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Baseball: A review of Wildcat summer ball performances

The last few months will help new head coach Jim Foster make decisions about his squad in the spring.

Alex Calarco and Vincent Bianchina Pose Together After Winning the Northwoods League with the Kalamazoo Growlers
Northwestern Baseball

For most college sports fans, summer is a build-up for football season. But for collegiate and high school baseball players, it’s a time to prove yourself against the best of the best around the country. Although the storied Cape Cod Baseball League often comes to fans’ heads first when the topic of summer ball comes up, other top leagues like the New England Collegiate Baseball League consistently draw top collegiate prospects to play in their ranks.

Like any other Division I program, Northwestern sees a bevy of its top players depart straight from Evanston to any one of these summer leagues each year. For Wildcat coaches and fans alike, summer ball can be a litmus test of how a program’s players perform against top-level competition. For incoming manager Jim Foster, information from summer ball will be especially crucial as he shapes his team.

Below are notable performances for Wildcat players this summer, ranked in three tiers. The first is for the players whose summers either increased their value to Jim Foster and fans, as well as those who proved that they might deserve high expectations for next season. The second is for those whose summer saw mixed results that neither boosted nor tanked their value. And the third tier is simply for those who wish to put the summer behind them and move straight into fall ball.

Tier One: A Jubilant June (and July)

MIF Vince Bianchina | New England Collegiate Baseball League and Northwoods League

With the transfer of Patrick Herrera to Kentucky, the Wildcats are in need of someone with a high OBP to set the table. And Bianchina’s summer is an indicator that he could potentially fill that role. In the NECBL, one of the most competitive summer leagues, Bianchina managed a .441 OBP in 119 plate appearances. His eye was his most impressive attribute, drawing a staggering 16 walks for a walk percentage of 13.4. Bianchina also limited his strikeouts, striking out only about 9% of the time. On a Wildcats team that lost much of its offense over the offseason, any production is sorely needed, and Bianchina can certainly produce with a high volume of walks and singles.

IF/C Stephen Hrustich | Northwoods League

Hrustich is pivotal to the ‘Cats' success this year. After an exodus of power hitters, Hrustich is the only returning Wildcat who managed an OPS over .400 last season, and he’ll likely be the main guy Foster will look to hit the ball out of the park. This summer was no different either. In the Northwoods League, Hrustich managed the best summer SLG of his career (.379) and blasted four home runs, all while managing a .376 OBP. After two straight productive seasons in the Big Ten, Hrustich looks primed for another stellar year.

RHP David Utagawa | Appalachian League

Utagawa did not have the best 2022 season. He gave up lots of runs (7.93 ERA) and baserunners (2.284 WHIP), both of which are not conducive to success as a relief pitcher. But Utagawa certainly improved over the summer with the Johnson City Doughboys, striking out 11 batters per game, nearly double his collegiate rate, and decreasing his WHIP by 0.937. While he still struggled with walks, he decreased those too. After getting far improved results this summer, I would say I am now hopeful, but not yet convinced, that Utagawa can be a contributing member of this ‘Cats bullpen.

Alex Calarco IF/C | Northwoods League

While losing Anthony Calarco to Ole Miss through the transfer portal is a tough blow, at least we get to keep his younger brother. In sharp contrast to a disappointing 2022 freshman season where he could not take advantage of his limited opportunities, Alex managed to produce for the Kalamazoo Growlers. While he continued to strike out a dangerously high amount of the time (23% K%), he was able to boost his power numbers and walk rate, homering twice and walking an absurd (and unsustainable) 19.7% of his plate appearances. Even if he only gets a 12-15% BB% this coming collegiate season, it will still be a marked improvement over last season. The more he adjusts to collegiate ball, the better Calarco will get, and the power and discipline he’s shown are hopeful signs for the coming season.

Tier Two: Mixed Signals

RHP Luke Benneche | Cape Cod League

The recent transfer from Lafayette’s summer showed some promise. Strikeouts have always been his strength, and the fact that he continued throwing a high volume of strikeouts (12.85 K/9) is encouraging. What’s even more inspiring for Wildcats fans is that Benneche limited the walks (2.57 BB/9). Putting on runners via the free pass plagued Benneche last season, and this summer he showed some signs of improvement in limiting these cheap baserunners. The obvious negative of his summer though was the sheer number of hits he gave up. A 7.00 ERA with a 16.71 H/9 is not a recipe for success. To be fair, this was in the offensively loaded Cape Cod League, but he was hit extremely hard. I would still prefer Benneche forcing the opposition to get hits than walking runners around the bases. But with Benneche only accumulating a small sample size of innings over the summer, it’s hard to make any concrete predictions about his coming year.

Tier Three: Questions Remain

C/IF Bennett Markinson | Appalachian League

With the loss of starting catcher JC Santini, Markinson will have to step into an even greater role in the coming season. In the backup catcher role last year, Markinson showed some promise, hitting to the tune of a .748 OPS, fairly decent for a catcher. But this summer, Markinson put up a less than stellar performance, dropping his OPS by over 200 points. While he was able to walk fairly often, Markinson just could not buy himself a hit, let alone one of the extra base variety. If his woes at the plate continue into the collegiate season, the catcher position could become a question mark by spring, and Foster may have to consider swapping Markinson’s sound defense and experience catching at the college level for someone like Alex Calarco (more on him later) who has shown more aptitude at the plate.

OF Andrew Pinkston | Appalachian League

Left field was a weakness for the Wildcats last year, and Pinkston manned the position the most throughout the campaign despite only being a freshman. This summer, we all hoped he could improve on what was an okay, but not great (.690 OPS) 2022 collegiate season. If summer is any indication though, Pinkston has not yet turned it into another gear. In fact, his Appalachian League season has only added more fuel to the fire of questions regarding his strikeout rate (27.1%) and hit tool (.220 SLG). He should get playing time this fall and spring though, and I hope that, at minimum, he can produce at the level of his 2022 collegiate season as opposed to his poor summer.