As Aaron covered Tuesday, Rutgers Athletic Director Pat Hobbs elected not to bring back Head Baseball Coach Joe Litterio after six seasons at the helm. Litterio’s contract will expire June 30 and Hobbs chose not to extend it. We could review all the components of Hobbs’s athletic vision in “The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence” (TRPE) and assess how baseball measures up, but the main reason for this change is in the won-loss record.
Since 1961 only three men have been the Rutgers head baseball coach, five total since 1938. Litterio is the only one with a sub .500 winning percentage as the team’s manager, recording a final record of 140-174-1. Litterio’s best season was his first in 2014; he took over an 0-4 team from the coach he played for as an undergraduate at RU (Fred Hill Sr.) and led the ballclub to a 30-25 mark the rest of the way. The 14-9 mark during RU’s only season in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) would prove to be Litterio’s only winning conference record during his tenure. In the Big Ten era, Rutgers finished with the following won-loss totals in official conference games beginning in 2015 through this year; 7-17, 9-15, 7-16, 7-16, 9-14.
Postseason play and the Big Ten
More than the overall record, the inability to reach the NCAA tournament and recently, Big Ten tournament has been frustrating for the program. In zero of the five Big Ten campaigns did the Scarlet Knights end the year in the top eight to qualify for the conference postseason tournament. The 2019 season had the Knights end the season in 10th place of the 13 schools, their best result to date after one 12th place and three 11 place finishes.
On the national stage, Rutgers has not reached the NCAA tournament since 2007, the school’s longest drought since a 16 year stretch from 1970 to 1986. However during that stretch, Rutgers did reach three consecutive Atlantic 10 (formerly Eastern 8 then Atlantic 8) tournament finals from 1980-1982, winning the title in 1981. Unfortunately the Scarlet Knights did not receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Critics will point to player development as a real weakness of Litterio’s staffs. Of note is that Litterio inherited former Scarlet Knights catcher Tim Reilly and pitcher Casey Gaynor as his only full-time on field assistant coaches, both who were in their mid-20s. Following the 2017 campaign, Hobbs allowed more experienced coaches to enter the program to replace Reilly and Gaynor: former National Pitching Coach of the Year at Seton Hall Phil Cundari, former Manhattan Head Coach Jim Duffy, and Peter Barron as a director of player development. Then prior to this past season, Tom Conley joined the program as an on field assistant to help out with the catchers.
Did you know @JayHarris_1 has walked in 2⃣0⃣% of his plate appearances this season?! That's the 2⃣nd highest BB% in the Midwest League! He's also in stolen bases with 1⃣1⃣!— Fort Wayne TinCaps (@TinCaps) May 22, 2019
Learn about that and more in today's Game Notes: https://t.co/M8FeCGrlgU pic.twitter.com/EHS9F1BP30
The good: Even before Conley joined the program, the Scarlet Knights continued a strong catching tradition. In 2016 RJ Devish earned second team All-Big Ten honors and was followed by a third team finish from Nick Matera despite splitting time behind the plate in 2017. Matera was then drafted after the 2018 season by Philadelphia. Despite the losses of Nick and Chris Folinusz, Tyler McNamara emerged as a solid starter defensively and as the team’s clean up hitter relegating blue-chip freshman Peter Serruto to backup duty.
Outfield has had a surplus of capable players, most notably Jawuan Harris who was drafted in the 7th round by San Diego in 2018. More than that though, the team has been able to trot out three legitimate Big Ten outfielders every year they have been in the conference. Vinny Zarillo, Tom Marcinczyk, and Mike Carter are players who come to mind that have struggled to find homes in high professional baseball, but were excellent hitters in the Big Ten. Luke Bowerbank finally came on late this year and alongside two players who make things happen on the basepaths, Mike Nyisztor and Victor Valderrama, gave Rutgers a solid Big Ten outfield trio plus another speedy glove in Kevin Blum.
The bad: Other than Max Herrmann who has risen quickly through the Angels system to their AAA affiliate, elite talent on the mound has been virtually non-existent. Mark McCoy was a 29th round draft pick, but was out of the MiLB after just two seasons. Howie Brey (31st round) faced injuries as well and also lasted just two seasons. That being said, none of that trio had an ERA below 5.58 for the Knights in 2015 so they weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire. The rest of the staff was worse contributing to a team ERA of 6.34 that year. After some improvement in 2016, 2017 saw the team’s previous starting shortstop Gaby Rosa and first baseman Chris Campbell logging heavy innings as starters out of necessity.
After Cundari joined the staff in 2018, O’Reilly had it click late as a senior at RU but struggled his first year in the Pirates organization. This year in the Sally league, John has been awesome in relief though, so hopefully his success can continue. Tevin Murray’s amazing half season this year has him hoping his name will be called next week at the MLB Draft as well.
The ugly: Producing infielders for the next level has been a disaster for the Scarlet Knights. With respect to Chris Suseck’s two strong years at first base, none other infielder has been a game changer in the Big Ten era with the bat. (Brian O’Grady’s tenure ended in Litterio’s first year as head coach). There have been a number of players who have been serviceable, though many of them had success early but didn’t make massive strides in their four years. Milo Freeman, Chris Campbell, and this season Carmen Sclafani (7 HR but hit just .216) come to mind. Kevin Welsh is much better per the eye test as the only sure counterexample, though it only really shows up in the stats with his slugging percentage since his batting average has ranged minimally from .243 to .253 in his three year career.
To make matters worse, defense up the has been a revolving door due to inconsistency at second, third, and short. In no Big Ten season other than the 2016 campaign (Gaby Rosa) did Rutgers have an above average shortstop defensively the majority of the year. Then in 2017 as a senior Rosa regressed and was replaced by freshman Kevin Welsh who has ping-ponged between second and short for his entire three year career. Yes Rutgers was without Dan DiGeorgio the entire 2019 season, but he is a much better second baseman forced to shortstop duty out of necessity. DiGeorgio did not even join the baseball program out of high school, but was enrolled as an engineering student when as the story goes, Phil Cundari asked him to join the program as a true sophomore before he became the team’s best infielder.
Overall, player development was a mixed bag year over year, although there was a stark contrast between early 2019 when the team began 6-17 to a 14-14 rest of the way. This type of in-season development was not observed in prior years which makes sense with all the losses after the 2018 season and therefore so many freshmen playing huge roles in 2019.
On the hill, finding pitchers you can work with is very, very tough. Just like finding guys who are at least 6’5” to play forward in basketball is difficult due to supply problems, perhaps more so is identifying young men who can throw 85 mph with any sort of movement. Those who throw 90+ with command and “good stuff” either go straight to the minors or much more hospitable pitching conditions south or west. Harry Rutkowski is a rare local example who stayed home with RU after being drafted, and Litterio deserves credit.
I give Litterio even more credit for bringing in a lot of project players to pitch with untapped potential because some of them did work out eventually. Only on some planet other than earth would they have all panned out. This strategy was a key cog to the success of many Rutgers programs of yesteryear and I’d like to see more of those diamonds in the rough mined by other RU athletic programs.
Of course getting those hidden gems to develop in any sport requires at least a serviceable set of gritty players around him to make the team stable. Pitchers do need to learn to pitch out of trouble, but they can develop bad habits when their defense is giving the opponent more than 27 outs. Whether the infield defense problem rests with player development or recruiting really doesn’t matter at this point, especially when the head coach was an above average infielder himself.
The facilities are a tough selling point for recruits and proved quite difficult for Litterio and potentially his successor to overcome. Armed with the new Fred Hill training complex helps somewhat, but Bainton Field itself doesn’t even have lights, a luxury local high schools even possess. That prevents the Big Ten Network from coming on campus for hardball broadcasts. Not only that, the atmosphere in such a small “stadium” is paltry compared to Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, or Indiana’s entire complex just off the top of my head.
Five from #RBaseball earn Spring Academic All-Big Ten recognition!— Rutgers Baseball (@RutgersBaseball) May 30, 2019
- Kevin Blum, Mechanical Engineering (2nd)
- Adam Holland, Communication
- Tyler McNamara, Economics (3rd)
- Harry Rutkowski, Criminal Justice
- Carmen Sclafani, Psychology (3rd)
Release: https://t.co/IR3GA7jStn pic.twitter.com/49Z3CNdX4n
Rutgers Baseball is viewed as one of the university’s strongest programs in community service AND in the classroom. Litterio and his staffs deserve credit for actually bringing in high character individuals, something every college and pro team insists they prioritize, but Rutgers baseball has continued to do for a long time. College is much more than about winning athletic events, learning and becoming a good community citizen are more important in the long run. Raising money for cancer by the baseball team is possibly the most noteworthy annual fundraiser in all of Rutgers Athletics.
Where do they go from here?
With Litterio’s contract expiring, a decision had to be made regardless and with the recruiting you can’t just do a one year extension. No incoming freshman wants to join a team expecting to play for multiple staffs who didn’t recruit them. So that means at least two more years which would also negatively impact the following cycle, so really it would have to be three just to buy another year or two at most. Can Hobbs wait two more years?
DISCLAIMER: I can’t speak to the details around how this change was handled by Hobbs or the Rutgers Athletic Department as a whole, so I don’t want to make it seem like I approve or disapprove of the manner in which events up to this point. I simply don’t know the details. For example if Rutgers did hold on for the 8th spot, would Litterio have been back? I don’t know.
In another sport I think Hobbs may have, but not in baseball. Rutgers sports programs historically have not had the same success as baseball has on the diamond, so Litterio faced higher expectations than others at RU. His successor will face the same. Of all the sports at Rutgers though that have seen coaching turnover in the Hobbs era, the baseball job probably has the best pool of candidates, especially right now.
Pitching coach Phil Cundari is the interim coach as Hobbs conducts his announced national coaching search. Hobbs will surely at least explore the possibility of trying to replicate the success he had in other sports, by finding a program builder. If he goes that route Neil Ioviero who pitched at Rutgers AND meets the Hobbs model of a program builder with unprecedented success at Kean seems the most logical. If Hobbs elects to go a different way, former player Darren Fenster is a high reward choice with managerial experience in the Boston Red Sox organization. That’s only people with ties to the program, nevermind others with Jersey ties or that successfully built other programs in the tri-state areas.
I think it’s Cundari if he wants it, though. The team ERA in Big Ten play dropped from 5.76 in 2018 to 4.02 this season. He is most responsible for patching together a pitching staff whose three starters weren’t close to the rotation in 2017. As more development time is given to younger players and recruits want to come pitch for him arrive it could serve as a boon to the program. The fact that former Manhattan Head Coach Jim Duffy remains on staff makes this less risky. It would be foolish to roll the dice and risk losing one of the nation’s best pitching coaches by bringing in a new head man, unless Cundari doesn’t want the job (which would not be unheard of for a pitching coach.) We saw how Cundari as a pitching coach at Rutgers came in and took effectively the worst pitching situation in the conference and turned it to one of the better ones by the middle of his second season. Litterio even acknowledged how “Cundari would figure it out” after the USC Upstate series.
Of note is that the Big Ten is NOT one of the premier baseball conferences in the country unlike it is in other sports like basketball, gymnastics, or of course wrestling. You don’t have to be the next Connie Mack to get RU to the middle of the conference on the diamond whereas you do in those others. Facilities is the biggest weakness for sure, although I think RU’s other advantages including location roughly even things out for most of their opposition. All Big Ten teams are in cold climates, Rutgers is probably the second best (after Maryland) in terms of the number of days in a year when outdoor baseball can be comfortably played. And you know the rest of the recruiting pitch: NYC, Philly, shore access, academics, etc.
Bottom line if you look at Hobbs’s plan, how can anyone consider baseball to be winning enough to justify not trying to do better? People need to be held accountable in any aspect of life or things rarely change. That’s not to say success is ONLY about wins and losses, the TRPE well documents that. Baseball has gotten the job done in the classroom and in the community. I’m normally a proponent of stability and loyalty unless someone absolute HAS to go (Eddie, Mike Rice, Kyle Flood to name a few), but the current Litterio contract ending coupled with a strong pool of available candidates who actually want the job was probably too tough to pass up.
More to come on the developments in the hiring effort and other off-season baseball coverage.