What did we learn from opening weekend pitching?

Indiana goes 1-2 at Auburn, positively answering the biggest question coming into the season

By Carl James @jovian34 February 20th, 2023

On January 24th Josh Bennett and I sat down with Indiana second year pitching coach Dustin Glant. We asked him if his pitchers were going to be ready for the series at Auburn. His answer was “ask me on the bus” after the series. It was an honest answer, and to Coach Glant’s credit, he gave us a lot very honest answers in that interview.

2022 was a tough year for Indiana Baseball. It was the first losing season for the program in 16 years and the first losing season for Jeff Mercer ever as a head coach. It was especially painful because it was also the year that really saw the fruits of the hitting program Mercer had been developing ever since arriving on campus in the summer of 2018. It’s just that the pitching really didn’t work itself out until the middle of Big Ten (B1G) play, and even then there wasn’t enough depth to do what they needed to do to at that point make the NCAA Tournament: win the B1G Tournament from the loser’s bracket in Omaha.

A most interesting hypothetical exercise was to assign a ceiling of runs given up. If we assumed that Indiana gave up exactly 6 runs per game, in every game in 2022, Indiana’s record goes from 27-32 to 32-27. And this includes games where setting it to 6 increases the number of runs surrendered in a game (turning some low scoring wins into loses). For B1G play this was even more stark. The conference record would go from 10-14 to 17-7. In order to win a decent chunk of games, the pitching doesn’t have to be fantastic, it just needs to give this potent offense an opportunity.

So what were we looking for out of opening weekend? To start, I think the opening weekend opponents were fairly comparable between 2022 (Clemson) and 2023 (Auburn). Both were looked at as decent Power-5 (ACC, SEC respectively) teams, just outside of the top-25 to start the respective seasons so it should be a close comparison. How did the pitching compare? In the big picture there was the most obvious improvement of going from getting swept in 2022 to going 1-2 in 2023. But this is focusing on pitching so in ERA IU pitchers went from 10.36 in 2022 to 4.68 in 2023. Even with fewer strikeouts, the strikeout to walk rate improved from 0.93 to 1.20. The team’s WHIP dropped from 2.58 to 1.80. And above all else the walks issued per 9 innings plummeted from 12.86 to 6.48, and IU pitching only hit 2 Tigers with pitches in 2023, compared to 8 Tigers in 2022 (yes… I had to sneak a Tigers joke in here somewhere).

So how did they do it? While we haven’t heard from coach Glant, we did hear from head coach Jeff Mercer on the way back to Bloomington Sunday night. Coach Mercer was pleased with the entire weekend of pitching overall and their ability to attack hitters after negative events. “We just didn’t let an inning kind of balloon on us. That was a big focal point this off-season. Managing the run game, managing our emotions. You’re going to walk a guy, we’re going to make an error, guy’s going to hit a double. Solo home runs don’t beat you.”

Furthermore, we are seeing the depth of this pitching staff. They managed to solidly cover the whole weekend even with relatively early exits by starters Ben Seiler and Ty Bothwell. Seiler in particular was hampered by poor infield defense in his outing that was cleaned up right away and something Mercer said he’s not worried about going forward. Seti Manase saw all of three batters on Sunday and could have gone as much as three innings. Unlike in 2022, freshman arms were not required at all, and several of those are likely to be used in Tuesday’s home opener against Miami (Ohio).

One series will not tell the tale of the whole season, but it seems the biggest fears of a repeat of 2022’s woes are significantly less likely. Mercer said it would take a few more weeks to properly “shuffle the deck” and sort out the pitching roles. I will continue to examine this as the season progresses. For now, I am cautiously optimistic.