This is the second installment of our 2021 Indiana baseball preview series, a peek at what the IU outfield may look like this season. Ahead of the season opener, we’ll also take a look at the infield, starting rotation, bullpen and the Big Ten as a whole. You’ll be able to find each piece of the series as it comes out here.
Last season, IU’s outfield comprised the core of its lineup. That was perhaps a bit expected given the presence of a star like Elijah Dunham, who hit the cover off the ball and was one of the best players in the Big Ten.
Dunham is gone now. He opted to turn pro despite going undrafted due to the shortened draft format, signing with the Yankees (27 rings baby!) and leaving the Hoosiers with a hole to fill.
The good news? Every other player who played in the outfield last season is back and they’ve got reinforcements, as well.
Nearly any discussion of the IU outfield has to begin with Grant Richardson. The third-year player was in the midst of a breakout season when the COVID-induced stoppage occurred. He was going absolutely bonkers at the plate, hitting .424 with a whopping 1.250 on-base plus slugging through 14 games thanks to five home runs, three doubles and two triples. Each of those figures were team-highs, other than the doubles. He also led the Hoosiers with 17 runs batted in before the season’s abrupt end.
To put it simply, Richardson is That Dude. He can do everything. He hits for power, hits for average, runs the bases, and mans center field capably. Because of that and — his stats from last season — he’s garnered plenty of national attention, earning multiple preseason All-American honors. He figures to be a serious contender for Big Ten Player of the Year and if he wins it, he’d become just the fourth Hoosier to do so, following in the footsteps of Mike Smith (tied in 1992), Kennard Jones (tied in 2002), Alex Dickerson (2010) and Sam Travis (2014). Honestly, I think his game is pretty comparable to another recent IU star, Matt Gorski. If last season hadn’t been interrupted and/or the MLB Draft hadn’t been shortened so significantly, there’s a very real possibility that he would be preparing for his first full season as a professional right now instead of another go-round in Bloomington. As we get underway, pencil him in at centerfield more or less every day, probably hitting second or third because of his mixture of power and speed. This could be a special season for him.
Beyond Richardson, there are a couple of other full-time outfielders who played in most of last season’s games — Hunter Jessee and Ethan Vecrumba. Both were true freshmen last season and figure to be significant parts of the team this season.
Jessee was perhaps a bit of a happy surprise last season, managing to lock down a starting gig in right field due to his plus-glove, then parlaying that into a solid all-around debut. He hit .256, walking more than he struck out and picking up a couple of stolen bases. Those numbers don’t really pop off the screen, but they’re more than serviceable given the fact that he’s a good defender, was typically near the bottom of the batting order and, again, was playing his first few weeks of D1 baseball. Expect him to be in a similar role this season, locking down one-third of the outfield defensively and proving to be pesky as a back-end hitter.
Vecrumba came into his first season as a Hoosier with a boatload of hype. The local kid, an Edgewood HS alumnus, had been one of the best players in the state the year prior and had some serious pro interest, ultimately choosing the Hoosiers over the minor leagues — and a reported six-figure signing bonus from the Atlanta Braves. Why did he turn down roughly 600k and choose college ball instead? He told Herald-Times reporter Jon Blau that, “I knew I was worth more than that,” and that he hopes to be a first-round pick out of IU, rather than the potential fourth-rounder he would’ve been out of high school.
In 2020 he struggled to adjust to the college game, hitting just .097 with a .398 on-base plus slugging. He had more runs batted in (five) than hits (three) before IU shut down shop. He struck out nine times compared to five walks and was the team’s designated hitter as often, if not more often, than he was a defender in the outfield.
Obviously, that’s not great at face value. But at the same time, he continues to have mountains of untapped potential. I saw him play not only last season but in high school, and he’s undeniably a player who could be successful because of his tools.
He’s listed at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds this season and is every bit as physically imposing as that sounds. He’s a big dude by average baseball standards. Despite that, he’s also got a set of wheels on him. Like, leadoff hitter-type wheels. He should, at some point, become a guy who can hit in the top three spots of the IU lineup, putting on a laser show and giving opponents fits on the basepaths. I’m not 100 percent sure how he fits in defensively given at last glance he wasn’t as far along as Richardson and Jessee. Maybe he’s in the mix in left field, or maybe he continues to DH and spells those guys as needed. If he can put it all together, he has the makings of a special player. For now, we have to wait and see if he can do it, though.
Outside of those three, the most experienced returning full-time outfielder is Tyler Van Pelt. Listed as a sophomore due to the pandemic and an earlier redshirt season, the fourth-year Bloomington South product became one of IU’s go-to bats off the bench last season, emerging as a pinch-hitting option for the Hoosiers.
He picked up a hit and a walk in six plate appearances, earning one start in three games played. He also got some decent playing time off the bench in 2019, hitting .320 in 29 plate appearances, totaling three runs batted in. Other highlights thus far for TVP include an individual championship in IU’s 2019 Ironman Challenge, a series of competitive offseason workouts. He may be in the mix for a couple of starts a week, but his floor should be a solid bat off the bench once again.
There’s also a smattering of interesting players who didn’t take the field for IU last season.
Bobby Whalen joined the program over the offseason, transferring from Louisville after just one year in the Derby City. He was one of the better players out of Pennsylvania in the class of 2019 and reportedly could’ve gone pro out of high school, but elected to play collegiately instead.
Morgan Colopy is another former transfer who could make waves this season. Previously a Cincinnati signee, the Ohio native was a 34th-round pick by the San Francisco Giants back in 2019 and may become one of the team’s top sluggers at some point. During the fall, he had a hit tracked at an exit velocity of 114.1 mph with a distance of 453 feet. With that kind of power, innocent passersby on the bypass may be put in harm’s way If he puts a charge into one down the left-field line.
There’s also a pair of 2019 signees who didn’t get on the field last season, but could manage to do so this spring.
Tucker Schank was a tremendous multi-sport athlete at Southridge HS. He helped lead the Raiders to back-to-back state runner-up finishes on the diamond and garnered all-state honorable mention honors. He also played running back for the Raider football team, racking up nearly 4,000 career rushing yards thanks to sophomore and junior seasons in which he ran for more than 1,300 yards and totaled 55 career rushing touchdowns to go along with nearly 800 receiving yards on just 47 career catches and 10 receiving touchdowns. When he was a junior, Southridge won the 2A state championship in football, beating Woodlan on a 42-yard touchdown reception by Schank in the closing minutes of the game. In the winter he’d hit the mat, proving to be a more-than-capable wrestler as well. Over the final three seasons of his high school career, he won more than 100 matches, advancing to the state finals twice — meaning he competed at the state championship level in each of his three sports. He also received college interest in each of his three sports, an impressive feat.
Garrett Manous has one specific tool that could get him on the field this season — speed. The dude’s absurdly fast. As a high-schooler, he was clocked at 6.44 seconds in the 60-yard dash, the proportional equivalent of a 4.3-second 40-yard dash. That’s like Julio Jones, Patrick Peterson, DK Metcalf-type speed.
Manous had a Perfect Game grade of 9 on a scale of 10 coming out of Munster HS, labeling him as a “potential top 10 round pick and/or highest level college prospect,” per the outlet, and he was one of the better recruits in the state. As a senior, Manous hit .570, racked up 33 RBI and hit five home runs, all team-highs. He also had a prolific base-stealing season as a sophomore, racking up 30 stolen bases in just 24 games. Maybe early in his IU career, he’s just a pinch-runner, but he could absolutely develop into something more over the course of time.
There’s also, of course, the possibility that we get a healthy dose of Drew Ashley in the outfield. He can play all three spots if he needs to, but he’ll probably see the majority of his outfield time in left field. The utilityman may also play somewhat regularly in the infield and should be a reliable leadoff hitter as well.
Those nine players — Richardson, Jessee, Vecrumba, Van Pelt, Whalen, Colopy, Schank, Manous and Ashley — provide IU with a deep, talented and versatile outfield. They may not have the most experience as a collective — only Richardson, Ashley and Van Pelt have full seasons of college baseball under their belts — but there are gobs of promise in the group. Like “multiple future professionals” kind of promise. That’s certainly something to look forward to as we near the open of a new season.