Heading into the season, Iowa baseball knew they could run into some problems on offense as they tried to replace three of their top four hitters from a season ago. Despite needing to replace key batters, Iowa is still 4-3 to start the season, which is much better than their 2-5 start in 2016.
On the surface, Iowa’s offense is clicking and has been their catalyst over their past four games. They’re averaging six runs per game this season, which is 0.3 more than last season, and 8.5 runs per game over their past four games. Plus, they recorded double-digit hits in both of their wins at the Hoover Classic over the weekend and have scored at least eight runs in three of their past four games.
Loras, a D-III school, Alabama State, despite being the favorite to win the SWAC according to Baseball America, and Morehead State don’t have great pitching staffs. 34 runs over their past four games is still impressive, but their 2.7 runs per game in three games against South Florida to start the season is a better indication of where this offense is right now.
Their offense has mainly come from four players – Mason McCoy, Robert Neustrom, Chris Whelan and Matt Hoeg. Out of the 10 players with at least 10 at-bats this season, only the previous four mentioned have a batting average above .250 and only five, the previous four plus Jake Adams, have an on-base percentage above .350. In fact, those four players have combined to hit .364 on the year compared to the rest of the team hitting just .158.
It’s evident that those four players carry this team. 62.5 percent of the team’s hits have come from McCoy, Neustrom, Whelan and Hoeg, an almost 10 percent increase from last season when Iowa’s top four hitters accounted for just 54.7 percent of the team’s hits. They have also accounted for 61.1 percent of the team’s total bases, up from 55.8 percent from last season.
Mason McCoy knocked in three of Iowa's six runs in the second inning with this double to left field. https://t.co/PUYufc9G8R— Iowa Baseball (@UIBaseball) February 26, 2017
McCoy in particular has been excellent, earning Big Ten Player of the Week honors after a strong performance in Hoover last weekend.
He hit .438 with seven hits, six runs, and six RBI, and posted a .625 slugging percentage in helping Iowa go 3-1 last week. He (along with Neustrom) was one of Iowa's best returning hitters from last year and so far he's picked up where he left off a season ago.
But we’ve already seen how risky relying on four players is when they combined to go 2-for-13 at the plate in Iowa's shutout loss to South Florida. There won’t be many games when all four will struggle, but it’s evident Iowa will, at least for now, have a hard time manufacturing runs when it does happen.
Expecting everyone’s bats to catch fire through the first seven games is unrealistic, especially with an almost entirely new batting order, but the Hawkeyes are still clearly struggling at the plate. Besides the fact that five players with at least 10 at-bats are batting under .200 and three have an on-base percentage under .300, Iowa as a team is already batting much worse than last season. Their team batting average and on-base percentage are down from .280 to .245 and .372 to .360, respectively.
With these four hitters doing most of the work for the Hawkeyes on offense, how did they manage 14 runs against Morehead State? And how are they averaging an astounding six runs per game?
Iowa has benefited and relied on home runs to start the season. They have already hit six home runs through seven games, including three against South Florida in their second game of the season. With the Hawkeyes averaging .857 home runs per game, they’re on pace for 48 home runs, which would be eight more than the past two seasons combined, if they play all 56 games. Sure, that pace will probably slow down, but right now the Hawkeyes have scored 21.4 percent of their runs off home runs.
JUCO transfer Jake Adams, who has been up-and-down at the plate this season, has added power to Iowa’s lineup. So far, he’s hit a team-high two home runs and seven RBIs. His .231 batting average and .355 on-base percentage aren’t terrible, especially for a power hitter, but the struggling offense around him has led to his up-and-down batting average sticking out. Still, Adams is on pace for a 16-home run season, which would tie Brad Carlson and Tim Costo for seventh in Iowa history.
Progressing into the season, it’s not the safest offensive tactic to rely on home runs. Iowa will certainly take more three-home run games, but Austin Guzzo, who is hitting .118 to start the year, is the only returning Hawkeye with at least three home runs last season. Realistically, Adams and Guzzo will probably be the only players to top five home runs this season, which is why stringing together walks and hits to score is important.
The Hawkeyes are still working on having their hits drop, but, despite the lower on-base percentage from last season, the Hawkeyes are actually walking more. Counting hit by pitches, they average six walks per game compared to just 5.2 last season. That is a very good sign for a team not hitting well. It allows them to have base runners for their hitters that are hitting well, as well letting them see more pitches to help them get out of their slump.
Plus, their patience at the plate has already led to three bases loaded walks, including twice against Morehead State. It fits into Iowa’s timely hitting this season. Iowa’s batting average goes up to .319 (23-72) with runners in scoring position. Timely hits are one of the most important things an offense can do and is a big reason why Iowa has managed to score at least four runs in all but two games this season.
It’s also a testament to their base running and Rick Heller putting them in position to score. Iowa is 9-for-11 in stolen bases this season. In the small sample size, Iowa is attempting exactly as many steals per game, 1.29, as last season, but their success rate has gone up by 9.1 percent in the early season. It’s allowing them to get in position to score with a single or even a groundout or popout.
With two solid starters in Nick Gallagher and C.J. Eldred, who have a combined ERA of 1.80, and a bullpen with a 3.60 ERA, the Hawkeyes offense won’t need to score six runs every game. The pitching should relieve pressure off of a young Iowa lineup, which hopefully allows them to not be as worried at the plate.
With freshmen Justin Jenkins, Kyle Crowl and Ben Norman, and sophomore Mitchell Boe, this lineup is budding with potential but needs more at-bats to hit their stride. Those four are all hitting under .200 right now, but Boe and Norman took steps in the right direction this weekend. Boe reached base on five of his 13 at-bats and Norman went 2-for-5 at the plate after starting the year 0-for-8. None need to hit .300, but hitting a respectable average could turn this good Iowa offense into something special.
The Hawkeyes have been able to drive in runs through their first seven games, but they need to be a more well-rounded hitting team moving forward to sustain this offensive success.