Baseball stats have expanded significantly in recent years but East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin mentioned a new number this week as the Pirates prepared to start official practice for the 2021 season opener at home against Rhode Island on Feb. 19.
“Because a lot of our guys went through COVID and COVID protocols in the fall, right now we have 18 guys with antibodies,” Godwin said of his 40-player roster. “Almost half our team have antibodies right now, which is awesome because they have the antibodies to fight off the disease.
“We still do have quite a few guys in the COVID protocols. We get most of those guys back either late this weekend or early next week, depending on all the blood work and EKGs and stuff, but we’re excited to get out there and compete this weekend.”
The Pirates have an abundance of depth, which may prove valuable given potential personnel pitfalls in a pandemic.
Times have produced togetherness
The ECU program stayed in touch through Zoom calls in the spring and summer after the 2020 season was shut down. The Pirates were 13-4 and ranked as high as No. 19 at the time.
“Because they’ve created such a tight bubble in the fall, they’ve become closer to one another,” Godwin said. “The positive is that they have better relationships probably than any other team that we’ve ever had here since I’ve been the head coach. (Godwin returned to his alma mater after the 2014 season). Some of it was forced, because of COVID, but, you talk about guys that really care about one another and I think we have it.
“The challenge for us is they are super-close and at times in practice they may joke around too much and maybe they aren’t as locked in, but that has been a super asset for us.”
Scrimmages planned this weekend
The Pirates are scheduled to scrimmage today, Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting. The forecast calls for a high of 39 degrees today, 41 degrees on Saturday and 100 percent chance of rain on Sunday.
“We need to play live baseball,” Godwin said. “It’s one thing to go out there and do a coach-pitch scrimmage, but to get the pitchers facing live batters, get the batters to face live pitching, it’s going to help us get ready for Feb. 19.”
Nothing is etched in stone on the schedule. [View ECU’s tentative 2021 baseball schedule in a new window.]
“Whether we’re playing Rhode Island (Feb. 19) or somebody else,” Godwin said. “The other thing that we’ve prepared our team to be able to do is — look, we could be called at a moment’s notice and say, ‘We can’t come play you because of COVID protocols.’ We will do everything we can to just go play baseball.
“Our guys are super excited. Once we got back from Christmas, I know they’ve been looking forward to that Feb. 19 date. They feel like it’s probably tomorrow, which there is a lot of work to be done between now and Feb. 19.”
No one was charged with a season of eligibility in 2020 and a shortened major league baseball draft also resulted in an abundance of experienced players on the college level.
Godwin was asked via Zoom on Monday if this would be his deepest team at ECU.
“It definitely has the potential,” he said. “We need to stay healthy, but we probably could maneuver through some injuries better this year than we ever have been able to in the past, especially on the mound. As we know, injuries are a part of playing sports.”
Godwin concurs with Alabama football coach Nick Saban’s viewpoint on reserves.
“Back-up players, they’re just starters who haven’t gotten in the game yet,” Godwin said. “We want our guys to all be prepared. … because of COVID, because of contact tracing.
“Our goal is to play every game possible. I look at Alabama football. I look at Clemson football. … I don’t think they ever missed a game because of their COVID issues or their COVID protocols. I’m not saying we couldn’t miss a game because another team has an outbreak, but we want to control everything we can control and if we can do that, then we’ll put ourselves in pretty good shape.”
Offseason development was quite different due to the pandemic. Most collegiate summer leagues were not active in 2020.
Godwin talked about players who got better despite the circumstances.
“One guy that jumps out to me is Ryder Giles,” he said. “Ryder played tremendous shortstop for us in a brief amount of time last year. He did not make one error the entire 2020 calendar — so that’s the 17 games he played in the spring, plus the however many games we played in the intersquad in the fall. Guys got up to 70 at-bats (in the fall), so a lot of baseball. That’s pretty impressive.
“He got stronger. He got faster. He and I were able to work on his swing virtually during the spring. He’s a much better hitter today than he was last spring. That’s a credit to him and the way he went about his business.
“Carter Spivey is another guy who went home and really worked on his glove-side command of his fast ball and tightened up his slider. Coach (Jason) Dietrich (pitching coach) and Coach (Austin) Knight (volunteer assistant) and Spives really worked on that during the quarantine period and he was a different guy when you look at it.
“In the fall, the guys that really stood out making big jumps to me were Carter Spivey, Carson Whisenhunt, Ryder, Seth Cadell.
“Seth made as big a jump for me and my staff from a mentality standpoint. He caught every inning of intersquad. He took foul tips off his body. I think he struck out three times in close to 70 at-bats. He tied for the lead in home runs with (Connor) Norby with five. He’s a much better player today than he was a year ago.”
Weekend series in the American Athletic Conference will consist of four games this year, compared to three in the past. That means that four starters will comprise the weekend rotation.
“There’s five guys that really came out of the fall to compete for those spots,” Godwin said. “Gavin Williams, Tyler Smith, Jake Kuchmaner. The other two are Carter Spivey and Carson Whisenhunt. Carson’s ceiling is as high as anyone I’ve ever coached in my life. That’s not to add pressure on him. I told him he just needed to go out there and do what he did in the fall. If he does that, then we’ll be in good shape.
“But 6-foot-4 lefty, 90-95 (miles per hour) with a wipe-out breaking ball. He’s been able to manage his emotions a lot better than he has before. The kicker is going to be can we do that with another jersey in the batter’s box because, as we know, that’s different.
“Those five guys did a really great job of taking the ball and making it really hard on our hitters.
“Another guy that could start is Cam Colmore. Cam has obviously been a swing guy for us. Cam would be in the mix if something happens. … Another guy we’re trying to push his pitch count is Skylar Brooks. We’re trying to develop as many starters as possible because, as we know with COVID, you might get dinged for contact tracing and might have a guy miss a start.
“Trystan Kimmel is another guy who started some for us last year. His stuff’s a lot better. If we can keep him treating every pitch like a separate entity he’s going to have the ability to do that as well.
” … C.J. Mayhew is a guy who could potentially start, but if we were going to play this weekend, him, Matt Bridges, Ryder Giles, Garrett Saylor and Cam would be those kind of go-to guys out of the bullpen. Of course, we’ve got some freshmen who pitched really well at times so there’s a lot of different options.”
The Pirates won’t be the only team with options throughout the lineup
“I tell our guys all the time like we’re good, we’re probably as deep as we’ve ever been, but we’re not the only team saying that,” Godwin said. “There’s a lot of teams out there saying that because the draft was shortened. I think college baseball’s product and the talent level that you will see will be at the highest you’ve ever seen it — because of the shortened MLB draft.”
Tweaks to AAC games
There are several proposals on the table for AAC games in 2021.
“I’m just glad they’re letting us play baseball,” Godwin said. ” … I don’t care if they tell us to play five games in three days. We’d show up and we’d play. If the Dodgers showed up on Feb. 19, we’d play them. We’d probably get beat, but we’d still play ’em. We’re going to take it one day at a time and when we get to that (AAC games), we’ll figure it out.
“We have enough pitching to manage that those weekends. … The conference has not come back with a final decision on what day the doubleheader is going to be on. We’re pushing for it to be on the first day, except on Easter weekend, … , it would stay on that Friday. We play Thursday, Friday, Saturday (April 1-3, vs. Cincinnati).
“Then the last weekend going into the conference tournament, it will be Thursday, Friday, Saturday (May 20-22 at South Florida). It would be on the first day for that as far as we know. We’re trying to figure all that stuff out.”
Also to be determined is whether the league doubleheaders would be two 9-inning games, two 7-inning games or one 9-inning game and a 7-inning game.
Godwin also said there is a push to use the extra-inning procedures in force in the major leagues in 2020, which included putting a runner on second base to start the extra frames.