College baseball: State of the sport, midseason report
Midseason Top Player/Top Freshman
Seth Beer, OF, Clemson
It’s a little misleading to say that Seth Beer should be a high school senior right now — after all, he’s already 19 years old. But still … Beer would have been a high school senior right now if he hadn’t graduated early and enrolled at Clemson in the winter. It’s not that he’s performing against older competition, it’s that he is simply destroying competition that is considerably more experienced at the Division I level. Beer didn’t even have a chance to get acclimated to college life and college pitching during the fall, like almost every other freshman does.
Three weeks into the season, Beer was already earning incredibly high praise from Clemson’s first-year head coach, Monte Lee.
“Best I’ve ever seen, best hitter,” Lee said after Beer hit two homers against Wake Forest on March 12. “I’m telling you right now, I’ve told anybody that’s asked me, I’m not afraid to say it. I know we’re only 13 games into the season and he’s a true freshman, but I have never seen anybody that hits like this guy — never. Not in 16, 17 years of coaching. I’ve had some guys that have played in the big leagues, I’ve coached first-round draft picks. This guy is the best hitter that I have seen. You make a mistake and he punishes you … He’s unbelievable.”
The legend of Beer has only grown since then, as he has managed to sustain his impossibly high level of play. Through 27 games — half of the regular season — Beer is hitting .430/.538/.935 with 13 home runs, 37 RBIs and a 19-9 walk-strikeout mark. He ranks second in all of Division I in slugging and homers, third in total bases, ninth in OBP and 11th in batting — and he’s done it against quality competition, with one series against South Carolina and four weeks of ACC play. Some of his home runs are epic — like his walk-off shot to beat Boston College on March 20, and his majestic blast way over the scoreboard at Georgia earlier this week.
Simply put, Beer has been college baseball’s best player, not just the best freshman. If he were draft-eligible now, he’d be a slam-dunk first-round pick, and might even be one of the top hitters drafted.
“The tools are pretty obvious, they speak for themselves. He was a pretty well known guy in high school because of them,” one area scout said. “But he’s starting to answer some questions that scouts have had about him fairly quickly at Clemson. The defense had been a big question, and that’s been much improved. I think it’s helped that he’s settled into right field, because he was kind of moving around a little bit. The other thing is he can use the whole field now — he was dead-pull last year pretty much.
“You couldn’t ask for much more from him early on. He’s definitely the most impactful player to this point in the year of the schools that I cover.”
Midseason Top Pitcher
Dakota Hudson, RHP, Mississippi State
Dakota Hudson was the talk of fall workouts, but he still entered the 2016 campaign with a rather large question mark bubble above his head.
As scouts flocked to Starkville, Miss., in the fall to watch the hard-throwing righthander, they were blown away by some of the stuff they saw. Hudson was consistently sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball, his secondary stuff, including his hard and now famous 89-92 mph cutter were flourishing and he was oozing confidence.
Still, there was a wait-and-see approach for obvious reasons. Hudson has always had a huge arm, but hadn’t always put all the puzzle pieces together come game time. As a sophomore in 2015, Hudson threw just 16 2/3 innings and tallied an unimpressive 4.23 ERA in the process.
While there might have been serious questions about him in the fall, things have changed for the much better this spring. Hudson, a 6-foot-5, 215-pounder, continues to shine and is in the mix to be a top-10 pick in the Major League Baseball draft, while showing consistency and compiling very good numbers. For instance, he has started seven games and has an 0.92 ERA in 48.2 innings, along with 56 strikeouts and 18 walks. He also is holding opposing teams to a .187 batting average, while he’s allowed just a single home run thus far.
“I think the big thing for [Dakota] is that he just seems to get better each time out,” a National League scout said. “His command, pitchability and poise just continue to get better, and he has now sharpened up his stuff to the point where it matches his velocity. He’s making 96 mph work, he’s throwing that cutter and he’s throwing a 12-6 breaking ball, along with a changeup. He’s able to command those pitches and he has confidence.
“The thing that he’s also gotten so much better at is that when he takes the mound, if his fastball command isn’t as sharp, he now has the ability to go to another offering,” he continued. “Against Ole Miss last weekend, he put all of his pitches together, and what I saw would’ve been very good stuff in any MLB rotation out there.”
Hudson is simply electric when he’s clicking on all cylinders. While he sat anywhere from 94-98 against Vanderbilt a few weeks ago, he was still touching 94 on his 100th pitch of a lengthy performance. He also has impressive velocity with his cutter, while possessing an 80-82 mph curveball and low-80s changeup.
Most importantly, Hudson continues to begin each weekend on a positive note for the Bulldogs, and has helped his team get off to a terrific 21-8 overall start, 6-3 mark in the Southeastern Conference, along with newfound national title aspirations.
Sometimes what you see in the fall turns out to be fool’s gold, but that definitely has not been the case with Hudson.
The righty has been as advertised and more.
“Confidence is a big thing with Dakota. It’s not that he didn’t really have bad confidence, but it was just a tough situation to pitch last year,” he said. “Now, he’s confident, and he’s accepted the responsibility of needing to be that guy for this team. He’s just rolling with it right now.”
Midseason Top Freshman
Luken Baker, rhp/1b, TCU
If it weren’t for Seth Beer’s insane year, Baker would be a runaway favorite for freshman of the year. Not only is the TCU two-way star hitting .350/.460/.520 in the heart of the Frogs’ lineup, but he has become the ace of the staff, going 2-1, 1.54 with 28 strikeouts and 10 walks in 35 innings. He remains a very strong challenger to Beer in the race for Freshman of the Year honors, and a very strong challenger to Brendan McKay in the competition for first-team All-America honors at the two-way spot.
The hulking Baker has shown marquee stuff, working at 91-93 mph and touching 94 mph with good downhill angle, while showing good feel for his changeup and breaking ball. TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle has said all along that Baker stands out more for being a pitcher than for being a power pitcher, and his polish has been very impressive right out of the gate.
Midseason Coach of the Year
Monte Lee, Clemson
Moving on from a legendary coach like Jack Leggett isn’t an easy task to say the least, but the Clemson Tigers have managed to do so with first-year coach Monte Lee leading the charge.
Lee earned a stellar reputation during his seven seasons at College of Charleston, where he guided the program to four postseason appearances, including a super regional appearance in 2014. Lee was known as an attention to detail type of coach during his time with the Cougars, and he’s emulated that success so far this spring with the Tigers.
The Tigers didn’t make noise in the postseason as one of the last teams in the field in 2015, but this team has a chance to do some rather special things. For instance, Clemson is 22-7 overall, highly ranked and is in position to host a regional in the postseason with an RPI of 7 and some strong metrics.
Several other coaches around the country also have done terrific jobs over the past couple of months, but Lee, undoubtedly, has carried a proud program from a lull to what seems to be paradise.
Winning just seems to follow Lee around.
UC Santa Barbara
The Gauchos were one of the best teams in the West last year, when they hosted their first regional — but they lost seven everyday starters, their top two weekend starters and their top two relievers from that club, so the looked destined for a rebuilding season in 2016. Instead, UCSB has been the best team in the West in the first half of the season. No other team in the West is even close to the Gauchos in the RPI, where they rank No. 9 (13 spots ahead of the next West team, BYU). Nobody would have guessed that Santa Barbara would be anywhere near the hosting discussion for the second year in a row, but instead they look like a leading contender for a national seed.
The Gauchos are still thin on the mound, but coach Andrew Checketts has done an incredible job getting the most out of his staff, which has a pair of rock-solid bookends in ace Shane Bieber and closer Kyle Nelson (who has been one of the nation’s top relievers, going 4-0, 0.65 with a 31-4 K-BB mark in 27.2 IP). Offensively, burly slugger Austin Bush and athletic outfielder Devon Gradford have come into their own, each hitting .350 to lead a gritty UCSB offense.
The Gauchos aren’t flashy, and maybe they’ll come back to earth as Big West play progresses, but regardless they have already exceeded all expectations this spring. I’ll have plenty more on UCSB this weekend in Charleston.
Five More Surprises
The Cougars looked like one of a quartet of interchangeable teams in the top half of the West Coast Conference heading into the season, but they have utterly dominated their nonconference schedule, and now they look like the clear team to beat. At 24-4 with a top-30 RPI, BYU is even putting together a compelling hosting resume, particularly in a year with only one other Western team in the top 30 (and no Pac-12 teams). The Cougars might even be an Omaha threat, because they have one of college baseball’s most explosive offenses (ranking third nationally in scoring), but they’ve also been surprisingly good on the mound (ranking 58th in ERA).
This is an easy one. As Kendall Rogers wrote above, first-year coach Monte Lee has done a masterful job with the Tigers, who entered the season outside our regional projections but head into the second half of the season ranked No. 12 and sitting pretty in the regional hosting race. Pitching coach Andrew See also deserves a ton of credit for his masterful handling of an extremely inexperienced pitching staff.
Heading into the season, the Owls looked like a potential challenger to the other Owls over at Rice for the Conference USA crown thanks to their potent lineup, but they looked short on the mound, so we projected them to finish outside our preseason field of 64. FAU has indeed been a very offensive club, but it has also pitched a lot better than expected, helping it race out to a 22-4 start and climb to No. 17 in the Top 25. A pair of early wins at Mississippi State caught the attention of the college baseball world, and the Owls never looked back. And they’ve had to overcome major off-the-field adversity to do it, as coach John McCormack and starting catcher Kevin Abraham have both battled cancer over the winter and spring. FAU is one of college baseball’s best stories in 2016.
Long Beach State
We projected the Dirtbags to make a regional heading into the season, but they have exceeded our expectations a bit by winning six of their first seven series, including quality series against Arizona State, Nebraska and Cal State Fullerton. The Dirtbags live up to their moniker — they aren’t flashy, and they’re not exceptionally talented, but they’re fundamentally strong and very well coached, a lot like UCSB. At 17-11 overall and No. 20 in the D1Baseball Top 25 rankings, Long Beach certainly qualifies as a surprise.
The Jaguars won 37 games last year and finished atop the Sun Belt standings but found themselves at home for regionals after losing to Louisiana-Lafayette in the conference tournament final. We picked them to finish second in the Sun Belt behind the Cajuns this year, and so far South Alabama has looked like the class of the league. Not only do the Jags look like virtual shoo-ins for regionals, they are right in the thick of the regional hosting race as well, with an RPI ranking of No. 11.
The Ducks entered the season with some high hopes. They returned several premier arms, such as lefthanders Cole Irvin and Matt Krook, along with bullpen stopper Stephen Nogosek. So, all was well in that department, but the same can’t be said for the UO offense, which is the chief reason why this club is 12-11 overall and 2-4 in the Pac-12.
How bad has Oregon been offensively this spring? The numbers are staggering. For instance, the Ducks are ranked 292 nationally in batting average with a .210 clip, 221 in scoring, 283 in doubles, 184 in homers, 278 in slugging percentage, and last but not least, 266 in OBP.
Sure, the Ducks have the pitching to turn the second half of the season around. However, it will take a concerted from the battery mates to finish the deal. The Ducks enter another crucial Pac-12 series with just one hitter, Austin Grebeck, hitting over .270.
Oregon has an RPI of 101 and has serious work to do the rest of the way.
Five More Disappointments
The Terrapins are another team that could turn things around the next month or so, but boy, it doesn’t look good right now. The Terps started the season with a tough series loss at Alabama and haven’t been able to string together any sort of consistency, and that includes righthander Mike Shawaryn, a Preseason All-American, who has a 4.15 ERA in 39 innings. The Terps have the personnel to make a run, but that will require Shawaryn getting back to his old ways. Maryland has an RPI of 57 with a .500 (15-15) record, so there’s some hope here.
Don’t worry, Texas, your rivals above the Red River aren’t in much better shape. Though the Sooners might’ve shown a glimmer of hope last weekend with a home series win over the Longhorns, this team still appears to be in rough shape from a postseason perspective. OU is 15-14 overall with an RPI of 125. The decline of righthander Alec Hansen has been an obvious story line with this club as well.
The Longhorns are most certainly a historical power, but the days of being a perennial power are gone for the time being. If you remember, the burnt orange scuffled to get into the postseason last year, and have continued that trend this season, sitting at an ugly 12-17 overall, along with a dismal 110 RPI. The bizarre thing about this Texas team is that it has some serious arms on the mound, but it just can’t seem to put all the pieces together. Change could be on the horizon in the Hill Country of Texas.
The Bruins have had some crucial injuries behind the plate, at shortstop and on the mound at times this season, but other programs out there have overcome similar obstacles this season. The Bruins, though? UCLA is 12-15 overall, 4-6 in the Pac-12 and has an RPI of 79. UCLA’s RPI could creep up with a strong second half of the season, but there doesn’t appear to be any reason, at this point, to believe that things will turn for the better. Stay tuned, though, as coach John Savage is known to work some magic.
Don’t worry, UCLA, your friends in South Central aren’t exactly doing much better. The Trojans have acquired solid series wins over California and Wake Forest this season, but just haven’t been very consistent with a 13-14 overall record and an RPI of 65. We feel like the Trojans have the ability to turn things around the second half of the season, but it certainly won’t be easy.
Three Big Midseason Storylines
1. The Sunshine State dominates.
The top three national seeds in our midseason field of 64 projection all hail from the same state: Florida. To the surprise of literally no one, preseason No. 1 Florida has been college baseball’s best team to this point, but Miami has put together the clear-cut second-best first-half resume of any team in the country. And Florida State landed our No. 3 national seed thanks to seven wins against the RPI Top 25 and zero series losses in the first seven weekends. Throw in Conference USA co-leader Florida Atlantic, and the Sunshine State has four legitimate regional host candidates. Talk about a banner year.
2. The Pac-12 and Big 12 are not dominating.
Two of the “Power Five” conferences have not been so powerful. The Big Ten hasn’t been as good as it was a year ago either, but at least the two Michigan schools have gotten off to good starts, and Nebraska has come on strong, and Minnesota has been a pleasant surprise, helping make up for disappointing first halves by Maryland, Indiana and Illinois. A year after its best season ever, this is shaping up like an average year for the Big Ten.
But it’s a below-average year for the Pac-12, whose highest RPI team is California at No. 35. USC, UCLA and Oregon all entered the season ranked in the top 15, and all three now rank among college baseball’s biggest disappointments. Utah has been a pleasant surprise, leading the conference at 7-2 … but it remains five games under .500 overall at 10-15. Stanford has been solid, and Oregon State has been pretty good but just lost its ace to Tommy John surgery, and its mid-40s RPI is disappointing. This conference is just a mess, and it faces a very real possibility of landing just three or four regional bids.
The Big 12, meanwhile, is down for the second year in a row. Once again, TCU and Oklahoma State are carrying the banner for the league, though Texas Tech has emerged to give the conference a third likely regional team. West Virginia has a shot at the postseason too… but everybody else looks lost. Texas and Oklahoma also rate among the nation’s biggest disappointments.
It will be interesting to see if those power conferences can rebound in the second half, or if upstart mid-majors like Conference USA and the West Coast Conference can capitalize and send more teams to regionals than usual.
3. The Carolinas Bounce Back.
A year ago, there were no regionals anywhere along the Eastern Seaboard north of Florida. This year, the region is overflowing with strong hosting candidates. In fact, three teams in the Carolinas rank in the top eight of the RPI (No. 2 South Carolina, No. 7 Clemson and No. 8 North Carolina). Last year, the Gamecocks and Tar Heels both missed out on regionals altogether, ending long postseason streaks. We weren’t quite sure what to make of either team heading into this year, but we were intrigued by their talent and ranked both in the teens in our preseason Top 25. Both teams have been even better than that, spending much of the first half inside the top 10.
But the big year in the Carolinas doesn’t end there. College of Charleston is also a potential host at No. 13 in the RPI. Coastal Carolina has quietly climbed to No. 18 in the RPI, and NC State isn’t far behind at No. 22. No. 27 East Carolina looks like the American Athletic Conference front-runner, and a seventh hosting candidate in the Carolinas. Then there’s UNC Greensboro, which has been a notable surprise team, ranking at No. 42 in the RPI and leading the nation in batting, OBP and slugging. The Carolinas have both front-end teams and good depth, unlike a year ago when the region simply lacked serious Omaha contenders.