Iowa baseball’s bullpen has been anything but steady this season. From the season opener, when South Florida scored nine runs in the eighth inning to comeback down 4-0, to Wednesday night, when Bradley erased a 4-1 deficit in the seventh and eighth innings, Iowa’s bullpen has made end of games stressful. With five blown leads in 11 games this month, it’s likely end of games will remain stressful the rest of the season.
Part of the reason is Iowa’s inability to find a consistent closer. Zach Daniels was supposed to be the closer after recording five saves in 2016, but he struggled out of the gate. As a result, Josh Martsching and Shane Ritter have recorded seven of Iowa’s eight saves, with the eighth save being recorded by starter Ryan Erickson.
Even though Daniels isn’t closing games and has a underwhelming 4.02 ERA, he’s still been one of Rick Heller’s favorite bullpen arms. Only 17 pitchers in the conference have more appearances than Daniels, who has made 15 appearances, and he is fifth on the team in innings pitched.
However, the four players ahead of his 31.1 innings pitched are Nick Gallagher, Drake Robison, Cole McDonald and Erickson, all of whom have at least five starts. The next closest pitcher with no starts is Josh Martsching, who has pitched 18.2 innings this season. In fact, Michigan State’s Walter Borkovich is the only pitcher in the Big Ten to have more innings pitched (35) this season without making a start.
Teams having a long relief option out of the bullpen is nothing new, but Daniels’ usage almost exceeds everything Heller has done at Iowa.
In Heller’s first three seasons, only four pitchers have pitched more innings than Daniels this season without making a start – Luke Vandermaden (42.1 IP), Nick Hibbling (51.2) and Erickson (42) in 2015, and Tyler Radtke (37) in 2014. Daniels is on pace to pass all but Hibbling, as he’s projected to pitch 47.1 innings. That’s a huge increase from the 18 innings he pitched a season ago.
It’s become evident that he’s been able to handle longer outings, as 11 of his 15 appearances have been at least 30 pitches and eight have been at least 35.
In April, only Ritter, who has pitched 9.2 innings, has more innings than Daniels’ 8.1. While Daniels’ 4.32 ERA in April is behind other bullpen arms in Robison (0.00 ERA in 4.2 IP), Kyle Shimp (0.00 ERA in 5 IP), Ritter (0.98 ERA) and Martsching (3.86 ERA in 4.2 IP), Daniels’ turnaround over his past eight appearances has been remarkable. He’s made huge strides from his Opening Day blunder in Florida.
Through his first seven appearances, Daniels had a 5.84 ERA and 1.78 WHIP in 12.1 innings. In his last eight appearances, his ERA has dropped to 2.84 and he has a 1.105 WHIP over 19 innings, culminating in him being named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week last month.
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Even though the full season counts, Daniels’ past 19 innings are comparable to the best arms in Iowa’s bullpen this season. Shimp (1.35 ERA in 13.1 innings), Martsching (2.41 ERA in 18.2 innings) and Gallagher (2.55 ERA in 49.1 innings) are the only Iowa pitchers with lower than a 2.84 ERA this season.
Evidently, allowing fewer hits and walks has led to more efficient outings. That doesn’t mean he’s completely shut teams down, though. Even with his much improved WHIP, Daniels still allows batters to hit .265 against him, and it goes up to .314 in conference play. That’s the third worst mark on Iowa among pitchers with at least five innings pitched in Big Ten play.
Nonetheless, it’s been enough for him to average 14.4 pitches per inning over his last eight appearances after averaging 18.9 per inning to start the season. Also, despite pitching 6.2 more innings in the second half of the season, which is half an inning more per game, his pitches per game has only gone up from 33.3 to 34.1.
It’s a testament to him throwing more strikes, especially since he’s averaging more than two more strikeouts per nine innings in the second half of the season. Daniels, who is third on the team in strikeouts and 21st in the Big Ten, averaged a respectable 8.03 K/9 to start the season, but it has gone up to 10.4 K/9 in his last eight appearances. It makes his pitch count even more impressive since strikeouts, while impressive, take more pitches to get batters out.
It has also led to Daniels picking up a Big Ten-high six wins this season, including four in his past eight appearances. To put in perspective his six wins, only 15 players in the nation have seven or eight wins. Also, in the Rick Heller era, only four pitchers have recorded six or more wins in a season. Daniels has a chance to equal the nine wins Blake Hickman recorded in 2015, which would tie for fourth all-time.
While Daniels could certainly go through another rough patch at some point this season, it still wouldn’t stop Heller from using him often. He’s shown the patience to allow the young pitcher to learn from his mistakes, especially early in the season when he allowed seven runs in his first 5.2 innings. Heller also hasn’t been shy pitching him against Big Ten competition or top-100 RPI teams.
Against the Big Ten, Daniels has appeared in four of nine games, compiling a 3.00 ERA over nine innings. Only Gallagher and Erickson, both with three starts, have pitched more innings. Against top-100 RPI teams, Daniels has made six appearances. His 4.22 ERA over 10.2 innings isn’t overly-impressive at first glance. That said, if you take away the first game of the season against South Florida, when Daniels allowed four runs in 0.2 innings, his ERA against top-100 competition goes down to 0.90.
His bad inning against South Florida has made his season statistics somewhat deceiving. In his next seven appearances, Daniels only had a 3.18 ERA. Still not great, but a lot better than his 5.84 ERA through his first eight appearances. Also, his season ERA would go down to 2.87, which is arguably the best out of the bullpen when considering his usage. While we shouldn’t completely ignore the bad outing, it should be taken with a grain of salt since it was the first game of the season. Also, bullpens historically start slow and show growth throughout the season.
Daniels certainly has had his ups-and-downs this season. But his consistency when pitching multiple innings has saved Iowa a lot of games this season, too. He has pitched at least two innings 10 times, including in seven of his last eight appearances, and Iowa has gone 8-2. His ERA and WHIP also go down to 2.00 and 1.000, respectively.
Daniels allowing base runners in all but one appearance this season can be frustrating, but giving Iowa multiple quality innings is important since most of their starters don’t last more than four innings. It helps Iowa in that game, and for the rest of the series since they don’t have to go deep into their bullpen.
His 1.50 ERA as a freshman in 2016 shows the level of pitching he’s capable of, and where Iowa hopes he returns to next season. Even so, there has not been a more valuable arm in the bullpen this season for Iowa.