It was clear back in February as Ohio State embarked on the 2017 season that it faced an uphill climb offensively. The Buckeyes had to replace 75 percent or more of their production from the 2016 team in every statistical category after the loss, through the draft and graduation, of the top six hitters on the team.
This year’s club had no Ronnie Dawson, Troy Montgomery, Jacob Bosiokovic, Nick Sergakis, Troy Kuhn, or Craig Nennig to rely upon to get on base and drive in runs. After outscoring the opposition 373-255 a season ago en route to a Big Ten tournament championship and NCAA tournament berth, Ohio State brought back less than a handful of position players with any meaningful experience, and it proved to be the team’s achilles heel.
The Buckeyes finished the season 22-34 and went 8-16 in conference play, missing out on the Big Ten tournament and an opportunity to defend their title. While the performance at the plate wasn’t the sole reason for the disappointing year, it certainly didn’t help matters.
Ohio State saw a seven-point dip in its team batting average, an 11-point decrease in its on-base percentage, and a whopping 23-point drop-off in slugging percentage. The squad averaged nearly a run less per game, racked up 50 fewer extra-base hits, and accumulated 180 fewer total bases. Whereas last season’s lineup boasted seven regulars with at least 30 runs batted in, this year’s iteration had only three.
Despite the dropoff in production, we did see some cause to be optimistic about the Buckeye nine moving forward. A few players broke out and several more made major strides in their development. This was a young team, and the potential is there for next season’s scarlet and gray to be much more formidable with the bats. Let’s take a look at who struggled, who shined, and what the lineup could look like in 2018.
For want of a clutch hit
In 21 of Ohio State’s 56 games, the team scored three runs or fewer, posting a record of 1-20 in those contests. The lack of run production had to do in large part with an inexperienced team being overmatched at the plate much of the time, as the majority of those being counted on to contribute had never competed at such a high level before.
Only seniors Jalen Washington and Zach Ratcliff, junior Tre’ Gantt, and sophomore Brady Cherry had seen regular time in seasons past. Junior college transfers Noah McGowan, Tyler Cowles, and Bo Coolen were expected to step in and make up the difference right away, with several younger players also being pressed into duty. Things did not go as planned.
Washington, the team’s co-captain, improved over his junior season in 2016, making the transition from catcher to shortstop, and moving to the top of the order from the bottom. The Twinsburg native slashed .266/.350/.468 while starting every game. His five triples and 38 RBIs were both team-highs, while his 14 doubles, seven home runs, and 14 stolen bases all tied for club-best. The beating heart of the team, it’s scary to think of where the Buckeyes would have finished without Washington’s steady hand.
Ratcliff was an elder statesman for the team, coming back as a fifth-year senior after redshirting in 2016. Power had never been the Columbus Academy product’s problem, but he never managed to find consistency at the dish in his career. To some extent, that carried over to 2017. Ratcliff started 46 games at designated hitter and first base, slashing .240/.288/.406 with eight doubles, seven homers, and 32 RBIs, striking out 41 times against just 11 walks.
The three JUCO transfers also struggled, finding the transition to Division I ball a huge challenge. Coolen put up a .230/.345/.304 triple slash, with just six extra-base hits and 18 RBIs, Cowles slashed a meager .190/.320/.314 with seven extra-base hits and 15 RBIs, and McGowan, who showed the most pop of the trio, had a .214/.352/.405 line, hitting five home runs and driving in 19.
The time between now and next season will be critical for these three if they hope to reclaim playing time and contribute to an improved attack. Each had moments that showed what he could do, but they were few and far between.
If there’s reason for optimism for next season’s Ohio State offense, a big part of why is the development shown by three returning players in Gantt, Cherry, and Jacob Barnwell. All three made major strides, and will be counted on to anchor the 2018 lineup.
Perhaps no player improved more than Gantt, who had played his way into regular time as a freshman and sophomore, but became a mainstay in his third season. Splitting time between the leadoff spot and two-hole, the Fishers, Indiana native slashed .314/.426/.426 with 13 doubles, two triples, two homers, 18 RBIs, and 14 steals. He led the team with 64 hits and 46 runs scored, and proved to be solid patrolling the outfield.
Cherry likewise took a step forward. After hitting an ugly .218 as a freshman in 2016, he elevated his batting average to .260 as a sophomore. Cherry hit four home runs and drove in 26, which was on par with what he had done the previous season, but tied for the team lead with 14 doubles. Strikeout rate remains an issue at 31 percent of his at-bats, and his 18 errors at third base must be cleaned up, but barring injury, he will remain a regular in the middle of the order in 2018.
Taking over the everyday catching duties, Barnwell equipped himself well both defensively and with the bat. After seeing action in just 14 games as a freshman, the Kentucky product started 51 games behind the dish, posting a .254/.380/.343 slash line with seven doubles, two homers, 14 RBIs, and seven steals. Barnwell also threw out nearly 30 percent of would-be base stealers, a number well above average, and committed just three errors while logging a ton of innings in his catcher’s crouch. Next year’s pitching staff will be in good hands with him handling them.
While Gantt, Cherry, and Barnwell all figure to be upperclass leaders next season, they won’t be alone thanks to the emergence of a trio of freshmen. Dominic Canzone had a tremendous rookie campaign for the Buckeyes, being named to the third-team All-Big Ten and All-Freshman teams, and classmates Connor Pohl and Noah West showed they belong as well.
Canzone proved to be the most consistent, dangerous hitter in the Ohio State lineup, slashing .343/.390/.458 and driving in 36 runs in his 49 games. While the Walsh Jesuit High School product amassed just 10 extra-base hits, there is no doubt added power will come with physical growth and another offseason of conditioning. Canzone figures to be the club’s three-hole hitter for the foreseeable future.
The production from Canzone was perhaps expected, as he had been a Louisville Slugger High School All-American, but the same cannot be said for West and Pohl. With the team’s struggles, both freshmen played their way onto the field and produced at a level above their experience.
West played out of position at second base, and looks to be the shortstop of the future. He started off with a bang at the plate, and though he came back down to earth by season’s end, always made himself a tough out. In 37 games that included 30 starts, he slashed .213/.290/.303 with five extra-base hits and six RBIs. What’s more, he showed the glove that made him the top middle infield recruit in Ohio at Westerville Central High School.
Pohl was an unlikely star for the Buckeyes, going from preferred walk-on to everyday player. Splitting time between second and third, the 6-foot-5 Arcanum, Ohio native showed a lot of pop in his bat, with a .325/.386/.450 slash line in 80 at-bats, smacking seven doubles and a home run, and collecting eight RBIs. The question with Pohl is what position best suits him, as he committed seven errors in 77 chances. But his bat looks to be legit, and should have him in the lineup on opening day next February.
What’s on deck?
The departures of Washington, Ratcliff, and pitcher-turned-outfielder Shea Murray to graduation means only a small amount of on-field production is being lost, though a great deal of leadership will be as well. Players like Gantt and Canzone should be able to step into that void.
Those two will be the offensive cornerstones of the team in 2018, and will man two of the three outfield spots. Barnwell is locked in behind the plate as well, but beyond that, Ohio State has a lot of questions to answer.
If West takes over at short, where do Pohl, Cherry, McGowan, Coolen, and young players like Casey Demko and Matt Carpenter fit in on the infield? Can Cowles or McGowan hit enough to claim the third outfield spot, or will incoming recruit Jake Ruby, a two-time state champion quarterback for Bishop Hartley High School who Prep Baseball Report called “an exciting combination of strength and speed,” be able to adjust to the college game quickly and earn the job?
Head coach Greg Beals said of Ruby when he signed with the Buckeyes that, “his speed fits at the top of the order but Jake also possesses enough pop in his bat to hit in the middle of the order.” Given the team’s limited options in the outfield, he may follow in Canzone’s footsteps as a rookie starting from day one.
Of this much we can be certain: Ohio State needs to score more runs if it hopes to ascend back to the top of the Big Ten. The foundation for 2018 and beyond has been laid, but there is still plenty of uncertainty. We’ll get a better idea for how players’ will fit in once we’ve seen their development in summer leagues and fall ball, but the good news is the Buckeyes can’t possibly struggle much more with the bats than they did in 2017. There’s nowhere to go but up.