The 2015 Iowa Baseball season starts tomorrow. This article will briefly look back at last season and the offseason, and will then preview this year's team.
Last Year: 30-23 Overall, 10-14 B1G (T-7th). Rick Heller's first year as head coach for the Iowa baseball team showed positive signs for the program. The 2014 Hawkeyes posted the school's best winning percentage--and tied for most wins--since 2007, when the Hawkeyes went 31-23 overall, and 17-13 in the Big Ten. The 10-14 conference record matched the previous two years, but featured series against conference top dogs Indiana, Nebraska, and Illinois, who combined for a 56-16 conference record (.778 win pct.). More on B1G Baseball scheduling in a moment, but the short version in 2014 was that each team played eight conference series, and five of Iowa's eight were against the five B1G teams that posted winning conference records, so it was a tough slate. Even so, the Hawkeyes made their first Big Ten tournament appearance since 2010.
Off-Season/Recruiting: It seems that Coach Heller and staff have been pounding the proverbial pavement. Perfect Game USA ranked Iowa's 2015 class at No. 1 in the B1G and No. 40 nationally. In a sport traditionally dominated by southern schools, you almost have to top the Big Ten to get on the national radar, but it appears Iowa did just that this year. So kudos to the staff for that. Player details are available at http://www.hawkeyesports.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/112114aaf.html. None of these players are on campus yet, but the rankings certainly give reason for excitement going forward.
Schedule: Iowa opens the season, as it did last year, at the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, FL. The opener is Friday February 13 against Kansas State, followed by Saturday and Sunday matchups with Saint Louis and George Mason, respectively. None of those schools are ranked or receiving votes in the USA Today, Baseball America, or National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) rankings. In fact, none of Iowa's non-conference opposition is ranked by any of those services, and only Kansas--against whom Iowa has a three-game roadie in late March--is receiving votes in any of those rankings. The name recognition test reveals a couple of interesting non-conference matchups: K-State in Friday's season opener, as previously mentioned; the Jayhawks in late March; and Cincinnati, Richmond, and North Carolina State at the USA Baseball-Irish Classic in Cary, NC from February 27 to March 1.
The most difficult action appears to loom in Big Ten play. With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten now has thirteen teams for baseball (Wisconsin does not field a team in the National Pastime...which helps us all love America even a little bit more than we already do). The conference has retained the aforementioned eight-series model, so although each team plays 24 conference games, each team also only plays two-thirds of the available opposition, which can make for some inequitable scheduling, but oh well. The Hawkeyes open with defending conference champion and recent overall stalwart Indiana, which is receiving preseason votes in the USA Today poll, despite losses like stud catcher and current Cubs farmhand Kyle Schwarber, and the departure of head coach Tracy Smith to Arizona State. The toughest series of the season is likely to be a mid-April road trip to conference newcomer Maryland, ranked No. 16 by Baseball America, and No. 20 by USA Today and the NCBWA. In 2014, the Terrapins posted a 40-23 overall record, and went 15-14 in ACC play, so they look poised to make a big splash in--and improvement to--Big Ten baseball. The Hawkeyes also get Nebraska (No. 31 NCBWA) again, so there's three-eighths of Iowa's conference schedule against the top three, but at least two of those series are at home. On the brighter side, the Hawkeyes do miss Illinois, widely considered to also be among the conference's top teams after finishing last year with a 17-7 mark in B1G play. The remaining schedule features what should be three pretty evenly-matched series with Michigan (13-11 B1G record in 2014), Minnesota (same), and Rutgers (14-9 American Ath. Conf. record in 2014), all in a row at the end of the season. To get to those last three series with a solid chance of reaching the Big Ten tournament for the second season in a row, though, the Hawkeyes will likely need to clean up their other two series, against Northwestern (7-16 in conference last year) and Purdue (6-18).
Key Departures: A look at last year's stat sheet and this year's roster reveals three major departures, all of whom were selected in Major League Baseball's amateur draft. Shortstop Jake Yacinich (8th round selection by the Angels) batted .365 for Iowa last year, posted an .885 OPS, and stole 25 bags in 29 tries, leading Iowa's regulars in all of those categories. Ourfielder Taylor Zeutenhorst (38th round to the Mariners) hit 9 of Iowa's 23 dingers last year, so his departure leaves a power void in Iowa's lineup, and he was also third on the team with 11 steals. Pitcher Sasha Keubel (38th round to the Cardinals) was Iowa's only left-handed starter last year, and he posted decent numbers (6-5, 4.53 ERA) after some disastrous early outings in 2014. So although the attrition isn't great in quantity, the Hawkeyes move into 2015 without two of last season's main offensive cogs, and one of their three regular starting pitchers from their solid 2014 campaign.
Key Returnees: As a pitching guy, I'm going to lead this portion off talking about Calvin Mathews. Mathews was Iowa's ace in 2014, posting a 3-3 record and 2.72 ERA in an injury-shortened campaign. Mathews suffered a shoulder injury in late April, after being named B1G pitcher of the week earlier in that month. His absence was probably most sorely felt at the B1G tournament, as the Hawkeyes played three consecutive days with only two of their regular starting pitchers. Mathews was really hitting his stride when he got hurt last year. Hopefully he can pick up right there in 2015.
Junior Blake Hickman, a 20th-round pick of the Cubs out of high school, may possibly move into the rotation to replace Keubel, and should at least be a solid stopper in the bullpen. Hickman posted a 3.93 ERA last season in 17 appearances (5 starts), averaged roughly a strikeout per inning pitched, and also hit 3 HR in 60 AB, getting time behind the plate early in the year, although he batted only .217. Baseball America lists Hickman as its No. 4 B1G draft prospect for 2015.
Junior Tyler Peyton had an even more substantial role than Hickman in both pitching and position work in 2014. Peyton (5-1, 4.86 ERA in 14 starts) was Iowa's winningest starting pitcher last year by percentage, and was also the Hawkeyes' starting first baseman and a leading offensive contributor (.331 Avg., .839 OPS, 2 HR, 28 RBI).
Now for the senior citizens. True senior centerfielder Eric Toole (.302 Avg., .740 OPS, 30 RBI, 14 SB) should provide a significant top-of-the-lineup spark, which will be needed in Yacinich's absence. Toole also logged 5 outfield assists last season, second on the team behind Zeutenhorst's six. DH Dan Potempa (.330 Avg., 3 HR, 40 RBI) is Iowa's returning leader in OPS at .868. And super-senior second baseman Jake Mangler (.315 Avg., .786 OPS) only led Iowa with 45 RBI last year, and took part in turning 34 double plays.
Mangler, Potempa, and senior third baseman Nick Day (.283 Avg., .689 OPS, 18 RBI) have been named second-team preseason all-B1G by College Sports Madness.
Notable New Faces: I think any new faces discussion of this year's Iowa team has to start with freshman infielder Fenway Parks. What a name! Not much is known about Fenway beyond his HawkeyeSports.com bio, but we can only conclude that his parents loooooove baseball, and that he's going to be a monster. I'll show myself out....
...but not before quickly discussing two JUCO outfielders that have joined the 2015 Hawkeyes. Junior Eric Schenck-Joblinske earned honorable mention all-region honors for Kirkwood in 2014, batting .309 with 27 RBI, and adding 20 stolen bases. His OPS for Kirkwood last season was .862. And Junior Joel Booker was only an honorable mention all-American, posting an eye-popping .403 batting average, .699 slugging percentage, 61 RBI, and 24 steals.
Wrap-Up: The Hawkeyes lost three key players, but return a number of others and have brought in a lot of new blood, even without their touted 2015 recruiting class hitting campus yet. Hopefully with a healthy Mathews the Hawks can return to the B1G Tournament in 2015, and even make a little more noise.