Leistikow: The incredible evolution of an Iowa student manager program that is changing baseball

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The scorebook is closed from the Iowa baseball team’s 12-0 win against Indiana on a Friday night in Iowa City, and the bats and helmets have long been stowed away.

But in a building adjacent to Duane Banks Field, no more than 100 paces away from the Iowa dugout, there is plenty of work still to be done.

In an underground classroom that once hosted position-group meetings for linebackers and quarterbacks, a group of University of Iowa students with computers and top-shelf technology sifts through a fresh batch of data. Another game is less than 24 hours away.

Ninth-year Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller fought to create this makeshift office space, which a decade ago housed Hawkeye football business. Here, there is rarely cell phone service and electrical outlets for the demand of up to a dozen whirring laptops are scarce. The hours — 20 to 60 a week — can be unpredictable and unforgiving for an Iowa baseball manager. And, aside from a few shirts and some gear, there is no pay. Yet these students, with ages ranging from 18 to 26 and majors from engineering to business analytics, view this work with reverence and appreciation.

They operate with a love for baseball and the knowledge that — in the words of the team’s respected pitching coach — they are part of “the best manager program in the country, hands down.”

And they’re changing the game of baseball — not just at the college level.

More on Hawkeye baseball:Iowa baseball's Adam Mazur named Big Ten pitcher of year; Keaton Anthony earns top freshman honors

A visual and perpetual reminder of that fact hangs on one of the office’s walls, with framed photos of head managers for Hawkeye baseball. Among the recent additions is a front-office analyst for the Baltimore Orioles, a scout for the Detroit Tigers and two assistant coaches for major-college programs.

In less than nine years, the Iowa baseball managers program has gone from a couple of guys preparing batting cages and shagging balls to a well-oiled, four-department operation of 16 men and eight women. They do their own hiring and develop succession plans for leadership. They work on pitch designs for 15-plus pitchers on the roster, catered to each player's ability, size and mechanics. They produce sophisticated opponent scouting reports that, according to Heller, “would blow your mind.”

Their operation has curious major-league teams (and big-leaguers themselves) taking notice and asking the question: What can Hawkeye baseball do for them?

As Sam Bornstein, who six months ago was an Iowa manager and now holds a front-office job with the Philadelphia Phillies, puts it: “Everybody wants to know the secret. That’s the reason why a lot of coaches were poached in my time there.”

To fully appreciate what this Iowa baseball managers program has become — one that provides appreciative Hawkeye players untold edges and produces ready-made employees for professional baseball — it helps to first understand how it started.

Iowa baseball student analysts, from left, Reed Zahradnik, Austin Marchesani, Andrew Sumner and Luke Statler input data they collected during a 12-0 Hawkeye win vs. Indiana on May 20.

An underdog mentality

Throughout Rick Heller’s 35-year career as a college baseball coach (with stops at Northern Iowa, Indiana State and Iowa covering the past two decades), he’s operated as an underdog. The Midwest’s propensity for lousy baseball weather in March and April is an automatic recruiting disadvantage in a college sport dominated by warm-weather schools in the South and West Coast.

Heller is vocal about additional recruiting obstacles he faces at Iowa. While every Division I baseball program is restricted to distributing 11.7 athletic scholarships among 27 players (eight additional roster spots, for a total of 35, are available to walk-ons), many other places can offer much more academic aid than Iowa can. A 2021 baseball documentary called “Uneven” exposed the loopholes that allow many schools in Southern states, in particular, to easily turn 11.7 scholarships (legally) into 18 or 20.  Heller is handcuffed by additional restrictions, including the difficulty to achieve Iowa residency (vs. other states) and that the university doesn’t give academic scholarship money to junior-college transfers, even if they’re 4.0 students. Those are just a few examples.

“It’s not a fair fight,” Heller says bluntly. “That’s just the way it is.”

Yet Heller has overachieved everywhere he’s been behind a determined, inquisitive mind that seeks to find an edge that few, if any, have discovered.

More:Leistikow: How a tenured college professor became a transformational Iowa baseball coach

After being hired at Iowa in the summer of 2013, Heller sought to be at the college forefront in baseball’s growing fascination with analytics and video software. One of the first moves Heller made at Iowa after his first-season whirlwind was to hire Desi Druschel — an Iowa native and nine-year head coach at NAIA Mount Mercy in Cedar Rapids — as his director of operations. These like-minded Iowans would plant early seeds that created the bustling managers program that would eventually blossom.

Druschel chuckles at the 2015 memory of steadying a video camera on his desk and pointing it toward the big-screen TV to record whatever game was airing on the Big Ten Network. Iowa had just purchased video-analysis software called RightView Pro, which enabled someone to tag and categorize every pitch of a game. That someone in this case was Zachary Parle, one of Heller’s first student managers.

Instead of watching a three-hour game, a coach — thanks to Parle’s grunt work — could watch every pitch on, say, a 1-and-0 count in a matter of minutes.

One thing Parle made extra time for that season was to study a team that wasn’t on Iowa’s schedule: Ohio State. So, when the Hawkeyes happened to draw Ohio State in the first round of the 2015 Big Ten Conference tournament in Minneapolis, they were armed with valuable information.

While Nick Day’s walk-off, two-run homer is remembered for producing that 3-2 Hawkeye win, Druschel credits the scouting reports that helped hold Ohio State to two runs over nine innings … allowing Day to deliver his heroic moment.

“At that point, we were realizing how valuable that (video analysis) was,” Druschel says. “And we started looking for additional managers to do the same type of thing.”

Heller’s “light-bulb” moment came at the subsequent NCAA regionals. After seeing a bevy of student managers assisting first-round opponent Oregon’s efforts, Heller wondered what was possible at Iowa. Though he had little success getting students in Cedar Falls or Terre Haute to excitedly work long hours for no pay, he soon learned Iowa City was a different animal. It helped that the Hawkeyes’ magical 2015 season, which ended one win short of a super-regional (final 16) spot, stirred up excitement around the program.

Heller recalls thinking, "If we can get the right kids wanting to help, we can really move with this. And we can do some things on the player-development side that nobody else in college baseball is really doing."

The momentum builds

In the summer of 2016, Adam Schuck remembers e-mailing Heller about the opportunity to be an Iowa manager. Heller’s reply: How about 9 a.m. tomorrow?

Schuck woke up early the next morning in Peoria, Illinois, and drove 2½ hours to Iowa City, with enough time to purchase a Hawkeye polo at the bookstore before the interview. Heller liked his passion and gave him the job. That same summer, Bornstein came aboard as a freshman from Wheaton, Illinois. 

Druschel and Heller had successfully grown the manager ranks from three to seven. Meantime, they delved deeper into baseball’s analytics rabbit hole by acquiring TrackMan technology — which provides things like pitch spin, pitch movement and a baseball’s exit velocity and angle off the bat.

“You could probably count on two hands how many (college programs) had TrackMan at that time,” Bornstein says.

Also at that point, Iowa had never won a Big Ten Conference baseball tournament. But that would soon change. A 13th-inning home run hit by catcher Tyler Cropley lifted Iowa past Minnesota and sent the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes to the 2017 Big Ten title game vs. Northwestern (which they won). In postgame interviews, Cropley credited knowing what pitch to expect before he smacked the towering, tiebreaking long ball.

Iowa baseball head manager Scott Junck sizes up pitcher Luke Llewellyn in the bullpen. During games, Junck manages the bullpen phone. It's common to see a lot of managers follow pitchers around with clipboards to take notes on their every move.

“As a freshman, I thought that was pretty cool,” Bornstein said, “(that) I worked on the scouting report that helped us get to the championship game.”

Previously:Leistikow: Iowa's Brody Brecht can throw 100 mph fastball but still has big football plans

It was just one more piece of evidence that the more scouting Iowa baseball could do on its own players and opponents, the better the team could be. A late-night discussion followed involving Schuck, Bornstein and then-head manager Jake Stone.

“We drew up this sketch of different departments of the manager program like it’s a major-league front office and asked, ‘Realistically, what can we do?’” Schuck recalls.

To that point, the seven managers dabbled in a little of everything; whatever was needed.

Their new idea: Creating three divisions of more specialized managers — one for traditional on-field duties, another for team operations and another for technology. Nic Ungs, the new director of operations, approved the model and let the students run with it.

“To me,” Schuck says, “that’s where things took off.”

Stone’s departure to Penn State ceded the head-manager torch to Schuck. Bornstein became the first lead analyst and started hiring data-hungry students. The Iowa managers program was becoming a monster.

Druschel believes that by the time he and hitting coach Joe Migliaccio were poached by the New York Yankees in December of 2018, the Iowa managers program was as good as any in the country. But it was the hiring of Druschel’s unlikely, unconventional replacement — a tenured, 17-year Northern Iowa professor named Robin Lund with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology — that took the managers to an inconceivable level.

“He’s certainly one of a kind,” says Druschel, who now works in the Yankees dugout as their assistant pitching coach. “We got it to a certain point and then really allowed Robin’s expertise to take over and make it grow.”

Lund, a reluctant professor (his words) with a passion for baseball who first connected with Heller in 2002, taught statistics classes to master’s program students at UNI. After landing the Iowa job in early 2019, Lund saw the enormous amounts of data student managers were collecting and challenged them to think bigger.

“They were doing a ton of work,” Lund says, “and it was inefficient. Nothing was automated.

“I told Sam, ‘You call yourself an analyst. But all you’re doing is describing. You’re not analyzing anything.’”

Bornstein would turn that constructive feedback into creating what’s now known as the "Hawk Dashboard" that automates every piece of data that’s collected.

“Once we got that automated,” Lund says, “Sam could start answering real questions.”

Iowa baseball manager Joey Bylund helps move batting practice equipment off the field before a NCAA Big Ten game against Indiana on Friday at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa's analytics boom

Today, analytics is its own (fourth) arm of the Iowa managers program. And, at nine strong, it’s also the biggest. (The total was 11 before two analysts graduated in December. One went to work for the San Francisco Giants; the other landed a job at a tech company in California.)

They contribute to the team’s managers blog with high-level material. A post earlier this month titled “Utilizing Stuff+ and Control+ to Optimize Pitcher Performance” is as complex and informational as it sounds. It was co-authored by Austin Marchesani, a senior transfer from UNI, and Connor Curtiss, a brilliant freshman who taught himself coding (and will work for the Phillies, with Bornstein as his boss, this summer).

The current head manager, Iowa junior Scott Junck, believes such collaboration (as encouraged by Lund) is a big reason this managers program has organically exploded.

“I know this fall, some of our analysts applied for the same jobs and same internships. But it’s really cool to see with all that in mind that nobody is hiding their work,” Junck says. “They’re sharing their work. They’re getting everybody’s perspectives. There’s no competitive nature at all."

The aforementioned blog post outlines how Iowa managers created an internal model "to predict outcomes like whiffs, chases and quality of contact" and compared pitching staffs across the country, producing extremely detailed graphics and data. At the same time, the post was careful not to give away too much proprietary information.

“A model like this, we assume all major-league teams have in their own way,” says Reed Zahradnik, one of Iowa baseball’s two lead analysts. “But trying to do it at the college level is something very rare. We made sure to reveal (only) as much as necessary.”

More:Leistikow: Iowa's Gary Barta says 'Hawkeyes are going to be fine' in new college landscape

The results speak volumes. Iowa’s 2022 pitching staff has shattered the program record for strikeouts in a season (560 in 50 games, entering this week’s Big Ten tournament). It ranks second in Division I in strikeouts per nine innings (11.3) and hits allowed per nine innings (6.78) and is sixth in ERA (3.57).

The transformation of No. 1 starter Adam Mazur is a remarkable subplot. Mazur arrived at Iowa in August with three wins in two seasons at South Dakota State with a 5.50 career ERA. After Mazur got rocked in a fall scrimmage against Iowa Western Community College, Lund and the analysts examined video to identify flaws, make tweaks to his setup and added a curve ball to his arsenal.

Mere months later, Mazur’s fastball is in the upper 90s, he's dominating the Big Ten and he is now considered a potential first-round MLB Draft pick.

Iowa's Keaton Anthony (7) reacts after hitting a home run during a NCAA Big Ten game against Indiana on Saturday at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa's best story on offense is Keaton Anthony, a redshirt freshman from Georgia. He had never hit more than three homers in a season at any level ... until this year. Thanks to a revamped swing, backed by analytics provided by Iowa managers, Anthony is generating power with a "launch angle" of 25 to 30 degrees off his bat.

He clubbed his 12th, 13th and 14th homers of the season in a weekend sweep of Indiana and says this of Iowa managers: “They’re all amazing people. You can form great bonds with them. It’s really nice to have a program that handles the managers the way that we do. I feel like we get treated really well around here.”

Such results (and endorsements) help make Iowa’s student managers attractive at the next level. When Junck was an intern in the Orioles’ Florida location last summer, he was excited to go out to lunch with two front-office members. Once the topic of Junck’s affiliation with Iowa came up, the conversation flipped.

“Everything was focused on me: ‘What do you do at Iowa? How do you go about this?’” Junck recalls, chuckling. “… I was like, ‘Can I get my questions across?’”

Previously:Sluggers Peyton Williams, Keaton Anthony keeping Iowa baseball in the Big Ten, NCAA hunt

Druschel, now a major figure with the Yankees, says simply: “All of professional baseball has a keen awareness of what an Iowa baseball manager is.”

The word is out among players, not just front offices.

As Lund tells the story, one big-league pitcher — whose organization at the time was behind the curve on analytics — reached out to Iowa baseball through a third party in search of answers about his struggles.

“Our managers made a 30-minute video with a conservative, moderate and aggressive approach to modifying his arsenal,” Lund says. “He went with the more aggressive approach, and he (implemented) it all. You can see how he completely changed with all the things we recommended.

“Now, he’s with a different organization. And he’s killing it.

“That stuff happens here.”

Program 'changed my life'

The beauty of the Iowa baseball managers program is that everyone lifts each other up.

Heller has caught flak from administrators about the need for such robust manager numbers, but he always fights for his students and raises any bit of money he can to support them. The managers’ mantra is simple: To make Hawkeye baseball better. (They use the hashtag #MovingTheNeedle in Twitter posts.) When they work together for a common cause, they inevitably enhance their personal career goals.

Meantime, players trust them fully. So do the three full-time coaches in Heller, Lund and hitting coach Marty Sutherland.

“It’s like you’ve replicated yourself a bunch of times, and you can get the work done,” Lund says. “They’re all so detail-oriented (because of) the culture that’s been created, and that started with Rick. Our players respect them. The quickest way for a player to get into hot water in our program is to disrespect a manager. You will get destroyed.”

Bailey Raso is one of eight women in the Iowa baseball managers program and heads up the video/scouting department. She is already working for the Seattle Mariners.

Schuck is now in his third year as a pitching analyst for the Orioles. Bornstein is a quantitative analyst for the Phillies. The Iowa-to-MLB pipeline is growing.

Bailey Raso, a 2018 Iowa City West graduate, is on track to graduate December. She is already working for the Seattle Mariners as a player-development intern and will do so through October. The video/scouting lead travels with the Hawkeyes and will stay with them until their season is done before heading to Peoria, Arizona. 

“I feel very grateful and very humbled to be around such brilliant minds,” Raso says. “Without this program, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s very special.”

Related:Iowa baseball closed regular season the way it needed. But Hawkeyes can't waste momentum in Omaha.

A second-team all-conference pitcher at Linn-Mar High School, Zahradnik wasn’t good enough to play at a D-1 school. He didn't discover the managers program until his junior year at Iowa. He’ll follow a three-semester master’s program in business analytics with graduation in December of 2024 — “right when MLB teams are hiring,” he says.

“Honestly, it really changed my life in terms of what I thought was possible to accomplish,” Zahradnik says. “Front-office members are kind of like mythological creatures; you don’t know where they come from. You think they’re these guys with Harvard degrees who are coming up (to) take over teams.

“Seeing the opportunities this job provides are second to none across the entire country. It’s just incredible the opportunities we can provide, the knowledge we can share. And that’s in no small part to the people that came before us and set that foundation."

Photos of former Iowa baseball head managers at the Jacobson Athletic Building in Iowa City, Iowa.

Ahead of the curve … but others are chasing

The scope of Iowa’s managers program is unique. Even the Iowa football program, with four times the roster and probably 100 times the exposure, has half as many student managers (12). The Iowa men's basketball program carries six to eight; women's basketball has six.

A Register survey of the Big Ten’s other 12 baseball programs reveals a wide range of student-manager numbers.

Rutgers has four on-field managers but zero analysts. Northwestern has five managers. Michigan and Purdue have seven managers, including three analysts each. Nebraska also has seven. Illinois’ total ranges from five to eight. Ohio State has six to 10 student analysts, but all on-field operations are handled by full-time staff. Michigan State and Indiana have eight student managers. Minnesota has 12. League champion Maryland has 20.

There is only one Big Ten team that matches Iowa’s girth in manager numbers, and that’s the one headed by Stone — the former Hawkeye and Ames native. When Stone arrived in 2019, Penn State had three student managers. Now it has 24, with four branches — just like the Iowa model.

“I made it a priority to begin building a similar program here during my first year on the job,” Stone says. “… It was great to be a part of the (Iowa) team, and I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without that experience.”

This week, Penn State is making its first Big Ten tournament appearance since 2012.

Coincidence? Probably not.

More:How to watch Iowa baseball in the Big Ten Tournament this week in Omaha

Its opponent? Third-seeded Iowa, at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Numbers wise, Heller says he likes where the Iowa baseball managers program sits. He feels like he’s hit the sweet spot. Applications are open for a few precious openings in the fall semester.

As evidenced by their underground office bunker, the Iowa baseball managers machine never stops.

“If I was at a place where I could get the first pick (of players), I would still do what we’re doing," Heller says. "Because I know it gives us an edge over the competition."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

A breakdown of Iowa baseball's 24 student managers

Listed by department, graduation year, hometown and UI major.

Head manager (1)

Scott Junck, spring 2023, Ames, Sport and Recreation Management

Analysts (9)

Andrew Sumner (co-lead analyst), spring 2022, Minnetonka, Minn., Business Analytics

Reed Zahradnik (co-lead analyst), winter 2023, Marion, Master of Business Analytics

Connor Curtiss, winter 2024, Coralville, Data Science and Economics

Maria Hallenbeck, spring 2024, Dubuque, Finance and Math

McKenzie Kroll, spring 2024, Waukee, Industrial Engineering

Peter Mertka, spring 2023, Geneva, Ill., Computer Science Engineering

Austin Marchesani, winter 2022, Cedar Falls, Master of Business Analytics

Keithan Sharp, spring 2025, Olathe, Kan., Economics and International Relations

Luke Statler, winter 2022, O'Fallon, Mo., Master of Business Analytics

On-Field (8)

Joey Bylund (lead on-field manager), spring 2023, Indianola, Sport and Recreation Management

Zack Anderson, spring 2025, North Liberty, Sport and Recreation Management

Gabe Hester, spring 2024, Cumming, Business Management

Carson Kallenberger, spring 2022, Waverly, Business Management

Will Kenne, spring 2023, Indianola, Sport and Recreation Management

Bryce Melton, spring 2022, Bettendorf, Sport and Recreation Management

Mike Pithan, winter 2023, Sioux City, Public Policy and Economics

Tyler Schark, spring 2025, Ottumwa, Business Analytics

Operations (3)

Paige Buikema, spring 2025, Chicago, Business

Kayla Smith, spring 2023, Fort Dodge, Marketing and Sport and Recreation Managemento   Business

Haley Stessman, spring 2023, Omaha, Business Analytics

Video/scouting (3)

Bailey Raso (lead video/scouting), winter 2022, North Liberty,  Human Physiology

Lexi Cahill, spring 2024, Johnston, Human Physiology

Savannah Dennis, spring 2025, Johnston, Statistics