Preview: Depth, confidence lead GVSU baseball into new season

GVL / Luke Holmes -  Josh Smith (9) steps up to the plate. GVSU Mens Baseball faced off against Ohio Dominican in a double header on Saturday, April 8, 2017.

GVL / Luke Holmes – Josh Smith (9) steps up to the plate. GVSU Men’s Baseball faced off against Ohio Dominican in a double header on Saturday, April 8, 2017.

Brady McAtamney

The 2017 Grand Valley State baseball team was a good one. They finished the season 31-23 and relied heavily on their offensive presence to win games due to a litany of injuries within the pitching staff, hampering their ability to get outs reliably.

Despite not winning the GLIAC Championship, the Lakers had a productive season. The players learned a lot about themselves, and the coaches learned how they can get better.

This season—the 2018 Lakers—is when better comes to light, even with the lost production of the now-graduated Seth Johnson, Matt Williams, Alex Young and Keith Browning.

“This year I think—nothing against last year—but I think we’re just a stronger, more balanced team,” said infielder and catcher Austin Ladoux. “I’d say we got plenty of catchers to do it, plenty of new guys for hitting in the outfield. Overall, I think we’re going to be a really good team hitting-wise and defensively.”

Ladoux returns to the field with plenty of confidence following a wildly productive season at the plate where he led GVSU with seven home runs and had the second-highest batting average (.360), slugging percentage (.585), on-base percentage (.434) and total bases (94).

Though Johnson, an outfielder, was arguably the most important bat in the lineup and is no longer with the squad, head coach Jamie Detillion has no shortage of players to fill the gap in the lineup with an expectation for big things.

“We have four or five guys competing for a spot there,” he said. “I would expect Jake Gleason to be in the mix. I think he’s a middle-of-the-order type hitter, too. Right now there’s between Zach Berry, Drake Ellens, Nolan Anspaugh, so there’s three pretty talented kids who are bringing it every day in practice and giving us a tough decision as a coach when you’ve got good players competing for one spot. 

“Aaron Donald right now is one of our better bats, and there’s a good chance he can see some time in left field, but like I said, there’s four or five outfielders right there who could easily be shifted around to fill those holes.”

The outfield is not the only place the Lakers have ample talent, as Detillion noted the handful of first basemen, catchers and pitchers who can all expect to see the field a lot during the 2018 campaign. These new pieces will not have to worry about adjusting themselves to the college game, either, as most of the Lakers’ new faces are junior college transfers.

Having lots of pitching is by design. After losing a sizable chunk of their arms to injuries last season, their depth was tested and the coaches knew they needed to be more prepared for the possibility of that same thing happening again. Injuries are a natural part of the game, after all.

So they went out and recruited—hard. GVSU will be rolling into the season with at least 18 pitchers on their active roster (barring anything unforeseen), one of whom was last year’s staff ace: Ryan Arnold.

“(I want to) give the team a chance to win every time I go out there, try to ride my hot hand from the last half of last season, just go out there and compete,” Arnold said.

In 2017, Arnold led the team in earned run average (3.03), opposing batting average (.192), wins (six), innings pitched (74.1), strikeouts (63) and fewest hits allowed (52). He will help the eight new pitchers get acclimated to the culture at GVSU.

With the new players comes a new pitching coach in Shane Street, an addition that Arnold and the other pitchers are thoroughly enjoying.

“One of our big additions would obviously be coach Street,” Arnold said. “He’s brought in a different culture than what most of our guys are used to. I’d definitely give a lot of credit to the pitching staff on the addition of coach Street. He’s been doing a lot, working with guys, working with … pretty much everything that goes into pitching. He’s been the guy to look to. He’s definitely been a huge asset that we have.”

Street has brought in a new pitching program to help his pitchers improve their velocity and control while making the best of the fact that the team has to practice indoors for the time being.

With the cold West Michigan winter, the Lakers have been relegated to the Kelly Family Sports Center for almost the entire offseason. Although that’s not an ideal setting for baseball, they have been making the best of the situation and are still managing to use their time effectively, even if it’s not out on the diamond.

“Just preparing us to be successful is what we’ve been doing,” Ladoux said. “Defensively, just kind of getting the small ball type of stuff, the things we can do inside like ground balls, bunt defense, working on all the small little things in baseball that you don’t do a lot in the games, but when you do them, you need to do them. We’ve been doing that a lot, just kind of getting our reps inside while we can.”

With depth, small ball and star power already looking like strengths, the Lakers also see themselves as a proficient hitting and pitching team that can field the ball cleanly and make almost any play that comes to them. So, if that’s the case, what could possibly be the Lakers’ weakness?

“I don’t really think we have any,” Arnold said. “Having a completely new lineup from what we were going with last year compared to this year, you would think inexperience would be what would hurt us, but I don’t think that’s going to be a problem at all.”

So, for a team that has filled vacancies with experienced players to add to the ones already here that can mash and record outs, what is the ceiling? Where do the Lakers see themselves once May rolls around and the regular season is in the rearview mirror?

“I hope we make it all,” Ladoux said. “These guys, … this is my last year. Last year, might as well go out with a bang. We’ve got the guys, got the talent and I think we can do a lot of damage this year, especially in our conference. I think we’ve got a chance to go all the way to the big time, World Series. No doubt.”

The expectation-laden season leads off with a non-conference doubleheader against the Ohio Dominican Panthers in Mason, Ohio, on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 1 p.m.