Fall Notes: Iowa

Program at a glance

Head coach: Rick Heller, sixth year

2018 record: 33-20 overall, 13-9 Big Ten (sixth)

Key departures: LHP Nick Allgeyer (97 IP, 2.41 ERA, 95 SO, .235 BAA), C Tyler Cropley (.342 AVG/.449 OBP, .578 SLG, 20 2B, 9 HR), RHP Zach Daniels (45.2, 2.56, 49, .200), OF Robert Neustrom (.311/.386/.538, 15 2B, 11 HR)

Key returners: Sr. 2B Mitchell Boe (.266/.352/.351, 10 2B), Jr. SS Lorenzo Elion (.275/.303/.352), SO. LHP Jack Dreyer (31.2 IP, 3.69, 42 SO, .224 BAA), Sr. RHP Cole McDonald (55.2, 3.23, 52, .249, Sr. OF Chris Whelan (.308/.403/.410)

Notable newcomers: INF Izaya Fullard, C Austin Martin, OF Connor McCaffery, 

2018 in review

Sometimes the numbers just don’t add up as they should. If selection into the NCAA Tournament rested solely on the eye-test, it’s hard to argue Iowa didn’t deserve an appearance in a third regional in four years. Over ther 53 games, the Hawkeyes captured weekend series against Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, splitting an abbreviated two-game set against Indiana. The Buckeyes, Cowboys and Hoosier were each among the 64 participating in a regional, with both the Illini and Wolverines were ranked prior to taking on Iowa.

But the end-of-season RPI calculations weren’t in Iowa’s favor, with a final ranking of 77, and thus leaving Iowa at home the first weekend of June.

That a 33-20 campaign could qualify as a disappointing season speaks to the change that has taken place in Iowa City under Rick Heller. While it’s going on 45 years since the Hawkeyes last won the Big Ten, the 2018 season, Iowa has recorded a winning since in each of the last four Big Ten slates, a feat accomplished only once in the six years preceding Heller’s arrival. Key to Iowa’s sustaining a level of success last seen in the 1970s is the ability to replace key players year over year.

Last year’s middle-of-the-order duo of Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom stepped into the roles of offensive leaders after the departures of lineup anchors Jake Adams and Mason McCoy. The later tandem helped fill voids created in the departure of Joel Booker and Nick Roscetti, just as they emerged after Jake Mangler and Eric Toole graduated from the program.

However, a key difference in Iowa’s 2018 outfit compared to years past was the players surrounding their standout bats. An elbow injury limited outfielder Chris Whelan, the 2017 Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, to just 38 games. He joined Cropley and Neustrom as the only Hawkeyes with a .300 or batter average.

But where the lineup depth may not have been there, Iowa’s offensive was complimented by a strong pitching staff. On the mound, the Iowa pitching staff continued to put together another quietly effective season. With a 4.07 team ERA, the Hawkeyes owned the Big Ten’s fifth-best pitching unit, leading the conference with 499 strikeouts. Leading the men on the mound, All-Big Ten first-team selection Nick Allgeyer provided the Hawkeyes with a true ace, finishing fourth in the Big Ten in ERA and innings pitched, second in strikeouts. Cole McDonald gave Heller a quality second starter. And d converted infielder Zach Daniels closed his career in Iowa City with a banner season at the back of the bullpen, holding opponents to 13 earned runs in 45.2 relief innings, striking out more than a batter per inning.

All in all, Iowa was a solid team in 2018, a team capable of repeatedly beating very good teams, but a slight scuffle in mid-March and just one run over 19 innings in the Big Ten Tournament kept the math of the RPI from working in their favor.

Fall notes

With no player outside of Cropley, Neustrom and Whelan batting above .275, there isn’t an obvious player that jumps out to stand alongside Whelan as the primary offensive threats of the Hawkeyes. That believes jives with what Heller saw from this club this fall.

“There’s not one marquee guy to hand your hate on like years past,” the sixth-year head coach said. “But top to bottom we’re more balanced.”

There were ample opportunities for players to step into bigger or leading roles this fall. While Cropley and Neustrom were concluding their first professional seasons, Whelan was sidelined with a broken shoulder blade, suffered in the final game of the Prospect League’s summer season. The program also parted ways with returning senior shortstop Kyle Crowl. 

The absence of key contributors and multiple vacancies to fill created a competitive environment, where the culture that has been established over the last years fostered a more completeness of a team, each player doing their part to create a greater whole.

“New guys got reps and everyone bought in,” Heller said, adding there may not be one player that reaches double digits in home runs, but saw six or seven players capable of hitting five or so. The Hawkeyes repeatedly working on hit-and-run and first-to-third situations this fall, hoping to give an offensive absent a big bat like Adams, an offense that will be more doubles and on-base oriented, capable of putting pressure on the opposing staff 1-9.

But there is one wild card that may change Iowa’s ability to have a true thumper: outfielder Connor McCaffery. A two-sport athlete at Iowa, also on the Hawkeyes basketball team that his father coaches, McCaffery is a redshirt freshman who did not play last year after an ankle injury, mononucleosis, severe strep throat and a late-December tonsillectomy all struck the outfielder. This fall,  the 6’6, 205-pound McCaffery showed the ability to hit the ball with authority and a good bit of speed. Heller said if the season were to start today, McCaffery would be the team’s three-hole hitter. It’s to be determined when the baseball Hawkeyes will get to use McCaffery this spring with the overlap of his two seasons.

Heller mentioned Izaya Fullard and Austin Martin as two players capable of being the next two in a long line of transfers who have immediate impacts. Fullard, a transfer from Kirkwood Community College, lead the country in hitting with a .470 average from the Division II JUCO. Martin will look to fill the void behind the plate with Fullard joining Mitchel Boe and Lorenzo Elion as returning infielders to be key contributors around the horn.

On the mound, McDonald is a guy that Heller says he and his staff are comfortable slotting into the Friday role. Health will be key to McDonald, last year’s workload of 55.2 innings is the most innings he’s pitched in three years at Iowa, battling arm injuries off and on. Behind him, Jack Dreyer and Grant Judkins, a pair of solid key relievers look to fill out the rotation with sophomore Cam Baumann another hurler in the mix. Where Heller believes the starting pitching and its depth will be a key strength, the back of the bullpen is an unknown.

For the first time in his Iowa tenure, there isn’t an established closer at the back of the bullpen. Although Daniels recorded just five saves last year, he was a steady arm that could go multiple innings to close a game, evident by his 6-2 record. Nick Nelsen recorded three saves and carried a 3.60 ERA, but he graduated from the program.

While there may not be a player ready to jump into the closer’s role at the start of November, as players move into the individual and group practice part of the offseason, the track record of player development has Heller confident the team will be where they need to. The Hawkeyes will be tested early in 2019, with their return trip to Stillwater, to complete the home-and-home series with Oklahoma State, kicking off March.

“Here at Iowa, player development is key to success,” Heller said. “We believe every player will reach their potential with buy-in and attitude.”

Those elements where there this fall according to Heller, capping the type of offseason needed to have everything fall in place for another regional run.

Staying power: Culture keeps Iowa in regional mix

Iowa’s Cole McDonald threw an offspeed pitch in the fourth inning against Michigan on April 29, and came out of the game with elbow discomfort. The pitch was actually a fastball, it was his elbow that slowed the pitch down and made it seem like a changeup. It was deja vu for Iowa head coach Rick Heller, who around the same time a year ago lost Friday starter CJ Eldred to a UCL injury that required surgery.

In 2017, Iowa went on to win the Big Ten Tournament without Eldred, making an NCAA Regional for the second time in three years. Since losing McDonald, the Hawkeyes have finished off a series win against the Wolverines and took two-of-three from a top-15 Oklahoma State squad the weekend after.

The success that comes every May for his team must be starting to become deja vu for Heller, as well.

“It’s a priority for us to figure things out in the fall,” Heller said. “We talk about how important it is to play our best baseball down the stretch. It’s just talk at that point, but it sets the tone that we will work hard, we’ll stay in the weight room…We’re either moving forward or moving backward. We need to constantly be pushing forward. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s a part of our program that’s planned out.”

It seems as though Heller has it down to a science. Even with a series loss at Northwestern last weekend, the Hawkeyes still stand a good chance at grabbing an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, barring another series loss against Penn State this coming weekend.

It wasn’t necessarily supposed to go this well for Iowa this season, though. Heller was tasked with replacing Big Ten Player of the Year Jake Adams, an impossible task after Adams reset the Big Ten’s single-season home run mark, and all-conference shortstop Mason McCoy, both sixth-round draft picks. And those were just the guys you fully expected were gone.

Eldred and fellow RHP Nick Gallagher both signed professional contracts after last season, although both had eligibility remaining.

“All those things are so uncontrollable. Visualize this team if we had those guys back,” Heller said. “It’s the same mindset of losing guys to injury. Whoever is here, whoever is put out there, is expected to be successful. The accountability is there on this team, that’s an expectation. You can’t dwell on it, [because] there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”

Heller is not unlike other college coaches. The more control he can have, the better. Where he can’t control players leaving early in the draft, he can control the players filling their spots through recruiting. Now in his fifth year at Iowa, Heller’s lineup is filled entirely with his guys, instilled with his culture.

That’s a big reason why Iowa has become a contender each and every year.

“We have a culture established. The older guys understand you have to work hard on off days and in the weight room. They know we can’t just try to stay even,” Heller said. “It starts Day 1 when the players arrive. No matter who plays, we’re still going to find a way to get the job done. If somebody goes down, somebody’s prepared to fill in.

“We talk about it quite a bit, from the start of fall all the way through. That way, when someone does go down [or someone leaves], you don’t have that shock. we all know whoever that player that needs to step up might be and what he needs to do, and no one panics.”

There will be no panic this coming weekend for Iowa, although a series sweep of the Nittany Lions would go a long way in convincing the NCAA Selection Committee that the Hawkeyes should be in the tournament. Conference series wins against Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State make up a strong resume. The non-conference series win against Oklahoma State was another resume booster, and one that wouldn’t have happened without those Big Ten wins.

According to Heller, getting teams to travel to Iowa City has become easier as the team has improved each season. Come May, teams are looking for big wins, especially on the road, as those are worth more to the selection committee. For Oklahoma State, the idea of getting three games on the road against a team with a good RPI like Iowa was enticing.

The same was the case for Heller, with the added bonus of getting games in Stillwater next year. That being said, don’t picture Heller in his office calculating RPIs and scouring the internet for tournament projections depending on whether or not they were to beat the Cowboys, or any other high profile team. He doesn’t really pay attention to that stuff.

“I don’t [pay attention] a whole lot. It’s hard not to because everyone is talking about it, but it really doesn’t matter if you’re not taking care of your business on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t get caught up in any of that. If we don’t take care of our business, none of that matters. If we play well, and if wins come our way…against one of toughest, if not the toughest, schedules in the Big Ten, I think we’ll be okay.”

Breaking down the NCAA Tournament picture

A little over one month away from the Memorial Day unveiling of the 2018 NCAA Tournament field, media outlets are starting to churn out weekly NCAA Tournament projections and discuss whose stock is rising or climbing. The Big Ten is drawing attention for having six teams with realistic regional odds, where if all were to make the tournament would set a conference record.

Whether it ends up six teams, or five, as was the case in 2015 and 2017, or even just four, it is becoming a May fixture to have a half-dozen teams pursuit a regional bid. This year, with respect to Purdue who is still hanging around on the outer edge of the bubble, the spotlight is on Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State as they prepare to via for a coveted spot in the field of 64 over the last four weeks.

To get you up to speed on where the six teams stand, here’s an overview of their seasons to date, their remaining schedules and what their postseason picture looks like as of today, ahead of the weekend where the six teams are set to square off against each other, as Illinois travels to Indiana, Michigan heads to Iowa, and Ohio State welcomes Minnesota.

References

Boyd’s World RPI Needs Report

NCAA Official RPI

Warren Nolan’s Big Ten page

(Opponent’s number parenthesis represent Warren Nolan RPI)

Illinois

Record: 24-12 overall, 9-3 in Big Ten (3rd)

Warren Nolan RPI: 58

Strength of Schedule: 113

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 6-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Four

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Indiana (26), May 1 vs. Southern Illinois (128), May 4-6 vs. Ohio State (39), May 11-13 @ Michigan (53), May 17-19 vs. Nebraska (126).

In a nutshell: The Illini have dropped four of their last five games, placing their RPI in the upper-50s, a precarious position. Illinois’ sweep of Pac-12 opponents in the Dairy Queen Classic is starting to look better with Arizona (40) turning around their season and UCLA (31) remaining a strong team, and the team has a split of two games at Coastal Carolina (25) to work with. But, in their lone weekend games against an RPI top 50 team since Minneapolis, Illinois dropped two of three games against Iowa. If there is a slight concern in addition to their RPI, it’s the lack of a signature weekend series win. The good news is that multiple such opportunities await the Illini. Series at Indiana and Michigan, while hosting Ohio State in-between, will allow Dan Hartleb’s team to go over 20 games against RPI top 100 teams.  Winning two of their next three weekends, which would also likely lead to a top-four finish in the Big Ten, should allow the Illini to return to NCAA play for the first time since 2015. According to Boyd’s World’s RPI Needs, which breaks down needed win-loss combinations to reach various RPI benchmarks, assuming all other teams in college baseball maintain their current winning percentage, 10 wins will have the Illini approach an RPI of 32, with several combinations to reach eight wins getting them in the top 45.

 

Indiana

Record: 29-8, 7-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 26

Strength of Schedule: 126

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 9-5

Losses against RPI > 150: One

Remaining schedule: April 25 @ Purdue (84) , April 27-29 vs. Illinois (58), May 4-6 @ Minnesota (38), May 8 vs. Kentucky (18), May 11-13 @ Nebraska (126), May 15 @ Louisville (41), May 17-19 vs. Maryland (119).

In a nutshell: Indiana has been the highest ranked Big Ten team all season. The preseason favorite in the eyes of the conference coaches, the Hoosiers have the conference’s top RPI, spurred by a Big Ten-leading 29 wins. It is a bit premature to say the Hoosiers are a lock for the NCAA Tournament, especially with a tough slate over the next four weeks, but Chris Lemonis’ club should be viewed as safely in the field of 64. Now, where it gets interesting for IU is whether their resume will warrant a spot as a regional host. Currently their RPI would suggest no, an absence of a weekend series win over a top 50 club is slight knock on IU’s season to date, but Indiana will have six conference games to add to their current 14 games against teams in the RPI top 100, with three midweek games against rivals, two on the road, at Purdue and Louisville (41), with the Cardinals joining the Kentucky Wildcats (18) as likely regional-bound clubs where wins would add bullets on Indiana’s resume. If Indiana can go 13-2 over their final 15 games, Boyd’s World suggest a top 16 RPI is in the picture, which would likely net a third Bloomington Regional in six years.

 

Iowa

Record: 23-13, 7-6

Warren Nolan RPI: 47

Strength of Schedule: 67

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 7-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Two

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. Milwaukee (187), April 27-29 vs. Michigan (53), May 1 vs. Missouri (29), May 2 vs. Western Illinois (288) , May 4-6 vs. Oklahoma State (34), May 11-13 @ Northwestern (235), May 15 @ Western Illinois (288), May 17-19 vs. Penn State (206).

In a nutshell: After being swept in a three-game series at UNLV (51), March 9-11, the odds that the Hawkeyes would appear in a second consecutive regional appeared long, at best. But since St. Patrick’s Day, Iowa is 14-7, with series victories over Illinois and Ohio State, while splitting an abbreviated two game series with Indiana. Iowa’s turnaround has been powered by the return of leadoff batter Chris Whelan, making the team Iowa was over the first month a shell of it’s current self. Iowa is coming off of a weekend defeat at Minnesota, but are set to welcome Michigan to Iowa City this weekend. Iowa is the lone team of the Big Ten’s six regional hopefuls to face the other five teams, a tough task which is doesn’t include playing host to Oklahoma State (34) next weekend during their conference by weekend. Already with the best strength of schedule of these six teams, Iowa will have more opportunities to strengthen its case to be in the field of 64, before finishing with consecutive series against the conference’s last-place clubs. Northwestern and Penn State may offer a break in competition but poor records and 200+ RPIs where that may set back Iowa’s schedule strength a tick.

 

Michigan

Record: 24-11, 11-0

Warren Nolan RPI: 53

Strength of Schedule: 167

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 1-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 3-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Iowa (47), May 1 vs. Eastern Michigan (181), May 2 @ Eastern Michigan (181), May 4-6 @ Rutgers (139), May 8 @ Central Michigan (225), May 9 @ Michigan State (203), May 11-13 vs. Illinois (58), May 17-19 @ Purdue (84)

In a nutshell: The Wolverines are drawing national attention with a current 20-game winning streak, the second-longest winning streak in the country this season. Unfortunately for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances, the month-long run hasn’t included any games against teams in the RPI’s top 100, with 15 being played against teams whose RPI is somewhere in the 200s. The competition Michigan has faced is reflected in their strength of schedule. The Wolverines do have a win over Stanford, the RPI’s top-rated team, but outside of the four-game set in Palo Alto the Michigan has played only one other game against a top 50 team. That will change this weekend with their series at Iowa, and potentially in mid-May when they welcome Illinois to Ann Arbor. U-M’s perfect Big Ten record has them in prime position to claim a conference-leading 36th Big Ten championship, but their conference slate to date, opponents Michigan State, Northwestern, Maryland, and Penn State are a combined 12-42 in Big Ten play, has them squarely bubble for their 24th NCAA Tournament appearance.

 

Minnesota

Record: 25-11, 9-2

Warren Nolan RPI: 38

Strength of Schedule: 96

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 6-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 12-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Zero

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. South Dakota State (244), April 27-29 @ Ohio State (39), May 1 vs. Concordia-St. Paul (N/A), May 4-6 vs. Indiana (26), May 11-13 vs. Michigan State (203), May 15 @ St. John’s (48), May 17-19 @ Rutgers (139)

In a nutshell: The Gophers would have liked a better showing in the Dairy Queen Classic they hosted, only able to come away with one victory, although the win over Arizona (40) has aged well. Likewise, seeing where Creighton (33) stands in the RPI picture, it would have been beneficial to have won that home series following the DQ Classic. But the form the Gophers have showed since early March has them heading towards a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, and currently ranked in polls. As they join IU with a number next to their name, its similarly too early to say they’re a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but Minnesota can start dream about hosting a regional. Already with the most games against the RPI top 100, the conference’s best mark in such games, series victories over TCU (75), St. John’s (48), and Iowa, a steadily falling RPI, and no losses against RPI 150+ teams, Minnesota is compiling a pretty impressive resume. That’s with series yet to come against Ohio State and Indiana. Winning one of the two next weeks should all but wrap up a bid, where taking both may mean Minnesota in home during the first weekend of June, in the good way as a regional host. And the Gophers are two games back on Michigan, a conference championship would be icing on the cake.

 

Ohio State

Record: 27-11, 8-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 39

Strength of Schedule: 106

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 5-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 5-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 vs. Minnesota (38), May 2 @ Ball State (179), May 4-6 @ Illinois (58), May 8-9 vs. Campbell (136), May 11-13 Purdue (84), May 15 @ Cincinnati (150), May 17-19 Michigan State (203).

In a nutshell: Likely the team least expected to be among the six, the Buckeyes are in a position to reach a regional for the second time in three seasons, a feat last accomplished in 2007-09. Ohio State has a solid strength of schedule, although they have yet to play a game against a team rated 51-100 in the RPI, and has taken care of business at home with a 12-3 mark to have their overall winning percentage rewarded with a high RPI. OSU’s non-conference slate helped put them in the discussion of the NCAA Tournament, winning a game against Southern Miss (32), and going 1-1 against Coastal Carolina (25) . Ohio State squandered a big opportunity in a game against Oregon State (7), allowing six last-at-bat runs in a 10-8 loss during the second weekend of the season. Any lingering “what-ifs” about that game were likely thrown away when the Buckeyes knocked off the Hoosiers this past weekend, securing a resume-anchoring win. Now, the Buckeyes have two more opportunities, with Minnesota becoming the second straight ranked team to visit Columbus, before heading to Champaign. Barring a late May collapse, grabbing one of the next two weekends should punch their ticket, where, like Minnesota, if Ohio State game win at least four of their next six conference games, maybe NCAA play returns to the Buckeye State for the first time since 2003.

At home at shortstop, McCoy starts strong at home

There’s no place like home…, home is where the heart isTake your choice of cliche, there is a distinct feeling of comfort, peace and being at ease when at home. If cliches aren’t one’s cup of tea, Iowa’s Mason McCoy can provide a first-hand testimony on what it means to be at home.

Back at his natural position, shortstop, McCoy is at home for the Hawkeyes. Playing relaxed and free, the senior is also off to a sizzling start at home plate.

The reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, McCoy has a .407 average, through seven games, picking up 11 hits in 27 at-bats. Iowa’s two-hole hitter is slugging .704 on the strength of three doubles a triple and a home run. Leading the Hawkeyes into the Dairy Queen Classic, McCoy’s prowess at the plate is a benefit of being comfortable all around, starting with the change in defensive position.

“I know Mason, and that’s what he is, that’s what he wants to play, that’s his favorite spot,” Iowa head coach Rick Heller said on McCoy moving from third base to shortstop. “Once we came back in the fall I could just tell how much more happy he was to be over there.”

“I agree with Coach Heller,” McCoy said. “The move to shortstop did comfort me in a lot of ways, not only in the field but at the plate as well.”

With Iowa fielding All-Big Ten shortstop Nick Roscetti, McCoy, a transfer from Illinois Central Community College, manned the hot corner in his first year with the Hawkeyes.

“Unselfishly, last year, he embraced third base and did the best he could,” Heller said. “We had talked and, obviously, he still wanted to play shortstop, but with as well as Roscetti was playing it just wasn’t going to happen. Then this year he stepped in and so far, we’re still pretty early in the season, but he’s playing an outstanding shortstop for us.”

By Heller’s watch, McCoy played an elite-level third base last year for the Hawkeyes. What didn’t occur, at least for the first half of the season, was McCoy performing at the plate at a level he and Heller knew he was capable of.

McCoy arrived in Iowa City with much fanfare. An All-American at ICCC, McCoy received interest from professional teams in the summer of 2015. Playing in the Northwoods League, McCoy set a league record with 112 hits, 80 runs and 168 total bases. Not drafted out of ICC, and spending two years at a JUCO, McCoy was free to sign with any professional club. But McCoy rebuffered all overtures and enrolled at Iowa. With the Hawkeyes coming off of a 40-win, NCAA Tournament season, the expectation was for McCoy to step in and lead Iowa back to a regional.

“I think last year he really pressed, he really wanted to get off to a good start with the accolades he came in with,” Heller said. “Kind of put a little pressure on himself.”

McCoy, who never hit below .300 in his time at ICCC or in the Northwoods, was batting below .250 as Iowa entered May. But as the Hawkeyes rallied in the final month of the season, going from outside of the Big Ten Tournament field to finishing tournament runners-up as the eighth-seed, McCoy caught fire. Finishing the year with a 13-game hitting streak, McCoy picked up 28 hits in last 60 at-bats, a stout .466 average.

“Late in the year he started to figure some things out, closing some stuff up before the conference tournament,” Heller said. “He was going pretty well that last month.”

Though he didn’t have a bad year, batting .291 with 12 doubles, two triples and a pair of home runs, the McCoy Iowa saw in the final month is who the team has seen from the start of the 2017 season. Taking a vested interest in his swing mechanics, the mental side of the game and understanding what opponents are trying to do, McCoy has dedicated himself to being a complete player.

“This fall I really worked with Pete (Lauritson), who was our hitting coached, before getting a job with the Indians,” McCoy, the MVP of the 2016 Northwoods League All-Star game said. “I really worked a lot with him on my swing mechanics. Just seeing the ball and hitting it, just trying to simplify everything.

“Then, Coach Moore, Sean Moore, stepped in in his place and really picked up where he left off. I think that’s been a big thing with me offensively this year, just having those sit-down talks with Pete, talking philosophy with Sean a lot, that kind of cleared my head and helped me offensively.”

Heller echoes McCoy’s change in mechanics and ability to have a better mental understanding.

“He’s really tightened his swing up, he’s cleaned it up. He shortened it up but increased his powered. Closed up holes to both sides of the plate, now he’s driving balls to the opposite field gap off the wall. He’s driving balls pull-side to the gap off the wall. Guys are having a hard time figuring out where to pitch him right now.

“His mental game is much much better, He has a really good plan on how to deal with failure. That’s what I see, he’s able to deal with that in a much more positive way and just move on to the next pitch.”

The maturity McCoy steps to the plate with extends into the locker room. One of four co-captains, McCoy’s comfort allows him to step up and speak when necessary.

“I’ve always kind of been, and I told Coach Heller this, I don’t lead by voice,” McCoy said. “I’ll say what I have to say, when it needs said, but I’m more of a lead by example. I think that’s what those guys were last year, especially Nick Rossetti, he was a big lead by example guy.

“I’m not going to be the guy that’s going to get in your ear all year, but there’s a couple of young guys this year, freshmen, where I’ll have to pull them aside to talk to them, and when I do they know this is important. That’s just the kind of relationship I wanted to be on this year with the younger guys, just to get them to learn.”

Heller oversees the infield during practices and with infielder Corbin Woods, the other non-pitching co-captain, nursing an off-season injury, McCoy is Heller conduit whenever a matter needs resolved or addressed on the field.

“He’s stepped up and done a really nice job with that communication and working with our other captains to make sure that all of the things are getting done that we expect from our guys both on and off the field. He’s done a super job with that since the beginning of the fall.”

A captain, off to a great start with gaudy numbers, it would be easy for McCoy to get ahead of himself, look for more accolades and even take a look at the draft. But from his upbringing to the guys he leads in the locker room, McCoy surrounds himself with people that won’t let that happen.

“I was raised that way by my parents, just to keep my feet on the mound, not to get too high and mighty with myself.

“But also my teammates. I walk into the locker room and they’re all ‘player of the week’, giving me a hard time about it.”

That sounds like a player right at home.

Preseason unit ranks: Pitchers and up the middle

Champions aren’t crowned on paper, the games are decided on the field. But such a reality doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to take from stats and rosters and try to determine who is the best before the season starts.

Putting aside new faces and players primed for a breakout, here’s a look at which teams look to be the strongest on the mound and up the middle, based on who is coming back and has previously shown they have what it takes to compete at the Big Ten levels.

Starting pitchers

Maryland

The Terrapins lost all-everything ace Mike Shawaryn to the MLB Draft, a pitcher whose name is littered throughout the program’s record book. But the latter two-thirds of the Maryland rotation returns, providing as enviable and durable of a 1-2 punch as the Big Ten has seen in recent years. Junior right-hander pitcher Brian Shaffer led Maryland with an 8-3 record, tossing a team-best 103.2 innings. Shaffer’s 2.60 ERA only trailed classmate right-handed pitcher Taylor Bloom’s 2.43 mark over 102.1 innings. The two combined for 135 strikeouts and just 22 walks. Regardless of what Maryland gets in relief pitching and run production, Shaffer and Bloom will have Maryland in a position to win every weekend series.

Michigan State

All but three Big Ten teams will need to replace their Friday starter, but none have a candidate ready to step in who put up as impressive numbers in 2016 Michigan State redshirt sophomore Alex Troop, albeit in a short stint. Troop will take over the #1 spot in the MSU rotation after going 3-0 a year ago, sporting a 1.64 ERA. But a broken bone in the southpaw’s left thumb ended his season after 14 strikeouts in 11 innings. Junior right-handed pitcher Ethan Landon will resume his Saturday role, where he put together a very quiet but very strong season. In his first action with the Spartans, the transfer from Kansas State went 8-3 in 15 starts, pitching 85 innings with a 2.75 ERA. Michigan State will round its rotation with junior right-handed pitcher Andrew Gonzalez, he too had a sub-3.00 ERA at 2.84 in 54 innings over 17 appearances.

Michigan

The Wolverines have six viable starting pitchers at their disposal, lead by junior left-handed pitcher Oliver Jaskie. Jaskie shined as a sophomore, going 7-3 with a team-best 3.19 ERA. Though Michigan lost Brett Adcock to the draft and Evan Hill to graduation, two pitchers who combined for 26 starts and 141.2 innings, junior righty Ryan Nutof is an experienced arm who has been in the rotation. Nutof pitched 54 innings in 2016, to the tune of a 3.67 ERA. Michigan’s big junior class continues with Michael Hendrickson who returns from a season-ending injury, after striking out 16 in 10.2 innings.

Honorable Mention: Nebraska

The Cornhuskers return their entire rotation from their 2016 NCAA Regional team, with senior right-hander Derek Burkamper, sophomore right-hander Matt Waldron and junior left-handed Jake Meyers. The trio combined to pitch 196 innings, each with ERAs below 3.10. None of the three have overpowering stuff, respectively K/9 inning totals of 7.07, 6.69 and 4.62, relying on command and inducing weak contact. Due to minor forearm matter, Burkamper will enter the season in the bullpen.

 

Relief pitchers

Michigan State

The loss of an All-American, especially one as dominant as Dakota Mekkes, would normally be a setback to a perceived team strength. While Jake Boss would love another year with Mekkes, Michigan State should be fine. The Spartans likely won’t have a reliever capable of striking out 96 batters in 57 innings, pitch to a 1.74 ERA, they have five returners with sub-3.65 ERAs who were significant contributors. Junior Jake Lowery will be MSU’s swingman, an arm capable of shutting down an opponent or going multiple innings. Lowery had a 2.73 ERA in 26.1 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery. Senior left-hander Joe Mockbee and classmate right-hander Walter Borkovich can be situational arms, 120.1 innings were tossed between them in 2016. All Keegan Baar did as a sophomore was stymie batters to a .212 average in 42.1 innings. While sophomore right-hander Riley McCauley is set to take over the closer’s role for the Spartans, a year after pitching 17 innings with a 1.59 ERA.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes had a high octane offense in 2016, leading the Big Ten in doubles and home runs en route to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years. Gone are the extra-base machines Jacob Bosiokovic, Ronnie Dawson, Troy Kuhn, Troy Montgomery and Nick Sergakis, as good as Ohio State will rely on its pitching staff in 2017. Junior right-handed pitcher Seth Kinker has the ability to close a game or pitch in extended relief, turned to 38 times out of the bullpen, logging 54.2 innings while holding a 1.65. Closer Yianni Pavlopoulos returns after a 15-save, 3.03-ERA season, though he may be a starting option. If that is the case, Ohio State welcomes the return of senior Jake Post, a right-handed pitcher who missed the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, a capable closer. Another quality arm the Buckeyes relied heavily on who returns is senior Kyle Michalik. The submariner who tossed 32 innings of 1.69 ERA baseball as a key middle relief option.

Iowa

Rick Heller believes his 2017 Hawkeye team has the deepest pitching corp in his four seasons. Looking at his roster, he has good reason to believe so. Six of Iowa’s top seven relievers return from a team that carried a collective 3.54 ERA. Sophomore Sam Lizarraga is ready for a big time role after holding a .79 ERA in eight outings, pitching 11.1 innings. Another potential super sophomore, Zach Daniels led the Hawkeyes with five saves, toeing the rubber for 18 innings, finishing his freshman year with a 1.50 ERA. Between Daniels and Lizaragga, only seven walks were issued while 27 batters were struck out. Right-handed pitcher Josh Martsching returns for his senior season, ready to build on a strong 2016 where he finished the year with a 2.41 ERA in 18.2 innings. Nick Allgeyer, Ryan Erickson and midweek starter Cole McDonald are three more dependable relief arms, capable of helping the Hawkeyes hold a lead and secure a win.

Honorable Mention: Michigan

As mentioned, Michigan has nearly half-dozen potential options to round out its rotation after Oliver Jaskie takes the Friday role. Those on the outside of the rotation will be a top bullpen option to go with senior right-hander Jackson Lamb and junior right-handed closer Bryan Pall. Pall returns after saving four games in 2016, using a fastball-slider combination to strikeout 33 batters in 32 innings and finish the season with a 2.81 ERA.

 

Up the middle (Catcher, second base, shortstop)

Maryland

Maryland is home to the Big Ten’s top professional prospect for the 2016 MLB Draft in junior shortstop Kevin Smith. Though his spring numbers weren’t eye-popping, a .259 average with eight home runs, Smith went to the Cape and batted .301, being named an All-Star while showing scouts the ability to stick defensively at shortstop at the next level, and a belief that better days are ahead with the bat. Smith’s double play partner, sophomore Nick Dunn, needed only one college season to show he has a capable bat. Dunn led the Terrapins with a .300 average and 16 doubles in 2016, before he too was named a Cape Cod All-Star. Maryland struggled to receive consistency behind the plate a year ago, but both players who saw time, senior Nick Cieri and junior Justin Morris are back, looking to build upon a season where they allowed 56 stolen bases in 68 attempts, while respectively batting .256 and .194.

Michigan

The depth of Michigan’s pitching staff is complimented with the return of catcher Harrison Wenson. A 39th-round flier by the Pittsburgh Pirates in June’s draft, Wenson opted to return for his senior year. In Wenson, Michigan has a durable catcher, a tough-nosed player as Wenson battled wrist and thumb injury throughout the 2016 season, still starting all 57 games. Wenson batted .289 on the year but did allow 16 passed balls. Behind the Michigan starter on the mound, both middle infielders return. Senior shortstop Michael Brdar is a steady glove, making the routine plays while sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas is a superb athlete, capable of making the spectacular play. Brdar a JUCO transfer, Thomas a freshman, both were serviceable with the bat in their first season of Big Ten play, respective .250 and .258 average, but will be asked of a bit more as Michigan looks to win its first Big Ten championship since 2008.

Michigan State

Like Michigan, Michigan State saw its catcher turn down a professional opportunity to return to school. Senior Matt Byars blossomed in 2016, becoming a premier two-way catcher. At the plate, Byars, a 24th-round pick of the Minnesota Twins, batted .284 with 16 doubles and four home runs. Behind the dish, the Spartan committed only two errors with six passed balls. Throwing out a runner 12 times, Byars has senior Dan Durkin on the receiving end of throws at second base. Durkin batted .324 while starting all 56 games for MSU, posting a .963 fielding percentage. Michigan State will potentially platoon at shortstop until either Kory Young or Royce Ando asserts himself over the other. Young’s .224 average bettered Ando’s .197 clip, but Ando did collect three triples and is a player capable of making the WOW play look routine.

Honorable Mention: Indiana

Ryan Fineman turned in a strong debut season for a freshman catcher. Starting 50 games, Fineman batted .268 with eight doubles and three home runs. A good debut season at the plate, Fineman was better with the glove and arm. Committing just four errors with six passed balls, Fineman also showed an ability to control the opposition’s running game, throwing out 41% of would-be base stealers. Senior second baseman Tony Butler did not commit an error in 203 chances, though his .221 average made him one-dimensional. IU struggled to find either a bat or defensive wizard at shortstop, opening the door for highly-touted freshman Jeremy Houston to make an impact from the start.

 

Hello…and hello, again!

In kicking off a new season, it’s only appropriate to say hello and introduce those who are new to the Big Ten. Here’s a look at transfers new to the Big Ten with the potential to have a big impact with their new clubs. The Big Ten has seen transfers pay immediate dividends over the last five years, with the likes of Indiana’s Caleb Baragar, Michigan’s Cody

Here’s a look at transfers new to the conference with the potential to have a big impact with their new clubs. The Big Ten has seen transfers pay immediate dividends over the past few years, with the likes of Indiana’s Caleb Baragar, Michigan’s Cody Bruder and Michigan State’s Jordan Zimmerman, who will be next?

Also, as we say hello to a few new guys, we re-introduce a few players returning to competition that look to figure prominently into the success of their team.

Welcome to the Big Ten

Iowa 1B Jake Adams

A two-year standout at Des Moines Area Community College, Adams will step into the first base vacancy created with the graduation of Tyler Peyton. While Peyton was a do-it-all, two-way talent, Adams is your prototypical first baseman, a physical presence with big raw power. Earning All-American honors in 2016, Adams batted .360 with 25 home runs and 75 RBI for DMACC, slugging .860 a year after slugging 17 long balls. If Adams can produce just half of his gaudy JUCO power numbers at the Division I level, the 6-for-2, 250-pound Hawkeye will be a force to reckon with.

Iowa C Tyler Cropley

Heading into his fourth season in Iowa City, Rick Heller has relied heavily on the JUCO ranks to deepen the Hawkeye roster in rebuilding the program. Leading Iowa to three consecutive 30-win seasons, Heller has found the right talent to spearhead Iowa’s charge. Like Adams, junior catcher Tyler Cropley is expected to be another instant performer. Cropley transfers in from Iowa Western, where he hit .403 as a sophomore in 2016. The batting line is impressive, but what the Hawkeye staff most raves about is Cropley’s speed and athleticism. Cropley is expected to be the Hawkeyes leadoff batter and is versatile enough to play center field if needed. He’s viewed as the best catcher Heller and staff have had to date.

Michigan OF Miles Lewis

Lewis arrives in Ann Arbor with previous Division I experience, a standout season to boot. Lewis was named the Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year in 2016 but needed a new home when North Dakota cut its baseball program. Receiving interest from across the country, Lewis, a native of Hudson, Wis., opted to return to the Midwest to join the Wolverines. In 45 games for the Fighting Hawks, Lewis batted .360 with five doubles, two triples and three home runs, stealing 20 bases.

Ohio State 2B Noah McGowan

Take a look at Ohio State’s starting second baseman and one may think he belongs on the gridiron, not diamond. A stout six-foot, 210-pound athlete, Noah McGowan’s father did play football at Stanford, but baseball is the choice for the Buckeye. McGowan arrives in Columbus by way of McClennan Community College, one of three Buckeyes from the Texas junior college, along with pitchers Reece Calvert and Dustin Jourdan. Last year, McGowan batted .393 with seven home runs, scoring 43 runs in 43 games for the Highlanders. McGowan looks to be a heart of the lineup threat.

Maryland OF Will Watson

Maryland head coach John Szefc received a good player from LSU-Eunice a year ago in Madison Nickens. Appearing in 56 games, Nickens led Maryland with 40 runs scored, finished second on the team with eight home runs, batting .260 in the process. The Terps hope similar production comes from junior outfielder Will Watson, another product from LSU-Eunice. Watson carried a .312 average next to a .482 on-base percentage and .518 slugging percentage for the junior college in 2016, driving in 40 runs while scoring 57 in 57 games.

Purdue LHP Nick Wojtysiak

An assistant at Oregon, and Arizona before that, Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski knows how to mine the west coast for talent. As he looks to rebuild the Boilermaker program, he brings in Nick Wojtysiak, a native of Arizona, to help bolster Purdue’s bullpen. From Fountain Hills, Ariz., Wojtysiak attended and pitched for Pepperdine in 2015. After totaling four innings in four games, Wojtysiak moved on to pitch Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix for the 2016 season. Now, the southpaw, with a 90-mile-per-hour fastball and slider combination, looks to find a home in West Lafayette.

Welcome back

Michigan LHP Michael Hendrickson

Michael Hendrickson shined bright for Michigan in 2016. But as bright as his season was, it was also short. Starting the season as a long-relief option, before making a March 2 start against San Jose State, Hendrickson pitched 10.2 innings over three games. Scattering three runs for a 2.53 ERA, Hendrickson’s stats continued to stand out with 16 strikeouts next to only two walks. Limiting opponents to a .158 average, Hendrickson’s season ending after his 4.2-inning out against the Trojans, sidelined for the rest of the year with ulnar nerve injury. Reading to return to action, Hendrickson has a chance to emerge from a deep Wolverine pitching staff and take a spot in the Michigan rotation.

Nebraska RHP Jake Hohensee

Jake Hohensee missed all of the 2016 season recovering from offseason Tommy John surgery, but the last time the Husker right-hander saw extended action, he showed what he’s capable of. Making 12 relief appearance in 2015, Hohensee tossed 17.1 innings, conceding just four earned runs for a 2.08 ERA. Hohensee’s team-best ERA stood next to 14 strikeouts and six walks, holding the opposition to a .167 average over 60 at-bats. Hohensee will likely be limited to one outing per weekend, but he can play a big role for the Huskers in being a reliable relieve, capable of shutting down an opponent.

Ohio State RHP Jake Post

Jake Post last saw action for Ohio State in April 2015, providing a strong bullpen option for Greg Beals as the Buckeyes cracked the polls for the first time since 2010. A forearm strain, which ultimately led to Tommy John surgery prior to the 2016 season, sidelined Post for the final month of the season, one where the Buckeyes stumbled and went from potential regional host to outside of the NCAA Tournament. A fifth-year senior whose fastball sits in the low-90s, Post brings leadership and a live arm to the Buckeyes. Carrying a 2.12 ERA over 29.2 innings in 2015, Post holds a career 3.48 ERA in 108.2 innings on the mound, with 89 strikeouts next to 35 walks.

Michigan State LHP/1B Alex Troop

Alex Troop was viewed as a bit of a wunderkind when he arrived in East Lansing, in the fall of 2014. Having speed, power and arm strength, it wasn’t a matter of when Troop would be a force for the Spartans, but where he best fit. Troop pitched in 13 games, making seven starts, while playing 26 games in the field, making 14 starts in the outfield. Overall, the numbers were pedestrian, a 5.27 ERA in 42.2 innings, and a .226 batting average in 53 at-bats, but flashes of promise showed. That promise turned into production in 2016, albeit briefly. In four relief outings, Troop lowered his ERA to 1.64, striking out 14 batters with three walks in 11 innings. At the plate, Troop batted .372 over 12 games, grabbing six doubles and a home run. His season was cut short with a broken scaphoid bone in his left thumb, forcing a cast on his hand until June. No lingering issues, Troop is expected to take the ball on the mound on Friday nights for Michigan State and settle in at first base when not pitching. Troop has the ability to make an impact at the plate, on the mound and in the field, and likely won’t need long to reintroduce himself to college baseball.

 

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