This baseball season saw Wake Forest pitching coach John Hendricks do something he hadn’t done in 10 years — be a pitching coach.
So entering his first summer after a hectic and maligned start to his tenure with the Deacons, Hendricks reverted to what he had done for the past 10 years.
Hendricks, a former scout, created and supplied every Wake Forest pitcher with a Major League Baseball scouting report of themselves. There was no template for Hendricks to send pitchers into their summer league seasons, so he went with what he’s known.
Such action is necessary when the Deacons had one of the top offenses in the country and didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. It’s a season perhaps best characterized as a missed opportunity, and work is underway to avoid such disappointment next season.
“The culture of our pitching staff needs to change,” Coach Tom Walter said. “And it needs to become more about, again, understanding what it takes to be successful. Staying on your branch, doing what you do well and executing that.”
The task has been laid out: Wake Forest’s pitching staff needs an identity. The Deacons are a program seemingly stuck in the mud, having compiled a record of 56-58 in the past two seasons, both of them ending in the ACC Tournament.
This season, the offense was potent enough to give Wake Forest a chance to win every game. And the pitching was poor enough that any game could be lost.
“The change in culture for me wasn’t because anything was wrong, I think it’s — the things that I want, I want us to have a label as a pitching staff,” Hendricks said. “When we play Miami, when we play Florida State, we play Carolina, I want them after the weekend is over … to say, ‘This is what Wake Forest is,’ whether it’s we throw 100 mph or we can throw breaking balls in a 2-0 count.”
The statistics are gruesome. Wake Forest’s team ERA of 5.89 was more than half a run worse than the next team in the ACC (Boston College at 5.34). The Deacons gave up 191 extra-base hits, 21 more than the next-most in the ACC (Georgia Tech), walked 4.8 batters per game and allowed opponents to hit .279.
For Walter and Hendricks, the reasons for the pitching woes are traceable to a few things. One is that nearly all of Wake Forest’s pitchers couldn’t reliably throw an off-speed pitch in a hitter’s count. Another is most of the staff’s inability to throw a changeup for a strike. Hendricks was especially bothered by how many bases-loaded walks the Deacons allowed.
“You watch college baseball and you watch what these elite pitching staffs do, you watch what Louisville does: They locate their fastball, they have one or two off-speed pitches they can throw at any time in the count,” Walter said. “If you’re going to be successful in college baseball, you have to do those two things. And quite honestly as a staff, we didn’t do either of those things.
“And that’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just kind of, again, we’ll do those things a lot better next year and moving forward, we just didn’t do them this year.”
There’s a loose foundation for what next season’s starting rotation will be, and it includes one or two relievers from this past season becoming starters. Ryan Cusick was promising as a freshman, especially late, and has an electric arm that makes him the lead candidate to be the Friday-night starter.
A promising start to the season by lefty Jared Shuster was derailed, but if he can unlock the key to consistency, he’ll be a valuable starter. The relievers who could be converted are Antonio Menendez and Will Fleming, the two who Walter said individually had strong seasons.
But looking at the rotation now, about eight months before the next season begins, is mostly guesswork.
And that’s the way Hendricks wants it when players return to campus in September.
“It’s also too, creating a culture of competitiveness. I want the guy who was the 12th pitcher on the staff this year to believe that if he does the job, that he can be the second pitcher on the staff next year,” Hendricks said. “In my opinion, when you lock people into pre-assigned roles, or pre-assigned destiny, then they end up working to be that.
“I want the guys on the team that had the worst ERA to work their butts off this fall and beat some of those guys out.”
The other development in the fall will be Wake Forest’s pitchers throwing in the pitching lab. It was made obvious when the lab was introduced in January that it wouldn’t have an immediate impact for this season, but the dividends of the state-of-the-art lab are expected to start paying off next season — if not sooner.
“The information we got from the pitching lab when we captured over the winter, it’s hard to implement that when headed into the season,” Walter said. “It’s just impossible to make those broad-stroke changes. So I see John — he’s using that information now to help design programs for the kids. I see that in the fall, really kind of getting some traction and making a difference.”
In the scouting reports, Hendricks reflected on the nature of going from supportive coach to objective observer — one able to break down the intricacies of each pitcher.
“It’s funny, you go all spring as their pitching coach and you’re rooting for them, trying to see the best possible version of them, sometimes day dreaming about what they might be able to do,” Hendricks said. “But then as a scout, when you sit down and write a report like I’ve done on thousands of players over the years, then you immediately get back into that Major League Baseball scout mindset, and sometimes it’s not as pretty as what I was thinking before.
“It actually helped me kind of make a checklist on everybody’s strengths and weaknesses.”
The thought is that armed with that knowledge of strengths and weaknesses, the Deacons can turn last season’s weakness into next season’s strength.