When Spencer Allen was hired as Northwestern’s newest baseball coach in the summer of 2015, he inherited a program that looked much different than today’s.
Joe Hoscheit, who hit .356/.436/.557 this year, was a two-way player battling through a knee injury. No one on the team had heard of Cooper Wetherbee, because Wetherbee had just wrapped up his second year with the club baseball team and wouldn’t walk on until the fall. The team struggled through an 18-36 campaign.
Allen came to Northwestern without any head coaching experience, but with a promise to bring trust, passion, and development, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. Following the 2017 season, Allen has momentum on his side as well.
An improbable run to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament put Northwestern baseball back on the radar of Wildcat fans as well as outsiders. Riding a five-game winning streak into the tournament, the Wildcats upset second-seeded Michigan with a three-run rally in the ninth before topping third-seeded Minnesota in comeback fashion as well. After splitting two games with Maryland and riding a career performance from Wetherbee to advance to the final, the ‘Cats ran out of pitching in their fifth matchup of the week, falling to Iowa, 13-4.
The Wildcats will look to build in 2018 after tasting progress this spring after earning 13 Big Ten wins and finishing the regular season on a five game winning streak.
“We need to learn how to get used to a little bit of success,” Allen said.
That means continuing to make improvement on positive trends from 2017. Allen said a main focus with the pitching staff was giving innings to strike-throwers. In 2016, Northwestern pitchers combined to walk 4.19 batters per nine innings, contributing to a team ERA of 6.29. With the help of pitching coach Josh Reynolds, who Allen calls one of the best in the college baseball, the Wildcat walk rate fell to 3.92 BB/9 while the team ERA dropped to 5.09. Meanwhile, opponents struck out nearly seven times per game in 2017 as compared to a strikeout rate of 5.4 in 2016.
Wetherbee and fellow graduating senior Pete Hofman were a big part of that, combining for 114 of the 378 total Wildcat strikeouts, but underclassmen like Sam Lawrence and Josh Levy have shown punchout ability as well.
Allen hopes the void left by Wetherbee and Hofman will be filling by a new crop of pitchers as well. Looking ahead to next spring, the 2017 recruiting class should bring depth to the pitching staff. Lefties Ryan Bader, Jack Pagliarini, and Quinn Lavelle highlight a deep group of pitchers that should see time early-- in 2017, freshmen Hank Christie and Matt Gannon cracked the starting rotation.
At the plate, losing Hoscheit and Matt Hopfner to graduation means losing Northwestern’s two most productive hitters. Yet Allen’s lineup this season featured a mix of younger and older players, so returnees like Alex Erro, Leo Kaplan, and Jack Dunn have extensive experience. Erro, who was voted the Northwestern Male Newcomer of the Year, has had some big moments already, homering against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament and driving in four runs against Purdue in a key late-season rubber match.
While the Wildcats enjoyed some success in big spots, Allen said the offseason will be about working hard every day and continuing to develop.
It’s only a matter of time before Northwestern finds itself in a big game again, and after a successful 2017, the Wildcats should be ready when that day arrives.