In many of their competitions, the teams of the Atlantic Coast Conference are the epitome of parity — there are a couple of teams that are the creme de la creme of their sport and a few amongst its minnows, but the majority of ACC teams make up a constantly churning midsection of squads jostling for position.
But in 2020, ACC baseball bucks this trend. Sure, Louisville and North Carolina return high-powered lineups from conference championship seasons (regular-season and tournament, respectively) and deep NCAA tournament, but a number of other schools seem ready to make some noise as well.
However, we’re not concerned with the upper crust of the ACC today — today, we’re talking about the dregs of the conference. How do they stack up?
Let’s divide our remaining teams into two tiers of “pretender”, shall we?
Clemson made the tournament last year, but overall, their season was not particularly inspiring — sure, the Tigers went 35-26, but they were only .500 in conference and only had nine Quadrant 1 wins. Nevertheless, the Tigers had a threatening lineup that featured three upperclassmen hitters averaging around .300 and racking up the XBHs, RBI, and HRs and a pitching staff that featured three upperclassmen in relief.
The problem in 2020? Those six players were drafted, leaving gaping holes in Clemson’s infield defense, lineup, and relief pitching corps. Will they be able to shore those up? It remains to be seen. The Tigers were tournament-bound the last few years, powered by the powerful hitting of OF/1B Seth Beer (who graduated in 2018) and SS Logan Davidson, but with both of them now in the minors, the Tigers are bound to have some regression.
2019 Virginia looked a lot like 2019 Clemson, but much younger — the Cavaliers put together a lineup of four .300+ young hitters and rode them to...a 32-24 finish. Why? The pitching was just not there — out of UVA’s five most-used pitchers (by innings pitched), only two had ERAs under 4.0.
But there’s room for growth in Hooville: the vast majority of its top hitters were underclassmen, and it also returns young pitchers like junior Devin Ortiz, who posted a 1.78 ERA in 35.1 IP with 8 R, 38 Κs, and only nine walks in 2019. Bringing in fresh arms has also been a focus in recruiting, as the Cavaliers have a number of freshman pitchers heading to Charlottesville this spring. Virginia has potential to break out this year, but its pitching will have to improve drastically (especially in relief) for the Hoos to build on 2019.
And the Plain Meh.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
The Hokies had quite a rough go at things in 2019, finishing second-to-last in the ACC Coastal at 9-21 in the ACC and 26-27 overall. However, unlike other teams in this tier, their problems last year weren’t because of pitching; as a staff, the Hokies ranked third in the ACC in ERA, first in ER allowed, and third in BA allowed. Defensively, VA Tech were pretty sound too — they made the third-fewest errors and caught the sixth-most runners stealing in the ACC. What was the issue in Blacksburg?
Well, the Hokies couldn’t hit anything. They ranked second-to-last in the ACC in BA, 8th in OBP, second-to-last again in SLG, and second-to-last yet again in runs generated. Having lost two of its top-five hitters from 2019 to graduation, the VT lineup needs to find solid contributors amongst its incoming recruits or the underclassmen that fleshed out its lineup and do it fast in 2020.
The main narrative for the 2020 Fighting Irish is going to be how they improve in year zero under the tutelage of new head coach Link Jarrett, who comes to the golden dome of South Bend from UNC Greensboro. However, the ACC is a much different monster than the SoCon he won two conference titles in, and the Irish are in need of an overhaul to compete for conference titles and the NCAA tournament — only one ND hitter finished hitting above .300 last season (sophomore John Arndorfer at .308, and he only had 13 AB) and no Irish starter had an ERA lower than 4.00. The youth is there — the Irish return all of their position players (most of whom were underclassmen) and only lost two pitchers to the draft. However, Jarrett and his staff will have to entirely reshape their players’ approaches both at the plate and on the mound if Notre Dame is to compete with the conference’s heavyweights soon.
Boston College joined VT and Notre Dame in the ACC’s offensive-category basement for runs generated (11th in the ACC), home runs (12th), OBP (11th), and SLG (10th). To add insult to injury, Mike Gambino’s Eagles lose their best hitter (Jake Alu, hitting .343/.410/.479) and their best pitcher (Jake Metzdorf, 2.30 ERA) from 2019. The Eagles are not a young team either; its senior hitters are going to have to step up to fill Alu’s shoes, a new ace is going to have to step up to anchor the Boston College rotation, and some relievers are going to have to reign in their performances. But based on the stats available, the improvement needed by the relief pitching corps might be a pretty high bar for the boys from Chestnut Hill to cross.
As a fusion of the rest of its compatriots in the ACC basement, Pitt had neither pitching prowess nor hitting ability to rely on in 2019. Pitt did have some success with their relief pitching (especially with then-sophomore Chase Smith, who posted a 2.72 ERA in 59.2 IP with a 1.19 WHIP and 55 K), which was stretched by the ineffectiveness of their starting pitching. However, the Panthers do get back their top batter from 2019 — “professional hitter” Nico Popa (.353/.424/.581 with 8 HR, 39 RBI, and 28 XBH) — and pitcher Billy Corcoran (3.80 ERA in 68.2 IP, 54 K, 26 BB, 2.08 K/BB), a freshman who was a jack of all trades for the Panthers last year. Can Pitt build a functional lineup and rotation around those two pieces? I’m not so sure.
For continuing coverage of the run-up to the 2020 baseball season, click here.
What are your thoughts about the ACC’s contenders and pretenders? Let us know below!