It’s almost time for baseball again. Sure, February 7th does not feel like baseball season, but the Purdue baseball team opened practice on January 27th under first year coach Mark Wasikowski. Purdue uses the Mollenkopf for indoor practice and the Madia Hitting Facility, so they can get in some practice before the season actually starts February 17th down in Texas.
Coach Wasikowski has a large task ahead of him. The Big Ten has improved greatly since Purdue won it in 2012 by going 45-14. The league has had multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament in every year since, including a record five teams in 2015. Indiana and Illinois have been national seeds in that time, and Indiana broke the conference’s 29 year College World Series drought in 2013.
In that time Purdue has been… Not good:
2013: 17-34, 6-18 Big Ten
2014: 13-37, 6-18
2015: 20-34, 6-17
2016: 10-44, 2-22
The last four years under Doug Schreiber put a severe damper on what had been an excellent career to that point. Purdue was among the nation’s best in 2012, but lost virtually every key piece of that roster that has two current major leaguers (Kevin Plawecki and Nick Wittgren) as well as Cameron Perkins, who is incredibly close to getting his first call-up.
Schreiber resigned effective at the end of last season and Purdue rallied to win three of four against Cal State Northridge, but that doesn’t change that Purdue entered the final weekend of the season a dismal 7-43. As a result, D1Baseball picked Purdue to finish last in the conference yet again.
Wasikowski has a promising background for this rebuild. I interviewed him just after he was hired and he was already working hard to change Purdue’s culture. He was instrumental in helping to build the roster at Arizona, who won the 2012 National title a year after he moved to Oregon as an assistant. He helped build the Ducks into a strong Pac-12 club that won 46, 48, and 44 games the first three years he was on staff. He brought on former major league catcher Steve Holm as his pitching coach, kept Wally Crancer on as hitting coach, and brought in Miles Miller as a volunteer assistant.
Coach Waz had this to say about his goals for the year:
When it comes to changing the culture of the program, Coach Waz says winning on field is just 1 part of big picture. https://t.co/4eeK3R0MVw— Purdue Baseball (@PurdueBaseball) February 3, 2017
The task before Purdue this year is steep. Gone are Kyle Wood and Kyle Johnson as its two best hitters in an already meek lineup. As a team Purdue hit a Big Ten worst .245. Catcher Nick Dalesandro was named the league’s best catcher according to Baseball America, but he is the best returning hitter at .277 with 26 RBI. On the mound things were not much better. Only Northwestern had a worse ERA at 6.29 than Purdue’s 5.26, and Purdue’s last three wins in that Cal State Northridge series were all shutouts. Purdue was also 12th of 13 teams in fielding percentage with 72 errors in 54 games.
So basically, Purdue couldn’t hit, couldn’t pitch, and struggled to field the baseball. Matt Frawley (Purdue’s best pitcher with a 1-5 record and 2.78 ERA) was drafted and its two best hitters are gone. If you can ignore all that, things look great!
As expected, a lot of freshmen are going to get a chance from day 1. The roster includes 13 freshmen and just 6 seniors. It is really hard to tell how things are going to shake out. Dalesandro will be behind the plate. Alec Olund (.254, 12 RBI) will probably start in the outfield. Jacson McGowan (.216 batting average) started 30 games in the infield and Harry Shipley (.178 batting average) started 53 games at shortstop. That carries most of the experience in the batting lineup.
In terms of newcomers I can personally vouch for Drew Bertam, who was a solid contributor on a Zionsville team that was No. 1 in the state of Indiana for most of last season. He batted .340 on a team that went 31.5 and was state runner-up. He is a good hitter that can play a variety of positions in the field. Milo beam from Westfield (the same school that gave us Plawecki) is also a very promising freshman outfielder.
Purdue does not return a single player that hit a home run last season. Wood had 12 (most in the B1G) and Johnson had 7, but as a team Purdue hit just 23 homers.
On the mound... let’s just say it is a good thing Purdue is getting a fresh start. Purdue has had one of the worst pitching staffs in the conference for four straight seasons. Tanner Andrews, who had a 3.53 ERA in 7 starts with a 2-6 record would be the closest thing Purdue has to an ace. He appeared in 21 games and was the No. 1 starter the first five weeks of the season, but Purdue often could not give him enough run support. He also earned one of two saves Purdue got on the season.
Here is what several have had to say about the impact of Holm, However:
Deli, Coach Waz, Ghiselli & Ship highlight the pitching staff's improvements & impact of pitching coach Steve Holm. https://t.co/w9N1qLJEQR— Purdue Baseball (@PurdueBaseball) February 6, 2017
As far as promising freshman pitchers, look for a good year from Hunter Wolfe. He led the state of Indiana with 142 strikeouts in 73 1/3 innings last season as he pitched his Clay City team to a regional title. Jackson Anthrop from the football team may also come over and contribute.
Overall, this is a complete rebuild. Expectations are low, but I can see where Purdue is better this year just because it is really, really hard to be bad enough to go 10-44. If Purdue can get to 20 wins consider it a success. If it somehow gets to 30, throw a parade.
As a northern team travel is part of the culture, and Purdue will be on the road for the first 22 games of the year. They do not play a game in the state of Indiana until March 22nd at Ball State. The season begins with a four-game series at Texas State next weekend before a three game series at Little Rock. Hopefully that is the weekend Purdue exacts revenges for last year’s basketball loss.
On March 3-5 Purdue is at Southeast Missouri State, then its heads to the West Coast over spring break for four games at Cal State Northridge and four games at Santa Clara. Purdue then comes back to Indiana for its first midweek game at Ball State before opening Big Ten play at Iowa on March 24-26.
On march 28 Purdue finally plays at home with a game against Kent State before getting Valparaiso the next night. A second straight road Big Ten series, this time at Ohio State, follows, then a midweek game against Indiana State before the first home Big Ten series. That will come against Indiana, and it is the first time since 2011 that Indiana comes to West Lafayette (Thanks Delaney!).
In Big Ten play Purdue hosts Indiana (April 7-9), Illinois (April 21-23), Northwestern (May 5-7) and Michigan (May 12-14). Purdue goes to Iowa, Ohio State, Rutgers (April 14-16) and Minnesota (May 18-20). Purdue hosts midweek games against Kent State, Valparaiso, Indiana State, Ball State, IPFW, and Butler, and also has a non-conference home series against St. Louis April 28-30. Purdue has road midweek games at Ball State, Louisville, Indiana State, Valparaiso, and IPFW.
In the even Purdue finishes in the top 8 of the conference it will qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, which is hosted this season at Bart Kaufman Field in Bloomington. Now that the conference is moving this tournament around again there is a decent chance Alexander Field could host in future seasons.