As February has put Hoosierland in a deep freeze, it may be hard to even imagine the beginning of baseball season; but for your Indiana Hoosiers, it's right around the corner.
That's right: warm spring weather, ridiculous manager signs, the familiar
crack ping of a baseball bat; it's all about to begin as the Hoosiers look to pick up right where they left off. And if you didn't know: they left off as Big Ten Champions, going down to Tallahassee and sweeping a great Florida State team, earning the school's first berth in the College World Series. They would get a win over Louisville before consecutive losses to Mississippi State and Oregon State bounced them from the double-elimination tournament.
However, much like the 2011-12 Hoosiers' basketball team, the squad that burst onto the postseason scene and made a little bit of noise before exiting, the baseball Hoosiers' nucleus remains largely intact and is poised for a huge year. This has been acknowledged by a litany of preseason college baseball polls (I swear there are, like, ninety of them) with Baseball America giving IU the loftiest ranking of all, at third in the country. They were also the unanimous preseason selection to win the Big Ten by the conference coaches.
As basketball fans, you're all well aware: when you start the year ranked that high the season has one, satisfactory conclusion. In this case, it looks like this:
Just imagine that, but with red instead of blue and instead of the dancing bear a ... uh ... another person?
So with the goal firmly in mind, let's take a look at what strapping, young lads comprise this team. The rundown looks like this, with last year's stats:
|Kyle Schwarber (Jr.)
|Sam Travis (Jr.)
|Chad Clark (Jr.)
|Dustin DeMuth (Sr.)
|Nick Ramos (So.)
|Casey Rodrigue (Jr. Transfer)
|Will Nolden (Jr.)
|Casey Smith (Sr.)
|Scott Donley (Jr.)
|Joey DeNato (Sr.)
|Will Coursen-Carr (So.)
|Kyle Hart (Jr.)
|Ryan Halstead (Sr.)
Stats courtesy of www.collegesplits.com.
Offense: This is about as complete of a lineup as you'll see in college baseball. Schwarber and Travis are regarded as the top prospects out of the Big Ten for the 2014 MLB Draft and you'll soon see why. These guys collide with baseballs early and often, and those baseballs tend to go a long way. Schwarber, in particular, will be a guy to watch as his future begins to materialize. His bat would be an incredible weapon at the catcher position in a major league lineup, but there are some questions if he can stick to the position long term. Even if he has to move to first base at the next level, Schwarber is all but certain to go in the first round of this year's draft.
Along with Schwarber, Sam Travis will be all healed from the broken hand he played with at the end of the year. I'm no doctor, but I have to imagine you can probably hit a baseball quite a bit further if all the bones in your hand are intact. Dustin DeMuth had more of what you'd call "gap power" last season, but he has gotten better and better with each year and actually has a legitimate chance to leave IU as the all-time leader in hits, needing 95 this year to do it.
As for the rest of the lineup: manager Tracy Smith preaches aggression early in counts, but the lineup also shows an incredible amount of discipline, as most have on-base percentages in the good-to-excellent range and no one is striking out at an egregious. There are certainly weak spots in the lineup, but Nick Ramos has an incredibly small sample size with 92 ABs and Chad Clark is known more for his glove than bat.
The only significant loss to the lineup was SS Michael Basil and his .378 wOBA, but this lineup is more than capable of covering that.
Pitching: The Legion of Southpaws make up Indiana's weekend rotation. Joey DeNato has had a long storied career at IU and his last tour as the "Friday Starter" (college baseball's colloquial term for "Ace") will likely send him off as IU's all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched. The lefty a fastball that sits in the mid-to-upper 80s and an excellent changeup. Because he can't overpower you, DeNato's success comes largely from his excellent control and offspeed weapons.
Will Coursen-Carr's base numbers are high-caliber, but the peripherals suggest he could be in for some rough times if he hasn't improved from last year. Without delving too deep into the SABR-underbelly quite yet: the nearly 3 run difference from his ERA to his FIP suggests he got awfully lucky and when you're only throwing 62 innings, you can live like that some times. With an increased workload, however, C-C will be less likely to avoid it. If you are a real baseball nerd and want a major league example of what I'm talking about: roll back Jeff Locke's (Pittsburgh Pirates) first half of 2013 where he garnered an All-Star nod while sporting a multi-run difference between his ERA and FIP; and then his second half when he imploded, eventually being demoted to their Double-A affiliate and left off the playoff roster.
Last guy of note is IU's (already) all-time leader in saves: Ryan Halstead. Compared to the starters, Halstead basically throws fire with an 88-90 mph fastball that he pairs with a devastating hook and is as dependable of a bullpen as you'll find. Baseball America grades IU's bullpen as slightly better than their starters, and Tracy Smith has proven to be very good at getting the right match-ups for his guys to get outs when they're needed most.
Defense: If there is one component of the team that we cannot rave incessantly about: it's this one. All of the team's great hitters are considered, at best, average at defending their position. We touched on the question marks Schwarber's play has raised about his long-term viability as a major league catcher and the same can be said for DeMuth at third. Michael Basil was a fine defender at SS and IU needs Nick Ramos to be as good defensively more than they need Ramos to replace Basil's bat. As I said, the lineup can absorb Basil's absence at the plate but it will be on Ramos to fill the void between second and third base.
The outfield defense is solid, if not spectacular and doesn't generate near the same amount of concern as the infield defense. Ultimately, the excellence of the Hoosiers' pitching staff keeps this from being a larger problem than it could be, but it will be something to watch this season.
Anything else? Not particularly. The Hoosiers officially begin their campaign to Omaha this Friday in Lubbock, Texas, as they take on the Red Raiders of Texas Tech in a four game weekend series (including a doubleheader on Saturday). The game's audio can be streamed for free through the Indiana Athletics website, or you can pay a fee to watch a live feed, also linked on the same page.
If you're new to college baseball, I'll point out the inherent disadvantage of being a northern school. When the season starts, chances are any school not in the South still has snow on the ground, forcing all these teams to travel to warmer climates to play away games until their homeland warms up. This season, IU is rolling the dice that things will be somewhat bearable by March 3rd, when they have their home opener against Xavier at 4:05.
Give me another reason. If you miss the IU-UK rivalry, it's still going strong in baseball! This year it's on March 11th in Bloomington. Either way, get out to Bart Kaufman field as much as you can. It's a brand new facility and an all-around top notch place to watch some baseball.
Go Hoosiers! Win and stuff.