College Baseball Daily continues our series of interviews with coaches from across the country today with Michigan Head Coach Rich Maloney. He is entering his ninth season in charge of the Wolverines baseball program. He has led them to four NCAA Tournament appearances (2005, ’06, ’07, ’08) while hosting a regional during the 2008 postseason. Last season, the team went 35-22 while finishing in second place in the Big Ten with a 14-10 record.
CBD: Michigan is coming off a 35-22 campaign while finishing in second place in the Big Ten Conference with a 14-10 record. What are your expectations heading into 2011 and will be your biggest challenges to this squad?
RM: Our expectation is to compete for the Big Ten championship first and foremost as it is in every year. We want to get back to the postseason. It’s pretty important to our players, so they are focused on that. We play a very challenging schedule so it will be a very tough test for us right out of the chute. Every game is going to be highly competitive and against some great teams, but what better way to prepare us for the Big Ten challenges that we will face.
The early season schedule is a big challenge. I think the other thing is getting our pitching straight to where we have the roles defined. That’s a challenge every year, but some years greater than others. It’s a challenge of ours to find out which players will fit into the right roles on the mound. We feel like we have a lot of talent there and we feel like we have some guys that can do some good things. On the flip side, putting them in the best situation so they can succeed will be an early challenge especially considering our schedule. Our team’s ability to be able to look at the big picture and learn from whatever we experience early will be significant in the success the team will have.
CBD: Sophomore Bobby Brosnahan is the only returning starting pitcher as Alan Oaks graduated. Who do you expect to help round out the rotation?
RM: Kolby Wood will be interesting to see. I haven’t decided yet on who the Friday night guy will be yet. Bobby Brosnahan had a really nice year in 2010 and we are expecting big things from Bobby, no question. On the flip side, Kolby Wood has been outstanding, had a great fall and has become one of our leaders. It’s going to be significant for our team to be successful that Kolby comes into his own this season. He is very capable and has a Major League arm. He needs to have that consistency. I think he’s in a good place mentally and physically. I think this is what he’s worked for and this is his moment. I would say those two are in the starting rotation.
A little bit of a wild card is Travis Smith. Travis has had some success early in his career, and then has struggled. He is healthy and throwing extremely well. He’s kind of been off the radar a little bit but it would be nice to see him come back on it. There is great hope there. He has a strong arm and hopefully this will be his year as well. I feel like that’s three very strong candidates that if those guys reach their potential would give us an outstanding staff. Brandon Sinnery has experience starting and certainly will be considered in that mix as well. He’s had a myriad of roles for us and done them very well. He’s looking good. I think from the starting point it starts with those four guys in particular.
We’ve had a surprise in Tyler Mills. His arm has been electric and now he just has to do it in game situations. He’s done it all fall so it looks favorable, but now he has to get his feet wet out there and perhaps there will be some growing pains to go through. That arm is pretty special so here is a guy that most people have not heard much of at this point and yet his arm is a very draftable arm. There is another key component to our puzzle.
We have Ben Ballantine, who last year got his feet wet like Kyle Clark did. They are both outstanding prospects who also will compete for starting jobs. Those are our six in the mix. Figuring out what roles they will have and obviously, if they are not starters, they will be relievers and who is the best to end the game. Right now, Mills has been electric and it would be pretty nice if we can bring him in at the end but he lacks experience. So some of the challenges I think are figuring out those six guys who are very talented, what roles fit them the best for us to be successful? You have Matt Gerbe’s experience. He showed signs last year of doing some nice things. He started to come into his own and you hope he can build off that for this season. Kyle Clark has a huge upside. How quickly does he realize that and become the player that we need him to be? Then you have Alex Lakatos, who came in as our top freshman arm and he has a 90 mile an hour fastball and an 83 mph slider. At times you say “Wow, that’s pretty awesome.” Where do we fit him in that mix?
There’s a lot of hope but I think that part of the challenge of putting that all together. The tough challenge of that is we are playing such a difficult schedule so early that as you’re getting your feet wet, how will the kids will handle a setback mentally and emotionally? That will be a challenge as a coaching staff is pulling that all together. Hopefully we grow quicker and all of a sudden you win a few of those games and before you know it, you’re being talked about in a very positive way.
CBD: Tyler Burgoon was third in the conference with 10 saves but ended up being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the tenth round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Who do you have filling this role heading into the season?
RM: It is a key, but I think we have several candidates who can do it. It’s just a matter of who is going to step up and takeownership of it. I think if we can truly hold Mills to just being the closer and if he can handle that kind of pressure, which he has done all fall and in his career (being Player of the Year in the State of Michigan). He’s had success; he just hasn’t realized it here yet. You hope he can just fall right into it through all of that hard work and make it happen for himself. If not, Gerbe could close some, Brandon Sinnery could close, and Ben Ballantine has that mentality to close. Kyle Clark has the stuff to close. I think there are a lot of options and someone is going to have to go out and take it. But what you hope happens is that you get the opportunity to bring someone in late in the ballgame with it on the line and you hope that they succeed so that their confidence grows. By the Big Ten, we need to have that all established on whose role is what. I think because there is so much inexperience even though there are some veterans here, there is a lot of hope but still a lot of questions. With that being said, I think it’s important how we handle that first stretch before the Big Ten season begins.
CBD: The Michigan offense last season finished with a .321 batting average which was the fourth highest in the Big Ten. The Wolverines lost their top three hitters in the lineup with junior catcher Coley Crank being the top returning hitter. Who has the ability to become an impact hitter this season?
RM: Patrick Biondi needs to play like the star that he is. His light needs to shine because he is capable of doing a lot of things that will disrupt the other team with running and hitting. There also is some pop in that bat. He’s just an aggressive player and is just outstanding. Coley Crank had a big year in 2010 and needs to stay consistent throughout the season. His swing has looked great in the fall so indications are all positive that he will continue what he’s already done. I think Anthony Toth has looked outstanding. The last two years Anthony has hit over .300 and he needs to continue that for our team to be successful. John Lorenz, who finished really strong last year (hit .452 the last 15 games) needs to carry that into this year. He performed well when we needed it. That was very impressive. Garrett Stephens hasn’t had a lot of at-bats but he’s always had nice potential and great size and he will get his opportunity this year and hopefully will make the most of it. Derek Dennis is probably our best athlete and he’s shown signs. Can he put it all together this year and become the star that we all think he can be? I think there are a lot of positives. Mike O’Neill has electric bat speed. The guy who really had a nice fall was Kevin Krantz. He will be playing left field for us this season. I think we have a lot of nice pieces of the puzzle. With the grueling schedule, can the guys have success and maintain confidence when they’re going to be facing some difficult pitching and we’re going to have to scratch runs to win ball games? That will be the essence of our season in the ability to hold together early. If we’re able to play well early and get some nice early wins, that could do a lot for this team.
CBD: What team will be the biggest challenge this season for the Wolverines to win the Big Ten Conference?
RM: I think Minnesota after they had won last year and they return many of their guys and have a good nucleus. I think until you dethrone them, they have earned the right of being the team you’re going to have to beat. I think Indiana has a very nice lineup and a seasoned team that’s going to be highly competitive. I think Iowa has a couple of really good arms and is a team that really gained momentum last year. They hadn’t realized that kind of success in a while and they are probably pretty hungry. Usually teams that have success and have a lot of guys back and are hungry, those are tough teams. I think those teams right off the bat are teams you are going to have to contend with. I think there is a lot of parity in the Big Ten. The conference can go any number of ways. I don’t think it’s like in 2007 and 2008 where we dominated. I don’t think there’s a team with that many experienced guys back and that much experience with winning that separates some teams so much more from the others. I think right now we have a battle. Everyone is posturing for position. It’s going to be a wide-open race.
CBD: This season we will see a new bat standard go into effect. Has your squad had a chance to try out these new bats and if so, what are your thoughts on them?
RM: We used the bats towards the end of fall. We got a couple of bats in and they were quite different. I think there are a lot of us in college baseball and in the coaching profession that are concerned about the bats and how they are going to play. That’s a big concern. But it’s equal for everybody. Regardless of what actually ends up happening, we are all in the same boat. The good thing is that the standard of the bat should play the same throughout the year whereas before, the bats over time could play different. That’s not supposed to be the case now. If all the bats are playing the same, that’s a good thing for the game. I am a bit concerned about what it’s going to do with the home runs, but only time will tell. I think the home run is an important part of baseball. I think you still want to be able to hit home runs. If we go from one extreme of too much offense to an extreme of no offense, that won’t be healthy either. I think we’re going to learn a lot about college baseball this year and we’ll see how it all plays out and at the end of the year, we re-evaluate and say ‘Hey, is this really how we want our game to be.’ It could be wonderful and everybody will be happy or maybe we will have to make some slight modifications and some bat adjustment so that we find a little more balance. I think this is going to be an experimental season in that regard.
CBD: Michigan is taking part in the Big Ten/Big East challenge for the third straight year. They have one of the toughest matchups playing Louisville, St. John’s and Uconn. How important is this early season tournament for RPI and to play against quality opponents?
RM: From an RPI standpoint, the non-conference schedule is critical because once you get back in the north; there aren’t many RPI’s that can improve you from a national standpoint. The problem for the northern teams is obviously going down and playing those types of games without being outdoors. The good thing about the Big Ten /Big East Challenge is that most of the other teams are in the same boat as we are in. We’re all kind of getting our feet wet outside to start it all off. It’s a great tournament. We’ve played it the last two years. One time the Big Ten won it and the Big East won it last year. The Big East has three highly ranked teams and we’re playing all three of them. What an opportunity and it will be a very difficult challenge but when you come to Michigan, you want to play against the best and you want to be the best. We’re throwing ourselves into the mix right off the bat. We’re looking forward to the challenge.
CBD: We have now been through three seasons with the Uniform Start Date being in effect. What is your opinion on the rule change? Has it been a good move?
RM: I think it’s been positive in a lot of ways. I think everybody starting at the same time is very important, I really do. When some teams were starting in January a while back and other teams weren’t able to start until the third week in February and some teams were able to spread out their games more, I think it really gave an advantage to certain people. The uniform start date brings sensibility to everybody being more on the same page. I’m not really sure you can ever be on the same page unless the season was played when all of the weather was more the same. With that being said, this was the best thing we could have done to try to make things as equal as possible. I think the practice date is important. We are all in the same boat. It’s the same with the bat standards. We’re trying to get everybody on the same page the best way that we can. I think it’s been a positive.
College Baseball Daily would like to thank Rich Maloney for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with us. Special thanks to Michigan Assistant Media Relations Director Kent Reichert in helping to set up the interview during the holiday season. If any other SID’s or coaches would like to be featured in the future feel free to send me an email.