Arizona coach Jay Johnson introduced the Wildcats’ 2019 signing class Thursday — aka, his latest attempt to build a better pitching staff.
The biggest difference between the 2016 UA team that reached the College World Series finals and the ones that succeeded it and fell well short could be found on the mound. To that end, 10 of Arizona’s 15 signees for 2019 are pitchers. Some already throw in the mid-90s.
“If you look across the country at the programs that continually show up at Omaha or at the highest level … the separator for those programs is what stands 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate,” Johnson said. “Each year, I believe, we’ve been able to recruit a higher-level pitcher than the previous year.”
Arizona barely missed making its third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament last year. The Wildcats ranked fifth in the Pac-12 with a 3.95 ERA. The top four teams — Stanford, Oregon State, UCLA and Washington — made the tournament. The Beavers won the national championship.
In 2017, the top three finishers in ERA earned berths in the postseason: Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA. One other Pac-12 made it — Arizona, which ranked seventh with an ERA of 4.36.
Johnson knows that isn’t a sustainable formula for success. His 2016 squad had a 3.18 ERA, the second-best mark in the league.
“It’s as highly competitive a conference as there is in college baseball,” Johnson said. “The margin between the second-place team and the ninth-place team is paper thin.
“What we would like to be able to do from the pitching side of it is always put our team in an advantageous matchup, knowing that the games are gonna be close, knowing that the margin between winning and losing is really small. The more innings that you’re creating an advantage for your team on the mound, the better chance you give yourself of being on the right side of it.”
The headliners of the 2019 class include right-handers Hunter Cope and Dawson Netz. Cope, who plays at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, is 6-foot-9 and has hit 95 mph on the radar gun. Netz, who plays at Sierra Madre High School in Pasadena, California, has reached 94 mph.
Other pitchers in the class include two local right-handers: Jose Dicochea of Sahuarita and German Fajardo of Nogales.
The hitters are led by first baseman/catcher Will Bartlett, another Californian who currently attends IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Arizona’s class is rated 15th in the country, according to Perfect Game. But there’s no guarantee all 15 players will make it to campus next summer. Two of the Wildcats’ 2018 signees, Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore, became first-round picks in this year’s MLB draft. They elected to go pro.
Pitchers with tools like the ones Cope and Netz possess will be on the radar of pro scouts come spring. Johnson doesn’t believe anyone in this year’s class is on the same plane as Gorman or Liberatore, but some have the potential to get there.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Johnson said. “The day we signed those guys (Gorman and Liberatore), we knew we were probably fighting an uphill battle of getting them to campus. In this particular group, there’s certainly some guys that have the ceiling to ascend to that this spring.
“We’ll get out. We’ll do a good job of educating them on the college path to professional baseball.
“I feel good about where we’re at. We’ll keep that communication going and get as many of them here as we can.”
Arizona released its 2019 schedule, which features 32 home games — the most since Johnson became coach.
Arizona opens the season against UMass Lowell on Feb. 15 at Hi Corbett Field. The Wildcats then visit Rice and Houston. The Cougars went 38-25 last season and played in the NCAA Tournament.
“I like opening up at home,” Johnson said. “We have great fans. Opening day at Hi Corbett is something that’s really special.
“That second week we’re on the road in two highly competitive environments. We’re going to find out real quick where we’re at and what we need to do moving forward.”
Arizona opens Pac-12 play against Utah on March 15. The UA visits rival Arizona State from March 29-31.
The Wildcats’ home finale is May 12 vs. USC. Arizona finishes the season with consecutive road series at Penn State and Washington State. Houston and Penn State will play at Hi Corbett in 2020.
Wild vs. Cats
Arizona concludes fall practice with the annual Wild vs. Cats Fall World Series, which began Thursday evening at Hi Corbett. The series continues at 6 p.m. Friday and concludes at noon Saturday. The scrimmages are open to the public. Admission is free.
Seniors Avery Weems and Cameron Haskell are serving as the managers.
“They get to feel the joy of being a coach for a few days,” Johnson said. “They texted me a couple times last night: ‘What do you think about this?’ I said, ‘We’re out of it. This is all you guys.’ ”
Catcher/first baseman Matt Dyer was the No. 1 overall pick in the Wild vs. Cats draft, which took place Monday night. Dyer sat out last season after transferring from Oregon.
Dyer is among the players in the mix to play first base. “A better question is probably who’s not,” Johnson said. Others include freshmen Austin Wells, Branden Boissiere and Dayton Dooney. Wells, who will share the catching duties with Dyer, went 7 of 13 with five walks in Arizona’s exhibition games vs. Cal State Fullerton and BYU. Boissiere went 8 of 16 with a home run and nine RBIs. Dooney went 7 of 12 with a home run.
Freshman outfielder Ryan Holgate had four hits in 12 at-bats in the exhibition games. All four were home runs. Holgate is on track to start in right field.
- Junior Matt Fraizer and sophomore Donte Williams are battling to be the starting center fielder. Fraizer started in right last year and hit .266. He and the coaching staff are working on some swing adjustments to “help get him to his potential,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen some good things out of that. We’ve just gotta keep working at it.”