Anyone with a basic knowledge of baseball can tell you how important pitching is to success. First-year head coach John Szefc certainly knows.
“If you’re going to be a championship-caliber baseball organization, it starts with your pitching and defense,” Szefc said at the VT Baseball media day last week. “That’s what we’ve tried to tackle the most in the last months that we’ve been here and we’ll stay after that regularly.”
Turning around the Hokies pitching will be no easy task, though. Virginia Tech’s pitching staff posted an ERA of 5.79 as a team in 2017, good for 228th in Division I. Szefc knows he has his work cut out for him.
“I would say that, you know, if you look at some past numbers, they don’t jump out at you as being successful,” Szefc said. “We’re obviously trying to right that ship so to speak.”
While it might take some time to work out all the kinks in the pitching staff, the Hokies have a strong cornerstone on the mound in senior Connor Coward.
Coward led the team with 12 starts and 72 innings pitched in 2017. He was second among Virginia Tech pitchers with a 4.72 ERA and third in strikeouts, fanning 59 batters throughout the course of the season.
Pitching coach Ryan Fecteau praised Coward, saying that he has locked up his spot in the rotation.
“He’s kind of the guy that’s really solidified himself at the top of that rotation,” Fecteau said.
While Coward has already secured his spot in the 2018 rotation, the rest of the pitching staff is still up in the air.
“We didn’t get a chance to look at some of the guys in the fall, so there’s some guys we’re seeing for the third or fourth time this year,” Fecteau said. “We’re still in that part of the evaluation process.”
For the Hokies pitching staff this season, three of their top five leaders in innings pitched are no longer on the team. Packy Naughton and Kit Scheetz were each drafted in the 2017 MLB Draft, and Nick Anderson graduated after the 2017 season. Coward and Andrew McDonald are the only pitchers returning who started 10 or more games last season.
The Hokies have added seven new pitchers to the team, including Nick Vickers, a junior college transfer from Colby Community College. Vickers led his team with 87 strikeouts and a 3.58 ERA in 2017.
Other incoming pitchers to note are Ryan Okuda and Ian Seymour, two freshmen who received praise from Fecteau for their performances in the fall.
Fecteau did mention that taking the mound would be a collaborative effort this season, and that no pitcher will go unused.
“We’ll probably go with the four-man rotation and potentially pitch every single guy on the staff,” Fecteau said. “I think every guy’s going to have to contribute in some way. We weren’t exactly sure what we’re going to do, if we’re going to start four guys or go with three, maybe do a staff day.”
Fecteau, the first-year pitching coach for the Hokies, has had success in his former coaching positions. In his one season at Maryland, his team posted an ERA of 3.98, which was 61st in Division I and fourth in the Big Ten. Two of his pitchers received conference recognition; Brian Shaffer was named to the All-Big Ten First Team while Tyler Blohm was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.
Maryland wasn’t his first success story, though. During his six-year stint as an assistant at Bryant University, Fecteau’s staff ranked in the top 25 for ERA three times, including a 2.73 ERA in 2012, which was 10th in the country.
Even with a good coaching staff, things can go wrong for a team, especially when pitchers get injured. Fecteau said he tries to keep his guys healthy and closely monitors his pitchers’ workloads.
“We do a pretty good job with limiting their innings in the fall while still trying to get them some quality experience too,” Fecteau said.
While he can’t speak for the previous coaching staff, Fecteau likes to play it safe when it comes to his pitchers’ arms.
“I’ve just always kind of erred towards the side of rest and tried to be a little more cautious with guys,” Fecteau said. “It just kind of worked out for me with keeping guys healthy.”
2017 was Fecteau’s first year under Coach Szefc, and he enjoyed the experience enough to join him at Tech.
“He is probably one of the best coaches you could coach for,” Fecteau said. “He lets me make pretty much every in-game decision with pitching.”
Virginia Tech opens their season this Friday at Coastal Carolina as part of the Coastal Carolina tournament that will also feature matchups against South Alabama, Oklahoma, and Kansas State.