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Big Ten Baseball Conference Preview

Lets see how the teams are doing as the early season non-conference schedules conclude, and conference play commences!

The conference season is finally upon us!! Let’s just say Nebraska is not alone in wishing the non-conference schedule had gone differently. Only 2 teams sit in a good spot RPI-wise to be in the NCAA tournament at this point, Michigan and Maryland. A few have records above and beyond what they could have hoped for, but the vast majority are way below where they probably thought they would be at this point in the season. A few things could be contributing to that.

Defense is waaaaay down. Fielding percentages are down for all but a couple teams in the league. And pitching ERAs are up. It’s hard to practice pitching and defense at game level in practice. And with practically no games in 2020, and no mid-week games in 2021, the young guys on teams have not been allowed to get into games and progress at the same rate as before the pandemic. Thats why we are seeing more small school transfers come up and prosper right away. They’ve seen game speed before, and are used to it.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the teams!

Illinois Fighting Illini

2021 Record: 22-22

2022 Record: 7-10 (as of the end of the March 18-20th weekend series)

Players to watch: 1B Justin Janas, LHP Cole Kirschsieper

Illinois was average in just about every way in 2021, finishing 22-22 and 7th in the Big Ten. They were near the top on most offensive categories, led by All Big Ten first baseman Justin Janas. As a freshman, Janas led the conference in both batting avg (.391) and OBP (.506). This years rising star on offense is sophomore RF Cam McDonald. He leads the team in batting avg, at .348, almost 100 points better than last year, and OPS at 1.011. The Illini also had one of the best defenses in the conference, and are shaping up to be at the top again, led by SS Branden Comia.

Pitching was the major issue for Illinois in 2021, as they had the second worst ERA in the conference at 6.44. They also lost their best two pitchers in the MLB draft, so as you would expect, they are struggling again in that department, despite not facing the heaviest of hitting teams thus far in 2022. One bright spot has been Friday night starter Cole Kirschsieper. He has transitioned from a back of the bullpen guy in 2021 to lead the team with a 3-1 record in 5 starts with a 3.26 ERA.

Look for the Illini to be in quite a few competitive, high scoring games, and be in the mix to attend the Big Ten tournament.

Indiana Hoosiers

2021 Record: 26-18

2022 Record: 8-12

Players to watch: C Matthew Ellis, RHP Jack Perkins

Indiana is the team the MLB draft hit the hardest. They lost all 3 starting pitchers, their closer, and their 2 best offensive players early to the draft. They lost all but 2 regulars on offense as well. They are finding out, just like Nebraska, that its a lot to try and replace, while playing an even tougher schedule to start the year.

They’ve brought in a good amount of transfers to try and help fill some holes, including ace Jack Perkins from Louisville. He has 37 strikeouts in 26 innings so far to go with his 3.37 ERA. On offense, they are led by another Louisville transfer, center fielder Bobby Whalen hitting .342, and slugging JUCO catcher Matthew Ellis, who has 10 home runs already, and a 1.176 OPS. They have mixed in a couple of highly regarded Freshmen in catcher Brock Tibbits, and utility man Josh Pyne.

Look for Indiana to improve as the year goes on and their players get used to consistently playing at this level, and finish in the top 6.

Iowa Hawkeyes

2021 Record: 26-18

2022 Record: 10-8

Players to watch: 1B Peyton Williams, RHP Adam Mazur

Iowa has had some ups and downs in the non-conference schedule. They split a 2 game series at home last weekend with nationally ranked Texas Tech, but have also lost a game to Loras College. If you were like me, you had never heard of Loras until they beat Iowa in baseball. While Husker slayers Ben Norman and Trenton Wallace have finally run out of eligibility, 1B Peyton Williams returns to pace the Hawkeye offense, one that is doing good, but should get to another level when all-B1G 2B Izaya Fullard returns from injury in a few weeks.

The normally solid defense has been down from the past few years, but they are replacing a couple seasoned vets at key positions. On the mound, they have added a couple transfers looking to stabilize the rotation, led by former South Dakota St ace Adam Mazur. He has used a big summer in the prestigious Cape Cod league to springboard into a good start to the season with 33 strikeouts in 28 innings.

Maryland Terrapins

2021 Record: 30-18

2022 Record: 16-3

Players to watch: 1B Maxwell Costes, RHP Jason Savacool

Maryland is off to an impressive start to the year, after finishing 2nd in the conference last year. They began by sweeping a good Baylor team to start the year, and have rarely stumbled since. They boast a potent and experienced offense, hitting .285 as a team. Maxwell Costes is (yet again) the star, hitting .314 with a ridiculous OPS of 1.204, 8 HRs, 21 runs and 21 RBIs in 20 games.

As impressive as their offense has been, the pitching has been even better. Their 3 weekend starters are a combined 11-1 in 14 starts. They have a returning ace, in Nick Dean, a converted bullpen stopper, in Ryan Ramsey, and an All-Big Ten Freshman last year, in Jason Savacool. Savacool was one of the top pitching prospects in high school, in the country, and is living up to the hype with a 2.19 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 37 innings.

Maryland is the favorite going into the B1G conference schedule, despite losing 7-4 to Michigan in a game played in North Carolina earlier in the year.

Michigan Wolverines

2021 Record: 27-19

2022 Record: 11-8

Players to watch: OF Clark Elliott, LHP Connor O’Halloran

Michigan so far has mostly beaten the teams it is supposed to beat, and lost to the teams it should have lost to. The pitching is on a similar pace to last year, but the offense has really taken off, with the new addition of the rare in-state, in-conference grad transfer of Joe Stewart from Michigan State. He is leading the team hitting .354. The biggest star is Clark Elliott. The Wolverine’s lead off hitter is the top MLB prospect in the B1G, and is hitting .347 with 21 RBIs and 20 runs scored. This after being the batting champion of the Cape Cod league last summer at .344 against the best college pitchers in the country.

Despite returning 2 weekend starters that had success last year in ace Cameron Weston and Jacob Denner, it’s sophmore Connor O’Halloran that has stepped up to lead the team thus far. He has a 2.70 ERA with 33 Ks in 26 innings while only giving up 21 hits, earning pitcher of the week for striking out 13 while only giving up 1 run and 3 hits vs Dayton on March 18th. One good note is closer, and 1st team All-B1G Whiner, is really struggling to start the season, with an ERA over 6 and 2 blown saves.

Michigan State Spartans

2021 Record: 17-27

2022 Record: 10-7

Players to watch: SS Mitch Jebb, RHP Kyle Bischoff

Michigan State heads into the conference season hitting a blistering .285 as a team! They are led by last years All-B1G Freshman short stop Mitch Jebb. He is the lead off hitter that sets the table for the Spartans. His avg is actually about as low as its been all year at .377. He also leads the team in homers and total bases from the lead off spot, and has only struck out 4 times in 17 games. (I think Nebraska has a couple guys that have done that in one game…)

On the mound, the Spartans have improved a lot on last years numbers, but that’s only and improvement from “dreadful” to “average”. The most dominant arm they have is Kyle Bischoff, a grad transfer from Toledo that was a backend of the bullpen guy there as well. He has pitched 10 innings, struck out 11, and has an ERA of 0.00.

Michigan State will probably fall back closer to where they have been in recent memory, as their schedule gets more difficult in conference play.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2021 Record: 5-31

2022 Record: 5-15

Players to watch: C/INF/OF Jack Kelly, RHP Sam Ireland

The good news is Minnesota returns virtually everyone from last years team. The bad news, that team was the worst in the Big Ten, and not just by the stats. They were the worst looking team I saw in person in the last couple of years, and it wasn’t even close. The Gophers are being powered by Jack Kelly, a player that transferred in before last year as a highly regarded C/OF, but struggled most of the year. This year he is hitting .391 and is second on the team with 5 home runs.

Despite the historically awful pitching numbers the Gophers put up, they brought back their pitching coach, The “best” pitcher from last year, Sam Ireland, is back leading their pitching staff once again. After going 0-3 in 7 starts last year with a 4.10 ERA, Ireland is 2-0 in 5 starts with 33 Ks in 27 innings. The other 2 starting spots have been turned over to guys that were top recruits out of high school but haven’t fulfilled the hype in Aiden Maldonado, and J.P. Massey, whose ERAs are currently 5.09 and 7.29 respectively.

Minnesota made the biggest fall from one year to the next last year, and don’t look for them to improve much on their position this year.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2021 Record: 34-14

2022 Record: 8-11

Players to watch: C Griffin Everitt, RHP Shay Schanaman

The reigning Big Ten champions, and team picked to finish atop the league again by the conferences coaches, after adding a top recruiting class, have struggled mightily out of the gate. After leading the Big Ten in batting avg, fielding % and finishing second in ERA in 2021, the Huskers have experience huge drops in all 3 categories. Batting avg has dipped from .279 to .244, ERA from 3.81 to 4.86, and perhaps most troubling has been the fielding % going from .979 to .961. While only 2 position players returned to the spots they mostly played in 2021, such a dramatic falloff is troubling.

Nebraska is led offensively by C Griffin Everitt. He is leading the team with 5 HRs and an OPS of 1.014, he is one of only 2 Huskers to play in every game, along with Big Ten freshman of the year Max Anderson, who splits time between 3B and 1B. The pitching staff is dealing with injuries to both Friday starter Kyle Perry (presumed to be season ending), and workhorse reliever Jake Bunz (who is not having surgery and may actually return late in the season). This has led to a lot of looks recently of new faces or old faces in new roles.

Shay Schanaman has been the one constant. While his record is 1-3, his ERA is at 2.67 and batting avg against is a low .170. Nebraska is going to need him to eat up a lot of innings to compete to win weekend series against the better teams in the league.

Northwestern Wildcats

2021 Record: 15-21

2022 Record: 6-10

Players to watch: 1B Anthony Carlaco, LHP Sean Sullivan

You may remember Northwestern mashing the ball all over (and out of) the field last year. They ended up 2nd in the entire NCAA in homers per game, 66 total in 36 games. They lost their 2 top sluggers and the 3rd, Stephen Hrustich, is struggling with only 10 hits in the 16 games he’s played, granted 3 are doubles and 3 are home runs. The offense as a whole is really struggling, hitting .251. First team All-B1G 1B Anthony Carlaco is picking up where he left off, following a 9 HR, 19 RBI campaign with 3 HR and 14 RBIs in 16 games.

While returning ace Mike Doherty is struggling out of the gate with an ERA over 10, the rest of the starters, and closer role needed to be replaced. Freshman Sean Sullivan has taken off, sporting a 3-0 record and 2.42 ERA, including a (7 inning) complete game shutout. He has struck out a stunning 38 batters in 26 innings. Grad Transfer Michael Farinelli is locking up the 3rd starting spot, eating up a lot of innings, but has given up a lot of hits.

Ohio State Buckeyes

2021 Record: 22-20

2022 Record: 7-10

Players to watch: SS Zach Dezenzo, LHP Isaiah Coupet

Other than the Huskers, Ohio State has underachieved the most this year, going 7-10 against a fairly pedestrian schedule. A lot of that has to do with their 2 best returning players, OF Cade Kern and SS Zach Dezenzo, hitting way below their average. One of the top MLB prospects in the B1G, Dezenzo is hitting .233, but has 6 HR and 19 RBI. Kern is hitting .130.

On the mound, Ohio St is replacing 3 starters with 3 little used relievers from last year. One, sophmore Isaiah Coupet, has really blossomed. He has struck out an incredible 42 in just 25 innings of work. But he has been wild, with 15 walks, which have inflated his ERA to 4.68. All-B1G closer TJ Brock is back, but has not lived up to his standards. He is 0-2 with 2 saves in 6 appearances. What has really let the Buckeyes down is their defense. They have a .942 fielding percentage (The worst team in the B1G last year was at .960). If they can’t get that figured out, its not going to matter if their big sticks get things going.

Penn State Nittany Lions

2021 Record: 18-23

2022 Record: 7-10

Players to watch: C/DH Matt Wood, RHP Travis Luensmann

What a difference 2 years makes. In the covid shortened year, Penn St was top 10 in the entire NCAA in team ERA. They have lost every meaningful pitcher from that team, and are in complete rebuild mode on the mound. You may recognize the name of their new Friday night pitcher, South Carolina transfer Travis Luensmann. While results have been up and down (6.29 ERA), Luensmann has the stuff (32 Ks in 24 innings) to battle with Friday night pitchers in the conference.

Like seemingly most of the conference, Penn St is struggling on defense compared to last year, with a .951 fielding percentage. They are really going to need their bats to step up to overcome that. 2nd team All-B1G DH Matt Wood is off to a hot start again, hitting .345 with 4 HR and 14 RBIs (actually a good number considering how bad the rest of the offense has been). Last years leader Johnny Piacentino has been benched numerous times this spring, with the coach not offering an explanation if its just due to bad play or injury. But if he can’t get back going, its hard to see Penn St traveling to Omaha at the end of the season.

Purdue Boilermakers

2021 Record: 15-25

2022 Record: 17-1

Players to watch: 1B Cam Thompson, LHP Jackson Smeltz

The surprise of the Big Ten, and maybe even the NCAA, so far this year is the Boilermakers. They were the last team in division 1 to lose a game. Granted they haven’t played a murderer’s row schedule, but they are playing teams that could at least take down Lomas College, AMIRITE?!? They actually may have the toughest conference schedule as they play all the teams picked to finish at the top of the conference, other than Nebraska.

Evan Albrecht, who dominated the Covid shortened year, but had an off year last year, is back leading the team at .362 despite being the 9-hole hitter. 1B Cam Thompson leads the team in HR, RBI, and OPS, while a plethora of other JUCO hitters have come in (as has been coach Greg Goff’s main source of players in his 3 years) have improved not only to offense, but defense as well. With the fielding percentage up to .977 from .964 last year.

On the mound they are counting on a freshman, a JUCO, and a converted reliever, Jackson Smeltz to lead their staff. Smeltz is dominating Friday nights, with a 4-0 record in 5 appearances, and 44 Ks in 27 innings. Their bullpen is having success, but still figuring out their exact roles, as 5 players have saves so far.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

2021 Record: 21-23

2022 Record: 13-5

Players to watch: C Nick Cimillo, LHP Dale Stanavich

If you had asked me which team would make the biggest jump in the preseason, I would have picked Rutgers. Coach Steve Owens is quickly becoming a favorite of this writer, in how he approaches building a team and running it on game day. 2 of their 5 loses came in walk offs from Omaha (Which I hear all the cool kids are doing). They are led on offense by Manhattan transfer Nick Cimillo is hitting a blistering .426 with 5 HRs. They actually have 4 players that have started 17 or more games with an OPS over 1.000 (the gold standard for analytics based offensive baseball). No other team has that.

Not only is their offense clicking at a .318 clip, but their fielding is on point at .978, AND their pitching has an ERA of 3.11. Their closer, Dale Stanavich, returns and headlines their pitching staff. He already has 4 saves, with a 0.73 ERA and 22 Ks in 12 innings. They added 2 grad transfers in Seton Hall ace Jared Kollar, and Hartford ace Nathan Florence to the front end of their rotation. Those two are a combined 5-1 with 61 Ks in 49 innings.

Will Rutgers keep dominating in all 3 phases of the game? Unlikely. They will not sustain hitting over .300 as a team, but if they can keep leading in defense, and have those proven arms hold steady at the front end of their rotation, they will make their first ever trip to the Big Ten Tournament.

Wisconsin Sadgers

Still too chicken to field a baseball team.

The Ballsy Big Breakdown

Well, we finally have a Big Ten Tournament to look forward to for the first time since 2019. So who do we think is going to be in it? Will the struggling powers of the past few years rise back up as they get deeper into the season? Can the teams off to incredible starts make it in when they haven’t in years? Here’s how I see it shaking out in Omaha.

Sure things: Maryland and Michigan

Next Level: Indiana, Iowa, Rutgers

Middle of the Pack: Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan St.

Missing the tournament: Ohio St., Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn St., Wisconsin