Virginia Tech is keeping coach Pat Mason, after a trying season. Is it a smart move? And where do the Hokies go from here?
Virginia Tech’s baseball season came to a close with a whimper last week, as Tech traveled to Charlottesville and got swept at the hands of arch-rival UVA. The sweep wasn’t surprising, as UVA is one of the best 10 teams in the country and the Hokies consistently proved this year that not even their absolute A game was enough. They had to play their best and hope the other better teams in the ACC didn’t play their best (see: win over Miami). Perhaps the big surprise came on Wednesday, when it was first reported by Mark Berman, and I confirmed with Virginia Tech, that head coach Pat Mason would return for another season in 2017.
The Week in Review
Thursday - Game 53: 8-3 L at Virginia
We’re not going to spend much time on these three games, because they frankly don’t matter and the big news is the return of Pat Mason. Kit Scheetz battled through 12 hits in six innings in this one and the Hokies actually hung in there and trailed just 4-3 heading into the sixth inning, when UVA plated three to take control.
Friday - Game 54: 7-6 L at Virginia
This is the game the Hokies should have won. They took a 3-0 lead in the first inning on a bases loaded walk and a two-RBI double. Packy Naughton threw a terrific seven innings as he scattered eight hits and gave up just two runs. Tech led 3-2 going into the eighth inning when they tacked on two “insurance” runs on a pair of back-to-back solo home runs. Unfortunately, the bullpen couldn’t hold onto the three-run lead as Chris Monaco gave up four runs in the bottom half of the eighth and got just one out before being relieved by Cole Kragel. Tech trailed 6-5 heading into the top of the ninth and actually tied it on a Tom Stoffel double, but a bases-loaded walk ended the game and handed the series to UVA.
Saturday - Game 55: 4-1 L at Virginia
This one was all about UVA starter Adam Haseley, who threw a complete game, two-hitter to improve to 8-3 on the year. UVA scored three runs in the bottom of the first inning off Virginia Tech starter Jon Woodcock and that was all Haseley would need to complete the sweep.
Mason Returns - Why?
For much of the last two months, we’ve been discussing what seemed like an inevitable coaching change. Whit Babcock, a self-professed baseball guy, seemed poised to make a change after three seasons under Pat Mason, the last of which was the worst record in Virginia Tech baseball history.
We were wrong.
With two seasons left on his contract at $150,000 per year, Babcock decided to stay the course with Mason for at least 2017. It’s an interesting decision considering just how poorly this season went. Tech went 6-24 in the ACC and won just two series all season - against Quinnipiac and against Alcorn State.
The Hokies were the worst team in the league by four games. Mason is now 67-94-1 overall and 28-61 in the league.
They are an atrocious 17-49-1 under Mason on the road.
Mason, who was the pitching coach under previous coach Pete Hughes, oversaw a pitching staff that ranked 275 out of 295 teams in the country.
So why stick it out? While we don’t know for sure what Babcock’s thinking is, it is probably a combination of the following:
Tech was shorthanded on the mound all season without their top two arms - Aaron McGarity and Luke Scherzer. Tech actually got decent performances from guys like Packy Naughton and Kit Scheetz at times this year, and McGarity and Scherzer are arguably better than them. Any team missing their top two arms will struggle.
Tech should also return most of their position players next season. Phil Sciretta and Matt Dauby are the only two starters graduating. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Saige Jenco depart as well despite having one more season of eligibility. He has done all he can do at the college level and already turned down the pros once. The guy has a .319 average in 149 career games.
Mason is owed $150,000 over each of the next two years. If he is fired after this season, Tech is on the hook to pay him and the new coach over for the next two seasons. While that may be possible in a revenue producing sport like football or basketball, it probably isn’t the most financially sound thing to do with a non-revenue producing sport.
While the Hokies have facility improvements coming, they aren’t anywhere near completion (they haven’t even been finalized). While it’s nice to show prospective new coaches a press release and tell them about the plans, this job will be a lot more attractive in a year or two when the renderings are final and the facility is under construction.
Mason gets another year, but if 2017 doesn’t work out, Babcock will have an improved facility nearing completion and a little more money to work with. Based off his track record, he is going to get a fine coach, which means he is going to have to pay him. The name I’d like to see him target? Jim Toman from nearby Liberty. Toman has a nice gig at Liberty and has that program chugging along, but they will never get past Coastal Carolina in the Big South. Toman cut his teeth at South Carolina, a premier program, and played at NC State. He is 326-205-1 in eight seasons at Liberty, including two NCAA tournament berths.
However, that’s irrelevant now. Mason has the keys for at least one more season. What will he have to work with?
He’ll have a pitching staff that is very experienced and saw some success this year.
Scheetz will be a senior coming off a 5-6 2016 season with a 4.82 era. He threw extremely well in three mid-season starts against Pittsburgh, Duke and Boston College. Scheetz split time as the Friday starter with Packy Naughton, who will also return after showing flashes as a sophomore. Naughton threw very well in a 4-3 W over North Carolina this season. They’ll need consistency in 2017, but taking their lumps is part of progressing in college baseball. Add McGarity and Scherzer to the mix and that’s a quality foursome to build a staff around. Jon Woodcock is the only arm who had a big role this year that is graduating.
At the plate, Nick Anderson batted .339 in 50 games, Sam Fragale hit seven home runs as a sophomore and Ryan Tufts hit .284 with a team-high 15 doubles on the year. They should have a lineup of mostly juniors and seniors next season. As with any sport, playing games with juniors and seniors who have tons of at bats (or innings) under their belts is a big advantage.
Would I have made a change? Without knowing the particulars of the financial forecast, yes. Even with a good amount of production and experience returning for next year, I’m not sure they can take enough steps next year to warrant moving forward further with Mason. Could they qualify for the ACC Tournament? Probably, but scrapping and clawing to qualify for the conference tournament one out of four years where Babcock wants this program?
Mason will have one year left on his contract, so then Babcock will be faced with either extending him and committing to several more seasons, making a move, or keeping a lame-duck coach trying to recruit players without knowing if he will be there for them.
Keeping Mason probably just delays a tough decision one more season. Maybe Tech takes several steps forward next season and Mason gets this thing rolling as the new facility brings in better recruits. Regardless, this decision was a surprise to many and really doesn’t do anything for cooling off Mason’s seat. The Hokies have a lot of work to do and will get some help next season as they aim to improve on this season’s 19-36 mark.