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Northwestern 2019 baseball preview: Cats look for consistency, NCAA tournament berth

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Coach Spencer Allen said he likes his depth at the plate, but needs to develop a stronger set of arms in the bullpen.

Alex Erro warms up during a 2017 game.
Davis Rich/InsideNU.com

It’s baseball time again in Evanston.

As year four of the Spencer Allen era is set to get underway on Friday in Arizona, much uncertainty still surrounds Allen’s team that finished 17-32 (6-18 Big Ten) in 2018 and failed to make the Big Ten Tournament after a second-to-last place conference finish. In Allen’s three seasons as the Wildcats’ skipper, Northwestern has combined for an overall record of 59-101.

After finishing the 2017 season just one win away from a rare NCAA tournament appearance, the Wildcats regressed last year, struggling to find consistency on the mound and at the plate.

NU pitchers combined for a dismal 6.25 team ERA last season while batting just .250 as a squad on the season compared to a combined opponent average of .291. Despite last year’s disappointing campaign, Coach Allen has renewed optimism for the upcoming season.

“We have a good mix of guys of young guys that are hungry and guys that are returning embarrassed from last season for lack of a better term,” Coach Allen said in a press conference last week. “We feel better about our depth this year.”

Several big names are back — infielders Jack Dunn and Alex Erro and pitcher Hank Christie all earned Big Ten Preseason Honors.

Still, this is a young team. Here’s a look at some of the new faces for the Wildcats this year, and how the team breaks down position-by-position:

Infield

2018 Infield Stats

Name Position Year Starts Slash line Home Runs
Name Position Year Starts Slash line Home Runs
Jack Dunn SS Senior 48 .314/.401/.378 1
Alex Erro 2B Junior 48 .297/.376/.396 3
Willie Bourbon 1B Senior 48 .270/.379/.454 6
Charlie Maxwell 3B Junior 38 .239/.340/.384 2
Jack Kelly C Sophomore 15 .133/.246/.250 2

The good news for the Wildcats is that it returns nearly all its infield production from last year.

The bad news is last year’s production wasn’t very good.

Senior shortstop Jack Dunn and junior second baseman Alex Erro will man the middle of the infield for the third season in a row and first basemen Willie Bourbon should continue to be a source of power at the plate for the Wildcats.

Uncertainty remains at the catcher position, where NU will have to replace last year’s leading slugger and home run hitter Jack Claeys. Coach Allen said sophomore Jack Kelly and freshman Michael Trautwein are the favorites to earn the start behind the plate to begin the season.

Junior Charlie Maxwell should take over the reins at the third base to start the season after the departure of Connor Lind. Maxwell started 38 games last season and hit .239 on the year.

“We have really good competition at all sports this year, but especially behind the plate,” Allen said. “It’s probably going to take a few weeks for us to figure out who’s at the top of the order. It’s all about who’s consistent.”

Outfield

2018 Outfield Stats

Player Position Year Starts Slash Home Runs
Player Position Year Starts Slash Home Runs
Leo Kaplan LF/DH Junior 44 .209/.261/.285 2
David Dunn CF Redshirt freshman 10 (injured) .324/.410/.529 0
Casey O'Laughlin OF Sophomore 26 .224/.276/.299 1
Ben Dickey OF Senior 47 .227/.377/.282 1

The Northwestern outfield also returns the majority of its core from last season, and should hopefully see improved play with the return of a healthy David Dunn.

Dunn started off hot in his freshman season, batting .324 in 10 games to before suffering a season-ending injury that forced him to redshirt. Given the way he impressed when he was healthy last year, Dunn will likely get the nod in CF, but will face competition from senior Ben Dickey who started 47 games in 2018.

Sophomore Casey O’Laughlin made 27 starts last season and will likely assume one of the corner outfield positions alongside Dickey/Dunn.

Junior Leo Kaplan looked showed promising potential after a strong 2017 freshman season, but struggled mightily at the plate last year with just a .209 average. Still, Kaplan started 44 games in 2018, and should frequent the starting lineup this year whether it be in left field or as a designated hitter.

Pitching

2018 Pitching Stats

Name Year IP Games (Started) ERA
Name Year IP Games (Started) ERA
Jack Pagliarini Sophomore 47.1 12 (8) 3.99
Quinn Lavelle Sophomore 72.2 13 (13) 4.21
Hank Christie Junior 68.1 14 (14) 4.61
Josh Levy Junior 26.1 22 (0) 6.84
Anthony Alepra Sophomore 18.1 8 (1) 6.87
Matt Gannon Junior 24.2 11 (4) 7.3
Ryan Bader Sophomore 30.2 15 (4) 7.34
Sam Lawrence Junior 13 12 (0) 7.62
Danny Katz senior 24 14 (0) 10.88

After posting a 6.25 team ERA in 2018, pitching is this team’s biggest question heading into the new season. Sophomore Quinn Lavelle and junior Hank Christie return as the team’s two most proven starters and both said they feel confident after solid 2018 campaigns.

Junior Nick Paciorek is perhaps the most notable addition to NU’s pitching staff as Coach Allen said the former catcher will now permanently be used as a bullpen option. His fellow pitchers said they feel Paciorek could offer much-need assistance to an NU bullpen in dire need of consistency.

“[Nick] has actually taught me more than I’ve taught him [this offseason],” said Hank Christie. “He looks like he’s been there his whole career. He’s throwing hard and throwing strikes.

Coach Allen said pitching consistency must be a focus for this year’s team if they have any chance in competing for an NCAA tournament berth.

“Bullpen play is not proven,” he said. “We don’t have guys that went out and did it last year and it can’t take 5-6 weeks to find that it needs to come sooner. We need to have 8-10 guys that are ready to go and attack the zone no matter the opponent.”


Northwestern opens its season against BYU on Friday night in Arizona. You can view the full 2019 schedule here.