Jake Adams had the greatest season in Iowa baseball history, but it also overshadowed Mason McCoy's fantastic senior season. While everyone was focused on the production lost when Adams signed with the Houston Astros, many forgot about McCoy, the latest MLB-bound shortstop during the Rick Heller era. Right now, though, McCoy's absence is a hole that needs to be filled in the field and batting order.
Despite leading the team with nine errors, McCoy still had a solid .974 fielding percentage thanks to many web gem plays throughout the season. His defense is why MLB.com named him the best defensive prospect and 30th overall in the Baltimore Orioles' organization. With an entirely new left side of the infield this season (Matt Hoeg also moved from third to first), Iowa's errors have gone up.
Kyle Crowl (.949 fielding percentage) took over at shortstop but already has two errors, while Lorenzo Elion (at third base) leads the team with four errors (.833 fielding percentage) in just nine starts. A potential solution is to have Elion start at DH, moving Tanner Wetrich to third base. But Wetrich's .714 fielding percentage, due to two errors in seven chances, is the worst on the team. In total, they have committed eight of Iowa's 11 errors this season after McCoy and Hoeg committed only 14 errors in 61 games last season. It's evident that Iowa greatly misses McCoy's range in the infield, which made Hoeg's job a lot easier at third.
To be fair, it's only been 10 games for two JUCO transfers and Crowl, who accumulated only 20 chances in the field last season. Wetrich has only started four games, some at DH and left field, too. There's reason to believe their defense will improve with more time given how much Heller emphasizes defense and has a history of solid defensive infielders. Besides, last season, we saw Adams' defense improve after he committed three errors in his first 11 games. Iowa probably won't have an All-Big Ten Second Team member on that side of the field, though, and right now it's been a factor in Iowa allowing nine unearned runs this season.
Missing McCoy's defense was expected, even if not to this degree. However, Iowa's lineup misses his bat just as much. No, he didn't set a Big Ten-record for most home runs in a single season, but he did lead the conference in hits (83) and doubles (18), while also leading the team in triples (2) and being fifth in home runs (5). In total, he and Adams accounted for 35.2 percent of Iowa's extra base hits in 2017.
The left side of the infield has drastically declined in this department, as a result. Elion doesn't have any extra base hits, Crowl has four, including two home runs, and Wetrich has two, though in only 18 at-bats. That has caused their lower slugging percentages. Despite not being a power hitter, McCoy still had the third-highest slugging percentage on the team in 2017 at .474, telling of his ability to hit into the gaps and run the base paths well. Speed isn't an issue for Iowa's left side of the infield, though, as Wetrich has two triples and Elion leads the team with three stolen bases.
None are hitting terribly either -- Elion is hitting .314, Crowl's OBP is .388 and Wetrich is hitting .278. It simply comes down to not finding the holes in the outfield, leading to fewer extra base hits. Iowa's returning starters haven't lessened the loss of McCoy and Adams either.
Thus far, Robert Neustrom's .333/.413/.436 slash line is what scouts want to see, especially since he has a hit in nine of Iowa's first 10 games. But he has only one double and one home run, which came on opening day, after hitting 25 extra base hits a season ago. Hoeg hit 16 doubles last season but doesn't have an extra base hit in 2018, and Ben Norman has two triples as his only extra base hits, while hitting .194 to start the season. All three have played in every game.
The lack of production from returning starters has shown. Here's a look at how Iowa's per game numbers stack up to Heller's first four Iowa teams:
|Year||HR per game||XBH per game|
A year after hitting 113 doubles, Iowa has 10 through its first 10 games. Only 32 of 297 D-1 programs have fewer doubles in 2018. It also only has four home runs as a team, including none against UAB this past weekend. Three players in the Big Ten and 24 in the nation have more home runs than Iowa, a team which finished second in home runs during last year's regular season.
Hitting fewer home runs isn't that concerning considering Iowa hasn't been a power hitting team under Heller other than 2017 with Adams. Still, Iowa hit 42 home runs without him and returns four players with at least five in 2017, which makes it weird that it has declined so much this season. While hitting home runs isn't everything, it's an easy way to score runs for a team struggling to hit doubles in the gaps, leading to a mediocre offense.
Iowa averages 6.2 runs per game, though it's inflated by its 15 runs against D-III Cornell College -- 5.2 runs per game in its other nine games. That's the sixth-best mark in the conference and would be even lower if Iowa hadn't drawn 55 walks. Iowa has walked the fourth-most times in the conference in 2018, including 15 times during its first two games against UAB.
It's important to get on base any way possible, but Iowa has been prone to rely too much on walks rather than hits at times. In fact, the only game Iowa didn't draw at least four walks came in its 4-0 loss to UAB when it drew none. Let's take a look at how Iowa loaded the bases three times in its 11-3 win over UAB this past weekend:
3rd: walk, catcher's interference, HBP - 3 runs by 1B, HBP, sac fly
4th: HBP, walk, walk - 0 runs
9th: 1B, walk, walk - 3 runs by 1B, 1B
That's a lot of walks which can't be expected during Big Ten play. I can guarantee Indiana won't walk the bases loaded three times at the end of March.
Much like Iowa's defensive problems on the left side of its infield, it's too early to panic about its lack of extra base hits. It's not too early to be concerned, though, and wonder how it will be fixed. This team doesn't have an Adams who will cure any scoring drought with moonshot home runs, and right now it doesn't have a McCoy to help drive in runs with base-clearing doubles.
Adding Chris Whelan back to the lineup, even if intermittently at first, could potentially help after he hit 11 doubles and seven home runs in 2017. But his playing time could be sparse given Iowa's many options at DH. Also, he probably won't be the same player right away after having Tommy John surgery.
Part of the issue could be how opponents approach Iowa's lineup this season. While Tyler Cropley leads the team with 12 RBI and four extra base hits, Iowa's middle of the order -- Crowl, Neustrom, Cropley -- isn't as daunting as last year's of McCoy, Neustrom, Adams. There's simply not as much protection around Iowa's best hitter this season, and opposing pitchers don't have as much pressure to get Iowa's top of the order out to limit damage from a potential Adams bomb.
This weekend against UNLV looks to be Iowa's big test yet. It could also be a chance for Iowa to break its extra base hits slump. UNLV has allowed six home runs, 16 doubles and five triples this season. Starter Trevor Horn has allowed three home runs by himself in 16.2 innings, and opponents have hit 12 doubles off of UNLV's weekend rotation. In comparison, Iowa's weekend rotation has allowed just three doubles, while as a team only 14 extra base hits.
The season is young, and Iowa is winning. However, will Iowa still be winning often if it's late-March and its still relying heavily on singles and walks with inconsistent defense? I'm not so sure.