Image credit: Indiana State lefthander Geremy Guerrero (Photo by Will Becque)
CARBONDALE, Ill. – If we’re being honest, from the outside looking in, there was little reason to expect that Indiana State lefthander Geremy Guerrero was on the verge of becoming the best pitcher in the Missouri Valley Conference in 2021.
Through his first four seasons on campus, he was a serviceable but unspectacular swingman on the staff. In 39 appearances coming into the season, including 12 starts, he had a 5.38 ERA in 73.2 innings.
And it’s not as if he was a pitcher with elite stuff who hadn’t learned how to harness it. Rather, Guerrero’s fastball is a mid-to-upper 80s offering that he has to locate well to be effective, pairing it with a couple of breaking balls and a changeup.
Despite all of that, Guerrero has become the undisputed breakout star in the conference this season. Coming into his start Wednesday against Illinois State at the MVC Tournament , he was 9-1 on the season with a 1.92 ERA, 93 strikeouts compared to 12 walks and a .171 opponent batting average in 84.1 innings.
So what’s changed? Fundamentally, perhaps not much.
“Everyone’s asking me that question. Everyone thinks there’s one key,” Guerrero said. “I think it’s a culmination of everything that I’ve worked on in the offseason, the fall, the winter, the summer when we couldn’t play baseball. Just trusted myself and the other guys that have come before me, what they did (to be) successful, pick things from them, pick their brain a little bit, and I credit a lot of that to my success.”
But digging a bit deeper, there are some things you can point to that have helped him make the jump. He’s added a cutter, which now gives him five different pitches to draw from – fastball, changeup, curveball, slider and cutter. Long story short, he can throw the kitchen sink at hitters.
“He does enough to get you to have to honor an area, and when you start to be aggressive in that area, he can use that against you, that’s what makes him very effective,” coach Mitch Hannahs said.
Building on that, he’s now mastered the art of tunneling, giving him the ability to make all five pitches look identical coming out of his hand.
“He’s one of those guys that everything tunnels, and everything works together,” Hannahs said. “I think from his first outing against Pitt, when he shut them out, to how well he threw at Tennessee, and how well he’s thrown all year. We’ve played some good clubs and they just don’t seem to get great swings on him. And if you sit back there and watch, it’s like ‘how are they not hitting this?’ But I think everything comes out of the same slot and he can throw any pitch any time.”
There was also a key decision made as the season got underway to really double down on Guerrero’s fastball as the pitch to work off of. Despite still averaging just under 85 mph this season, he throws the pitch nearly 60% of the time, throws it for a strike 77% of the time and uses it to set up everything else in his repertoire.
“I think at the beginning of the year, before I started, I think that wasn’t going to be our goal (to lean on the fastball),” Guerrero said. “I was going to try to get guys out with my changeup and my new cutter.”
All of those improvements together have allowed Guerrero to dominate all season without dominating stuff. But then again, there’s something to be said for the fact that the Indiana State lefthander is a change of pace from just about anything you see in college baseball in 2021, even at the mid-major level.
“For college hitters right now that are trained to hit the fastball and hit the fastball and hit the fastball, (like) ‘I don’t care if it’s 100 (mph), I’m going to get to it,’ it’s just a change that they’re not used to seeing. I think he’s enough of a difference in terms of look that is effective,” Hannahs said.
Guerrero’s Wednesday outing, which resulted in a 5-2 win against Illinois State, was very much par for the course for what Guerrero has done this season.
He threw a complete game, his second of the season, giving up seven hits and two runs with one walk and four strikeouts. It’s not as if the Redbirds had zero success against him. They did have seven hits and a couple of runs, after all, but there were no extended rallies. The highest number of batters Guerrero faced in a frame was five.
It was the 10th time this season that he’s thrown at least seven innings, the 11th time he’s allowed two or fewer runs in an outing and the 10th time he’s allowed one or fewer walks in a start. It’s also an impressive outing in context, considering that every team facing off against the league’s pitcher of the year, as Guerrero was this season, is going to come in wanting to make a statement.
“You (have) seen a lot of pitchers of the year come to this tournament and get their rears handed to them,” Hannahs said. “I think the other team is ready, and you’re talking about (being) ready for a finesse guy. It’s not like he’s going to throw something by you. He’s going to set everything up, he’s got to mix and match, in and out.”
Guerrero’s season has changed a lot both for Indiana State and for himself. The team came into the season without a clear-cut Friday starter, and he’s given them that and more. With the Sycamores sometimes struggling to get consistent starting pitching behind Guerrero, you can argue his emergence in the Friday role has as much to do with the team being in position to secure a bid into the NCAA Tournament as anything else.
Personally, with what he’s done this season, Guerrero has put himself in position to get a shot to play pro baseball after being passed over each of the last two seasons.
He’s very much not the archetype of pitcher that major league organizations are looking for in 2021, but when he’s collecting outs like he has this season, it’s impossible to fixate on what he’s not when he’s doing such an excellent job of maximizing who is.
And who he is, against all odds, is indisputably the MVC’s best pitcher.