As part of NC State’s 8-0 start to the 2022 season, the Wolfpack were playing so well I’m sure more than a few of us were already looking at Omaha hotels for June. The defense was shotty, but as could be expected for a squad replacing six position players in the field, and with one of the returnees manning a new outfield position he had yet to play during his Wolfpack career.
This past week, though... yeesh. The cracks in the defense spread into full on breaks while the hitting lapsed horrendously in its first taste of real pitching this year. Even the State pitching struggled with control and effectiveness all week long. Sam Highfill, David Harrison, and Logan Adams each turned in their worst starts of the season, while Chris Villaman got rocked in his lone relief appearance. Matt Willadsen turned in his best start of the season, but even that was in an effort that saw State surrender yet another early lead on the way to a loss.
So now, after four straight losses and with ACC play starting up with defending Atlantic Division champion Notre Dame coming to Raleigh this weekend, we’re left asking ourselves: Is it time to panic?
The short answer is the time-honored consultant one: it depends.
The defense is absolutely a cause for concern. The young guys who have taken over for vets in key spots - think Peyton Green at shortstop, Jacob Cozart behind the plate, and Tommy White at first base - have made some errors and mistakes that, frankly, come with the territory of starting true freshman at those positions. They’re the on-the-job mistakes that you expect to see early and also expect to see cleaned up as the season progresses. Those shouldn’t worry you.
The mental lapses, however, are a big time concern. Players taking incorrect routes to balls, pulling up short on fly balls to play the bounce when diving is absolutely the correct call, throwing to the wrong base or missing the cutoff man, pitchers not executing proper fielding, or just a general lack of communication. Love or hate Elliott Avent, these are items that have rarely if ever been an issue for his teams. That’s why the concern is real, and until they’re cleaned up, the defense will continually put the team behind the eight ball.
If you’re worried about the pitching, that’s a bit unfounded. Highfill and Willadsen are proven commodities who are bound to perform over the long run. Villaman is in the boat, as well.
Highfill’s walk rate early on is 2.2% higher than his career average coming into the season, but still nowhere near being a concern. His strikeout rate is 6.6% higher than his career average prior to 2022, so obviously he’s performing. He’s so far been a victim of a flukishly high extra-base hit rate (7.0% higher than pre-2022), so his run-allowance should drop as that rate falls back down to his normal levels.
Willadsen’s control has been worrisome early on. His walk rate is 5.0% higher than his 8.2% career rate coming into the year, while he’s already uncorked four wild pitches this year after accounting for just two over his first 91.1 innings in a State uniform. Maybe it’s working with different grips or release points, but he did look better this past Saturday, so again - no need for much consternation with him.
As for Villaman, he’s just had one bad outing. In his other two appearances, he was near untouchable. Expecting either of those extremes every time out isn’t realistic, but expecting him to pitch at or even slightly better than what he did a year ago is.
We have no idea what to expect out of Harrison and Adams long-term, but Harrison is already pitching around the levels that he has in his State career. Adams should continue to improve, as well. Other new arms like Carson Kelly, Justin Lawson, and Jacob Halford have looked tremendous. Veterans like Canaan Silver and Baker Nelson (this past weekend’s appearance notwithstanding) have been throwing as well as they have during their respective Wolfpack careers. That should ease concerns about a potential shallow bullpen.
Over the first eight games of the year, the offense was producing at a level that was the envy of every other college baseball program in the country. This past week called that into question as State plated just 10 runs in four games, significantly down from the 112 runs scored over the first eight games (14.0 runs/game). Again, expectations have to be set accordingly, and expecting a team to plate double-digit runs per game across an entire season is setting oneself up for disappointment, but scoring an anemically low number as this past weekend is a cause for concern.
As much as the lack of runs this past weekend, the lack of aggressiveness on the bases this season has been alarming, but also explainable by a combination of largely not being necessary for the first eight games and not having ample opportunities over the last four.
Transfers Gino Groover and Josh Hood have exceeded expectations with the bat, and Hood also with his defensive chops at third base. Dominic Pilolli needs to make some adjustments as his pull-happy style and lack of a two-strike approach are going to get further exposed by ACC caliber pitching. Matt Oldham and Jacob Godman have looked capable in their limited opportunities thus far, but have been relegated to pinch-hit or DH spots because of the emergence of Jacob Cozart behind the dish.
Speaking of Cozart, he’s hitting just .133, which on the surface seems alarming and in need of substituting out for either Oldham or Godman. Taking a closer look reveals that Cozart has an incredibly unlucky .148 BABIP (college average is usually around .300) while still maintaining a 7:4 walk-to-strikeout ratio, so he’s your 2022 Devonte Brown breakout-after-an-unlucky-start candidate.
And speaking of Brown, State can’t ask for much more than they’ve received thus far from their leadoff hitter. A .298/.460/.596 line with 13 BB in 12 games is amazing.
It’s hard to categorize Tommy White as unlucky, but he was a bit so this past week. Pitchers have figured out that his weakness (as of right now) is inside pitches that don’t allow him to get extension. He’s still hitting the ball hard, though, and it’s difficult to complain about anything related to the start of his college career at the plate. He’s also exceed expectations in the field at first base.
J.T. Jarrett was off to an incredibly hot start, so his injury was unfortunate. Hopefully he can bounce back quickly and this doesn’t turn into a Stephen Pitarra senior year type hamstring injury. Jarrett’s return to the lineup and the field will be significant. Will Marcy hasn’t outright taken Jarrett’s spot in the field, but has proven more than capable as a hitter taking some of the at bats that would have gone to Jarrett.
Eddie Eisert and Noah Soles have shown what made them highly coveted recruits, and Chase Nixon and DeAngelo Giles have proven thus far to be capable bats.
All that to say that worrying extensively about the offense at this juncture is a bit premature. Again, keep in mind that State’s young bats were held in check over the weekend by a trio of arms that pitched in the Cape Cod League this past summer, the most prestigious of the college summer leagues. After such a blistering start where State hitters were killing seemingly every pitch thrown their way, it was only natural that opponents would find a strategy to knock back the Pack bats. The real question is how State’s lineup responds this week.
So is it time to panic? No. At least not yet.
The defense is a concern - that’s for real, and not a concern that will quickly be relieved. There is talent and reason enough to be optimistic about long-term improvements there.
Every player State has sent to the plate can hit D1 pitching. Let’s find out if they can make adjustments or if they are just one-trick ponies.
Every player State has put on the mound has the stuff to belong there. Let’s find out if they can harness their arm talent on a consistent basis.
This week is going to tell us a lot.