First things first:
As you can see from the full bracket for the 2014 Big Ten Baseball Tournament, Iowa is essentially in a mini-bracket with Indiana (#1 seed), Minnesota (#4 seed) and Michigan (#5 seed). The Big Ten Tournament uses a double-elimination format, so Iowa will be playing either Minnesota or Michigan, no matter what the result against Indiana. Obviously, if they win -- they get the winner of Michigan-Minnesota; if they lose, then they'll play the loser of that game instead. Barring an (unlikely) upset of Indiana in round one, Iowa's bet bet in the Big Ten Tournament might be to knock off Michigan and Minnesota in the loser's bracket and see where that takes them (a game on Saturday against Illinois or Nebraska, most likely). Iowa did manage to go 3-3 versus Michigan and Minnesota this year and hey -- the last time they were in the Big Ten Tournament (2010), they managed to ride their luck all the way to the championship game...
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Just about two months ago I wrote this about the Iowa Baseball team. And since those two months have passed, and I haven't written anything about baseball since, I thought the end of the regular season might be a good time to take another in depth statistical look at Rick Heller's squad.
Back in March, Iowa had yet to really play anybody that was worth a damn and they only had a meager 13 games under their belt. After taking two of three games from Purdue this past weekend, Iowa has now played 50 games and sits at 29-21 overall and 10-14 in Big Ten play. Early on this season, it seemed fairly obvious that the bats were carrying the team and the pitching (outside of Calvin Mathews) was probably going to face some struggles as the season went on. Did that pattern continue for the final 37 games? Let's find out.
Big Ten Breakdown
Before getting into the team statistics, here are the most recent Boyd's World ratings for each Big Ten team:
|Team||Win%||BW Rating||BW Rank||SOS Rank|
If you've paid any attention to Big Ten baseball this season, it should be no surprise that Indiana and Nebraska are the best teams in the conference. And if you paid attention to the weekend before last, it should be no surprise that Illinois is better than Iowa after they swept the Hawkeyes at Duane Banks Field. Three things I take away from this table: 1) Iowa's schedule was the easiest in the Big Ten this year; 2) Holy crap Indiana -- Iowa's opponent in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament -- is good; and 3) Outside of the top three, the Big Ten is not very good at baseball.
According to at least one set of advanced statistics, Iowa is #97 in the nation and #4 in the Big Ten. That's pretty good by Iowa baseball standards, but how have they gotten to where they are? Are they still all bats and not much pitching?
For more information about the listed stats, click on the abbreviation above the column for a link to some nice resources. Also, the columns labeled with "+" are scaled to the league average. 100 = Average, while 95 = 5% below average, and 105= 5% above average.
Well, the Hawkeyes' bats still rate out very good even after going through the Big Ten portion of the schedule. They rank first in batting average on balls in play, batting average, and on-base percentage. They also rank second in slugging percentage, and as a result of Indiana having more power in their lineup, the Hawkeyes are also second in the conference in weighted on base average (wOBA). Keep in mind, however, that these stats are not adjusted for strength of schedule, so Indiana is pretty much the best by a large margin in all of these categories considering their strength of schedule has been much tougher than Iowa's this season. That being said, though, Iowa's offense has been very good this season. The pitching, on the other hand... That has been another story.
Despite playing the easiest schedule in the Big Ten this season, the Hawkeyes still rank #7 in the conference at 3% below the conference average in fielding independent pitching. Iowa has actually been 9% above the Big Ten average at striking out opponents, and right at average when it comes to walks and hit batters. It's when it comes to giving up hits and home runs where Iowa has struggled. Iowa's hits allowed per nine innings has been 6% worse than the league norm, while their home runs allowed per nine innings has been the worst in the conference. An offense that scores 6.79 runs per nine innings is going to be capable winning quite a few games, but that win total quickly dissipates when the pitching staff (and defense) gives up 5.09 per nine innings.
Let's get a little more micro.
Just like he was two months ago, Taylor Zeutenhorst leads the team with a wOBA that is 32% better than the conference average. He may not look like the best hitter on the team because he strikes out quite a bit and he only sports a .272 batting average, but don't underestimate the value of power. His team leading 9 home runs is easily the best on the team. The next best is 4 by Kris Goodman. And when you take into account plate appearances, only Blake Hickman has a higher home runs per plate appearance percentage than Zeus himself. You better enjoy the Greek God of Power while you still can, because the 6'4" 220 pounder is a senior. I'm going to miss you, Zeus.
On a more positive note, Jake Yacinich is only a junior and he's been just about as good as Zeutenhorst, only without the home run power and the strikeout problem.* And actually, Brian Niedbalski and Trevor Kenyon, in addition to Zeus, are the only other seniors on the roster; and neither Niedbalski or Kenyon were particularly good at the plate this season. That means Iowa should be returning quite a bit of offense next season. They will no doubt miss the thunderous bat of Zeutenhorst, but they should have plenty of other guys that can contribute offensively.
*It should be noted, however, that Yacinich is an extreme contact hitter who is running a .414 batting average on balls in play this season (BABIP), so he could be a candidate for some regression next season.
Eric Toole, I'm guessing, was the leadoff hitter this season, seeing how he has the most plate appearances on the team. 53 of his 65 hits were singles this season, while 9 were doubles and 3 were triples. That's why he has a nice batting average, but his wOBA is only 4% above the conference average. Dan Potempa, meanwhile, had a nice batting average, but his ability to draw walks and hit for power also gave him a very nice wOBA that was 19% better than the norm. And Jake Mangler, he of the gnarly surname, put up an 11% above average wOBA by never striking out, drawing walks, and being second on the team to Potempa in doubles. This was a good offense.
And for your perusal, here are some charts (click to embiggen). Players are in order from the most to the least number of plate appearances.
An asterisk indicates the pitcher is mainly a starter.
The pitching on this team is interesting. I think most everyone would agree that Calvin Mathews is the most talented starter on the roster. Out of the starting rotation, he was the best at limiting hits and runs and striking out opposing batters. He was also second best in the starting rotation at not walking or hitting batters. The one problem, and the only thing keeping him from not leading the team in fielding independent pitching, was the fact that he had a bit of a home run problem. His 6 home runs surrendered in 71 innings pitched was over double the Big Ten average, but given the stuff that Mathews' peripherals seem to demonstrate, I'm thinking that it might have been a bit of bad luck. If the NCAA kept track of fly balls, we could calculate his xFIP, which would stabilize Mathews' home run per fly ball rate and I'm sure that would be lower than his current FIP. On the other hand, Mathews' did give up 5 home runs in 40.1 innings pitched last season, so maybe he has a penchant for giving up home runs. I'm still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, though, because he was a freshman last year. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what he looks like next year. Even with the home runs, he still had a FIP that was 6% above the Big Ten Average and his ERA and runs per nine innings were 28% better than average. In other words, the dude is good, and we have two more years of him.
As for Sasha Kuebel, he's kind of the opposite of Mathews. FIP really likes him, but that's mainly because he only gave up 1 home run in 85.1 innings pitched (and he never walked anyone). Maybe he was an extreme groundball pitcher this year, but I highly doubt it since he gave up 5 homers last year and 4 the year before. I'm willing to bet that home run luck on fly balls will run out next season. Although, home run luck didn't really help him this season, as he gave up 22% more hits per nine and 18% more runs per nine than the Big Ten average. That being said, though, he was about average when it came to strikeouts, and he rarely put guys on base for free. If his home run total goes up next season, maybe his 16% worse than average BABIP against will go down. The fact that he was a control artist who was slightly above average when it came to Ks this year gives me hope that his runs allowed will decrease next year.
Tyler Peyton and Andrew Hedrick, on the other hand, were not very good this season. Hedrick had home run issues similar to Mathews, but without the other good stuff like strikeouts and not walking dudes. Both Peyton and Hedrick had a hard time missing bats and struggled to find the strike zone (especially Hedrick), which is not a formula for success. There's nothing necessarily wrong with pitching to contact, but you cannot hand out free passes on a regular basis if that's your strategy. Hedrick is a junior, so I don't know how much improvement he will make in just one season. Peyton is a sophomore, so maybe he can take a step forward on the mound. Also on his side: he was a very good hitter this year.
Another possibility for next year could be someone else moving into the rotation. Blake Hickman (4) and Nick Hibbing (2) also had a few starts this season. FIP liked Hibbing because he could miss bats, but he also only gave up 1 home run in 38.1 innings pitched, so that's most likely got some regression coming. Blake Hickman, though, if he has the stamina, might be promising. His strikeouts per nine were 66% better than the Big Ten average and he didn't give up too many hits, long balls, or runs. The one issue -- and this was a major issue -- was the fact that he walked guys 88% more than the Big Ten norm. That would need some cleaning up if he wanted to move into the rotation on a more regular basis. Like Peyton, though, Hickman also seems like he may be a pretty good hitter. He whiffed like crazy this year, which really dragged his his on-base percentage down, but he does seem to have some pop in his bat. His 3 home runs in 70 plate appearances was good enough for the best home run per plate appearance percentage on the team; small sample size, of course. Anyway, I'm actually excited to see what Hickman brings on the mound and at the plate next season.
And, looking at relievers, Tyler Radtke was Iowa's best reliever that did not at one point start a game this season. in 35 innings of relief, Radtke was above average in just about everything except for walks and hit by pitches. That ultimately seems to be why his ERA was below average, but why his FIP was above average. With 47% more strikeouts per nine than the average Big Ten pitcher, he obviously has filthy stuff. If he can harness that stuff better next season, he looks like a nice bullpen arm who will have two more years of eligibility.
Finally, here are some pitching charts for you to look at. The starting pitchers are sorted by the number of starts they had, while the relievers are sorted by the number of appearances they made.
In what was Rick Heller's inaugural season as Iowa's head coach, the Hawkeyes had a pretty good season. They weren't world-beaters by any means, but they were solidly above average and finished the regular season 8 games over .500. The offense was entertaining this season, and Calvin Mathews also gave us some some special outings on the mound. All in all, I'd call this a pretty successful season for the Hawkeyes. They run into a buzz saw in the first round against Indiana, but they have a legitimate chance at beating either Michigan or Minnesota after that. Hopefully they can pull of at least one win in the tournament. The bats have carried them before, let's hope they can do it again.