Iowa baseball: What we've learned through the first third of the Hawkeyes' 2021 season
IOWA CITY, Ia. — On top of digesting the Big Ten's flawed 2021 baseball schedule, the Hawkeyes were handed few easy weekends in the early going.
Both Baseball America and D1Baseball had the same four Big Ten teams in their preseason regional projections: Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland. Iowa (7-8) has faced those teams 10 times through its first 15 games. And the other five contests? Those came against Nebraska, which is now included in Baseball America's latest field-of-64 outlook.
Some teams stretch the strength-of-schedule argument beyond any reasonable claim when justifying pedestrian results. Iowa isn't in that situation. The Hawkeyes haven't completely sunk against the Big Ten's best — and now, there's still time for a surge as the schedule eases up.
Entering this weekend's series at Purdue, Iowa is right at the one-third mark of its 44-game conference-only slate. Here's what we've learned about the Hawkeyes so far, along with what Iowa must do to re-enter postseason conversations in the coming weeks.
Trenton Wallace is Iowa's latest Friday ace. The rest of the rotation must match his consistency.
With Jack Dreyer done for the year long before Iowa saw a single pitch, the Hawkeyes desperately needed Trenton Wallace to cement himself atop their weekend rotation. Wallace, who's dealt with his own injury issues since arriving in Iowa City, was about to shoulder the heftiest workload of his career.
The results have been promising through four starts.
Although Wallace sputtered in his last outing, the redshirt junior southpaw has easily been Iowa's most consistent starter, surrendering five runs through his first 21 innings with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.5-to-1. Before exiting in the third inning last Friday against Ohio State, Wallace had tossed 18 2/3 consecutive scoreless frames.
What you want in a weekend anchor is an established winning belief each time he takes the hill. Iowa has that in Wallace. Now, the Hawkeyes need the rest of their rotation to catch up.
Last weekend offered the first promising evidence that a combination of Drew Irvine, Cam Baumann and Duncan Davitt will work the rest of the way. That trio had just one quality start through the first three series, then combined for three as Iowa went 3-1 in the Columbus pod. Particularly pivotal was the seven strong innings from Baumann, who's been in the program since 2018 and should be ready to provide reliable length with each outing.
Baumann didn't get a start in Iowa's only three-game series — the home-opening set against Nebraska — but the Fairfield product is back in the rotation for the West Lafayette trip. It starts with the arms if the Hawkeyes are to keep momentum flowing at Purdue.
After slow start, is Iowa's offense on the cusp of breaking out?
With weather concerns and a hectic itinerary usually dominating the season's initial months, Iowa's offense often takes time to warm up. That's been the case in 2021 even with fewer cross-country treks. Iowa averaged four runs per game over its first 11 contests en route to a 4-7 start. Only one of those wins came with the Hawkeyes scoring more than four runs.
However, signs of life were abundant last weekend. The four games in Ohio saw Iowa rack up 15 extra-base hits, including seven home runs, as the Hawkeyes averaged six runs per contest.
Reliability has emerged in the lineup's core, headlined by third baseman Matthew Sosa and center fielder Ben Norman. Makes sense considering those are two of Iowa's most veteran hitters — Norman the only regular left from the Hawkeyes' Big Ten Tournament title and regional appearance in 2017. This redshirt senior duo has accounted for 29% of Iowa's runs, 28% of Iowa's hits, 43% of Iowa's homers and 36% of Iowa's RBIs.
Beyond that has been a mix of pleasant surprises and pending promise.
Early highlights go to redshirt freshmen Tyler Snep and Brayden Frazier, who entered this season with a combined 27 career at-bats but have transitioned nicely to everyday roles.
Snep has been Iowa's starting designated hitter in nine of the last 12 games, including the previous six, after having just five plate appearances in the season-opening series. All Snep has done is produce a top-10 Big Ten slash line, ranking first in on-base percentage (.564), fifth in slugging percentage (.786) and seventh in batting average (.393).
Frazier began the year as Heller's top bench option but has outshined that role. The Cedar Rapids Jefferson product, currently second on the team in batting average and doubles, started every game in the outfield last weekend.
Heller is still waiting on a few regulars to get going, most notably Izaya Fullard and Dylan Nedved. Additionally, injury issues with Peyton Williams (hamstring) and Austin Martin (knee) have made them unavailable at times during this initial portion. Iowa's bench bats could use a boost as well.
Against a Purdue pitching staff that is the Big Ten's second-worst in ERA (6.71) and third-worst in hits allowed (141), the Hawkeyes have a prime opportunity to continue last weekend's offensive resurgence.
The metrics still like the Hawkeyes.
Baseball metrics are as finnicky as they come, but they've properly accounted for Iowa's tough opening stretch.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Hawkeyes are ninth in strength of schedule and own the Big Ten's best RPI (60). That figure isn't low enough for realistic regional conversations just yet, but Iowa hasn't been punished for its under-.500 record to date.
Heller knows as well as anyone how quickly the RPI can change. See the end of the 2018 and 2019 seasons if you need a refresher. More than anything, Iowa needs to pile up wins in what is a favorable upcoming stretch.
The Hawkeyes' next 10 games are against teams with zero postseason buzz: three at Purdue (3-11), three versus Minnesota (3-12) and four at Rutgers (8-6). That leads into Iowa's home weekend "pod" series — two versus Maryland, two versus Northwestern — followed by a crucial trip to Indiana.
That gets the Hawkeyes through April. If Heller's squad can pounce on upcoming winnable series, Iowa should be in position to cement a regional case in the season's final month.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.