The Fives: Making Sense Of The Big Ten
I’ve had an eye on trying to shake out the Big Ten’s up-and-down middle class for more than a month now, but every time I think I’ve got it figured out, something crazy happens. Well, I guess I’m just going to accept that something crazy’s going to happen every weekend and try to shake it out now.
1. This is a four-bid league at least.
Right now, four Big Ten teams are ranked, with four more—Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana and Michigan State—in the mix with about a month to go. The top two tiers of the conference have single-game wins against Louisville (twice), Coastal Carolina, Clemson, Arkansas, Missouri and Missouri State, as well as series wins against Cal State Fullerton, Stanford, Oklahoma State, Texas and Oregon.
The big difference from years past—apart from adding Maryland and Nebraska to the conference—is pitching. Before the season, Nebraska coach Darin Erstad told me that the improvement in leaguewide pitching depth in the past few years astounded him, and you can see the evidence everywhere: In Ohio State beating Louisville with the Johnny Wholestaff strategy; in Indiana’s legion of tall, hard-throwing righties; in Michigan State’s sneakily unhittable bullpen.
2. Iowa might be the best team in the league.
The Hawkeyes weren’t really on anyone’s radar going into the season—they were ninth in our preseason predictions, but Rick Heller’s team has exploded into national relevance with a sweep of Indiana, then proved it wasn’t a fluke by taking two out of three from Maryland in College Park, and considering both Ohio State and Indiana beat Louisville at home, without facing Kyle Funkhouser or Brendan McKay, that road series win against Maryland ranks among the most impressive results for any Big Ten Team. And if not that, beating Missouri State, with Jon Harris on the mound, on a neutral field, might be No. 2.
To the legions of Illinois fans shouting about their team’s wins over Oklahoma State and Missouri, the point is well taken, but even with those results in the bag, that 30-6-1 record still looks soft. To borrow a phrase from SEC football, Illinois still ain’t played nobody—its strength of schedule ranking is No. 177 in the country, lowest among the top eight Big Ten teams, and with Rutgers and Penn State still to come on the schedule—and Iowa and Maryland off it completely—it’ll remain so.
3. Then again, Iowa might not be the best team in the league
Soft schedule caveats aside, Illinois is second in the Big Ten in batting average, slugging percentage and runs scored, and third in OBP. Maryland is tied for fourth in average, but has the lead in OBP, SLG and runs. Iowa, the second-lowest-scoring team in the conference, is ninth in average, 10th in SLG and tied for fifth in OBP. Iowa claws back some of that deficit on the mound, though their pitchers walk twice as many batters on a rate basis as Illinois’ staff does, and strike out about a batter less per nine innings than either Maryland or Illinois.
How much of that gap is based on Illinois beating up on minnows? There’s no easy answer to that apart from an emphatic shrug. But Iowa will get its chance to do the same. Of its 18 remaining games, the Hawkeyes will be overwhelming favorites in all but a pair of weekend sets against Nebraska and Michigan.
4. Indiana is not the best team in the league, and I’m not sure why
I was entirely on board with the Hoosiers after watching them sweep Cal State Fullerton at home, after which they have gone completely to pieces. The easy explanation is that they were supposed to take a step back after losing Kyle Schwarber, Dustin DeMuth, Sam Travis, Joey DeNato and Tracy Smith last year, but I don’t buy that—the Hoosier collapse came well into this season, after new coach Chris Lemonis had had his team clicking against a tough nonconference schedule for more than a month. And if you’re going to rely on freshmen, I’d just as soon rely on Indiana’s as anyone else’s, notably outfielder Logan Sowers, who’s been named the conference freshman of the week three times.
If anything, the problem has been with the upperclassmen. Junior Scott Effross, who might be the best non-Tyler Jay/Mike Shawaryn pitcher in the conference when he’s healthy and effective, has been neither healthy nor effective since being sidelined with a vague but ominous “soreness in his throwing arm.”
Fellow junior Christian Morris, the incumbent Saturday starter, has an ERA of 6.32. Senior catcher Brad Hartong, whom Lemonis had tapped as an emotional and literal replacement for Schwarber before the season, is down more than 40 points of batting average and almost 120 points of slugging percentage on his 2014 numbers.
This isn’t a matter of inexperience or lack of capability—this is a good team playing badly right now. Getting swept by Iowa isn’t as disastrous as it seemed at the time, but losing to Cincinnati and Indiana State, and splitting with Penn State is as bad as it sounds. The Hoosiers face a brutal final month of the regular season, which, if you’re optimistic, means they can make up the ground they’ve lost in recent weeks. If you’re not, they could wind up back at .500 by season’s end.
5. So how do the top eight teams stack up?
In this order: Illinois, Maryland, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State.