A little over a year ago, then-rookie starting pitcher Sean Poppen could only watch from the dugout as Rice leftfielder Keenan Cook raced three-quarters of the way around the diamond. The triple plated three runs—all unearned—and all three would be credited to Poppen’s name.
Five innings, nine runs, seven hits, and two walks read his official box score after the Crimson’s 12-0 loss to the Owls. The defeat was the ninth in a row for Harvard, a streak that saw the team’s pitchers give up an average of more than eight runs a game.
Flash forward to March 21, 2014, with Poppen walking back to the Crimson bench after striking out two in the top of the seventh against Army. This time, the sophomore’s pitching line read differently. Seven innings, zero earned runs, six strikeouts, and one victory, his second of the young season.
“Having pitched with [Poppen] for an entire season, he has come back totally different,” senior pitcher Sam Dodge said. “I would say that he’s probably the most improved player on the team…. He’s made incredible improvements.”
And yet, even with four straight starts of at least five innings and a 2-1 record, Poppen does not have his spot at the top of the rotation set in stone because of improvement across the revamped pitching rotation.
“Sean Poppen…has earned [the number one starting position] for right now, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t flip at any point,” Harvard coach Bill Decker said.
Much has changed since the 10-31 2013 campaign that saw nine different Harvard pitchers take the hill and the pitching staff finish with a 6.31 earned run average. And though this year’s overall record hasn’t reflected the magnitude of the shift, the pitching has continued to improve. The pitchers have a 4.06 ERA through 17 games; the highest individual ERA of a pitcher with at least two starts is roughly equivalent to the best Crimson starter’s from last season.
According to Dodge—who, as the lone senior on the squad, has a 4.19 ERA through four starts—the source of the change has come from the bench.
“I think the culture shift starts at the top two years ago [with the coaching changes],” Dodge said. “[Assistant] coach Mike Zandler has really changed the culture of the pitching staff, and I think that the whole culture has changed from the top with Coach Decker.”
Even before the first pitch of the 2014 season was thrown, members of the rotation saw a transformation occurring.
“A lot of what [Zandler] teaches is about the mental side of baseball and pitching,” Dodge said. “I think that’s something that we didn’t necessarily focus a lot on in the past…. Guys are a lot more confident than they have been in my tenure here.”
If Coach Zandler and the starters have any say in the matter, according to freshman right-handed Nick Gruener, the group won’t be content with staying at the same level it is at right now.
“Our team didn’t exactly have a pitching coach the past couple years, and to have [Zandler] come in and do all the work with the pitchers is pretty huge because all of us…get to work with him a lot,” said Gruener, who threw seven and two-thirds innings in his first collegiate start. “[Zandler] expects a lot out of us, and we constantly try to impress him.”
In particular, Gruener has been doing quite a bit of impressing in his short time with Harvard. The Miami, Fla. native struck out 18 in his first four starts and owns a 4.01 ERA thus far this year.
“For what [Gruener] has shown us inside in our [Harvard bubble], for him to transition that to outside, was awesome,” Decker said. “He kept his composure [in his first start] and pitched with a purpose, which is what [Zandler] wanted him to do. He kept his composure and did a good job competing.”