With five teams in last year’s NCAA Tournament, including the national runner-up, it’s safe to say Big Ten baseball is reaching new heights in modern college baseball. Entering a new season, and a new decade, there is a lot to look forward to. With new coaches leading three programs, two clubs breaking Baseball America’s preseason poll, and a handful of different players receiving preseason All-America praise, there are endless storylines around the conference as the calendar creeps towards February.
Kicking off 10 Innings’ preseason coverage, here is the first 10 of 20 things to watch through Big Ten baseball in 2020.
20. Northwestern overachieving, again
Let’s get this one out of the way. Spencer Allen’s Northwestern Wildcats will again exceed expectations in 2020. Northwestern painfully finished on the outside of the top eight last year, where a confluence of events, including a lightning delay, occurred on the final day to keep the ‘Cats home for the postseason. At 11-13 in Big Ten play, Northwestern finished one game behind a three-team tie for sixth. Per usual, few outside of Evanston expected Northwestern to hover near .500, they finished 24-27, and so is the case again this year. Perfect Game projects Northwestern to finish 12th, with D1Baseball.com slotting Northwestern 10th in their preseason table. Year over year Northwestern has been a tough out, and they aren’t too far removed from their 2017 Big Ten Tournament runner-up showing. They may still be a year away when it is all said and done, but don’t take the Wildcats as walk-overs, their history under Allen shows they’re anything but.
19. Will the Penn State pitchers get a little support
Focusing on a different breed of cats, will the Nittany Lions find some much-needed potency at the plate? Here’s a fun Did You Know: the Big Ten leader in team-ERA during conference play last season was….Penn State. In their 22 conference games, Penn State hurlers pitched to a 3.38 ERA and held the opposition to a .233 average. Unfortunately, .233 was still .015 better than what Penn State batters did at the plate in conference play. Last in average, PSU had the second-fewest stolen bases and third-fewest extra-base hits. The morbid offense play a significant role in Penn State going 0-8 in one-run conference games, as they were held to two or fewer runs in half of their 22 Big Ten games. Pitching coach Josh Newman has done wonders with the PSU arms. Now it’s time for Penn State to supplement their staff with some punch at the plate.
18. Better January weather = better February records?
The first day of team practice for the spring season came on Jan. 24. For more than a few schools the weather was favorable enough to escape indoor tunnels and facilities to practice outside. So far through the last week of January, the conditions have similarly held up. With the likes of Michigan, Maryland and Rutgers taking advantage and repeatedly practicing outside, will practicing in truer settings lead help them get out of the gates better? Of course, since this is the Big Ten, any reprieve in weather in January will lead to unwelcome conditions throughout April.
17. This year’s JUCO star
Two of the last three Big Ten Player of the Year winners have been players in their first Big Ten season after transferring from a junior college, Iowa’s Jake Adams in 2017 and Michigan’s Jordan Brewer last year. The JUCO ranks have played quite a role in the Big Ten’s upward trend over the last decade with the likes of Matt Lloyd, Mason McCoy, Noah McGowan, Jordan Parr and Tyler Peyton being key players in strong years for their respective clubs. Will there be another player that seemingly comes out of nowhere to take the conference by storm that was playing at a junior college last year? Likely so, but who will it be?
16. Fredrickson’s form
Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson didn’t come from the junior college ranks, but he was a newcomer that had a banner season two years ago. Becoming the first freshman named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Fredrickson spurred Minnesota to the 2018 Big Ten championship and Corvallis Super Regional appearance. Looking to join Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers as back-to-back Big Ten Pitcher of the Year recipients, Fredrickson battled injury and his stuff backing up last year, en route to a 5.56 ERA with 30 walks in 43.2 innings. The Gopher staff has worked this offseason to tweak Fredrickson’s motion, making it shorter, to increase his command of his offspeed. If Fredrickson can return to his 2018 form, that will go a long way in the Gophers doing the same, and putting their 29-27 season far behind them.
15. Maryland’s ballyhooed freshmen
Per D1Baseball.com, Maryland is home to the #3, #8 and #10 “Impact Freshmen” in the Big Ten, as well as four of the top 16 and five of the top 20. Viewing the freshmen as one, D1Baseball.com and Prep Baseball Report ranked Maryland as having the #7 freshman class in the country. Will the hype turn into a happy College Park? As Fredrickson and classmate Max Meyer showed in 2018, a pair of extremely talented rookies can make quite the impact. It’s worth watching what kind of seasons right-handed pitcher Nick Dean, and outfielders Bobby Zmarzlak and Tucker Flint have with high expectations.
14. Illini arms under Allen
After eight seasons developing and leading Illinois’ pitchers, assistant coach Drew Dickinson moved on to become the pitching coach at Virginia. Illini pitchers experienced tremendous success under Dickinson’s watch, most notably Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock, respectively the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2015 and 2016. A testament to Dickinson, himself the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2002, neither Jay nor Sedlock, two eventual first-round draft picks, were blue chip recruits before arrive in Champaign and developing under Dickinson’s guidance, nor was Garrett Acton, last year’s Big Ten-leader in saves with 19, tied for the most ever by a Big Ten pitcher. It will now be up to Mark Allen to coach up and deploy Acton and the rest of the Illini staff as he sees fit. Allen arrives in Champaign after serving as the pitching coordinator for the San Francisco Giants, ending a nine-year stay in professional baseball.
13. The 2020 iteration of #Hellerball
Iowa has been at the forefront of learning and implementing data, utilizing enhanced technology and thinking outside of the box in player development. Which might be exactly why nobody can really say what #Hellerball is. Playing off of the name of head coach Rick Heller, #Hellerball doesn’t really represent any style of baseball. And that in itself is probably the Iowa way. The Hawkeyes do an incredible job of creating an identity around the abilities and talents of their players. In years where you have Jake Adams, Mason McCoy and Robert Neustrom, you don’t have to put as much in action, execute every first-to-third perfectly and be terrors on the bases. In years where there isn’t that punch in the lineup, you do need to do all of those things in order to create runs. Every year it seems Iowa finds a way to squeeze as much out of their players as any, continue to refine their process of player development. It’s to be determined what type of outfit Iowa rolls out in 2020, but whatever version of #Hellerball it is, it will likely optimize the talents on the lineup.
12. Big Ten vs. Big XII
There are a few Big Ten vs. Big XII matchups that will be worth watching in 2020. Over the last five years, the Big Ten has produced 22 NCAA Tournament teams to the Big XII’s 23. The conferences are closer in quality than many might assume. These five showdowns will give the Big Ten an opportunity to solidify that sentiment.
Nebraska @ Baylor, Feb. 14-16
TCU @ Minnesota, Feb. 22-24
Iowa vs. Kansas, March 10-11
Maryland @ TCU, March 13-15
Minnesota @ Texas Tech, March 20-22
11. Goff at the helm of the Boilermaker engine
Greg Goff will enter his first season leading a Big Ten program unlike any other in recent years. Purdue is only two years removed from appearing in an NCAA Regional. In recent years when a coach has left a program that so soon removed from a regional, they’ve left the program in a great spot. Coming off of hosting the 2014 Bloomington Regional, Indiana’s Tracy Smith left to go to Arizona State and then Chris Lemonis had the Hoosiers in a regional the following year. Lemonis guided the Hoosiers to the 2018 Austin Regional, before leaving to go head Mississippi State’s program, which led to Jeff Mercer stepping in and doing something Lemonis didn’t in leading IU to a Big Ten title, before he also put IU in a regional. But as Mark Wasikowski left Purdue to be the head coach at Oregon, he is did so after the Boilermakers finished 20-34 and 12th in the conference. For coaches that stepped into a setting where they’re program is coming of such a finish, they are usually an entirely new staff entering an unknown environment. Greg Goff was on Wasikowski’s staff, so too was Cooper Fouts, who Goff retain. So all that said, it’s really hard to know what may change under Goff, whether Purdue needs a rebuild, if they’re more like 2018 or more like 2019. We shall see.