After a season on the bump that saw the Hoosier pitching staff have a 3.09 season ERA—including a 2.80 earned run average in Big Ten play—and own a two and a half to one strikeout to walk ratio as well as a sub 1.30 WHIP, Indiana will try to mix a blend of old and new faces on the bump this season.
Even though Indiana brings back 10 of 14 pitchers from last season, IU loses 40 percent of its innings pitched from the 2018 campaign. A large chunk of that production (164.2 innings) comes in the loss of Jonathan Stiever and Tim Herrin, who were IU’s Friday and Sunday starters a year ago. Stiever was Indiana’s ace over the last couple of seasons, and held a strong 3.41 ERA to go along with 97 strikeouts to go against 32 walks in 110.1 innings pitched. Stiever was able to turn his strong campaign into a 5th round draft pick with the Chicago White Sox. Herrin emerged as IU’s Sunday starter and flourished. As a junior he had a 6-0 record with a 3.22 ERA and a .234 opponents batting average. The Cleveland Indians drafted Herrin in the 29th round of the 2018 Major League Baseball draft.
Even with losing two out of three weekend starters, Indiana won’t have much to worry about on Friday nights as senior Pauly Milto will take the reigns as the bonafide ace of the IU staff. Milto was phenomenal in 2018, as he owned the 2nd best ERA in the Big Ten at 2.03. The Greenwood native went 8-2 with a 1.14 WHIP and a .228 opponents batting average. Despite missing a few weeks due to injury, Milto was still named second-team All-Big Ten.
Milto’s importance to the entire IU pitching staff can’t be underestimated. The senior is as good as anyone in college baseball at eating up innings and going deep into starts—5.2 IP or more in 10 out of 13 starts, including two complete games. Milto’s ability to pitch effectively into the later innings not only helps Indiana’s chance to win when he is on the mound, but it also limits IU’s bullpen usage on days that Milto starts, which lets Jeff Mercer (or last season Chris Lemonis) be more aggressive with the bullpen on days that Milto does not start. Milto’s presence could not have been highlighted more than when he was hurt from mid April through early May. During the stretch IU lost nine out of eleven games and went from being ranked top ten nationally to blowing a chance to host a regional. Assuming Milto can stay healthy this season, he will be the bell cow for the Indiana pitching staff.
After Milto, Indiana has a lot of question marks in the rest of the rotation. Mercer is starting the season with junior college transfer Tanner Gordon and sophomore Tommy Sommer. Gordon is a huge wildcard. The Champaign native is taking the Logan Kaletha path to Bloomington as, like Kaletha, Gordon comes to IU from John A. Logan College. Last season with the Vols Gordon struck out an impressive 104 batters in just 70 innings pitched and only gave up 16 earned runs on the campaign. If Gordon can carry his success over to the division one level in a similar way Kaletha did at the plate last season, he will be a mainstay in Indiana’s weekend rotation.
Sommer made three starts last season, and while he never gave up more than two earned runs in a start, the sophomore did not last more than three innings in a single start. Sommer’s longest outing actually came in relief against Ball State when he lasted four and a third innings. Sommer may not be the permanent solution as Mercer’s Sunday guy, but if Sommer can come close to maintaining his 3.07 ERA while being stretched out to starters innings, he could be a real weapon for Indiana.
Indiana brings back a lot of pieces from last season’s bullpen, and IU will again be leaning on the duo of Matt Lloyd and Cal Krueger to primarily close out games. The biggest question for Indiana’s back end of the bullpen will be how to manage innings throughout a long season.
Lloyd, IU’s super utility hitter and pitcher, was Lemonis’ go-to closer in his last two seasons in Bloomington. Lloyd’s biggest issue on the mound, however, has been that he wants to play more in the field to try to show MLB scouts he is a capable fielder at the next level, which is completely fair of him to do. It was hard for Lemonis to pitch Lloyd on days he would play the field, as he couldn’t get to the bullpen and warm up as easily, and that led to Lloyd pitching roughly ten less innings in 2018 than he did two years ago, even though his ERA dropped from 2.23 to 1.54. How Mercer balances when Lloyd pitches/plays DH versus playing in the field will be the biggest storyline of the Hoosier bullpen this season.
Last season Lemonis called Cal Krueger’s name out of the bullpen on 27 occasions. The only other Hoosier to pitch in more than 17 games was BJ Sabol (23). Lemonis used Krueger much like how Terry Francona uses Andrew Miller in the MLB players: as a super reliever designed to get outs in the highest pressure situation of the game, and Krueger flourished in the role. However, the issue became Lemonis overusing Krueger, as the Jasper native not only appeared more than any other pitcher, but he was also regularly stretched out. Krueger pitched at least a full inning in all 27 appearances, and pitched more than one inning 16 appearances. This slowly wore Krueger down, as he allowed earned runs in five out of six outings (10 runs in the six games) between April 28 and May 24. That saw Krueger’s ERA swell from 1.45 to 3.24. Mercer will need to limit Krueger’s innings early in the year so that the skipper can get the most out of his best weapon late in the season.
Of course, part of the reason Krueger was overused in 2018 was because Lemonis did not have many other guys he could trust in the pen besides Krueger, Lloyd and the now-departed Sabol. Mercer and pitching coach Justin Parker will have to develop talent like Grant Sloan, Andrew Saalfrank, and Gabe Bierman among others into reliable bullpen weapons to help Krueger and Lloyd in relief.
Player development is something that Parker has harped on. “When you want to base your program off development, you have to gain the trust,” Parker said last fall. “You have to get to know them. You have to spend time with them.”
If Indiana can solidify its rotation and develop complementary bullpen pieces to Lloyd and Krueger, the Hoosiers can again have one of the best pitching staffs in the Big Ten.