Freshmen have yet to 'ripen' for Arizona Wildcats baseball
Adjusting to the cavernous dimensions of Hi Corbett Field and the speed of college baseball has been a struggle for most of the freshmen on the Arizona baseball team.
According to head coach Andy Lopez, the answer is simply bananas — metaphorically speaking, that is.
“The bananas are green right now,” Lopez said about his freshmen. “The bananas aren’t ripe. Last year’s team was ripe; there wasn’t a green banana to be found in the bunch. This year there’s some green bananas out there.”
Freshmen like Zach Gibbons (team-high .491 on-base percentage) and Kevin Newman (.342 batting average), have already ripened into productive ballplayers. Others, like outfielder Jackson Willeford, are still maturing.
Tyler Baker / Arizona Daily Wildcat UA Baseball took on Cal on Friday night, winning 10-1.
But, it’s not something Lopez said he’s shocked about. In fact it’s something he completely expected.
“Sometimes we forget … It takes a young guy awhile to get adjusted to playing in this park. It really does,” he said.
“This park is designed for a [certain] offense. It’s taken us awhile, longer than I wanted, to be very candid with you. But I shouldn’t be too upset because it took a junior class last year about four weeks. Four weeks into the season we were really sputtering, and then it clicked.”
Even with three of Arizona’s top six leaders in batting average — Gibbons, Newman and Cody Ramer — being freshmen, the eight newcomers are batting .286 on the season. The returning players are batting .334.
The deep fences at Hi Corbett turn the outfield into a graveyard for fly balls. And one of the biggest offenders is also one of the greenest bananas — Willeford.
“He’s just a fly ball waiting to happen in right field,” Lopez said. “In any other park, he’d probably have three home runs already.
“He’s going to be a good player. He just has to understand this is your home yard. This is what you have to do. What you have to do is have an offense here.”
In addition to the normal hurdles a freshman faces, Willeford also dealt with a bout of mononucleosis and a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, which is known better as a “Tommy John” injury.
Since he’s a field player, Willeford can avoid the worst effects of the “Tommy John” injury by being a designated hitter. The mono has passed but his batting hasn’t recovered, though.
Willeford is 1-for-22 on the year and has yet to find a groove at the plate since being inserted in the lineup at the start of the Utah series. While he started four straight games, he missed the final two of the Cal series.
Willeford said it’s important to take every at-bat one pitch at a time, and while the speed is much faster than he’s used to, things are finally slowing down.
“I feel like every day we come out [to Hi Corbett Field], it gets slower and slower,” he said. “[Coach] does a good job making sure the game doesn’t jump up on us.”
In his seven games this season, he’s recorded four RBI but only has a weak infield hit at the shortstop to show for it. But, power isn’t what Willeford lacks; he just needs to make better contact.
“He’s trying to hit a nine-run home run,” Lopez said. “He’s trying to knock that wall completely down and maybe hit one of the planes in the landing pad; that’s his goal right now, instead of just get a hit.
“He wants to do so well, so soon, but he’s got to ripen up. You can eat that banana green, but it’s not going to taste as good.”
Willeford said his journey has been a “humbling experience, to say the least.” Considering his battle with mono, a partially torn UCL and his decision to turn down an offer to join the Kansas City Royals’ farm system after being drafted in June, he’s not underselling anything.
He’s also not alone. Regulars Ryan Koziol and Scott Kingery are both hitting under .240 this season. And even a ripe banana in junior Johnny Field had to adjust to the college game.
“I remember freshman year, when I came in, the game’s a lot quicker than it was in high school,” Field said. “But the quicker that you learn to kind of grow up and accept that you’re going to be a guy on the team and accept the role as a freshman, the easier it gets.”
Field won the Pac-12 batting title last season and this year has an on-base plus slugging percentage of 0.988, the second best OPS on the team. But he too struggled as a freshman, hitting .297 on the year.
“I think our [freshmen] are doing a great job with that right now — accepting that they’re going to need to take a big responsibility for us this year and trying to get old as quick as possible,” Field said.