very well could hit leadoff. That would be interesting because you’d like to think a leadoff guy can run a little bit, but if you don’t get on first base you can’t run very far after that. He can draw a lot of walks and that’s what you want.”
Three Mountaineers were named Preseason All-Big 12, senior infield Tyler Doanes and senior catcher/designated hitter Paul McIntosh joining Wolf.