As Northwestern baseball ventured to San Marcos, Texas to battle the Texas State Bobcats on Feb. 17, the game represented far more than just the beginning of a new season — in fact, it was the debut of Jim Foster as head coach of the Wildcats. Following a six-year tenure at Army that included four postseason berths, optimism abounded about what the former catcher could bring to his Evanston mantle.
However, Foster’s inaugural game in his new position was far from idyllic. NU lost 12-4; across its first series, the team surrendered a lofty 56 runs, being outscored by 38 runs en route to losing all three contests.
As it turned out, that dreadful beginning in the Lone Star State was only the onset of a dreary season for Northwestern.
Through 23 games, the Wildcats have won only three contests, sitting at 3-20. Although one such victory came against Purdue in West Lafayette last weekend, and though the vast majority of the Big Ten slate lies ahead, the team’s wide-ranging statistics reflect little expectation for sudden turnaround.
At this point in the season, the ‘Cats rank last in the conference in average, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, fielding percentage, ERA, hits allowed, runs allowed, strikeouts (pitching), batting average allowed and saves. Effectively, NU has been the worst team in the Big Ten in every major stat in all facets of the game.
To frame Northwestern’s struggles in a conference context does not adequately reflect the magnitude of the team’s play thus far. For instance, the Wildcats’ 9.26 ERA is the worst in the Power Five by a whopping 2.29 runs/nine innings. Further, the team’s -119 run differential, .949 fielding percentage and 11 home runs hit are all last across the five major conferences. In some cases, the ‘Cats stand alone in their futility, such as their run margin being 32 runs worse than the second-place team, Baylor.
In multiple ways, the Wildcats’ cataclysmic start to 2023 is a slice of an acerbic pie of a program that has few accomplishments in its history.
Northwestern baseball has not finished with a .500 record or better since 2003; that’s also the same year that the team last sat five or more games above .500 through any point in the season. Beyond that, NU has not posted a winning mark since 2000. For context, Mark Teixeira, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Kevin Youkilis were all in college that season.
Since Paul Stevens retired at the end of the 2015 campaign, the purple and white have had three head coaches in the ensuing eight seasons. However, the two before Foster — Spencer Allen and Josh Reynolds — only brought the ‘Cats to the Big Ten Tournament once. Collectively, the team has reached the postseason just six times this century and made the NCAA Tournament once, in 1957.
To their credit, the Wildcats have molded several quality MLB players, including Joe Girardi, J.A. Happ, George Kontos and Mark Loretta. On top of that, multiple alumni dot minor league rosters — including Jack Dunn, who plays for the Rochester Red Wings, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. However, this much is starkly clear: Northwestern baseball has scant honors as a program, especially in light of its resources.
Following a solid 24-27 campaign in 2022, the Wildcats lost major producers in Sean Sullivan, Ethan O’Donnell, Jay Beshears, Anthony Calarco and Patrick Herrera. The team was anticipated to perform slightly worse given its transitional roster and coaching staff this year, but there have hardly been any spots of solace so far.
More specifically, no ‘Cat pitcher has an ERA below 5.40; in fact, the last hurler to finish a season with an ERA under 4.00 was Mike Doherty in 2021. Also, only three players (Luke Tanner, Stephen Hrustich and Griffin Arnone) have an OPS above .790.
In the frame of larger program history, another pitiful season of Northwestern baseball is not out of the ordinary — even if the team is, effectively, the worst in the Power Five. However, 2023 stands out in another disconcerting direction: lack of cohesion.
After Foster took over as NU’s head man, he retained veteran hitting coach Dusty Napoleon and hired Jon Strauss to become his pitching coach. However, both left the program in late February, at which point the squad was still winless. Most concerningly, Napoleon had been in Evanston since 2016.
While Foster has filled two voids by bringing in Dennis Cook and Brian Anderson on March 7 and 28, respectively, the team has only three full-time coaches, one volunteer and no recruiting coordinator or director of operations, as Chris Beacom also departed.
With such a dearth of logistical coordination, mentorship and even game preparation, how is Northwestern baseball expected to proceed, let alone claw its way to wins? Is it legitimately possible to run a Big Ten operation in a relatively major sport without collective leadership? While the team’s jarringly bad record may reveal a lack of on-field success, these behind-the-scenes questions are much more significant — and don’t yield concrete outcomes.
Between both its position in the standings and its statistical profile, Northwestern has remained in the bottom echelon of Division I teams this season. For as abominably as past Wildcat teams have performed since 1957, 2023 sticks out like an extra sore thumb.
While the squad’s game performance has inspired little faith, what ultimately may be more troublesome is where the program goes from here, with a new manager and little additional guidance. Therein lies the real danger of the future of Northwestern baseball, a program with state-of-the-art college facilities and a litany of recruits — yet a clouded vision and little organizational structure.