A wristband reading “Proverbs27:17” sits on the left wrist of IU baseball Coach Jeff Mercer as he leans on the dugout fence Tuesday during his team's home opener against the University of Cincinnati.
The proverb reads, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” and it’s the motto Mercer has instilled onto his team in his first season with the Hoosiers.
The phrase refers to the depth the team has and how the battle for playing time will only motivate players to produce more.
“Iron sharpens iron, so having a good unit through and through, it’s going to be fantastic,” junior Scotty Bradley said. “It can only make the whole entire team better.”
Mercer comes to IU after two seasons head coaching Wright State University. But as a native of Bargersville, Indiana, taking the head coaching job at IU is a homecoming for Mercer.
While coaching the Raiders, Mercer was named the 2018 Horizon League Coach of the Year and developed a reputation as one of the best recruiters in the nation. In two seasons at the helm of Wright State’s baseball team, he led the Raiders to their first ever national ranking in 2017 and the best recruiting class in program history.
His ability to develop talent and recruit as a young coach — just 33 years old — led IU Athletic Director Fred Glass to call Mercer the Brad Stevens of baseball.
Stevens, who was the head coach of Butler University's men's basketball team from 2007-2013, is praised for his knowledge of the game at just the age of 42. His success with the Bulldogs led to his hire as head coach of the Boston Celtics in 2013.
“Predictably, we had very strong interest in this position,” Glass said in an IU Athletics release after the hire. “Jeff Mercer quickly rose to the top of an impressive field. I have no doubt that he is the right person to build on the success of Indiana baseball, including taking us back to Omaha.”
Now back in his home state, Mercer already has high expectations to meet. IU has been at the top of the Big Ten since 2008, leading the conference in total wins and NCAA Tournament appearances.
“You have to respect the success that the team has had, and the individuals have had,” Mercer said. “You have to be able to build a relationship first. Relationships are the key piece to being able to work with guys.”
Eight games into his tenure, Mercer has begun to develop more of a routine on and off the field. While he continues to adjust, it has been veteran players such as seniors Pauly Milto and Ryan Fineman who have helped him get used to being at IU.
“The biggest thing they’ve done is they’ve given their support,” Mercer said. “They’ve really been invested into continuing the winning culture, to working hard and to helping allow us to communicate efficiently to everybody. They’ve been a nice facilitator to the staff.”
Mercer brings a younger and more aggressive style of coaching to Bloomington than what the Hoosiers had with former head coach Chris Lemonis. IU will look to not only steal more bases this season but also take risks on balls in play to either score runs or get runners in scoring position.
“When you look from the outside as you watch the game, it seems like calamity — there’s guys moving everywhere,” Mercer said. “It’s a very process-based system. So, once they understood that it was based on the numbers, that it was based on the positioning, and based on the looks of the pitcher and how simple it really is to hack that, if you don’t get it, you don’t go. But if you get it, we need to be moving.”
Mercer has also moved IU’s highest MLB talent in junior Matt Gorski to the top of the lineup as opposed to batting in the heart of the lineup most of last season.
Gorski may not be the traditional example of a leadoff hitter. Typically, a team will slot its best hitter third or fourth in the lineup. However, moving the best hitter to the top of the lineup to give him more at-bats, and is becoming a more common tactic taken by modern coaches.
“You want to allow Gorski to do what he can do, uninhibited,” Mercer said. “The leadoff guy only hits first once, and beyond that he’s just another guy. So, if you put some guys ahead of him that can table-set, then it’s not just him but now it’s two, three, four guys that you have a lot of confidence in.”
Mercer’s road ahead in trying to keep IU a successful program won’t be easy. Before conference play even begins, Mercer will go up against the reigning national champion in Oregon State University, and the 2016 national champion Coastal Carolina University.
The Big Ten slate will include battles with Minnesota, last season’s conference champion, and a Michigan team that has been the only Big Ten team in each week's top 25 poll thus far.
But stronger competition creates stronger motivation to meet your opponents’ level of play. IU’s competition will be as tough as iron, but it’ll only make Mercer and his squad sharper.