Since their eight-game win streak, Iowa baseball’s season has completely flipped. They have gone just 5-6 in their past 11 games, including series losses to Rutgers and Northwestern, two teams with a combined record of 31-46, a .403 winning percentage. Iowa has fallen to seventh in the Big Ten and will fall under a .600 winning percentage if they don’t win at least two of three games against Penn State this weekend.
Despite the NCAA Regionals being a legitimate possibility a couple of weeks ago, Iowa is now trying to salvage what’s left of what once was a promising season. The biggest question is: how did everything start to go wrong?
While impressive, Iowa’s eight-game win streak was deceptive since it happened against mediocre competition (2x Purdue, Grand View, 3x UNLV, South Dakota State, Northwestern). Only Purdue’s RPI of 119 is under 200 and Grand View college isn’t a Division I school. That said, even with Iowa’s average opponent RPI being an underwhelming 208 during their eight-game win streak, their schedule hasn’t improved that much since.
Sure, Nebraska has an RPI of 38, but Iowa won two of three games on the road against the Cornhuskers. If you take out Nebraska, Iowa’s average opponent RPI is only 201.2 since their win streak ended, which is less than 10 spots lower. Adding in Nebraska, it dips down to 174. It's evident that Iowa has played slightly better competition, but not enough to warrant the drastic change in its consistency.
The Hawkeyes haven't had an extremely tough schedule this season, but they had beaten bad teams consistently until the past couple of weeks. When that stopped, it resulted in two losses to Northwestern and Rutgers and barely squeaking by Milwaukee in a midweek game. Milwaukee is 13-25 this season with a 298 RPI, so a walk-off win isn't overly impressive.
Barely beating Milwaukee is a perfect example of Iowa's recent close wins. Over their past five wins, the Hawkeyes have only won by an average of 2.6 runs. That's almost one run fewer than when they won by 3.5 runs during their win streak. But the biggest drop off has come from the pitching staff. Even though Iowa's pitching, especially coming out of the bullpen, has been shaky all season, they were lights out during their win streak. In fact, it became a strength of the Hawkeyes.
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Almost every category has doubled in the past 11 games. During Iowa's win streak, UNLV was the only team to score more than five runs against the Hawkeyes -- six in the second game of a doubleheader. They've given up more than five runs six times since, including 13 runs against Rutgers last weekend. Unsurprisingly, Iowa has gone just 1-5 in those games. Even if you take out their dreadful 13 runs allowed against Rutgers, Iowa's team ERA would still be 3.93, with a 4.58 starters ERA and 3.40 bullpen ERA.
Especially after watching Iowa commit three errors on Big Ten Network against Rutgers over the weekend, it could be easy to blame their fielding on their 5.6 runs allowed per game. But Iowa's fielding hasn't been much worse than normal. Iowa has gone from averaging one error per game over their win streak to 1.09 per game since, and .875 unearned runs per game to .909 per game. No team wants errors, but an extra error in one game isn't the reason Iowa is giving up 2.6 more runs per game.
Starters not lasting deep into the game should be a bigger concern for Rick Heller. Even though it has been a problem all season, Iowa's bullpen has taken on a bigger role recently. The bullpen has pitched 54.2 innings compared to starters pitching 41.1 innings over the past 11 games. Having the bullpen account for 56.9 percent of innings pitched leads to more tired arms, especially during weekend series, and a greater chance that someone has an off-night. During Iowa's win streak, starters didn't last that much longer, but it was still more beneficial. Iowa starters pitched 36 of 72 innings during those eight games, averaging 4.5 innings per game. That's better than the 3.8 innings per game Iowa starters are averaging now.
Taking it a step further, Iowa's ace Nick Gallagher has even been a lot worse. In two starts during Iowa's win streak, Gallagher went 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA, 0.571 WHIP and .79 K/9 in 14 innings. Since, he's 1-0 with a 4.82 ERA, 1.929 WHIP and .64 K/9 in 9.1 innings. His last two starts have resulted in just 3.1 innings against Nebraska, his shortest start of the season, and allowing nine base runners in six innings against Rutgers, the most base runners he's allowed in a game this season.
In no way does this mean Gallagher is to blame for Iowa's pitching struggles. Gallagher only starts once a week and doesn't have any control over how Iowa's pitching staff performs in every other game. That said, it highlights Iowa's struggles when even their most consistent pitcher has started to struggle.
With the pitching returning to its inconsistent self over the past 11 games, the offense has been forced to step up. As you might have guessed, it hasn't. Even though Iowa hasn't produced as many runs, two of their top four hitters have actually improved.
Chris Whelan and Mason McCoy both have significantly improved their batting average and on-base percentage over the past 11 games. Compared to how they hit during Iowa's win streak, both of their batting averages have improved by more than 40 points, while their on-base percentages have improved by at least 20 points.
McCoy's walk-off winner Tuesday: https://t.co/Y7Lt8iNRrz— Iowa Baseball (@UIBaseball) April 26, 2017
Although McCoy, Jake Adams and Robert Neustrom all have driven in runs less frequently -- McCoy (.63 RBIs per game to .19), Adams (1.4 RBIs per game to .82) and Neustrom (1 RBI per game to .82). Whelan has driven in .36 more RBIs per game during Iowa's last 11 games, but it hasn't been enough to keep the top four hitters' RBI production to drop from 3.4 per game during Iowa's win streak to 2.5 per game since. That's significant because it means Iowa is scoring fewer runs, which defeats Iowa's advantage of getting on base more often. Also, it shows that Iowa isn't getting as many timely hits from the top of the lineup. Their top four hitters' batting average has improved from .325 to .343, yet they're scoring fewer runs per game. They're getting runners in scoring position, but being unable to drive them in puts more pressure on the bottom half of the order, which has been inconsistent.
In fact, Iowa benefitted from hitting .258 with runners in scoring position during their win streak, leading to 6.5 runs per game. However, it's gone down to just .232 since then and 5.1 runs per game.
Becoming a home run offense usually leads to inconsistent results. For the Hawkeyes, it has led to them only scoring more than five runs three times in their past 11 games after scoring six or more runs five times on their eight-game win streak. It also took Iowa three games to score 14 runs after putting up 14 on Northwestern for their eighth straight win. Besides, even though Iowa is hitting home runs more frequently, they are still hitting fewer extra base hits overall. Home runs are the easiest and quickest ways to score runs, but sacrificing extra base hits in order to do so isn't a good trade-off.
With 14 games left and four Big Ten series, the Hawkeyes can still end the season strong. Penn State, Ohio State and Illinois are the bottom three teams in the Big Ten, and Michigan State is 5-7 in Big Ten play and 21-16 overall. Iowa's two remaining mid-week opponents are Western Illinois (who Iowa beat 4-1 earlier this year) and Omaha (who is 10-30 this season). The schedule only gets easier, but the Hawkeyes haven't played consistent enough to think they can run off a string of series wins to end the season. The Hawkeyes' pitching and hitting don't need to return to the productivity they showed during their win streak, but it has to be better than it's been over the last few weeks.