Barr’s bat not to be taken lightly

It used to be a joke.

The idea that Cole Barr could or would hit 10 to 20 home runs for Indiana was basic batting practice banter, a fantastical idea that the sophomore concocted to get a rise from teammates.

Then it became reality midway through this season.

“I have 13 right now, so I guess it really could happen,” Barr said.

Not only has Barr proven that it’s possible, he’s in the running for the Big Ten’s home run crown. His 13 long balls rank second only to teammate Matt Lloyd’s 14 on the league leaderboard, and with the natural power potential Barr has showcased in his second college season, the Yorktown native is seemingly always a threat to go deep.

Inside of a home run heavy Hoosier lineup, Barr’s bat is a joke no more.

“We always thought with his strength and the twitchiness he has that he had a chance to hit for power,” first-year IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “He hit for some power in the fall, but you start talking about 10-plus home runs and it’s a game changer.”

On an Indiana team that leads the nation with 77 total home runs and 1.75 homers per game, Barr has been one of the catalysts to IU’s offensive surge.

Not bad for a player who clubbed only one extra-base hit — a double in the Big Ten Tournament — in 22 at-bats last spring as a freshman. For Barr, his first season of college ball came with the natural learning curve, made all the more trying by a hamstring injury suffered early in the year.

Though he still managed to appear in 22 games for the Hoosiers in 2018, Barr’s ailment sidelined him for approximately a month. It wasn’t until the summer, when he was playing with the Amsterdam Mohawks of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, that Barr started to feel more like himself.

And by the start of IU’s offseason workouts, a fully-healthy Barr began noticing an extra jolt in his swing.

“In the winter, I was like, ‘I can really drive the ball now,’” Barr said. “I only hit one or two home runs in the fall, but I really started to drive the ball the other way in the winter and it’s showing on the field.”

The difference? A few extra pounds, and some added bulk helped. So, too, has a more focused plan of attack.

“I know what I’m trying to do at the plate,” Barr said, “having a little bit smarter approach, hunting pitches. Then, when you get the pitch you’re looking for, you’re not missing it and doing damage with it.”

Of course, there’s still work to be done.

Barr has struck out in 40 percent of his at-bats, and Mercer would like to see him diversify his situational approach. Home runs are awesome, but they can’t be the only item on Barr’s menu. Moving runners and driving in teammates with less than two outs have to be part of Barr’s toolbox as he continues to mature as a collegian.

Entering this weekend’s three-game series at Illinois, Barr is hitting .237 with 34 RBIs and 23 extra-base hits, including nine doubles.

“He has a really high degree of rotational force and explosive force (in his swing) that allows him to really generate a lot of power in a small area,” Mercer said. “That burst allows that power to play pole-to-pole. The hard part for him is he creates so much rotational force that it pulls the barrelhead down.

“… You have to control the barrelhead. We’ve talked to him a lot about controlling the top hand. As we’ve gotten him bigger and stronger and made some adjustments to allow that twitch and force and power top lay up, it’s also pulled the bat head down. He has to make the adjustment back to keep the bat head up and make it a more playable power.”

At the same time, Barr still manages to earn his keep in the heart of the Hoosier order. Ideally, Mercer would prefer to have a more experienced bat in the five hole, but Ryan Fineman’s recent injury, among other factors, forced Barr into that slot. There, his right-handed bat breaks up the left-handed swings of Matt Lloyd, Scotty Bradley, Elijah Dunham and Grant Richardson.

“He’s had to learn in a baptism by fire,” Mercer said. “You have to figure it out on the fly. He walks up with guys in scoring position a ton. That’s a hard place to be in when you’re trying to make sure your barrel placement is right and learning how to handle so many offspeed pitches and breaking balls in RBI situations. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but he’s done a good job of managing and growing.”

Although Barr’s bat commands the most attention, the sophomore has demonstrated important growth in the other areas of the game. His heads-up baserunning has come into focus a few times this season, including last week’s win over Ball State at Victory Field.

After leading off the ninth inning with single, Barr got a good jump and successfully stole second base. It seemed to rattle Cardinals sophomore reliever Kyle Nicolas, whose attention was suddenly split between second and home plate. A walk and a hit batsmen allowed Barr to continue moving station to station, and by the time he reached home on a wild pitch, Barr started a five-run insurance rally to cap the Hoosiers’ 9-3 victory in Indianapolis.

“If he doesn’t steal that base,” Mercer said, “does that inning happen?”

Defensively, Barr is also showing incremental progress. Though he’s not a natural defender, Barr has illustrated decent range at the corner. In a 14-3 home victory over Ball State on April 16, he came up with successive diving plays to his left that led to 5-3 putouts in the middle innings.

All the while, Barr has maintained a presence in the lineup that says he’s not to be taken lightly.

“Whether he’s trying to learn to be a better defender, or learn the baserunning system that we do, all those different things, it’s a lot he has to learn,” Mercer said. “The one constant is his physical profile allows him to change the game offensively.”