We have already been playing college baseball for a month now. It's remarkable how fast time does go by. (Warning to my readers under the age of thirty: It gets much faster the older you get. Trust me.) As we've crossed the four-week mark, I decided to take a few minutes and review where each program is at.
Illinois: If I were actually passing out grades, the Illini would get an A. Perhaps, an A+. Coach Dan Hartleb's side is an impressive 11-2. Of course, the highlight was the two victories over then top-ranked LSU in Baton Rouge. Yet, as their record indicates, it's not like they have stumbled around before or since becoming media darlings for a weekend.
Pitching has been the key to this Illinois run. Both the starters and bullpen have held up their end of the baragin. The pitching staff has combined for a 4.54 team ERA, which is the second-best mark in the Big Ten. Heading into post-St. Patrick's Day action, the Illini were also tied for the best fielding percentage in the conference. Pitching and defense? Who would have thought?
Individually, Phil Haig, Ben Reeser and Aaron Martin are amongst the conference leaders in several pitching categories. Aaron Johnson has been rock solid at the plate and behind the dish. A pair of freshmen have also made an immediate impact on the Orange and Blue lineup. 2B Josh Parr finds himself in the top ten in batting average and on-base percentage and has been great with the glove, too. OF Willie Argo emerged during the LSU series and has shown a power bat.
What's not to like about this team over the first four weeks? They are getting unbelievable pitching, solid D and timely hitting. I liked them heading into the season, but I didn't envision this kind of performance. They have to be considered amongst the favorites to win the conference.
Indiana: Grade? I'd have to give them a D. The Hoosiers are a great example of what happens when you don't get good pitching and defense. We need look no further than their game earlier this week versus Northern Iowa. IU puts 17 runs on the board. Pretty much the kind of ridiculous total many of us expected this lineup to post from time-to-time. Yet, UNI wins the game by banging out 28 hits and scoring 28 times. Twenty-eight. Four touchdowns. To add insult to injury, Indiana commits five errors.
The Hoosiers are 6-10 for three reasons. 1) A pitching staff that has a combined ERA of 6.70, which is ninth in the conference. 2) A defense that has committed 38 errors and owns the worst fielding percentage (.941) in the Big Ten. 3) What appears to be an attitude problem. In reading the comments of both head coach Tracy Smith and IF/OF Chris Hervey (on his blog at Ping), it seems the young Hoosiers may have come out of the gate believing all the love the media poured on them. They just thought they would show up, beat the snot out of the opposing pitchers and walk home triumphantly. Quoting an old IU coach "Not so fast, my friend".
I suspect somewhere amidst those opening ten losses, the ego problems have probably vanished. The current issue for the Hoosiers is that they have lost plenty of credibility. And RPI points. And games. The good news is that we have yet to play a single Big Ten contest, so there's a chance for this edition of the Hoosiers to right the ship.
This lineup can still flat rake. All-American Josh Phegley, Jerrud Sabourin and frosh sensation Alex Dickerson have led an offense that is second in the Big Ten in batting average and third in runs scored. However, if the Hoosiers hope to contend for a conference crown, things are going to have to improve on the mound and in the field. Rapidly.
Uber-talented Matt Bashore must regain his form and look like a Friday starter again. Somebody, or several somebodies, need to step-up and provide more reliable outings out of the bullpen and in the midweek starts. Finally, these Hoosiers need to want to catch the ball as badly as they want to hit it. I wouldn't want to play these guys in an elimination format, but the question one month into the year is "Will they play well enough to qualify for that chance?".
Iowa: This is one of the hard grades. Why? Because this is roughly the level I thought Iowa might play at. However, if everyone else is getting a grade, Iowa gets one, too. As they still have margin to improve and their W-L mark speaks for itself, I'll give the Hawkeyes a D.
Not surprisingly, the Hawkeyes' team stats bear out their winning percentage. Iowa is currently ninth in team batting average (.241) and runs scored, tenth in team ERA (8.36) and ninth in fielding percentage (.951). Not much has gone well for Coach Jack Dahm's side. However, all is not bleak, either.
Freshman Chet Zeise has played well early on. Zeise leads Iowa in batting average with a .391 mark. Junior Ryan Durant has hit well (.316), too. A "scuffling" Justin Toole can still hit .308. T.J. Cataldo is off to a good start with two homers and nine RBI. Wes Freie has gone yard three times and driven in 11. Plus, Freie has taken to the hill this season and has fanned a team-high 16 in 13.1 innings pitched.
If Toole can return to his normal level of production, Kevin Hoef and Tyson Blaser can pick-up the pace and some of the new faces (Zeise, Durant, Phil Keppler, etc...) can continue to improve as the season goes on, Iowa can have a decent lineup. However, the Hawkeyes just don't seem to have enough arms to keep pace with the rest of the conference. Certainly, you have to expect some of the youngsters on the staff to improve and for the veterans to provide a good outing, but after a month it looks like Iowa needs just too much improvement in too many areas to contend.
Michigan: An angry group (pack?) of Wolverines came storming out of the gate this season. Michigan laid waste to four opponents that first weekend fueled, in part, by what they felt was a snub by the national media. Seems the men in Maize and Blue took offense at not being the overwhelming choice to claim their fourth straight Big Ten title. (It's the reverse of the mental set that happened in Bloomington.) However, since that quartet of beatdowns to open the season, we've seen why I cautioned the Ann Arbor faithful about expectations heading into the season.
In my season preview, I saw a team expected to replace a number of All-Big Ten and All-American caliber players with either freshmen or unproven veterans and continue to play like a national power. Now, if Coach Rich Maloney continues on this current pace of reviving the program, that may be the case someday. However, right now, that's a tall order for a northern program.
What I saw on paper in February was a good team that was probably going to be inconsistent. Thus far, that appears to be the case. As such, I'd give this team a B-.
There have been a number of very good performances. Ryan LaMarre is off to a tremendous start. Freshmen Jake McLouth and Coley Crank have hit very well and look like the real deal. All-American candidate pitcher Chris Fetter has been very good, as well. 2B Kevin Cislo can play for anybody in this conference. There have also been some disappointments.
The Wolverines pitching, after Fetter, just hasn't been very good in weeks. I thought the bullpen combo of Tyler Burgoon and Mike Dufek would be one of the best in the Big Ten but, like the majority of their teammates, they haven't quite been able to string together much consistency. While the pitching has clearly failed them, their inability to get clutch hits hasn't helped. Michigan had opportunities to take two of three from Arizona, but couldn't cash in on late opportunities to drive in runs.
However, let's not act like it's all doom and gloom around The Fish. This squad is third in team batting average, second in runs scored, fourth in ERA and third in fielding percentage. I would anticipate them finishing amongst the top six teams and playing in the conference tournament. Honestly, they're good. They just aren't as good as in years past.
Michigan State: It's been a painful first four weeks to watch the Spartans. When they would hit well, they would pitch like garbage. When the pitching was stellar, the hitters would disappear. When they had a lead, the bullpen would implode. It's led to a brutal start and a grade of D.
The Spartans are in the lower half of the Big Ten in batting average, runs scored, ERA and fielding percentage. While there's clearly room for some improvement on a number of fronts, the Green and White entered the season with an entirely new starting rotation and a lineup that didn't draw much attention last season. Is it any wonder the Spartans are 3-14?
I see signs that the Spartans could improve as the season progresses. Eli Boike has, perhaps, been MSU's best hitter and most complete player. I still believe Chris Roberts can be amongst the better hitters in the Big Ten. Jonathan Roof should be able to hit, as should his brother Eric. The pitching, especially the starters, have been far better than I thought they would be. Nolan Moody and A.J. Achter have been very solid on the mound and deserve better records.
Even with the potential for better days ahead, the Spartans just don't appear to be poised to play in the conference tournament this year. Oh, I hope they use this as motivation to turn their season around (as I do every other team that feels I slighted them), but that doesn't change my perspective.
Minnesota: The Gophers get an A. Any questions?
It wouldn't be fair to leave it there, so I'll elaborate. The renaissance at The U comes courtesy of the same recipe that has powered Illinios to early season success: Pitching and defense. The Gophers are first in team ERA (3.49) and tied with Illinois for first in fielding percentage with a .972 mark.
The mound men are led by the Tom Buske and Chauncy Handran. Both Gophers' starters find themselves in the top ten in the conference in ERA and opponents batting average against. Coach John Anderson also appears to have a deep bullpen to turn to. Scott Matyas, Scott Fern and Cullen Sexton are just three of the arms tossing key innings out of the 'pen.
The Minnesota offense hasn't been prolific, just clutch. The Gophers are sixth in team batting average (.288) and runs scored (89). Mike Kvasnicka is having an all-conference worthy start to 2009. The sophomore rightfielder is among the conference leaders in nearly every statstical category. Okay, perhaps, he's in the running for Player of the Year, too. Eric Decker and Derek McCallum are both swining hot bats and vying for post-season honors at this stage, as well.
I had some high hopes for this Minnesota team. Like, maybe fourth or fifth place, if everything went well. After a month of games, where a Minnesota side powered by mostly underclassmen has won their way into the national rankings, I'm forced to default to an old theory held by this blogger. Never, ever underestimate the Gophers.
Northwestern: How can a team with the third best ERA in the conference be at 4-10? It starts with a conference low 55 runs scored and a team batting average that's eighth at .243. Mix in a team defense with a fielding percentage of .956, the third worst in the Big Ten, and you've got yourself more L's than W's. You've also earned a D.
Is the situation in Evanston going to improve as the year goes on? Well, there are reasons for optimism. NU has a pair of quality starters in Eric Jokisch and Joe Muraski. The two are a big reason why that Wildcats' ERA is so good. Jake Goebbert is a quality hitter that hasn't started to swing well yet. Tony Vercelli has displayed some pop this season and freshman 2B Trevor Stevens has adjusted to the college game quickly, as well.
Still, a number of 'Cats aren't producing at a level that would alter their current direction dramatically. They need to find some quality pitching performances, after Jokisch and Muraski, and desperately need some of their cool bats to heat up in order to make a charge at a conference tournament berth.
Ohio State: These are some redhot Buckeyes. I suspected that the OSU pitching staff could turn out to be dynamite this season. They may yet. What I don't think even the most loyal Buckeye could have enivisioned was this team's tremendous offensive output over the first four weeks of play.
Behind an offense that paces the Big Ten in batting average, slugging percentage, runs, hits, RBI, triples and, perhaps, most amazingly, homers, The Ohio State University finds themselves vying for a national ranking and getting an A on this progress report.
The plain and simple truth is that everybody's hitting. Technically, I suppose you could pick on somebody having a less than spectacular start, but they are far and away the exception. Dan Burkhart, Justin Miller, Cory Kovanda, Zach Hurley, Michael Stephens, Michael Arp, Matt Streng, they are probably all on my shortlist for all-conference selection, if the season ended now.
The pitching hasn't been quite as solid as I might have hoped. Yes, Alex Wimmers has been quite good. Jake Hale's been good out of the 'pen. (Just for the record, I still like him more as a starter, but I'm just a blogger.) Drew Rucinski has been a terrific in middle relief. Yet, some of the other arms haven't been as consistent as I might have thought a month ago. It hasn't matter much, as the '09 Bucks are looking better than the '27 Yankees.
Now, will the spotty pitching and occasionally squirrely defense (24 errors in fifteen games for a .958 fielding percentage) come back to haunt them? The guess here is that the bats can't possible stay this hot, but the pitching should get a little bit better. If that's the case, the Buckeyes should remain close to the top of the Big Ten throughout the season.
Penn State: This year's version of the Nittany Lions is plugging away again. PSU is fifth in team batting average, fourth in runs scored, fifth in ERA, fifth in fielding percentage. All those middle-of-the-road stats reveal .... yep, a .500 team. The Nittany Lions are 8-8 and get a B-.
How can a team that looks like the definition of a C earn one grade higher? When the team you thought was a C before the season manages to keep up that pace in spite of losing their Friday starter before the season began. Let's be honest. PSU baseball isn't Texas, Stanford or one of them thar' SEC programs. Losing a Friday starter hurts, big time.
Yet, in typical PSU fashion, T.J. Macy steps up and looks like a possible Big Ten Pitcher of the Year candidate. Macy's ERA is an incredible 1.08. (If not for the Illini's Phil Haig's silly low 0.72 number, Macy would lead the conference.) Macy's number alone probably keeps the Lions' team earned run average respectable.
Cory Wine is starting to hit like many thought he could. The senior leads the Big Ten in batting average and is in the top ten in slugging percentage, hits, RBI, doubles and total bases. Blake Lynd and Mike Deese are also off to strong starts. Lynd is currently third in batting average and Deese in amongst the leaders in RBI.
Not everything is sunshine in Happy Valley, though. That's the downside of being the definition of .500. The bullpen is horribly suspect. Starters after Macy and Scott Kelley need to be better. The Lions also kick the ball with a bit too much frequency. As we've learned, that's not always a good mix.
While certainly not a lock for the Big Ten post-season, Penn State looks to be, per usual, versatile, resilent and consistent. Faults notwithstanding, I'd expect to see them in Columbus.
Purdue: If you are a regular to this blog you know two things with unquestioned certainty. First, I'm clueless. Second, I have no idea what to make of Purdue. Any time. Any season.
The Boilermakers, for the second straight season, have started out looking like one of the worst teams in the Big Ten. This is because for the second straight season, I liked the Boilers' chances. If I like 'em, they tank. If I'm not sold, they are world beaters. That's just how it seems to work.
After four weeks, the Boilers are seventh in batting average, seventh in runs scored, eighth in ERA (still can't believe that) and, thankfully, fourth in fielding percentage. It has all translated into a 5-9 start and yet another progress report with a D.
When your stats are that bad across the board, you know nothing is going well. Neither the pitching or the bats or arms seem to be able to arise from the malaise that has plagued them since Opening Day. Dan Black has managed to hit with some power and draw some walks (he leads the Big Ten). Jonathan Moore has swiped some bases, too. Those might be the offensive highlights.
Prior to this weekend's troika of good starts, Purdue's pitching kudos went to the Matt's -- Jansen and Morgan -- who got a number of guys to swing and miss. Alas, it hasn't turned into as many wins as they hoped for (or I expected).
Last year, after a start even worse than this, the Boilermakers kicked into high gear. They went on a tear that saw them finish second to Michigan in both the regular season and conference tournament. Obviously, I think Purdue has it in them to do just that. But, I'd refer you to points one and two in the Boilers' progress report.