Ten thoughts from the summer I

With Labor Day behind us, summer has unofficially come to an end. While temperatures throughout the Midwest have been more typical of those seen in the days following Independence Day, students at Big Ten universities have returned to campus and conference baseball teams have begun fall practice.

As programs around the country insert the keys into the ignition and start the engine, in preparation of taking on the road to Omaha, 10 Innings’ Chris Webb puts a bow on summer with the first five of 10 thoughts and observations from news and trends that developed over the summer.

An Indiana man comes home

On July 2, Indiana named Wright State head coach Jeff Mercer the 25th head coach in program history. Mercer filled the vacancy created when Mississippi State tabbed former Hoosier head coach Chris Lemonis as their head coach, eight days prior. Lemonis’ tenure in Bloomington lasted four seasons, creating an situation where IU will be on its third head coach in six seasons in 2019, even though the program has been one of the Big Ten’s best over the last decade.

Lemonis followed Tracy Smith who left after nine years to try to revive the once dominant Arizona State program. But if Indiana continues the success first established by Smith and continued by Lemonis, the Hoosiers have appeared in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments, there shouldn’t be any need for Indiana to be in search over another coach in the near future; Mercer is home.

A native of Bargersville, Indiana, Mercer guided Wright State to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances during the first two years of his head coaching career. Continuing the high level of success at the Dayton, Ohio-based program, first established by current Penn State head coach Rob Cooper, Mercer was emerging as one of college baseball’s bright young coaches. But more importantly than Mercer budding as a promising coach, is Mercer viewing Bloomington as home. To him, there is no next step, no call from a Pac-12 nor Southeastern conference program will pull him from the Hoosier State as happened to his predecessors. Calling the Indiana position his dream job, Mercer is ready to retire as a Hoosier.

“I have loved baseball and the state of Indiana my whole life and it is an honor to be the head baseball coach of the state’s flagship institution,” said Mercer in the press release of his hiring. And to talk to Mercer, it’s quick to learn those words weren’t just the correct answer to go on-record with. Leading the Indiana program, one his father was an assistant coach at from 1988-1989, is where his career goals have been aimed towards and now heart and mind is fully vested in.

This should be welcomed by IU faithful, if not demanded. Lemonis, with his hand in helping nearby Louisville develop into a regional program, was the perfect fit to succeed Smith and keep Indiana at a high-level. The seemingly seamless transition that took place four years ago shouldn’t be taken for granted, each coach has his own identity and belief in how a program should be ran and the culture that’s created. All signs point to Mercer be just as much of a slam dunk hire as Lemonis, and for Indiana players, administrators and fans alike, this should be the last hire of a head baseball coach for the foreseeable future.

As Mercer told me this summer, “it wouldn’t matter if the New York Yankees are calling, I’m saying no, this is where I want to be for the next 25 years.”

Iowa personifies the conference-wide investment in baseball

There could have been a second Big Ten program in need of a new head coach if it wasn’t for the commitment to keep Rick Heller in place by Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta and his department. Pursued by Kansas State, Heller turned down an offer to lead the Wildcats in June, to stay at Iowa.

Announced on Aug. 24, with Heller’s loyalty to the Hawkeyes came a restructured contract and a pay raise. A bump in base salary to $325,000 annually, from $262,000, for the 2018-2019 season, then to $341,000, from $275,000, the next year, on a contract that runs through the 2024 season. Crossing the $300,000-threshold placed Heller among the top five highest-paid coaches in the Big Ten, a thought unfathomable not too long about. But in five seasons in Iowa City, Heller has average a hair shy of 35 wins, collecting 173 victories, for a program that had gone 24 seasons since its last 35-win campaign, with only five such years in the program’s annuals prior to Heller’s arrival.

But ponying up additional pennies to keep Heller in place is only a part of the commitment Iowa has thrown baseball’s way, a reflection of an increase in attention Big Ten programs are experiencing all over the conference. Duane Banks Field has undergone renovations, with more plans on the table to give the grandstands a makeover. Iowa has been able to create the necessary pool for assistant coach compensation in order to flank Heller with strong assistant coaches, coaches that are active in recruiting as well as taking a forward-thinking approach on technology and analytics in baseball.

If Iowa’s two regional trips since 2015 isn’t enough to show the Big Ten of yesteryear is a distant memory, the steps took to bring Iowa to national prominence, mirror throughout the conference, should leave one with no doubt.

Max Meyer Mania continues

Helping Minnesota to its first super regional appearance, and a top ten final ranking, right-handed pitcher Max Meyer compiled one of the most decorated freshman seasons in recent Big Ten history. Tying Minnesota’s single-season saves record with 16, next to a 2.03 ERA, the standout at the back of the Gopher bullpen received All-America honors from the American Baseball Coaches Association, Collegiate Baseball and D1Baseball.com, a third-team selection on each all-star rundown. Collegiate Baseball, Perfect Game and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association picked the Woodbury, Minn. product as a first-team Freshman All-American, with Collegiate Baseball naming Meyer the Freshman Relief Pitcher of the Year. Closing to home, Meyer was the first-team All-Big Ten selection at reliever.

Those accolades alone would not only fill a trophy case, but maker Meyer one of the nation’s top pitchers heading into the 2019 seasons. But what Meyer did over the summer as an encore to his freshman season places him in the elite of the elite among college baseball pitchers.

One of six freshmen named to the 26-member USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, on a team littered with the best talent from coast to coast, Meyer’s performance took a backseat to none this summer. Helping Team USA to a 12-3 showing, Meyer appeared in eight games, saving seven of USA’s victories. Although he only pitched eight innings, the ninth-most on the team, Meyer’s 15 strikeouts paced all USA pitchers. Off five hits and four walks, Meyer allowed three earned runs for a 3.38 ERA.

The last Big Ten pitcher to don the Red, White and Blue for the Collegiate National Team was Maryland right-handed Mike Shawaryn during the summer of 2016. There hasn’t been a Big Ten player play for Team USA as a freshman in at least a decade.

And one last note on Meyer, he was recruited to Minnesota as a two-way player, but the depth of the Gophers in the field and at the plate relegated him to just 30 at-bats in 2018. With program stalwarts such as Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson and Luke Pettersen lost to graduation, and the drafting of shortstop Terrin Vavra, the plan is for Meyer to go all-in as a two-way player, where the Minnesota staff believes he’s capable of just as much production at the plate as on the mound.

Ty McDevitt’s more-than-deserved promotion

But, what if I said Meyer wasn’t even the most decorated Minnesota freshman pitcher? That could be true, as classmate Patrick Fredrickson was picked as Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, the first freshman to win the honor, alongside being names conference freshman of the year, National Freshman Pitcher of the Year by both Collegiate Baseball and the NCBWA, was on every Freshman All-America team, and the ABCA named him a first-team All-American and D1Baseball.com a third-team pick.

Clearly, in Fredrickson and Meyer Minnesota has a two-headed monster every coach in the country would sign up for, potentially the best tandem of rising sophomore righties in the country. But Minnesota’s depth in the freshman class extends to Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen, a collection of six pitchers poised to be the foundation of a program looking to continue the run of success that has saw the program win two of the last three Big Ten championships.

As stout as Minnesota’s 2017 recruiting class was on the mound, nearly as impressive is how quickly the group collective got up to speed and started producing, with none of the six from a location south of Omaha, all lead by a volunteer coach.

The structure of Minnesota’s coaching staff for the last two years saw Rob Fornasiere as the top assistant to John Anderson, serving as third base coach and handling a lot of the in-game strategy. Pat Casey has served as Minnesota’s hitting coach and dominant force on the recruiting trail, elevated to a full-time position after the passing of longtime pitching coach Todd Oakes. That left the volunteer role to handle the pitching duties, which former Minnesota pitcher Ty McDevitt has done in a lights out manner. Minnesota’s 3.18 team ERA in 2018 was a full run better than the 4.19 mark in 2017, even though Minnesota had to replace their ace and closer.

In the run-up to Minnesota’s memorable postseason, it was announced Fornasiere was retiring at the end of the season. With nary a negative word to be said about him as a person or coach, Fornasiere will be missed in the Gopher program, Minnesota wouldn’t be where they are without him. But it was as perfect of timing as possible for a position to open. In Anderson elevating McDevitt to be Minnesota’s third full-time coach, one of college baseball’s brightest young pitching minds will stay home and work to keep Minnesota among national prominence.

Coaching staffs continue to expand

With Indiana welcoming Mercer, Iowa keeping Heller, and McDevitt moving into a full-time role, coaching news carried most of the summer action. But, increasingly, staff news is no longer just pertains to a head coach, two full-time assistants and a volunteer assistant.

A look at news around the Big Ten this summer saw Illinois and Penn State add a director of operations positions, with Sean Moore, former Iowa volunteer, having an additional title of player development next to his director of operations position for the Nittany Lions. Now all programs except Michigan State have a director of operations position, when no program did before Nebraska joined the conference in 2012.

Mercer won’t only have a director of operations on his first staff, but former Major League veteran Scott Rolen will be Indiana’s Director of Player Development. Ohio State saw their volunteer video coordinator, Matt Angle, move into a full-time role, then realigned the role to be a control position in hiring former Buckeye and all-conference infielder Kirby Pellant.  Michigan has a standalone video coordinator position, while a year ago Rutgers introduced the position of Director of Player Development to the Scarlet Knight program.

Just as the Big Ten has seen head coach salaries have doubled on average over the last decade and increases in assistant coach salary pools to attract and retain top assistants, the sizes of Big Ten baseball staffs continue to swell, showing more and more teams are trying to find that edge to be a perennial winner.

Jeff Mercer Named Head Coach of Indiana Baseball

Bloomington, Ind. — Indiana University Vice President and Director of Athletics Fred Glass announced on July 2 the hiring of Jeff Mercer as the 25th head coach of the Hoosiers baseball program. Mercer, a native of Bargersville, Indiana, is widely regarded as one of the top young baseball coaches in the country. Known for his strength as a recruiter and talent developer as well as his innovative use of advanced analytics, Mercer was named the 2018 Horizon League Coach of the Year with the Wright State Raiders. Mercer has recruited exceptionally within the state of Indiana and Midwest, developed twelve players he recruited into Major League Baseball draft picks since 2015, and led Wright State to 77 wins, including six wins against ranked opponents in just two seasons as head coach.

Mercer will be formally introduced at a press conference later this summer at a time to be determined.

“Predictably, we had very strong interest in this position,” said Glass. “Jeff Mercer quickly rose to the top of an impressive field. I have no doubt that he is the right person to build on the success of Indiana baseball, including taking us back to Omaha.”

Mercer takes over the Big Ten’s premier baseball program. Since 2008, Indiana leads the Big Ten in total wins, conference wins and NCAA tournament appearances. The Hoosiers have appeared in the tournament in five of the last six seasons. No Big Ten program has accomplished that run since Ohio State (1991-95, 97).

“I have loved baseball and the state of Indiana my whole life and it is an honor to be the head baseball coach of the state’s flagship institution,” said Mercer. “With the talent that the Midwest is producing, top notch facilities, the commitment of the school, and our ability to recruit and develop players at the highest level, the sky is the limit for IU baseball. I cannot wait to get to work.”

Mercer was named Wright State head coach in July of 2016 and was the first former Raider player to lead the program. In his two seasons at the helm, WSU posted a 77-38 record (.670; average of 38.5 wins per season), a regular season and conference tournament title along with an appearance in the 2018 Stanford NCAA Regional, and the program’s first ever national ranking in 2017. Mercer’s squads posted a 43-15 record (.741) in conference games over the two seasons.

Mercer brings a winning background to Indiana. In his time as a head coach (2017-18) and an assistant coach (2014-16) at Wright State, he has been a part of three Horizon League regular season and conference tournament titles, three NCAA appearances, and a combined record of 199-92 (.684). The Raiders won four NCAA tournament games over those three appearances, having reached the regional finals twice.

The 2018 Horizon League Champions, Wright State closed the season winning eight of its last 10 games and 15 of its last 19. The Raiders took home the league title with three-straight wins and outscored opponents 32-11 in the tournament. Mercer’s squad, which posted a 39-17 overall record and a 22-6 league mark, was one of the top offensive clubs nationally in 2018, as it ranked eighth in the country in scoring (7.8 runs per game) and stolen bases (110) and was 21st in on-base percentage (.394), while hitting .294 as a team. The Raiders’ .979 fielding percentage was 10th nationally.

Wright State was led by Horizon League Player of the Year Gabe Snyder, who paced the conference in home runs (15) and RBI (73), and was second in batting average (.359), missing the league’s Triple Crown by one batting average point. Snyder was one of 11 total Raiders who earned league honors, including five first team honorees (Snyder, Matt Morrow, Chase Slone, Peyton Burdkick and Ryan Weiss), four second teamers (Seth Gray, JD Orr, Zane Harris and Derek Hendrixson) and two named to the freshman team (Harris and Quincy Hamilton).

Wright State saw three players drafted in the 2018 MLB Draft, all of whom were drafted within the first 21 rounds. Weiss, a starting pitcher, was selected in the fourth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks (129th overall), as he posted a 9-2 record with one save and 92 strikeouts over 98 innings. Fellow starter Caleb Sampen was picked in the 20th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers, while Snyder went in the 21st round to the Minnesota Twins. Second baseman Matt Morrow additionally signed a free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In his two years as a head coach, Mercer made a name for himself as a recruiter. Wright State compiled its first ever top 100 ranked recruiting class (2018) in program history (87th nationally).

WSU received its first-ever top 25 ranking in 2017, finishing the year at 38-21 and 21-9 in league action. Mercer’s aggressiveness in the run game resulted in Wright State ranking second in the nation with 130 stolen bases.

Weiss was selected as the 2017 Horizon League Freshman of the Year and a first team all-conference selection along with Morrow. Pitcher Danny Sexton was named a second team All-League honoree along with Hendrixson and Gray. Both Weiss and Gray were selected to the All-Freshman Team while Weiss was later named a Freshman All-American and second team ABCA All-Midwest selection. Sexton signed a free agent contract with the San Diego Padres.

Mercer, who was a two-time All-Horizon League honoree in 2008 and 2009, returned to the Raiders as an assistant coach in September 2013. WSU set a school record for wins with 43 in 2015 and broke it again a year later with 46 wins.

He assisted then head coach Greg Lovelady, who is now the head coach at UCF. As an assistant on Lovelady’s staff, Mercer coached six players that were taken in the MLB Draft, including five in 2016. During Mercer’s three years as an assistant, the Raiders had 30 Horizon League honorees, two Horizon League regular season and tournament titles and two NCAA appearances.

Working with all aspects of the program, Mercer was the recruiting coordinator responsible for bringing in the majority of the talent. One of Mercer’s primary responsibilities was his role as the hitting coach. During the 2016 season, WSU’s 47 home runs were the most in a season since 2009. He also worked with the infield and outfield, and coached third base.

Mercer came back to WSU after serving two seasons as a volunteer assistant coach at Western Kentucky University (2012-13). While with the Hilltoppers, he primarily worked with pitchers and outfielders, but was also instrumental in the development and organization of baseball camps and handled other day-to-day operations.

Prior to WKU, Mercer was a volunteer assistant during the 2011 season at the University of Michigan. During his time there, he worked with the catchers and outfielders.

Before his arrival in Ann Arbor, Mercer spent the 2010 season as the graduate assistant coach at Ohio Northern University where he was in charge of the infielders and hitters and was the recruiting coordinator.

Mercer played two seasons at Dayton before transferring to Wright State, where he was a two-time first team All-Horizon League honoree as a first baseman. He was named to the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper All-American third team in 2009 after hitting .357 with 26 doubles and 74 RBI. He was also named the Horizon League Player of the Year in 2009 and was named to the league’s All-Tournament team after he tied the WSU single-season records for RBI, doubles, games played and games started. In 2009, the Raiders played in the Fort Worth NCAA Regional.

Mercer earned a degree in organizational leadership from Wright State in 2009. He and his wife, Stephanie, had their first child, Grady, born on June 20, 2018. Mercer’s father (Jeff Sr.) served as an IU baseball assistant coach from 1988 to 1989 and helped found the noted Indiana Bulls baseball organization.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT JEFF MERCER

“I have great respect for Jeff and his family whom I’ve known for 20 years. I can’t be more excited for Indiana baseball. There is now no better spot for player development than Bloomington, Indiana. I hope the boys are ready to work.” – Former MLB 8-Time Gold Glove Winner and 7-Time All-Star Scott Rolen

“After talking with Coach Mercer, you immediately know what he stands for, and that is winning. He is going to come to our program and develop us into winners on and off the field.” – Current IU Catcher Ryan Fineman

“After speaking with Coach Mercer, it became very obvious that our program will be in great hands. His confidence, experience, competitive mentality, and strong urge to win proved to me that we will be successful next year. I’m excited not only for this upcoming season, but for the future of Indiana University baseball as I believe Coach Mercer is here to stay and take this baseball program to the next level.” – Current IU Starting Pitcher Pauly Milto

“He’s an Indiana guy through and through. He is detail oriented and a standup guy. He is going to give the program, the University and the State of Indiana everything he has. He has the ability to bring this program back to the Omaha level.” – Chris Webb, 10Innings.com