Mercer putting own touch on IU baseball

Jeff Mercer hasn’t touched the lineup card. He hasn’t penciled in any names, or even studied individual analytics from last spring.

Indiana’s new baseball coach isn’t leaning on the past to help him form his plans for 2019.

Instead, Mercer is letting the preseason unfold organically, giving his first group in Bloomington the opportunity to start fresh and earn their roles as the regular season nears.

As IU’s baseball program shifts into a new era under its 33-year-old head coach, the Hoosiers are evaluating all hands on deck as they build toward Opening Day on Feb. 15 at Memphis.

“I told the guys, ‘I haven’t looked at last year’s stats,’” Mercer said. “I looked at some of the team stats and the strikeout-to-walk ratio and the fielding percentage. That kind of gives you an idea of the identity of the group. But from an individual standpoint, I told those guys that I’m not looking at the stats. It doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t impact the decisions I’ll make moving forward.”

Since taking over in July for former coach Chris Lemonis, who jumped to take the Mississippi State job after last season, Mercer has placed his identity on the program that is now his own.

The Bargersville native, who comes to IU after two seasons guiding Wright State, spent the fall season installing new philosophies and habits for his new players during his first few weeks of hands-on teaching time. One of Mercer’s points of emphasis has been situational hitting and the ability to score without relying on home runs.

That could prove important.

Last season, Luke Miller and Logan Sowers combined for 23 home runs — more than the entire teams at Penn State (21 home runs), Michigan State (20) and Rutgers (18) — on an IU squad that mashed a Big Ten-best 68 home runs.

With Miller and Sowers gone, IU will try to manufacture runs in Mercer’s vision.

“We have to be able to have quality at-bats to produce runs without the thought of, ‘Let’s hit a three-run home run,’” Mercer said. “If we hit a three-run home run at some point, that’s terrific. But that’s a different model, especially in the North where so much of it is, ‘Let’s try and hit a three-run homer.’ That’s not necessarily this program, but in the north in general. That was a big change. So we spent a lot of time with that.”

Mercer is planning to run a full platoon system, with lineup shifts and matchup alterations. He also wants to cement roles inside of his pitching staff, which is also moving forward without a few key arms from last year’s team.

Friday starter Jonathan Stiever is gone, as is lefty Tim Herrin. Pauly Milto looks poised to slide into Stiever’s old weekend-opening slot, while others are competing to fill out the staff.

Coming out of the fall, a bunch of young pitchers impressed Mercer with their ability to handle the transition. Freshman right-hander Gabe Bierman and sophomore southpaw Tommy Sommer have each shown signs of development, as has sophomore righty Connor Manous, who is throwing an impressive 12-6 curveball while also benefitting from an uptick in velocity.

Elsewhere on the field, utility man Matt Lloyd and infielder Elijah Dunham have also impressed with their ability to implement Mercer’s teaching points.

“They’re both fine-to-good runners, but the way they’ve understood the baserunning stuff and the swings and the approaches, those two guys have really taken to it,” Mercer said. “A lot of guys have done a good job.”

As the next two weeks unfold, Mercer will be monitoring a few key position battles.

At third base, Lloyd and Cole Barr are vying for time. Lloyd is also in the mix at first with Scotty Bradley, Cade Bunnell and Jake Skrine. Mercer also says there are a handful of outfielders in the mix, making things crowded around Matt Gorski and Logan Kaletha.

Gorski could be building up to a special season after earning All-Big Ten First Team honors last year and leading the Hoosiers in average (.356), hits (79) and 123 total bases.

D1Baseball.com projects Gorski as the Big Ten Player of the Year.

Around him, there are plenty of pieces with which to build.

A year after Indiana went 40-19 and qualified for its fifth NCAA Tournament in six years, Mercer is using the next two weeks to make sure he’s building this season’s team into a winner, too.

“It’s always nice when you can come into a program that’s had success and has won games and has good players and talent,” Mercer said. “A winning culture is hard to create, and we don’t have to create it when it’s already here. That’s a huge, huge benefit.”

(Courtesy photo | Wright State Athletics)

5 comments

  1. Just looked at the preseason polls and they didn’t even receive one vote?? I didn’t realize they lost so much from last year’s squad.

  2. Baseball spiraling since losing Smith.
    Basketball never stopped spiraling since firing/losing Knight…..(or, if you prefer, since Knight lost his mind/mojo).
    Football never had anything to spiral…..(ironic).

    It’s my belief that all of IU Athletics need a complete reboot in leadership. The president of IU obviously doesn’t give a crap. He’s of Australian roots…and I do believe our athletics, mate, might as well be ‘shrimp on the barbie.’

    Fred is museum curator and fireworks distributor. He’s clueless in making IU sports relevant again.

  3. -10 degrees in baseball country today…Any other questions?

    South/SEC: Football country. Played year-round.
    South/SEC: Baseball country. Played year-round.

    Basketball? Played in gym even when 0 degrees. Outside of tetherball, it’s our only year-round activity. Fix Hoosier basketball.

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