When he’s not filling out the lineup card or otherwise overseeing the day-to-day operations of his Indiana baseball program, head coach Jeff Mercer is working closely with his hitters.
Over the past six months, pitcher McCade Brown has made that work a little more difficult. That’s because, when Brown is on the mound during practice, Mercer isn’t merely helping with swing mechanics, pitch recognition, foot position, or any of the other qualities that help a hitter square up a baseball. Sometimes, Mercer serves a role that is equal parts hitting coach and hitting therapist, offering encouraging, uplifting words after one of his bat-wielding Hoosiers strikes out or flails at one of Brown’s nasty offerings.
As the Hoosiers have come to find out — and as the Big Ten is quickly learning — hitting against the 6-foot-6 right-hander isn’t easy. And after Brown struck out 12 and walked nobody over seven dazzling innings against Rutgers last week, Mercer and company are eager to see what he’ll do this weekend against Penn State.
“He finally stopped beating up on us,” Mercer joked. “It’s nice not having to console the hitters after every outing he threw against us.”
It’s difficult to settle on which IU starting pitching performance last weekend was most impressive. There was Tommy Sommer’s eight-inning shutout against Minnesota that featured 10 strikeouts and earned him the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Week Award. There was Ty Bothwell’s first career start in which he, too, struck out 10 Golden Gophers over five innings of one-run ball. And then, of course, there was Brown, whose numbers and peripherals continue to make him one of the most interesting pitchers in the Big Ten.
He not only has a mid-90s fastball, Brown has a breaking ball that can do this:
The question with Brown was never his talent, but his ability to put it all together and throw strikes in moments that matter. Before last weekend, the Normal, Ill. native had only made six appearances, including three starts, over his first season-plus, walking 13, allowing nine hits and striking out 11 over six and two-thirds innings.
But Mercer believes that, had there been a full season in 2020, Brown would have begun to tap into his upside last spring. Though he was a little uneven in outings against LSU and South Alabama, Brown was making good pitches. He was right there. A corner was about to be turned, Mercer felt.
Then the season was over.
“A lot of these things were there last year,” Mercer said. “Not quite to the level that he’s at now, but not far off. So we’ve seen it for a long time. He pitched at LSU and did fine. He got the save at South Alabama. That was a big outing for him. You would’ve seen his role increase tremendously over the course of that year and seen some really good stuff.”
Instead, it wasn’t until the fall when Mercer saw Brown’s stuff begin to click consistently. Brown went through what Mercer called a “heavy” training program, adding 25 pounds to his listed weight. Not only did he bulk up, Brown worked on harnessing his ever-growing frame in a way that yielded more reliable results on the mound.
“That two- or three-month window of really heavy training has really helped him to be more physical, but also be more confident in what he’s doing and be able to control his body,” Mercer said. “He is such a big young man that it’s hard to control your body when you’re that big and that physical. I think all those things combined have allowed him to take that next step from where he was last year, which was very good.
“We saw it coming for a long time and I was absolutely 100 percent confident in his abilities to do what he’s done. What he did this weekend, I’ve watched him do that literally once a week for the last six months. I watched him do it every time he’s walked on the mound for the last six months.”
Now, Mercer’s just relieved it’s another coach’s batters that have to do deal with Brown, and not his own.