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HOOSIER BASEBALL PREVIEW: Replacing Smith, Schwarber, & Co.

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Baseball matters in Bloomington. The Chris Lemonis era begins for a program newly-born as a Midwestern powerhouse, thanks to the work of the now departed Smith, Schwarber, Travis, DeMuth, & DeNato. We look at the changes in part one of our preview.

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Ed Note: With baseball season on the horizon, CQ's season preview takes a two-part look at the program in 2015 over the course of the next two days. Today, we'll look at the transition in the dugout & at the plate. With that, we'll welcome our newest writer -- Alex Robbins -- who will cover baseball for CQ. No, we're not related. -- KR

Coming off the two best seasons and the two most painful losses in program history, Indiana begins its season with a three-game series this weekend in Palo Alto, California. While the stakes will be far different than the last time the Hoosiers and Stanford got together, there is still plenty of excitement surrounding this opening series as Indiana looks to start the 2015 season on the right foot as they aim to prolong the greatest span of baseball Bloomington has ever seen.

Along with that excitement, returning Hoosiers have to have revenge on their minds after eight long months of the image of a ball floating over the right field wall at Bart Kaufman Field and into the darkness of night on their minds everyday since the heartbreaking walk-off loss to the Cardinal last June. And for fans, this weekend will be the first step in discovering whether this club will be able to overcome some of the gaping holes left by personnel departures at the end of the 2014 season. Here's three things to watch through the transition:

A NEW ERA UNDER CHRIS LEMONIS

Lemonis

The questions surrounding this team start with Chris Lemonis, the first-year manager who Athletic Director Fred Glass has pegged as the replacement for Tracy Smith, who used the recent Hoosier success to jettison for Arizona State’s storied program. Lemonis comes to Bloomington after serving at the University of Louisville as the recruiting coordinator and hitting coach.

While with UofL, Lemonis helped the Cardinals to two College World Series Appearances, four Big East championships, and from 2008-2011, four consecutive Top 25 recruiting classes. And prior to his tenure there, Lemonis spent 12 years at his alma mater, The Citadel, as hitting coach and associate head coach. While Lemonis was at The Citadel, his hitters set 35 offensive records.

The success that Lemonis has had as a recruiter is especially impressive considering that, while the State of Kentucky may be considered part of the south for several good and stereotypical reasons, Louisville is not really a warm-weather city. And as Big Ten baseball programs know well, cold-weather programs struggle mightily in recruiting compared to ACC, SEC, Big 12, and Pac-12 schools. It is just a reality of college baseball. So, those recruiting statistics may be the most encouraging part of the Lemonis resume.

But, as is inevitable when a coach leaves an upstart program for "bigger and better things," the question with Lemonis will be whether he can maintain the success that the Hoosiers enjoyed under Smith and regularly win Big Ten Championships and, occasionally and eventually, get this program back to Omaha.

That question is one that will not be answered this weekend, and more than likely won’t be much closer to being answered in May or June. Lemonis is inheriting a program losing a lot of talent to graduation and the draft. For that very reason, comparing this season to the last two may not be the best gauge of what he brings as skipper. But given the success he had at Louisville bringing in Major/Minor-league quality talent (in 2010, alone, Louisville had 10 players selected in the MLB Draft), and the explosive offense he was partly responsible for there and at The Citadel, there is no reason to think Hoosier baseball isn’t in good hands.

LIFE WITHOUT SCHWARBER

You faithful baseball followers will immediately say that "no" is the obvious answer to this question. "No," may be the safe answer, and probably the correct answer, but why might not be so obvious. If you are an anti-sabermetrics kind of fan, you’ll enjoy point to this next paragraph (and part of the next one) as why the Hoosiers are in trouble: Of the nine players who registered the most at-bats for the Hoosiers in 2014, only five return. And three of the departures (Kyle Schwarber, Dustin DeMuth, and Sam Travis) combined for over 33% of the entire team’s ABs and managed to hit .359 between them, driving in 146 RBIs (43% of the team’s 339 total) and crushing 31 Home Runs (out of 43 for the entire roster, an astonishing 72% of the team’s long ball production). Bottom line? THAT IS A BUNCHA HITTING AND RUNS AND WHATNOT TO REPLACE.

Scott Donley, Brad Hartong, Will Holden, Casey Rodrigue, and Nick Ramos are the five returning regulars. They combined for 10 HRs and 150 RBIs. Now, those production numbers can be explained by the fact that Schwarber, Travis and DeMuth cleared the bases all season in all situations, and didn’t leave many runners for the other five to bring home. Add in the fact that the your leadoff man and 6-9 hitters aren’t going traditionally power spots in any lineup, and you don’t feel terrible about those five guys’ production. BUT, a sabermetrics believer will say the less-obvious trouble lies with these statistics:

The most troubling sign comes from this: DeMuth’s On Base Percentage was .449. Schwarber’s was .464. Travis’s was .415. Donley, Harton, Holden, Rodrigue, and Ramos? .379, .345, .366, .320, and .291, respectively. Schwarber got on base in 10% more of his plate appearances than Donley and Holden, who were far and away the best of the returning players. Someone (more than one someone), somehow, is going to have to find a way to get on base more often.

Crash Davis will tell you that the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is one hit per week in a professional baseball season. You know the scene.

What I’m telling you is that one extra hit, walk, hit-by-pitch, reach on error, dropped third strike, balk in a weekend may be the difference in a Big Ten title and not qualifying for a regional. If IU plays three games in a weekend, and each hitter has between 3 and 4 plate appearances in each game, it takes reaching base one more time to increase the OBP by about 10%.

In the end, the offense will be very different than it has been the past two seasons. There won’t be nearly as much American League baseball being played at the Bart. It will be necessary to play small ball at various times throughout the season.

Both the old school and sabermetrics approaches have reason to worry about this offense. If I have to pick one for this team, I side with the sabermetrics. That’s the thing I’ll be watching this season. Can these returning regulars, and the youngsters and former bench players who will have to fill in the other spots in the lineup, get on base enough to help make up for the missing safety net that IU had last season, knowing that there was a better than 40% chance that one of the big-three were going to get on base each time through the lineup. If they can, there’s no reason not to expect those old school numbers to go up as well.

THE SCHEDULE

Remember this? IU’s nonconference schedule starts this weekend’s series on the road against the team that ended the program's Smith-Schwarber era -- No. 18 Stanford -- and gets no easier throughout the season.

Two weekends later, the Hoosiers head to the low country to play three with No. 25 College of Charleston. They will welcome a couple ranked teams to the Bart later this season, including No. 17 Cal State Fullerton for a weekend series and one weekday game against No. 12 Louisville. Also in the nonconference, they’ll face No. 31 Ball State in a round robin in Port Charlotte, Florida, and also in Muncie late in the season, and will play one game at Kentucky and a home-and-home with Indiana State, who both received votes and, along with IU, rank just outside the Top-40

Three Big Ten teams are ranked in the preseason Top-40, but only two are on the Indiana schedule. No. 37 Maryland and No. 40 Illinois will both host the Hoosiers in the middle of conference play, while Indiana won’t see No. 38 Nebraska until the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan, the only other Big Ten team to earn votes, comes to Bloomington at the beginning of April. All conference matchups are three-game, weekend series.

One last scheduling note: The Hoosiers won’t see Purdue at all this season, which is a real shame, not only because it’s always a good thing when Indiana and Purdue play, but also because the mouth-breathers don’t play baseball very well. It’s understandable though. That program has bigger things to worry about than winning games, I guess. For example: Every year the wonderful agriculture school gets Alexander Field is pristine shape. That outfield is fit for kings to play croquet. But, hey, you try stretching a single into a double after you step in a cow pie leaving the batter’s box.

Tomorrow, Alex takes a look at the pitching staff & the CQ staff makes our projections for the Big Ten season.