Ed Note: Part I of our Hoosier Baseball preview looked at the Chris Lemonis' transition & the changes at the plate for Indiana. Today, Alex dives in to the pitching staff and makes a projection for the season.
While I looked at the offense from a Moneyball vs. Old School angle in part one of the CQ preview, I must admit that that argument wears me out. It’s not because it’s not interesting—in fact, if you look at MLB over the past decade or so, you’ll see that both systems have flaws that can break a team, which makes the argument valid and never-ending. But it wears me out is because the school of thought to which a team or program subscribes is just not that important. The truth is that no team wins without dominating pitching, or at least a couple dominating pitchers.
Need an example of how far pitching can take you? The Kansas City Royals, whose position players couldn’t hit a piñata the size of Charlie Weis, made the World Series because their 7th, 8th, and 9th inning arms were the same dudes all season, and they were perfect when they got the ball with the lead. Then they got beat because Madison Bumgarner became Cy Young reincarnated and gave up nine hits and one run in 21.0 IP against KC. Pitching is everything. Need an example that hits closer to home? Last May, IU roared through the first couple nights of the NCAA Regional at the Bart. On night three, with a chance to head to the Super Regional, Luke Harrison got the Hoosiers into the 8th with three masterful relief innings. It took a couple uncharacteristic Harrison pitches and 19 Jake Kelzer pitches to give up six runs and make a 7-run offensive effort all for naught.
The next night? IU jumped up 3-0, but a 3-hour rain delay slowed the storm. Bad luck. But the real difference was that Stanford pitcher Marcus Brakeman, who pitched before the rain delay, kept his arm loose for three hours, gave up no more runs, and shut down what may have been the best offense in the country. He kept his team in it and the Trees eventually hit a walk-off home run that made the Bart quieter than the RCA Dome while 18 was running the no-huddle.
Pitching is everything. And this season, Indiana’s pitching looks to be pretty good and extremely deep. Only two pitchers who appeared for the Hoosiers last season are gone from the program—Joey DeNato and Brian Korte. Korte was a reliever throughout most of his career, and last season as a senior, he became a spot starter, making eight of his 16 appearances that way. He had a 2.45 ERA in 40.1 IP.
Sure, DeNato will be incredibly difficult to replace. In fact, the only reason to worry even a little about the pitching is that DeNato was an absolute stud. With a 13-1 record, he posted a 1.82 ERA over a whopping 109.0 IP, more double the amount of innings of every other pitcher on the roster except Christian Morris who threw 83.2 IP. DeNato, who holds the school records for wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched, was a unanimous First-Team All-Big Ten selection, Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, and a second-team All-American.
And the staff has some injuries to fight through as well, which will make it even tougher to replace the virtually guaranteed win that Joey DeNato provided just by stepping onto the mound each weekend. Sullivan Stadler, who started six games last season is out for the entire 2015 campaign, and Kyle Hart is not available to start the season. The RS Junior went 13-7 in his first two seasons in 30 starts, and started 2014 on fire, going 3-1 in six starts before an injury forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery. He was granted a redshirt.
At media day, it became clear that Lemonis is considering at least five guys for those two roles and the midweek starting spot. Those five are Luke Harrison, Scott Effross, Jake Kelzer, and two newcomers, JUCO transfer Caleb Baragar and Freshman Brian Hobbie. A few days ago, Indiana’s rotation was still a mystery. But Tuesday, Lemonis announced that Effross, Morris, and Kelzer will start in that order this weekend.
Kelzer was huge out of the bullpen last season for the Hoosiers, and after Ryan Halstead went down with an early season knee injury, Effross became the closer and was solid every step of the way.
This rotation is probably an early season experiment. Eventually, Baragar, who comes from Jackson Community College where he went 5-0 with a 2.62 ERA last season, and threw two consecutive no-hitters, will probably see starts, although his first few will probably be midweek games. Harrison, also, will likely be given a few opportunities to start on the bump. But given their collective experience and success, there is no reason to expect that this rotation won’t be the one we see most weekends, unless Barager or Harrison light it up. And don’t forget about Kyle Hart. Later in the season, Hart could be another option, but one that would be a moderate-to-substantial surprise. He could be a huge boost for the Hoosiers if he’s ready to contribute come late-March or early-April.
But what about the guy at the top of the page?
Remember him? It has been along time since we have heard anything about Will Coursen-Carr. As a Freshman in 2013, he started 11 games, led the Big Ten with a 1.93 ERA and earned the win in the clinching game of the Big Ten Tournament, the NCAA Regional, and the NCAA Super Regional. Last season, he started only seven games. Then he couldn’t find the strike zone anymore. Tracy Smith had all kinds of confidence in him finding his game again, but we never really saw it. He made only seven starts last season, and his only two appearances down the stretch were in relief against Youngstown State when the Hoosiers led 10-2 and in the first loss to Stanford, where he pitched 0.2 innings.
I haven’t noticed that Coursen-Carr has been mentioned by Lemonis at all. (If you have and I’m wrong, please let me know. I’d be very interested to read/see that.) Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but with 18 starts over the first two seasons of his IU career, and three of the biggest wins in program history credited to his name, I would love to see Coursen-Carr get a shot at starting somewhere along the way.
Regardless of who starts, the bullpen should be a real strength for this team. Harrison and Effross, if not selected as starters, provide the Hoosiers with as good of relief pitching as you can find in the college game. They both have the ability to shutdown an offense at the end of a game or to keep the Hoosiers around pitching in middle and long relief, a crucial part of college baseball. And Kelzer and Thomas Belcher should also provide solid relief.
The most encouraging part of the pitching staff, however, has to be the return of Ryan Halstead. Halstead set the school record for single-season and career saves in 2013 and was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 26thround of the draft that summer. But Halstead opted to return for Indiana for his senior season, and appeared in four games before suffering the aforementioned knee injury last season. Like Hart, he was granted a redshirt & Halstead is the obvious choice to close ballgames for this club. And if Indiana gets him the ball in the 9th inning with the lead, the Hoosiers are going to like their chances.
In short, while we may not know what to expect from the rotation, the pitching—all the way from Morris to Halstead—should be plenty good enough for the Hoosiers to compete for a Big Ten title and an NCAA bid.
OUTLOOK & PROJECTIONS
The early nonconference season will probably be shaky as youngsters attempt to fill in for a group of guys whose careers were the only relevant part of the history of Indiana baseball. But there are plenty of opportunities to pick up some wins and experience before the conference season begins.
The truth is this: If Indiana doesn’t win the Big Ten, the weekday games are going to be extremely important for IU’s NCAA hopes. If the Hoosiers don’t light it up in the early nonconference, two wins over Indiana State, a win over Louisville, a win over Kentucky, and a win over Ball State during midweek battles could be the difference between getting close to the dance and getting in.
I like the Hoosiers to get an NCAA bid, but not as a regional host. They will have great pitching and just enough offense to win some of the important nonconference games, and most of the Big Ten is weak enough that they should sweep a few series, and win most. If you're asking for a number, I like the Hoosiers to go 38-17 on the year, and 17-7 in the conference. That'd likely be good enough for second in the conference.
BUT HEY LET'S HEAR FROM THE REST OF THE EDITORIAL STAFF.
Kyle Robbins, CrimsonQuarry Editor-In-Chief: "Baseball is extraordinarily terrible, and you can't make me watch it, ever. It is the DMV waiting-area of sport, a protracted, unending procedure in futility you will ultimately overpay to take part in. But college baseball is fun. It's the drunken, aluminum bat-clenching younger brother of the pro league's self-important caste system. And two summers ago I fell in love with it -- because of Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis, & Tracy Smith. Sure, they're gone, but the Big Ten is far from a baseball power. Chris Lemonis' strength as a recruiter alone is enough to keep the Hoosiers as a contender every season -- including this one. Expect this young team to battle Nebraska and Maryland for the conference title and host a regional for the third straight season."
Kyle Swick, Assistant Editor: "There is no question that the Hoosiers are going to have to replace a ridiculous amount of outgoing talent, but it’s not as if Tracy Smith left the cupboard bare when he headed out west. New Skipper Chris Lemonis has a deep pitching staff that should make life easier on a hitting lineup that may take a couple of months to get worked out. Lemonis is no stranger to success in "northern baseball" and will get the most out of a roster that is likely to backslide a bit this year, regardless of who is at the helm. I expect Indiana to return to the postseason, falling just short of being a regional host, maybe we can go out west and end Stanford’s stupid season on their stupid home field by hitting a stupid walk-off home run as the stupid "home" team."
Ben Raphel, Assistant Editor: "Chris Lemonis brings a ton of energy and a great recruiting acumen to the Hoosiers. While IU lost a lot of good players from last year's squad, they shouldn't fall too far in the standings. I'm predicting 3rd in the B1G behind Nebraska and newcomer Maryland. Also, Nebraska skipper Darin Erstad was the poster boy of gritty undersized players for terrible baseball colmunists in the early 2000s, so he immediately earns my disdain."