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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/High tech and old school both part of the process in picking players, getting better

COURTESY PHOTO: KARL MAASDAM - MITCH CANHAMCORVALLIS — Fall baseball always has a purpose, but it is even more meaningful as Oregon State ushers in the Mitch Canham era.

The All-America catcher and captain of back-to-back national championship teams in 2006 and '07 is steering the ship in the wake of the great Pat Casey, his mentor and coach during his playing days at OSU.

The Beavers started fall ball on Sept. 9 and will continue through Oct. 21.

It will include a pair of exhibitions at Goss Stadium — Saturday against Sacramento State and Oct. 19 against British Columbia. Both games start at 1 p.m.

There will also be what Canham labels the "Orange and Black series," a string of intrasquad scrimmages from Oct. 8-11.

"Some days with live arms," he said, "and some days off pitching machines."

This is an important first look at the the 2020 Beavers for Canham, hired in June after 3 1/2 seasons as a minor league manager in the Seattle Mariners' organization.

Before a recent practice, he offered an early appraisal of the 43-man squad that he must trim to 35 after the fall season.

"They are amazing young men," said Canham, 35. "I've been blown away by how they hold each other accountable, how high their desire is to improve.

"They're not friends. They're not teammates. They are brothers. There's a difference between a friend and a brother. You do anything for family. They've embraced that and then some."

Canham said it's a culture that goes back to Casey's early years developing the OSU program, even before Canham arrived in 2003.

"That's what makes this place so special — the environment," he said. "There's a blue-collar, get-after-it feel. I get to wake up every morning with a smile on my face. I love sitting in meetings with our staff or the players. There's a special vibe that happens here every day. Practice is my most fun part of the day, watching them go out there and work together."

The Beavers have averaged about four team practices per week, plus individual sessions with Canham's staff, which includes assistant coaches Pat Bailey and Ryan Gipson, pitching coach Rich Dorman and undergrad coaches Parker Berberet, Daniel Robertson and Joey Wong. Canham and Berberet are working with the catchers, Gipson and Wong with the infielders and Bailey, Robertson and Berberet with the outfielders.

Canham calls this an "acquisition phase."

"It's not for us to make huge changes with these guys," he said. "I've seen it before, where guys get overcoached. It's a time to understand their qualities. They may have worked on some things during summer ball. Let's sit back and observe and see what's going on and then move forward."

The strengths of the 2020 Beavers appear to be pitching and defense. Among the returning arms are senior Jake Mulholland, juniors Mitchell Verburg, Christian Chamberlain and Nathan Burns and sophomores Jake Pfennigs and Joey Mundt. There are some promising freshmen, including Jack Washburn from Webster, Wisconsin; Will Fritsch from Stillwater, Minnesota, and Kai Murphy from Phoenix.

"We have some great leadership from the pitchers, and there is a lot of talent, from the young guys all the way up," Canham said. "They're working with one another and connecting. I'm throwing a lot of things at them, trying to speed them up, and they're doing a good job of recognizing that and slowing it down. They're doing everything right.

"A lot of them are showcasing some really good stuff. They're understanding what they need to work on — our principles of being able to fill up the strike zone and get ahead and stay ahead (in the count)."

Canham said he expects defense "to be a strength for us, with guys who are capable of making both the routine and highlight plays. We're asking the pitchers to throw into contact and use the defense behind them. That shows a togetherness piece."

With the team's top two hitters of a year ago, catcher Adley Rutschman and shortstop Beau Philip, gone to the pros, offense is a question mark. Canham said it's not a major concern of his.

"We have talent with the position players, and the right attitude," he said. "They'll get all their work in. I see the desire to be great, the ability to win pitch to pitch. Results don't always involve hits. It also involves being present, being prepared, trusting in the process. In time, that will result in positive outcomes."

While with the Mariners, Canham was introduced to the benefits of analytics. He has assembled a five-person analytics squad, headed by student manager Brad Brown and including other metric-savvy students enlisted for the role.

"We have so many resources available to us now," Canham said. "The technology with services such as Trackman, Blast (a swing trainer) and HitTrax, and Edgertronic cameras with high-speed pitch overlay, is top-rate. We collect data points to understand how the players move and what their strengths and deficiencies are."

That includes evaluation of all areas — hitting, pitching, fielding.

"For the first month, we're just collecting data through video," Canham said. "For instance, we look at the sensors with Rapsodo (which incorporates radar) and the location of each pitch. We know where our players are typically swinging at pitches, and where they hit the ball hard. The 'blast' sensor tells us rotational scores and on-plane efficiency. You can tell if players are too steep with their swing.

"It also allows our coaches to determine the process to fix the swing so (the batter) can be more on plane and have a better chance of connecting with it. We can simplify it and say which zone we should be attacking, and then provide the drills we need to work on to get better. If a guy has a hole in his swing, let's find out why it's there, and how we fix it."

Analytics can get technical and cover the most minute of details.

"Like, let's determine average glove height for a catcher with nobody on base," Canham said. "How many strikes are our catchers stealing (by framing) out of the zone? Trackman tells us a lot about pitch release. Is the fastball being released here? Is the changeup being released here?

"After collecting the data, we'll pick and choose what we want to apply on an individual basis. We'll sit down with each kid and talk about deficiencies and what we need to work on to get better and try to clean up any poor results."

Canham wants to have a balance between old-school and new-age.

"There's some really cool stuff involved, but it can be a lot of noise," he said. "If you lean too heavily on just the numbers piece and don't understand what your eyes are telling you, you've gone too far. Analytics is to help prove or disprove what your eyes are telling you.

"You have to use both sides together. The best people I've been around have done a good job with that. There's always the feel side of it, the experience side of it, that you have to listen to."

Every starting job is open for competition. Among the returnees, Troy Claunch is the leading candidate for catcher; Kevin Ober and Alex McGarry are among the candidates at first base; Andy Armstrong, Jake Harvey, Jake Dukart, Matt Gretler and George Mendazona will vie for infield spots, and Joe Casey, Preston Jones, Kyler McMahan, Zach Zalesky, Zach Clayton and Wade Meckler are among the contenders in the outfield. Canham chooses not to reveal his thoughts at this point.

"This is the time for me to evaluate and trust my coaches and their opinions, and soak it in and listen," he said. "I don't want to have any assumptions on guys. I don't want to put that out there yet."

Oregon State's most high-profile player seems unlikely to play an inning next season. Kevin Abel, the most outstanding pitcher of the College World Series as a freshman in 2018, continues the rehab process after Tommy John elbow surgery last spring. The junior right-hander is at practice every day and, said Canham, has embraced a role as a sort of player-coach.

"Kevin has done a fantastic job," Canham said. "He is taking care of his body and progressing, but if there's a young guy who needs guidance or asks for advice, he's there. He wants to be involved, and there's so much he can do. He is even learning a lot about the analytics side. He is taking every day as an opportunity to learn."

Canham is, too. This is his first foray into coaching college players. He's in no rush to make judgments. It's about establishing a system that reflects his own positive values.

"It's what we can do, not what we can't," he said. "There's no 'C' word in our vocabulary. Tell me what you can do, not what you can't."

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@kerryeggers


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