In 2017, Spencer Allen’s second season as head coach, Northwestern enjoyed quite the turnaround from 2016.
With a 27-30 record, they won 11 more games and lost 10 fewer games that they had the year before. By going 13-11 in Big Ten play, it was also the team’s first season above .500 in league play since they had that same conference record in 2010. That mark was also good enough to get them into the Big Ten Tournament, also for the first time since 2010, where they advanced to the tournament final before falling to Iowa. To top it off, it was the program’s highest win total since 2000.
So what can we expect from Northwestern in 2018?
It’s tough to say. With the jump the Wildcats made in 2017, it seems foolhardy to underestimate them. On the other hand, sometimes in a program rebuild, a team can be further along in its development but still take a step back from a strict wins and losses standpoint, particularly if the roster continues to turn over as seniors move out of the program.
Northwestern certainly fits that bill, at least as far as having to replace veteran players goes.
The team’s two best hitters, Joe Hoscheit (.356/.436/.557, 14 2B, 7 HR, 45 RBI) and Matt Hopfner (.301/.368/.447, 16 2B) graduated after last season, as did swingman pitchers Cooper Wetherbee (4-3, 3.17 ERA) and Josh Davis (4-2, 3.86), and relief arm Pete Hofman (5.31 ERA, 46 K/39 IP, .238 OBA).
That’s a lot of top-end production to lose, but it was clear last season that a young core has emerged in the program, and those guys could very well be up for star turns in 2018.
Alex Erro is a versatile hitter who could fit in nicely as a table setter or in the middle of the order. In 2017, he did both on the way to hitting .275/.324/.386 with 11 doubles and five home runs. Outfielder Leo Kaplan showed potential as a power bat, albeit in a part-time role last season. He played in 37 games (22 of which were starts) and hit .287 with eight doubles and four homers, the latter total good for third on the team behind Hoscheit and Erro. Also returning will be Connor Lind, who was third on the team with 31 RBI.
Catcher Jack Claeys didn’t put up gaudy offensive numbers last season (.250/.379/.365, 8 2B, 3 HR), but he’s a guy Spencer Allen clearly trusts to get it done at the plate.
“I can’t say enough about Jack Claeys,” Allen said after a win over Minnesota at the Big Ten Tournament. “I’m telling you that guy this year has gotten more big hits for the Wildcats.”
Allen’s words proved prescient later in the tournament, when Claeys’s three-run homer against Maryland helped lift his team to the tournament final.
The two top base stealers for the Wildcats, Jack Dunn (11 SB) and Ben Dickey (10 SB), will be back as well. If they can be a bit more efficient on the bases (each was thrown out trying to steal about one-third of the time) and improve their hitting for average (Dunn and Dickey hit .231 and .237, respectively) they can be spark plugs in the lineup.
On the mound, Hank Christie (5-4, 4.01), last season’s top innings eater in the rotation, will be a key returning piece, as will Sam Lawrence (2.85 ERA, 47.1 IP), who was the club’s most reliable reliever. Tyler Lass (3.92, 20.2 IP) and Josh Levy (4.95 ERA, 36.1 IP) are two other experienced arms Allen will have at his disposal.
Perhaps most importantly, this is a hungry group. As impressive as last year’s improvement was, and as necessary as that step was in this program’s development, they weren’t satisfied with just being congratulated for getting into the Big Ten Tournament. They were interested in winning.
“We’re a competitive group of guys,” Erro said after his team’s Big Ten Tournament-opening win against Michigan. “We knew that just making the Big Ten Tournament wasn’t enough. We want to come here and make some noise, and we want to gain some respect for our program. I think we’re doing that by showing top-notch teams that we’re not here to mess around.”
That type of attitude bodes well for Northwestern’s continued improvement. Whether or not they build upon last season’s successes in terms of wins and losses in 2018 remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the foundation of Northwestern baseball is being laid, and all signs point toward things continuing to head in the right direction.