This is the third installment of our 2021 Indiana baseball preview series, a peek at what the IU starting rotation may look like this season. Ahead of the season opener, we’re also looking at the outfield, the infield, bullpen and the Big Ten as a whole. You’ll be able to find each piece of the series as it comes out here.
Take a look at Indiana’s projected starting rotation and you might see a little bit of everything.
There’s a potential All-Big Ten right-hander in Gabe Bierman. There’s a reliable, innings-eating left-hander in Tommy Sommer. There’s an exciting, high-ceiling right-hander in McCade Brown. And there’s a just-gets-the-job-done southpaw in Ty Bothwell.
From front to back, it feels like IU has depth, upside and reasons to believe its pitching can help it challenge for a second consecutive Big Ten title this spring.
That endeavor will start with Bierman, who led IU in innings (22.0) and strikeouts (24) during the abbreviated 2020 campaign. Primarily a bullpen arm as a freshman on IU’s conference championship squad in 2019, the Jeffersonville native worked his way into the Saturday spot in IU’s rotation at the beginning of last season, making four starts before the season abruptly ended. The highlight for Bierman was a 6 2/3 inning outing at South Alabama last February when he struck out 11 and walked only two batters en route to his first win. When he wasn’t striking out USA hitters, he was inducing them into groundballs — a Bierman specialty. The 6-foot-2 sophomore isn’t afraid to pitch to contact, using a heavy sinker to force opposing batters to beat the ball into the turf.
Sommer has been a dependable, regular member of the pitching staff since 2018, filling a variety of roles in that time. He’s exactly the type of arm you want on the roster, a pitcher who can chew up innings, miss bats when he needs to and, just generally, give you a chance to win each time he takes the mound. Opponents hit just .177 off of Sommer last season, with his best outing coming when he allowed just one run while striking out five over a career-best 8 2/3 innings against High Point on Feb. 29, 2020. During the College Summer League at Grand Park, Sommer allowed just one run on five hits with nine strikeouts and three walks over seven innings.
“He’s a professional,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said.
By now, IU believes it can count on Bierman and Sommer for consistency and production in the first two slots. On the back end, the Hoosiers will turn to a couple of intriguing options to close out each weekend pod.
Start with Brown, the most intriguing pitcher in the program. Brown has so many of the raw tools Mercer’s staff covets — he has a projectable frame at 6-foot-6, his fastball was clocked at 96.6 MPH this past fall, and he has an edge-of-your-seat spin rate of 2,602 RPM. He’s a great looking prospect with extraordinary potential. And yet, he’s like a lot of super talented young pitchers in that he’s still working to close the gap between his performance in throwing sessions and his production when the lights turn on.
Brown has only appeared in six career games, allowing 11 earned runs over 6 2/3 innings, with 13 walks and 11 strikeouts over his first two years. So, not great. But Mercer is still justifiably excited about Brown’s potential as a third-year player, pointing to the training Brown has done since last March.
“I’ve got complete confidence in Mack,” Mercer said. “He’s done nothing but gone out and worked and performed this year. He’s been outstanding. He manages situations, manages emotions (and) controls and throws his fastball for strikes. He locates it. He doesn’t just pour it in there at 95 (MPH) somewhere. This is a guy that can locate side to side, get up and get down, and do what he needs to do.
“His curveball is a plus pitch. His slider is a plus pitch and his changeup is developing. I like it. But I feel really good about him because he feels really good about himself. You just see that in the body language. You can look in the guy’s eyes — the way he walks around the clubhouse, the way he takes the mound, the way he throws his bullpens. When a guy is ready, when a guy is there, you can see it, you can feel it, and he’s there and ready to roll.”
Bothwell also presents an interesting case for Mercer. Though his time on the mound for IU has been limited to this point — he made three appearances last season, striking out five, walking four and yielding two runs over three innings — he’s been an effective worker in summer ball. While pitching for the Macon Bacon (Editor’s note: Macon Bacon! Hell ya!) of the Coastal Plain League last year, Bothwell appeared in nine games, including five starts, while striking out 36 batters over 22 innings, with six walks and 15 hits.
He works between the upper-80s and the low-90s, relying more on deception than stuff. Though Bothwell may turn out to be a guy who primarily works out of the ‘pen and makes the occasional start, he’s going to get his chance to claim a starting role as the season gets underway.
“Ty just has a fastball that is difficult to hit,” Mercer said. “You look at the metrics of it and I think it’s probably a release point/release height kind of thing — not necessarily a spin rate thing. It’s just a tough fastball to hit. For a hitting coach who prides himself on teaching an offense to be able to hit a fastball and valuing hitting a fastball, it’s hard for us to square it up, especially for the first three or four innings.
“He’s going to have to manage (whether) we can get him into the fifth, sixth, seventh. Can he hold the stuff into that range? But the fastball, it really plays up. The slider — the breaking ball — is really good. He can really spin it, too. He has a nice pickoff move, especially if you haven’t seen it. He’s just done it. He would’ve done it last year had we finished the season. He would’ve been an impactful guy last year. But he’s done it in summer ball and had a bunch of strikeouts and a bunch of success and whipped our hitters’ butts this year. I think he’ll be great.”
Looking ahead to this weekend’s pod action in Minneapolis, Bierman will face Rutgers on Friday afternoon and Sommer will face Minnesota on Friday night. Brown will go against Rutgers on Saturday night and Bothwell will draw Minnesota on Sunday night.