By STEVE KRAH
Jeff Mercer was once in their shoes.
That’s why he takes the approach he does as a head coach in college baseball.
Mercer, who was hired last summer to run the program at Indiana University, wants to give his players their best chance to showcase what they can do.
With that in mind, Mercer and his staff (Dan Held, Justin Parker, Casey Dykes, Scott Rolen and Denton Sagerman) design their fall practice schedule with individual work first before intrasquad and exhibition games.
“Development has always been the core foundational piece of our coaching philosophy,” says Mercer, who came to the Hoosiers after successful two-season run as head coach at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. “You really need to take the time to coach the players. We want to make sure we put guys in position to maximize their strengths.
“You only get to find those strengths through building the relationships and focusing on the individual development of the players.”
Rolen, director of player development, brings his expertise from 17 Major League Baseball seasons and helped the staff lay out the whole 12-week fall plan. Former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and manager Mike Matheny was consulted on coaching and catching. New York Yankees infield coordinator Miguel Cairo was asked for his guidance.
Talking with players, coaches get to see what the goals and the prism through which they view life and baseball.
“It helps a ton to know where they’re coming from when you’re trying to coach them,” says Mercer.
This is not a new concept with Mercer, who played NCAA Division I baseball at the University of Dayton and Wright State before beginning his coaching career.
“We’ve always done individuals first,” says Mercer, 33. “A lot of programs will do the team portion first. That’s their prerogative. I understand that.
“For us, if I look at it from a young man’s perspective. I want to come in and settle in. I want to get in the weight room, get my body right. I want to learn what your expectations of me are as a player.”
The athletes want to know what is expected of them from mechanical, workload and style/brand of baseball standpoints.
“All of those take a lot of time for a player to understand,” says Mercer. “The player will do whatever the expectation is. They always rise to the occasion.
“So if you take five or six weeks and you give them time and structure and coach them like crazy.”
“If I’m a young man, I want to be at my best when I’m competing and showcasing myself in the fall and earning an opportunity to play in the spring.”
By putting the individual work first in the fall, players can figure out where their classes is and make the necessary physical and mechanical adjustments.
Mercer says fear of failure is taken away through this approach.
“Fear of failure is what holds back the most successful people,” says Mercer. “If I remove the fear of failure, I can just go grow and compete.
“All the lessons we’ve been taught can be applied much more readily into the game.
“At the end of the day, these players have one career. It’s our job to help them maximize their opportunity to play this game.”
Mercer says that’s what he wants for his son if he grows up to play college baseball. Jeff and Stephanie Mercer welcome Grady into the world in June.
What brand of baseball will the Hoosiers play in 2019?
“This team is more offensive and can just flat drive the baseball as opposed to a small-ball style,” says Mercer. “Let’s not take a guy who may hit 15 home runs and try to convince him to bunt for 30 hits.
Let’s let him get into good counts. I want to run the bases, but let’s make sure when we have a guy at the plate who can drive the ball, we don’t take the bat out of his hands. We play in a more offensive ballpark (Bart Kaufman Field’s dimensions are 330 feet down the left field line, 400 to center and 340 to right).”
Based on the fall roster, some of the Hoosiers’ top returning hitters are juniors Matt Gorski (.356 average, 8 home runs, 40 runs batted in for 2018) and Scotty Bradley (.326/7/19) and seniors Ryan Fineman (.309/7/37), Matt Lloyd (.275/9/41) and Logan Kaletha (.261/8/31).
Outfielder Gorski (Hamilton Southeastern High School graduate) catcher Fineman (California) and outfielder Kaletha (Michigan City) swing from the right side while infielder/catcher Bradley (New Jersey) and utility player Lloyd (Alberta, Canada) are lefties.
There’s also might in the relief core and not just in the late innings.
“We’ve got more bullpen arms,” says Mercer. “We need to make sure we really use our bullpen to accentuate our starters.
“We have mid-relief guys who are good so let’s make sure we utilize that strength.”
With Mercer being new at IU, he came in with no preconceived ideas about players.
“I don’t know how successful or unsuccessful we were,” says Mercer. “I purposely did not look at any of the stats or video from last year.
“I came in with a blank slate for everybody.”
Mercer has never appointed captains, but lets leadership reveal itself.
“Those personalities step forward on their own and you try to empower them,” says Mercer.
When he transferred from the Dayton to Wright State as a player, the coaching staff did not tell him he could not be a leader because he was the new kid on the block.
“I was very empowered to lead early in my time at Wright State and I felt comfortable in that role,” says Mercer. “A big part of my success was me getting to be myself.
“I hope the guys here feel the freedom to be whoever they want to be now and moving forward.”
Mental skills was important at Wright State where Mercer brought in Diamyn Hall as the first full-time coach in D-I baseball devoted to that side of the game. At IU, mental skills are talked about on a regular basis and Mercer leads most of the discussions.
Mercer, a Franklin Community High School graduate, grew up around the Indiana program. His father, Jeff Mercer Sr., was an assistant for the Hoosiers in 1988 and 1989 and helped found the Indiana Bulls travel baseball organization.
Once the surreal idea of leading a team he cared so much about growing up wore off, Mercer began to focus on the day-to-day task.
“You have an ultimate responsibility to the young men and their families and the coaches that entrusted Indiana University to provide them a great experience,” says Mercer. “It’s an awesome responsibility, but it’s one we don’t ever take lightly.
“You can’t get caught being a fan. You’ve got go to work.”
Jeff Mercer is the head baseball coach at Indiana University. The 2019 season will be his first with the Hoosiers. (Indiana University Photo)
New Indiana University head baseball coach Jeff Mercer has been spending the time to develop individuals this fall. (Indiana University Photo)