Thursday, February 13, 2014

2014 Dirtbag Position Preview: Third Base

Michael Hill – Senior; Bats: Left; .336/.357/.522, 37 games
Michael Hill was one of the biggest surprises of the 2013 Dirtbag season. Despite receiving acclaim from Baseball America's Aaron Fitt during fall ball, Hill was just a .179 hitter entering his junior year and began the spring as the Dirtbags' number-9 hitter. However, Hill quickly arrived on the scene, opening the season with a seven-game hitting-streak and through March held a .372 average.

Early in the season Hill credited his success to a refined approach at the plate, specifically by hitting the ball on the ground more in order to better exploit the spaciousness of Blair Field (it would be intriguing to know how many other Dirtbags are taking in approach in 2014). Additionally, Hill spoke of an improved approach to hitting with a two-strike count. Whatever adjustments Hill made seemed to work. After K'ing 48 times in 145 career at bats entering 2013, Hill fanned just 15 times in 134 ABs last season. However his command of the strike zone could still stand to improve, as he drew just two walks all season.

Hill's Achilles' heel is his defense. Hill went more than three-straight errorless games once all season and he had three two-error games on the year. Despite the occasional highlight-reel play (including a game-ender on February 23 against Valparaiso) Hill finished with just a .913 fielding percentage and average just five chances per game.

By the start of conference play, Hill had been moved up to the 2-hole where he would stay for the rest of his season. He peaked on March 28 against Cal Stat Northridge, when he went 4-for-4 with nine total bases, four runs, and four RBIs. However, on April 23 against UCLA Hill suffered a seemingly minor leg injury and had to be removed from the game. The injury ended up being a season-ending broken ankle. For the year Hill lead the Dirtbags in slugging percentage, homers (3), tied for the lead in triples (5), and is the leading hitter among the returning players.

Hill unquestionably will be playing everyday this spring, and will be batting somewhere in the top five spots of the order. If he can add the element of drawing a walk, Hill could become one of the biggest offensive threats in the conference. If he “only” manages to replicate and build off of his 2013 production, he'd still be one of the biggest contributors to the 2014 lineup.

The only uncertainty is where he'll be in the field. Being a senior, there's probably value in putting the experienced Hill back out at shortstop, but his shaky defense coupled with the arrival of top recruit Garret Hampson makes him a candidate to be shifted to third base, or perhaps even designated hitter. (Since writing this it's been reported Hill will be played left field. Once again, I nailed it.)

Jonathan Serven – Sophomore; Bats: Right; .162/.197/.206, 26 games
One of the seemingly undernoticed newcomers to the program in 2013, Serven quickly found himself playing a significant role for the Dirtbags; filling in for injured starters Juan Avila (third base) and Michael Hill (shortstop). Serven ultimately played 15 games at the hot corner, including starting 11 straight games leading up to conference play and Avila's return. While Avila's defense was always subpar, Serven provided admirable glovework, logging a .950 fielding percentage at third, averaging over three chances per start, and committing just one error in Avila's absence.

His offense, however, left much to be desired. Serven never found a grove at the plate and ended up striking out as often as he reached base (14 K's; 14 hits plus walks plus hit by pitches). The Dirtbags tried to make the best of Serven's light-hitting, and calling upon him to sacrifice a team high eight times.

After Avila's return Serven went nearly a month without seeing any playing time. He found his way back in the lineup after shortstop Michael Hill suffered a season-ending broken ankle on April 23 against UCLA. Serven earned the bulk of playing time at short the rest of the way, at one point starting nine straight games. However, the true freshman's defense at the 6-position struggled. Serven committed six errors in his final nine games and finished with a mediocre .878 fielding percentage and had just 4.8 chances per start.

Serven isn't likely to become much of a threat at the plate, but with no incumbency in third base entering 2014, Serven's experience and strong defensive skills could put him in play for a starting position this season. What remains to be seen is if the coaching staff prefers a better offensive player at the hot corner or if they want to build the lineup with more of a pitching/defense approach. Who ultimately wins the second base and shortstop positions could also affect Serven's bid to start at third.