Under the direction of first-year head coach Jeff Mercer in 2019, the Indiana baseball team won the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 2014. But with success comes turnover, as 10 Hoosiers were selected in the 2019 MLB Draft.
Mercer admits he questions where certain production will come from each year, especially when you lose 10 players to the MLB, but his reliance on player development answers these questions.
“You go to work every day and coach your players all the time like they are going to be the starter,” Mercer said. “Because someone will grow and someone will develop and someone will blossom before your eyes and that’s what you rely on. If your process is player development, then you have to rely on the process and that’s what we have always done.”
The Hoosiers will begin the season Feb. 14, but before breaking down any game action, let’s preview the 2020 Indiana pitching staff.
Starting pitching was one of the biggest strengths of the 2019 Hoosiers, but also one of the areas with the biggest turnover. Weekend starters Pauly Milto, Tanner Gordon and Andrew Saalfrank were each selected in the MLB Draft after composing one of the best starting pitching staffs in the Big Ten. Saalfrank was named the 2019 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year despite earning the Sunday job a month into the season and making four fewer starts than Milto and Gordon.
Indiana may not have a weekend rotation written in stone until conference play starts, but Mercer does not lack options to fill these roles. The first name that pops up as an obvious candidate for the Friday starter job is Tommy Sommer, a 6-foot-4 junior left-handed pitcher from Carmel, Indiana.
Sommer dealt with a meniscus injury towards the beginning of last season, but still managed to post a 3.40 ERA in 45 innings pitched. Sommer was in the mix for the Sunday starter job, but found his groove starting midweek games and appearing out of the bullpen throughout the weekend, posting an impressive 1.11 WHIP and a strikeout per nine innings-rate just above nine.
Sommer, along with sophomores Gabe Bierman, Alex Franklin and McCade Brown, are the only returning Hoosiers with experience starting games for the Hoosiers. In addition, each of these pitchers started five games or fewer last season. Because of this, new faces toeing the rubber in the first inning will be quite common at the start of the year.
Mercer also mentioned sophomore Braydon Tucker, who posted a 1.94 WHIP in 6.2 innings pitched last season, as a candidate to pitch more innings this season. Freshmen Nate Stahl and David Platt, along with sophomore Matt Litwicki, have taken a step forward since the fall as well, according to Mercer. Litwicki gave up seven runs in 9.1 innings pitched last season, but will be relied upon more heavily this year.
Stahl impressed throughout his time at Walsh Jesuit High School, boasting a 92 MPH fastball and 6-foot-4 frame. Platt, a graduate from Palisades High School, stands at 6-foot-3 and has a fastball that tops out at 93 MPH.
“The thing with our staff right now is it’s young, but it has really good stuff,” Mercer said. “It’s all 90-94 with good sink and good action.”
Another big question mark for the pitching staff is who will fill in the back end of the bullpen. Matt Lloyd was a steady presence as the team’s closer last season with a 2.70 ERA in 14 appearances, but was drafted in the 15th round by the Cincinnati Reds.
Redshirt junior Connor Manous was one of Indiana’s best weapons out of the bullpen last season, posting a 2.68 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 43.2 innings last year. Manous’ experience as a late-inning guy last season makes him a great candidate to step into the closing role this year. But even with so much roster turnover among the pitching staff, Mercer will not be using this as an excuse.
“No one is going to put an asterisk next to the game and say, ‘Well you played a bunch of freshmen and sophomores,’” Mercer said. “No one is going to say, ‘Well you guys don’t have the experience so we will spot you three runs.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
The Hoosiers begin the season with a weekend series versus one of the top college baseball programs in the country in LSU. It will be a quick start, but Mercer hopes last year’s culture of winning will help the younger players adjust quickly.
“We have to be ready to go from the beginning,” Mercer said. “That’s where your environment [and] experience of winning and expecting to be successful carries you forward.”