Cooper’s Town, Pt. 2: The 2015 Penn State Baseball Season Preview
As we get into February and the snow continues to fall in Happy Valley, it’s hard to believe baseball season is approaching. The grass is still hidden by snow, the temperatures are still below freezing, and the sun rarely shows its face in State College. However, baseball is right around the corner. The Nittany Lions are lacing up their cleats, breaking in their mitts, and getting ready to kick off the 2015 season.
Penn State baseball ended last season on a 2-18 note in its last 20 games, and ended the season with an 18-32 record in Rob Cooper’s inaugural year as head coach. In Cooper’s second year, he will be looking to help turn Penn State’s baseball program in a winning direction. Nittany Lions baseball fans are hoping for a winning season, but since Penn State has only won 32 games in its last 2 seasons, the first step for this team is a 20-win season. That kind of success hasn’t been achieved since 2012, when the Nittany Lions went 29-27 and 15-9 in the Big Ten.
Feb. 20-22 at No. 25 Texas A&M (3 games)
March 10-11 at No. 11 South Carolina (2 games)
March 14-15 at No. 30 Liberty (2 games)
March 20-22 vs. Indiana (3 games)
April 10-12 vs. Michigan (3 games)
April 24-26 vs. Illinois (3 games)
Penn State’s schedule is tougher than last year’s. According to Boyd’s World, a college baseball analysis and statistics site, Penn State’s strength of schedule is No. 88 in the country for Division I teams. This is a huge difference from last year’s schedule, which ranked at No. 137 in the country for the 2014. Penn State will have a challenge ahead of it this season to reach 20 wins, and will need a huge impact from some of the team leaders to do so.
Meet the Team
This team is led by senior Taylor Skerpon, junior Jack Anderson, and a collection of other key contributors. Skerpon, a senior infielder — who mainly plays at second base — from Sayre, Pa., led the team last year in stolen bases (10), second with runs scored (26), and third with RBIs (17). Anderson, a junior closer and relief pitcher from Evanston, Illinois, led the team with four wins (4-2) and fives saves, while also not allowing a home-run. This team also includes three players on the Big Ten Players to Watch list:
SS Jim Haley (Soph.): In his freshmen campaign, Haley started 42 out of the 44 games he played in, while hitting .265 with 12 RBIs and 17 runs in 2014. Even though Haley led the team in errors with 20 and had a .889 fielding percentage, Skerpon described a major improvement in the sophomore’s game.
“I really think he’s a completely different player,” he said. “It’s amazing what one year will do for a young guy like that. His maturity level has gone way up. His skills working with [hitting coach] Ross [Oeder] and the other guys in the infield every day. He’s definitely a completely different player and I’m excited to see what he can do this year.”
3B Christian Helsel (RS Soph.): The transfer out of Ole Miss will be a nice addition to this Nittany Lions team. Helsel started 23 out of the 39 games he played for the Rebels, primarily at second base, and got experience in the SEC tournament last season. The redshirt sophomore tallied 15 hits and will be a key member of the Nittany Lions’ infield. Helsel will be coming back close to home to play for the Nittany Lions as he is from Altoona, Penn. He plays almost anywhere in the infield, so Helsel will be a nice defensive player to watch on this team.
LHP Taylor Lehman (Fr.): As the only freshman listed in the Big Ten Players to Watch list, Lehman will be looked to as a key contributor to the Nittany Lions’ rotation. In his senior year at Keystone Oaks High School, Lehman pitched 43 innings with a 1.48 ERA and struck out 84 hitters. Lehman also helped his team win the 2013 sectional championship and reach the PIAA state semifinals. As far as his hitting goes, Lehman hit .476 with 12 RBIs and 20 runs to cap off a spectacular senior year.
Along with Taylor Lehman, this class of freshmen this season is the first recruiting class of coach Rob Cooper for the Nittany Lions. This year’s freshmen class includes five pitchers and one catcher. Along with the five pitchers are three redshirt freshmen pitchers, making eight new pitchers for this team. This pitcher-heavy class will help aid a Penn State pitching staff that allowed an ERA of 4.77 last season.
Penn State will start off the season on a road trip to Elon and Texas A&M, while also playing other notable non-conference opponents such as Liberty and South Carolina.
When Coach Cooper was asked about the early non-conference schedule, he said he was “jacked up about it” the situation.
“I’ve said this from the beginning, the only way you get better is by putting yourselves in those types of environments and playing those types of teams,” Cooper said.
Even though Penn State has not had great success with baseball over the past couple of years, I believe that Cooper and the newcomers can give this team what it needs to do to win.
Even though it only won 18 times in Cooper’s first season, you really can’t judge his coaching ability based off of 2014. This team has the potential to do better than it did last season. The youth in its pitching staff and the improvements to its infield should affect this team significantly for now and for the future.
This Nittany Lions team will win over 20 games, and if I’d have to be exact I would predict a 22-33 record. Even though it has a tougher schedule and it lost some key seniors, Cooper’s system has now been fully implemented and everyone should be on the same page. The addition of eight freshmen pitchers will provide the Nittany Lions with some more variety in the bullpen and in the rotation.
Penn State will start its season at Elon for a three-game series starting this Friday and a double-header on Saturday before it heads to College Station to play the Texas A&M Aggies for a three-game series from Feb. 20-22.