CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A year after finishing near the bottom of the ACC standings in various batting statistics, Mike Fox is tweaking North Carolina’s approach at the plate.
Power has not been UNC’s strength in recent years. Last season, the Tar Heels ranked 11th in the league in home runs (32), 11th in doubles (101) and 10th in slugging percentage (.411). Tyler Ramirez, UNC’s leading power hitter a season ago, is currently in Oakland’s farm system after posting eight home runs and a .540 slugging percentage in Chapel Hill in 2016.
Adding power back into the lineup has been an offseason focus for the Tar Heels.
“We really tried,” Fox said this week. “That’s one thing we didn’t do enough of last year is hit enough home runs and hit enough doubles. I think all of our returning players are a little stronger. We’ve talked about that whole walk-to-strikeout thing, that sometimes it’s okay to strike out rather than just try to move the ball and hit into a double play.”
On-base percentage has long been a staple of Fox’s offensive design, which places an emphasis on patience at the plate and rewards walks. Slugging percentage, which rewards multiple base hits, has been elevated in importance this offseason.
“Maybe sometimes you have to sacrifice a little bit of that for some power,” Fox said. “You see that in the big leagues all of the time. You see guys that are going to strike out a lot, but they’re also going to hit 30-35-40 homeruns and drive in 100…
“We need some guys to hit the ball with some power this year.”
Growth and maturity in the returning players, along with the addition of the nation’s top recruiting class, offer promise for better production. There is also new blood coaching the offense this season, as longtime assistant and current associate head coach Scott Forbes has moved from the bullpen to the batter’s box.
"He brings a lot of energy to the offensive side," starting centerfielder Brian Miller said of Forbes. "He just talks a lot about our approach and not so much the mechanics. I think a lot of the game can be traced back to mechanics if there's something wrong with your swing, but in college baseball I think it's just about competing and having that 'it' factor and being able to come through in big situations."
Junior righties J.B. Bukauskas and Jason Morgan were expected to get the starting nods for Friday and Saturday, respectively. Fox’s decision to start freshman righty Luca Dalatri answered the lone question mark in the rotation entering the season-opening series.
“He throws strikes,” Fox said of the 6-foot-6, 238-pound frosh. “He’s very mature. He’s a big kid, has some stamina. He throws four pitches for strikes. He’s not overpowering, but you have to hit him, so he’s got good stuff. I think he’s got some good makeup and some poise to him.”
Sophomore righty Rodney Hutchison outpitched all three starters during the preseason, according to Fox, but his talent will be utilized initially in relief.
“He’s going to be a weapon for us out of the pen,” Fox said.
UNC’s early-season schedule has quite the local flare. The Tar Heels will play their first 17 games at Boshamer Stadium a year after opening their season in Los Angeles.
"Some of it had to do with our league schedule,” Fox said. “We're flying three places, which we've never done before in my time here. We've never had to fly for three ACC series, so that's a first. That had a little bit to do with it, the places we're going in our league. You look at that and the budget does play a part as well."
UNC’s ACC road series include trips to Tallahassee, Pittsburgh and Boston.