The baseball season is back! Northwestern kicks off its 2022 season on February 18 when the ‘Cats travel to Birmingham to play the UAB Blazers in a four game set. The Wildcats finished last season under .500 yet again, but are now under new leadership with head coach Josh Reynolds. Reynolds was promoted from pitching coach after Spencer Allen stepped down from the program following the conclusion of the 2021 campaign.
It’s bound to be a season of change in Evanston, as NU lost three key players to the MLB Draft last spring. Still, the ‘Cats hold a handful of top conference players. It is up to Reynolds to develop the Wildcats into a well-rounded team capable of finishing over .500 for the first time in 22 years.
Northwestern was one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the Big Ten last season, despite ending 15-21. Why? People love the long ball. The Berenice Bombers hit 66 home runs in only 36 games in 2021, a rate that bested the conference. Additionally, the ‘Cats led the conference in slugging percentage.
Those increased home run numbers led to success early in the season. Northwestern began the season at 7-3, and were getting help from the pitching. Over Allen’s tenure, the pitching staff has struggled, yet they were much of the reason behind many of those early wins. A team ERA of 5.00 may not sound impressive, but it was incredible improvement to see for the ‘Cats.
Soon thereafter, things began to unravel. Northwestern finished 8-18 down the stretch with a team ERA north of seven. The offense continued to put up run support, but the pitching staff routinely surrendered double-digit scores.
The Wildcats finished 11th in team ERA at 5.87 and 12th in opponent batting average and WHIP. Outside of junior Mike Doherty, there was no sense of consistency. Northwestern figured out half of the game, but the lack of pitching is what derailed a promising season.
With success comes national attention, in particular from major league scouts. The heart of a powerful lineup was picked through and led to the departures of juniors Shawn Goosenberg and Michael Trautwein. Both were drafted last spring, Trautwein by the Cincinnati Reds and Goosenberg by the nearby Chicago White Sox.
Goosenberg was undoubtedly Northwestern’s best player in 2021. The infielder hit .362 with 14 home runs and a 1.143 OPS, naturally earning him All-Big Ten First Team honors. Additionally, Goosenberg played in every game for the team and hit three walk-off home runs.
Trautwein was equally a mark of consistency. The catcher and outfielder played in all 36 games of the season and put together an OPS of .867, sparked by 11 home runs. Trautwein’s offensive prowess was often overshadowed from the spectacular seasons of many others in the lineup, but the former All-Big Ten Freshman Team member was one of the rocks for the team.
There weren’t many huge losses from the pitching staff, but the one to note is Tyler Uberstine. The junior was drafted by the Boston Red Sox after he threw 39.2 innings at an ERA of 5.90 and 1.84 WHIP. Though he struggled last season, Uberstine was one of the aces of the staff in the shortened 2020 season and held opponents to a .160 average in 22 innings.
What hurts Northwestern most about losing Uberstine is his experience. On a generally inexperienced staff, having pitchers with track records of success is critical. In Uberstine, the ‘Cats lose an anchor of the rotation with major league stuff.
As historic as Goosenberg’s season was, junior Anthony Calarco had an equally as memorable 2021. The Wilmette native finished with 13 doubles, nine home runs, a .295 average and a .943 OPS. Strong numbers at the plate paired with excellent defense at first base earned Calarco All-Big Ten First Team honors last season and steps in as a Preseason All-Big Ten player.
With the departure of Goosenberg, Calarco and catcher Stephen Hrustich now become the leaders of the offense. Hrustich put together a strong season behind the dish, with 11 home runs and an OPS of 1.009. Northwestern will likely not find the same power stroke they had a season ago. Instead, Reynolds will rely on unproven players such as Jay Beshears and Alex Calarco to consistently produce while in the lineup. Having veteran leadership with a track record of historic success while in the program will rub off on younger players and give them opportunities to produce.
While the pitching staff is full of question marks, the program ace Mike Doherty remains a staple. The junior continued to prove a steady option in 2021, with a team-best 3.69 ERA in 63.1 innings, including a 2.52 ERA in his first six starts.
The Wildcats also brought in one transfer this past offseason in Ruben Fontes. Fontes played 51 games as a senior for Davidson University, hitting .250 with an OPS of .864. He also hit a team-best 12 home runs for DU to go along with 32 RBIs.
Of all returning players for Northwestern, Doherty may be the most important. Northwestern learned in 2021 that home runs don’t mean a thing if they are not paired with strong performances on the mound. Pitching is a premium at every level, and that holds especially true in college baseball. In order for the ‘Cats to find a surprise success season, it will need to be behind Doherty continuing as a steady presence in an overall shaky rotation.
Everything with Northwestern comes down to pitching execution. The Wildcats have consistently ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in pitching over the last decade, and have finished towards the bottom of the conference as a result. Reliable options in the rotation and bullpen must emerge outside of Doherty.
Grant Comstock is a name that may emerge as the season progresses. The first-year was a top-500 recruit, according to Perfect Game, and has a fastball that sits in the low-90s. Standing at 6’6”, Comstock has potential to add a lot of velocity with a Division I training program.
This season will likely become a developmental year. The lineup, behind Anthony Calarco and Hrustich, should remain productive and keep the ‘Cats in games. In order for Northwestern to truly break through and become a conference contender, they need to invest in pitching development. Under Reynolds, this is entirely possible. In his first year as head coach, though, a drastic turnaround seems unlikely. Look for Northwestern to be a competitive squad that will steal a few games from top-tier teams, but the talent is not there for a run at the postseason.