Home Here’s where I get in trouble: Questioning Brian O’Connor’s late-game pitching moves again

Here’s where I get in trouble: Questioning Brian O’Connor’s late-game pitching moves again

Chris Graham
uva baseball brian o'connor
Photo: Chris Graham/AFP

Virginia, for the second straight year, dropped its opening game at the College World Series on a walk-off, with questions afterward about a couple of curious strategic moves made by celebrated coach Brian O’Connor.

And yes, I know, Brian O’Connor has forgotten tons more about baseball than I’ll ever come to know about the game, but no one is above reproach, right?

“It was the right matchup,” O’Connor said, answering what was, predictably, the first question for him in the postgame press conference after Friday’s 3-2 loss to North Carolina, which came on a two-out walk-off single by Vance Honeycutt, statistically the best hitter in the UNC lineup, with an OPS at 1.111 and 26 homers coming into the game.

The analytics like, borderline love and want to marry Honeycutt, but the two-hole hitter, Casey Cook, is only just a couple of smidges behind Honeycutt in the numbers, with a 1.041 OPS and 18 homers coming in.

“Cook, I think, is their best hitter in the lineup, so it wasn’t an option for us to walk Honeycutt,” said O’Connor, though actually, it was an option.

Honeycutt came to the plate with a runner on third, Jackson Van De Brake, who had led off the bottom of the ninth with a slicing soft liner down the rightfield line that he ran into being a double, and two down.

O’Connor could have opted to walk both Honeycutt and Cook, who was 3-for-4 on the day, to pitch to the #3 hitter, Parks Harber, who had a 1.076 OPS and 20 homers coming in.

An aside here: gotta like the way Carolina coach Scott Forbes fills out his lineup card, by the way, foregoing the traditional approach of putting his best OPS and power bats in the middle of the order, and instead putting them right there at the top.

That’s playing analytics to your advantage, giving more at bats to your best hitters, as opposed to putting your best OPS guys fifth (Jacob Ference: 1.187 OPS, 17 homers coming in) fifth, sixth (Harrison Didawick: 1.077 OPS, 23 homers coming in) sixth and seventh (Henry Godbout: 1.123 OPS, nine homers coming in), with the guy with the least productivity in the lineup (Griff O’Ferrall: .383 OPS, five homers coming in) leading off, and the third-least productive guy (Ethan Anderson: .955 OPS, five homers coming in) batting second, as O’Connor did for Friday’s game.

Back to where I had been going with this: the four-hole hitter for UNC is Anthony Donofrio (1.016 OPS, seven homers coming in), who was 0-for-4 on Friday.

Walking Honeycutt and Cook would have meant Chase Hungate would have had to have faced Donofrio with the bases loaded and two outs, but then, you can trust Hungate in that kind of situation, given that he had walked just 13 batters in 51.0 innings this season coming into the game, so the analytics suggest this is the move.

But to O’Connor, after Hungate retired nine-hole hitter Colby Wilkerson on a foul pop-up to get the second out of the ninth, “there was no decision for me who to go to.”

“Honeycutt is a fantastic player, one of the great players in this country, but that was the best matchup was to try to get him to hit a ball on the ground, and unfortunately, Hungate fell behind in the count and hung a slider there a little bit too much, and Honeycutt did a really nice job with it,” O’Connor said.

Hungate, indeed, did fall behind in the count, 2-0, both of the pitches out of the strike zone coming on sliders that were really nowhere near, to a point where it seemed that pitching coach Drew Dickinson had perhaps signaled to Hungate to throw a couple of pitches out of the zone to Honeycutt to see if the leadoff man would help him out.

The 2-0 pitch, another slider, got too much of the zone, but Hungate got an out-in-front swing-and-miss.

The 2-1, a slider that was even fatter, was lined toward the five-hole just beyond the reach of O’Ferrall at short into left for the game-winner.

There was one other instance in the late innings in which you could question O’Connor on a pitching move.

Yes, again, O’Connor, infinitely smarter than me, especially when it comes to baseball, but …

His starter, Evan Blanco, who had a fabulous day, taking a 2-1 lead into the seventh, got Honeycutt to ground out to short for the second out of the inning, bringing up Cook, who to that point was 2-for-3 off Blanco.

Blanco had given up six hits on the day at this stage of the game; five of them had been by left-handed hitters.

Hungate had been up in the pen for a while, and was ready to go in if called.

This seemed like the situation for Hungate, or if O’Connor had been thinking ahead, for lefty setup man Angelo Tonas.

“There was no way. I was not going to take Evan Blanco out of the game to face Cook. I know he had two hits off of him, but Evan Blanco is our guy, and he had earned that opportunity,” O’Connor said.

“And, a great hitter in Cook, he put a good swing on the on the ball. Evan, I’ll have to go back and watch the pitch, I’m not sure if he executed it or not, but that’s neither here nor there. It was absolutely the right matchup. And our plan, no matter what happened, was to go to Hungate the next batter,” O’Connor said.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham, the king of "fringe media," is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].