For most college sports fans, summer is preparation for football season. But for college and high school baseball players, it’s time to prove themselves against the best of the best in the country. Although the legendary Cape Cod Baseball League often comes to fans’ minds first when the subject of summer ball comes up, other top leagues like the New England Collegiate Baseball League consistently attract top collegiate prospects for play in their ranks.
Like any other Division I program, Northwestern sees a slew of its top players move directly from Evanston to one of these summer leagues each year. For coaches and Wildcat fans, the summer ball can be a litmus test of how well a program’s players perform against high-level competition. For new coach Jim Foster, the information from the summer prom will be especially crucial as he shapes his team.
Below are notable performances for Wildcat players this summer, categorized into three tiers. The first is for players whose summers have increased their value to Jim Foster and the fans, as well as those who have proven they can earn high expectations for next season. The second is for those whose summer saw mixed results that neither rose nor fell in value. And the third tier is simply for those who wish to put summer behind them and jump right into the fall ball.
First level: a jubilant month of June (and July)
MIF Vince Bianchina | New England Collegiate Baseball League and Northwoods League
With the transfer of Patrick Herrera to Kentucky, the Wildcats need 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 hit 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 in the offseason, any production is absolutely necessary, and Bianchina can certainly produce with a high volume of walks and singles.
IF/C Stephen Hrustich | Northwoods League
Hrustich is essential to the success of the “Cats” this year. After an exodus of power hitters, Hrustich is the only returning Wildcat to shoot an OPS over .400 last season, and he’ll likely be the main guy Foster looks to hit the ball out of the park. This summer was no different either. In the Northwoods League, Hrustich hit a career-best summer SLG (.379) and hit four homers, while managing a .376 OBP. After two consecutive productive seasons in the Big Ten, Hrustich looks set for another stellar year.
RHP David Utagawa | Appalachian League
Utagawa didn’t have the best 2022 season. He gave up a lot of runs (7.93 ERA) and baserunners (2.284 WHIP), which aren’t 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 doubling his collegiate rate and dropping his .937 WHIP. While he still had difficulty walking, he also decreased them. After seeing much 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
Although losing Anthony Calarco to Ole Miss through the transfer portal is a big blow, at least we can keep his younger brother. Unlike a disappointing 2022 freshman season where he couldn’t take advantage of his limited opportunities, Alex was able to produce for the Kalamazoo Growlers. As he continued to hit a dangerously high amount of time (23% K%), he was able to increase his power numbers and walk rate, doing two home runs and walking an absurd (and unsustainable) 19.7 % of his home plate appearances. Even if he only gets a 12-15% BB% this coming college season, it will still be a marked improvement from last season. The more he adapts to college ball, the better Calarco will improve, and the power and discipline he is showing are signs of hope for the season ahead.
Level 2: Mixed signals
RHP Luke Benneche | Cape Cod League
Lafayette’s recent summer transfer was promising. Strikeouts have always been his strength, and the fact that he continued to throw a high volume of strikeouts (12.85K/9) is encouraging. What’s even more inspiring for Wildcats fans is that Benneche limited the walks (2.57 BB/9). Putting runners through the free pass plagued Benneche last season, and this summer he showed signs of improvement by limiting those cheap base runners. The obvious negative of his summer was the large number of hits he dropped. A 7.00 ERA with a 16.71 H/9 is not a recipe for success. To be fair, he was in the offensively loaded Cape Cod League, but he was hit extremely hard. I would still rather Benneche force the opposition to get hits than walk runners around bases. But with Benneche racking up only a small sample of innings over the summer, it’s hard to make any concrete predictions about his year ahead.
Third level: the questions remain
C/IF Bennett Markinson | Appalachian League
With the loss of starting receiver JC Santini, Markinson will have to play an even bigger role in the upcoming season. In the backup receiver role last year, Markinson showed promise, hitting a fairly decent .748 OPS for a receiver. But this summer, Markinson put in a less than stellar performance, dropping his OPS by more than 200 points. While he was able to walk quite often, Markinson simply couldn’t afford a hit, let alone one of the extra basic variety. If his woes at the plate continue into the college season, the catcher position could become a question mark in the spring, and Foster may have to consider trading Markinson’s solid defense and college catch-up experience for someone like Alex Calarco (more on him later) who showed more aptitude at the plate.
By Andrew Pinkston | Appalachian League
Left field was a weakness for the Wildcats last year, and Pinkston held the most position throughout the campaign despite being just a freshman. This summer, we were all hoping he could improve on what was a decent, but not great, 2022 college season (.690 OPS). If summer is any indication, Pinkston has yet to turn it into another gear. In fact, his season in the Appalachian League has only added more fuel to the fire of questions regarding his strikeout rate (27.1%) and striking tool (.220 SLG). He should get some playing time this fall and spring though, and hopefully at a minimum he can produce at the level of his 2022 college season as opposed to his poor summer.