Husker baseball sitting at .500 at the midway point of the season, whats next?
Following the series finale against Ohio State, we are now at the midway point of the season for Nebraska baseball. The Huskers (14-14) have had a rollercoaster season with its fair share of highs and lows and is sitting with an even record and snow falling on the diamond.
The up-and-down year riddled with injuries, new faces, and unfulfilled promise has left fans with more questions than answers for the reigning Big Ten regular season champs. We’ve narrowed the first half of the season into what we’ve learned, what has left us scratching our heads, and where Nebraska baseball can go from here.
What we’ve learned
Scott Schreiber is the star Nebraska desperately needs
Can you imagine the season this team would be having if Schreiber wouldn’t have returned for his senior season? The Wisconsin native has been Nebraska’s most productive hitter, leading the team in nearly every category including batting average (.389), on-base percentage (.457), slugging percentage (.708), RBIs (28) and home runs (9).
Schreiber has had consistent success throughout the year, having hits in 14 of the last 15 games, including 11 multi-hit games. His relentless fire at the plate sees him in the top three in the Big Ten for batting average, total hits, runs scored, home runs, and total bases.
The senior first baseman possesses every trait Erstad could dream of in a hitter. Schreiber hits for average, works walks well, and already has more home runs this year (9) than he did all of 2017 (7). Schreiber always swings the bat with the utmost power, mimicking the folklore Paul Bunyan with his superhuman strength, work ethic, and beard.
What doesn’t this guy do?
Jake Hohensee is an excellent closer
Wild-eyed, unkempt beard, quick pace, and overpowering “stuff”. That all describes the legends of Bigfoot quite well, and it also describes Nebraska’s new closer, Jake Hohensee.
Formally a starter, Hohensee transitioned into his new role after Erstad lost Chad Luensmann to a season-ending injury before the Huskers even played its first game. The senior has embraced the opportunity, coming out of it as a dominant arm the Nebraska faithful have been able to rely on.
Hohensee’s made nine appearances, posting a 0.87 ERA through 10.1 IP. The Lincoln native has fanned ten opposing batters while only walking one. Opponents have hit a pedestrian .158 off of him.
The ninth inning is his, and when he’s on, it’s over.
What we are left wondering
— Where have Altavilla and Hagge gone?
Coming into the 2018 season the sky was the limit for Angelo Altavilla and Mojo Hagge.
Both fan favorites were coming off breakout 2017 campaigns, expected to repeat or improve on their numbers in the 2018 season. That hasn’t been the case though, and their slumps may not subside.
Altavilla has experienced the largest drop off between the two. In 2017, Altavilla finished the year second on the team in average (.316), only trailing Schreiber. 2018 has been a different story for Altavilla at the plate, leaving the junior with nearly a .100 point decline (.218) through 94 at-bats, last amongst the consistent starters.
Hagge has ridden the coat-tails of a fairytale 2017 season and story into his sophomore year. The walk-on story, memorable name, and hair/facial-hair combination that would make Andrea Pirlo jealous have catapulted Mojo to be the poster boy of Nebraska baseball. Unfortunately for Hagge, even him and his mustache aren’t immune to the greatly feared sophomore slump.
The first month of Hagge’s sophomore campaign was peppered with empty trips at the plate as he failed to find a groove early on, only hitting .217. Erstad was forced to fluctuate the fan-favorite throughout the top and bottom of the lineup in hopes Hagge would eventually hit himself out of the slow start.
Since the turbulent first month, the Omaha native has seen his average rise to where it sits now at .260. Although it has risen, the .260 average is still a drop from the .277 Hagge sported in 2017. Although the drop off in average isn’t as extreme for Hagge as it is for Altavilla, and with still plenty of time to turn it around, the first half of the 2018 season has been underwhelming and left Husker fans wanting more.
Maybe the expectations for both of these stars for this season were too much after their meteoric 2017 efforts, but it is still disheartening to think neither of the two have been able to at least tread water and put up similar results at the plate.
As much as these two have struggled thus far, it hasn’t been all awful.
Both have been able to remain vital roles as leaders for their side. Hagge has slowly been trending upwards, delivering more promising and consistent trips at the plate. Both have been defensive leaders as well, constantly absorbing anything hit near them and filling the highlights with their efforts.
With the inconsistencies Nebraska’s had so far offensively as a team, the Big Red desperately need these two to produce more effective outings at the plate to give them a chance to contend in conference play.
— What happened to the consistency on offense?
Erstad realized his teams in the past have struck out too much for a team without power. This Nebraska team, aside from Schreiber, once again lacks power. In an era of college baseball featuring the return of the home run ball, how do you create a productive offense without power? Erstad channeled his inner Ned Yost (for better or for worse) and decided to follow the Kansas City Royals approach that won them the 2015 World Series. This new offensive approach centers around putting the ball in play, putting the pressure on the defense, and above all showing great discipline with two strikes – oh, and playbooks on the wrist!
Unfortunately for Nebraska, the new approach hasn’t translated to the same results the Royals have become familiar with.
Instead, the Big Red have been not so big, settling in at eighth in Big Ten team batting average (.264), and striking out the fourth most in the league (219).
Nebraska is currently on pace to end the season with more strikeouts than that of 2017, with 219 empty trips to the plate so far, whereas 2017 ended with 413 strikeouts as a team. The team BA has dropped from last year, .281 to .264, and the team slugging percentage dropping from .381 in 2017 to .367 this year.
These differences may not seem like huge drop-offs, but they are drop-offs nonetheless. When most of the offensive numbers are down from already disappointing results the year before, it is safe to say the approach hasn’t lived up to the hype.
Will we see the return of consistent pitching?
While Nebraska’s offensive model hasn’t lived up to the blueprints the Royals left, we’ve seen a similar song and dance for the Husker arms.
The new wave of baseball trends has showcased the hyper-use of bullpens, which baseball fans, by and large, saw from the Kansas City side that won it all in 2015 thanks to a consistent Herrera-Davis-Holland 7-8-9 inning stretch.
Erstad and co. haven’t reaped the same fortunes, still searching for more consistency from the starters and bullpen.
The 2017 Huskers were led by the likes of their ace Derek Burkamper (3.53 ERA) to open series with authority and Jake Meyers (3.42 ERA) to make Sundays sacred in Nebraska. With Burkamper graduated and Meyers off to the pros, as well as Jake Hohensee transitioning into a closer role, the scarlet and cream were left searching for new starting pitching to lean on.
Luis Alvarado has been one of the guys Erstad’s looked to fill the holes in the rotation. Alvarado’s made the transition to the starting rotation seem easy, posting a team-best 3.29 ERA through 41 IP as a starter. In transitioning from the bullpen into a starter role, the senior has posted an impressive 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio (39:13). The change from the bullpen was made with uncertainty on how the power-pitcher would adapt to the extra workload, as his previous longest outing was 1.1 IP heading into 2018. Out of Alvarado’s seven starts, he’s eclipsed the 100 pitch mark three times, often working into games late. Although Alvarado’s been great so far, how the heavy workload will affect him remains to be seen.
With Jake McSteen falling to injury, Erstad was left scrambling to fill out the rest of the rotation. Matt Waldron and Nate Fisher have been tentatively used as starters, although both have bounced between the rotation and bullpen quite a bit. Creighton transfer Matt Warren has been given the mound on Sundays, but the seniors return from Tommy John surgery has not been easy, posting a 5.79 ERA through seven starts.
Only Alvarado has a sub 4.00 ERA amongst the Husker starters.
Aside from Hohensee’s excellent outings we discussed above, the bullpen has left the Husker faithful often holding their breath rather than breathing sighs of relief.
The loss of Luensmann from the bullpen dealt Nebraska a big blow, and Reece Eddins is just now making his return from his injury that sidelined him for most of 2017 and the whole first half of the 2018 season.
Only three Huskers from the bullpen have ERAs below 4.00 – Robbie Palkert 0.00 ERA (only 4.2 IP), Jake Hohensee 0.87 ERA, and Zack Engelken 1.54 ERA.
The next best arms Erstad has turned to in times of trouble are the pair of freshman, Andrew Abrahamowicz, and Paul Tillotson, who’ve posted a 4.40 ERA through 14.1 IP and 4.50 ERA through 16 IP, respectively. Both relievers have shown glimpses of their promising futures, displaying stints of dominance on the mound. If they can become more consistent, these two will be a dynamic pairing coming out of the bullpen for the Huskers. However, despite the bright future’s both relievers have, plus 4.40 ERAs as your second and third option for middle relief pitchers is not always a recipe for success.
Seven of Nebraska’s 12 relievers have ERAs over 5.00 (Eddins would make it 8 but has only made one appearance since returning from injury, so I’ve left him out due to small sample size), while 9 of the 12 have posted ERAs of 4.40 or above. The inability to limit the earned runs only puts more pressure on the offense, which already has its own problems to worry about.
The Huskers have the fourth highest team ERA (5.07) in the Big Ten, have given up the most hits (288), second most earned runs (138), and fifth least amount of strikeouts (178).
By no means do I expect to see the perfection out of the bullpen Royals fans became accustomed to in 2015. What we should be able to expect is comparable numbers to the other contenders in the Big Ten.
Iowa, who currently sits at 17-9 and was expected to finish around Nebraska’s spot in the conference, boasts five relievers with sub-4.00 ERAs, four of which have 10+ innings thrown. Indiana (19-5), has nine relievers with ERAs below 4.00, five with 10+ innings thrown.
What to expect moving forward
So far, 2018 hasn’t been as favoring as the 2017 season was for the Huskers. The Cornhuskers have a chance to jump-start the second half of the season with a conference matchup against a struggling Michigan State squad this weekend in Lansing. If the Huskers are going to turn things around now is the time for it to happen. Look for the Huskers to make adjustments in order to clean up their pitching by focusing on keeping the ball down in the zone.
If the Husker pitching staff can make a small improvement to their ERA in the second half the season it could have large implications for the team in the win/loss column.
Right now, if the Huskers continue the current trend of inconsistent pitching and streaky batting performances they could be in for a rough finish to the season. With matchups against #11 Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa all looming on the horizon the Huskers could be in for their worst finish under coach Erstad since the 2013 season (29-30).
Nebraska’s tough second-half schedule mirrors the one of last year, which should give hope to the Husker faithful that Erstad can get his team pointed in the right direction before it’s too late. While it’s not quite time to hit the panic button, Husker fans are starting to feel the heat even as snow is falling at Haymarket Park.
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