I’ve said in this space before that coaching is essentially the practice of making adjustments in the best way possible, and Brian O’Connor, head coach of the 2015 College World Series champion Virginia Cavaliers, would agree.
That specific skill, O’Connor says is, “determining how I’m going to handle this group compared to other groups.” Given a constant core of players, most anybody would eventually figure out how to optimize it, how to get the most of every component part’s performance.
But there are no constants in coaching, least of all at the college level, where players have a four-year shelf life at most and the havoc of weather and social life plays a greater role than anywhere else. Managing the unique circumstances of each group is the most important part of O’Connor’s job.
It turns out that the bulk of that work is happening now, in late months of fall, when school starts back up and players are heading back to campus. With that in mind, you can convincingly argue that the fall season is when a coach’s most important work is done.
In the past three seasons, O’Connor has had wildly disparate teams heading into each 45-day window during which teams can practice and scrimmage in the fall. In fall 2013, he had a group of position players that included first round picks Derek Fisher and Mike Papi and whose depth and talent was almost unprecedented in college baseball. That team was national runner-up, and the following fall, everything was different. The Cavaliers were talented, but also extremely young and shallow. When a rash of injuries hit the team in the spring, O’Connor had to dress players from the club team just to fill roster spots.
O’Connor dealt with those two extremes in surprisingly similar ways. He knew that his 2014 ball club would be under intense scrutiny that coming spring, so he pressured and pushed those players more than ever, holding them accountable for everything.
“They’re going to feel like they’re under the microscope as it is,” O’Connor said. “So you’ve kind of got to put them in an environment that hopefully prepares them for that.”
When stars like Fisher, Papi and Nick Howard left after that season, O’Connor knew it was up to freshmen like Pavin Smith and Adam Haseley to step in and produce. So he ratcheted things up again, this time putting the newcomers in as many game situations as possible, upping their innings and at-bats, trying to get them up to the pace of the college game as quickly as he could. Base running, defensive strategies and other things that the young players might have learned in lower-pressure situations as a reserve had to be ingrained in them posthaste, lest the Cavaliers get run out of the ballpark.
And for some of 2015, they certainly did, in a brutal stretch early in conference play when they lost 8 of 10 games and put their postseason credibility in doubt. But what O’Connor saw in the fall gave him confidence in the team turning their play around.
One factor was Connor Jones, a stud recruit and premier 2016 draft prospect whose faulty control as a freshman kept him in the bullpen. Jones threw in the New England Collegiate Baseball League that summer and in the fall showed the type of development and confidence that made O’Connor comfortable putting him in the starting rotation. Jones’ reliability proved essential in 2015, with injury and inconsistency, respectively, befalling junior left-handers Nathan Kirby and Brandon Waddell. Furthermore, Jones taking a spot in the rotation let O’Connor use Dodgers second round pick Josh Sborz as closer, and his postseason dominance—practically a requirement for any baseball team making a playoff run—was an huge part of the Cavs’ title.
Another piece was Matt Thaiss, a light-hitting reserve at catcher in 2014 who came back from a summer in the Northwoods League with a hugely improved presence in the box. Thaiss led the team with a .925 OPS in the spring and is on track to be one of the top catching prospects in the 2016 draft.
That so much is uncertain with the fall makes it a bit scary for coaches, but for the same reason it is also tremendously exciting. O’Connor recalls his first practices, in the fall of 2003, and watching in awe as a future MLB all-star took infield.
“You have Ryan Zimmerman taking ground balls at third base, and I’m catching flies in my mouth because my mouth’s open,” O’Connor said. “And you’ve got Mark Reynolds hitting balls out of the ballpark one after another—I’m like ‘Oh my gosh.’”
The regular season is filled with chaos, slumps and terrible weather. The fall is when guys like O’Connor can really do their work.
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