2021 Big Ten Baseball Stock Watch: Which Programs Are Trending Up, Down?

Image credit: Nebraska coach Will Bolt (Photo courtesy of Nebraska)

No major conference had its season format altered more than the Big Ten in 2021. In a widely-criticized move, the conference made the decision before the season to close ranks and play a 44-game conference-only schedule rather than a normal 56-game slate, while also cutting its conference tournament in favor of awarding its automatic bid to the regular-season champion. 

We’ll never know how things would have shaken out had the conference played a normal schedule, but as it was, with Maryland, Michigan and Nebraska getting into regionals, the conference got something close to its normal number of teams in the postseason. And by advancing to regional finals, Maryland and Nebraska proved to be more than just products of the insular Big Ten schedule. 

In 2019, Michigan came one win away from a national title, and it was interesting to think about what that success could mean for the Big Ten. Would Michigan become a juggernaut in the league? Would other schools invest to keep up? Would that result simply be an outlier when it’s all said and done? Because of the shortened 2020 season and the altered 2021 campaign, we haven’t really been able to draw any conclusions yet and we’ll have to look to 2022 and beyond for answers. 

Presented here is a team-by-team analysis for every team in the Big Ten, as well as the trajectory of the program moving forward. 

Illinois (22-22, 22-22), no postseason ????

Illinois was a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team from start to finish in 2021. At no point did the Illini really look the part of a team that should be in postseason consideration, but at the same time, they were dangerous enough that they weren’t ever going to roll over. Just ask Iowa, which had its postseason hopes dashed in large part thanks to a series loss to Illinois late in the season. 

Illinois was in regionals as recently as 2019, and its program rhythm typically features a couple of rebuilding years after a regional appearance before making another postseason run. With talented players like first baseman Justin Janas, lefthander Cole Kirschsieper and righthander Riley Gowens returning, a move back toward playing June baseball isn’t out of the question, but it would require replacing the lost production of the likes of shortstop Branden Comia, third baseman Jackson Raper, righthander Andrew Hoffman and lefthander Nathan Lavender, who were all key pieces last season. 

Indiana (26-18, 26-18), no postseason ????

The Hoosiers last season missed the postseason for the first time since 2016. It wasn’t that the bottom fell out for Indiana by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just that its resume was pretty empty. It took care of the teams it was supposed to beat but also went a combined 3-7 against Maryland, Michigan and Nebraska, the Big Ten’s three postseason teams. 

It’s easy to see Indiana being the team most hurt by the Big Ten’s altered schedule, because in most years, the Hoosiers hit the road early in the season and play some tough competition. Maybe it would have lost many of those games, too, but at least Indiana would have had the chance to add to the resume outside of the conference. Last season was a setback, but it should create no real concern for the overall positive trajectory of the program. 

Iowa (26-18, 26-18), no postseason ??

It was a familiar story for Iowa in 2021. As was the case in 2018 and 2019, it came down the stretch with a postseason bid in its sights. In this case, after a 5-4 win over Illinois to begin a three-game series in mid May, the Hawkeyes were 22-14 and had only the rest of the Illinois series and series against Northwestern and Michigan State ahead of them. But they dropped the final two games against the Illini and then lost the series to the Wildcats as well, which effectively ended any hopes of a regional bid. 

There’s really no doubting Iowa’s ability to punch above its weight. It rarely has the best prospects or most accomplished players in the conference, its assistant coaches often get poached for jobs elsewhere, and yet, it’s almost always right in the thick of it. But at the same time, you can’t help but feel like Iowa is a bit stuck right now and struggling to get back on track. A solid core returning on the mound, with the key addition of hard-throwing righthander Adam Mazur from South Dakota State, along with a large incoming group of players will work to make sure late-season slumps don’t become any more of a habit for the Hawkeyes. 

Maryland (30-18, 28-16), reached regionals ??

Maryland got off to an inauspicious start in 2021. After a loss to Ohio State on March 28, the Terrapins were 5-9 with a series loss to Michigan State, a series split with Rutgers and a 1-3 weekend against Iowa and Ohio State on the ledger. From there, though, they went 23-7 to capture their first regional appearance since 2017 and first under coach Rob Vaughn. 

Last season was a return to form for Maryland. When it entered the Big Ten and immediately went to a second straight super regional in 2015, it was easy to assume that the Terrapins would exist among the best teams in the conference into perpetuity. It didn’t quite work out that way, as they made it into the postseason just once in the following four years, but perhaps now they’re back on that path. 

Michigan (27-19, 27-17), reached regionals ????

The Wolverines were the steadiest team in the Big Ten over the first half of the season, as they didn’t lose a series until dropping one to Rutgers in late April. They were a borderline Top 25 team during this time and looked poised to cruise into the postseason. Things got hairy from there, though, as Michigan went 8-8 in its final 16 Big Ten games. It still made it into the field of 64 as an at-large team, but it was announced as one of the last four teams in. 

It simultaneously feels like it was just yesterday and also 10 years ago that Michigan was in the CWS finals. On one hand, the 2021 season was the first full season since that time, and for Big Ten teams, it probably hardly felt like a full season at all. But on the other hand, the Michigan team that was on the field last season was almost a completely different team than the one that took the field in Omaha in 2019. Even after an uneven season when it hung onto a postseason spot by the skin of its teeth, it’s still clear that Michigan is in an elite group of Big Ten baseball programs capable of truly competing to play baseball in June year after year. 

Michigan State (17-27, 17-27), no postseason ??

Michigan State’s season started off with a series win over Maryland in the Spartans’ home away from home in Greenville, S.C., but that success ended up as more of an outlier than a harbinger of things to come in 2021, as they had just three winning weekends all season on the way to an 11th-place finish in the standings. 

Michigan State is in need of a spark. It hasn’t been to a regional since 2012 and since being a bubble team a couple of times in the handful of years after that, the Spartans haven’t really even been in the conversation. The Big Ten has gotten more competitive from top to bottom in recent years, and as that has happened, Michigan State has struggled to keep up on an annual basis. 

Minnesota (6-31, 6-31), no postseason ??

Last season was a lost season for Minnesota. There’s just no other way to put it. On the field, injuries and inconsistency led to its pitching staff putting up an 8.09 ERA, and with a .236/.323/.357 slash line, the lineup wasn’t capable of bailing the pitching out as often as it needed to. Off the field, Covid-19 cancellations meant that the Gophers didn’t come close to playing their full allotment of 44 games. It all added up to the worst record in coach John Anderson’s long and illustrious career in Minneapolis. 

The good news for Minnesota is that it should be better by default in 2022 and beyond. Its luck can’t possibly be as bad as it was last season and the track record of success at Minnesota is simply too long for there not to be improvement. That said, Minnesota has spun its wheels a bit in the aftermath of its standout 2018 season that featured a trip to super regionals, so there will be urgency for things to improve in short order. 

Nebraska (34-14, 31-12), reached regionals ??

Nebraska was the model of consistency in 2021. It had precisely one bad weekend all season, a confounding series sweep at the hands of Rutgers in early May, on the way to winning the Big Ten regular-season title by three-and-a-half games over Maryland. Then, in the Fayetteville Regional, the Cornhuskers pushed host and top overall seed Arkansas to a deciding seventh game before being eliminated. 

Last season’s title was actually the second for Nebraska since joining the Big Ten. The last one came in 2017, but in that instance, the Huskers came out on top in a group of six teams that were all within two games of each other. By contrast, they dominated the conference last season. Sometimes, standout seasons like that are one-offs and rebuilding begins in earnest the very next year. But there’s no denying the feeling that Nebraska is a program with a lot of positive momentum right now, and its hope is that last season’s title was just the kick-off of a sustained period of excellence. 

Northwestern (15-21, 15-21), no postseason ????

Northwestern got off to a strong start in 2021, winning or splitting series in each of the first four weekends of the season. At that point, the Wildcats were 9-5, but that run of form didn’t last. Not only did they go 6-16 the rest of the way, leading to a 10th-place finish in the conference standings, but they had eight games canceled down the stretch. 

At the end of the season, coach Spencer Allen stepped aside after six seasons at the helm. His tenure has to be considered a success when one considers the immense challenges of building a winner at Northwestern at a time when the Big Ten was rapidly improving as a baseball conference. Looking at the big picture, the Wildcats still haven’t been to the postseason since 1957. Because of the increased competition in the league, getting to the postseason has also arguably never been tougher, and that will present quite the challenge for interim coach Josh Reynolds, if he is elevated to the full-time role at some point, or whoever is next in line in Evanston. 

Ohio State (22-20, 22-20), no postseason ????

Loaded with a war chest of impressive pitchers, Ohio State came into the 2021 season as the kind of team that could really do some damage in the postseason if it could just find enough offense to be in a position to get into the NCAA tournament. Ultimately, its pitching staff wasn’t as stout as the talent suggested it could have been, and while freshman outfielder Kade Kern announced himself as a star, the lineup was inconsistent, keeping the Buckeyes out of the regional conversation. 

With three regional appearances in the last five seasons, Ohio State has been one of the most consistent Big Ten programs in recent years, and even in a down year like 2021, it still kept its head above water and would have qualified for the Big Ten Tournament had there been one last season. The Buckeyes will continue to be competitive, but in 2022, the offense will have to be better and they will have to replace a handful of those talented arms from last season. 

Penn State (18-24, 18-24), no postseason ??

After winning four, three and four conference games in the three seasons prior, Penn State showed improvement last season in going 18-24 against a tough Big Ten slate that included relatively few games against some of the teams at the bottom of the standings. By winning percentage, it was the second-best conference record for the Nittany Lions in Rob Cooper’s seven seasons at the helm, trailing only a 12-12 record in 2016. 

Considering how much Penn State struggled in recent years, you probably can’t overstate how important the improvement in 2021 was for the players who went through all that losing. There’s no arguing that last season was a big step forward for the program, but it will be tricky for the 2022 team to take a similar step, as Penn State had four players drafted, the most since 2007, including all three members of its weekend rotation. 

Purdue (16-26, 16-26), no postseason ??

With an offense that hit just 22 home runs, good for 12th in the 13-team league and one ahead of Michigan State, and a pitching staff that had a 5.89 ERA, 11th in the conference, Purdue struggled to a 12th-place finish in the Big Ten last season. The Boilermakers had two very good results in 2021, a 4-0 showing in a three-team pod with Illinois and Michigan State in Champaign in mid April and a series win over Minnesota on the road in late May, but neither were part of any longer stretch of inspired play. 

Purdue has shown that it can pop up from time to time and compete at the top of the Big Ten. It did it when it won the league in 2012 and hosted a regional under longtime coach Doug Schreiber and it did it in 2018 when it finished second in the league and was a two seed in a regional under Mark Wasikowski. Current coach Greg Goff has a track record of success that suggests he can lead Purdue to similar heights at some point. The bigger challenge is getting Purdue to a place where it can be more competitive at the top of the league year after year rather than being subject to massive rebuilds after each successful season. 

Rutgers (21-23, 21-23), no postseason ??

Under second-year coach Steve Owens, Rutgers had its best season as a member of the Big Ten in 2021, with its .477 winning percentage bettering the previous best mark, which was a .391 winning percentage in 2019. The pain of last season, of course, is that in any other year, the Scarlet Knights’ eighth-place finish in the standings would have netted them a spot in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time. With no tournament, though, that opportunity was not available, and that’s disappointing for a program that had been working toward that goal for a long time. 

Even without having a successful season validated with a conference tournament appearance, the 2021 season should be seen as nothing but a wild success. The Scarlet Knights were the only team to get the best of Nebraska during the regular season, and for the first time as members of the Big Ten, there seems to be wind at the back of Rutgers baseball and some well-placed belief that it can be more than a team banished to the bottom portion of the standings. 

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