First pitch for the 2020 college baseball season is Feb. 14. Reigning champion Vanderbilt takes on the national runners-up Michigan in a College World Series rematch on opening night.
There’s no question that we’re very excited to see that game start things off this season. There are several questions, however, that will need to be answered on the Road to Omaha and the 2020 CWS.
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Now, there are obviously more than seven questions that need to be answered over the course of a 50-plus game season, but here are the ones we are most looking forward to see unfold.
1. Can Vanderbilt repeat as national champions?
While the Commodores lost quite a bit of firepower to graduation and the MLB draft, the Vandy Boys return plenty to make a run back to Omaha. The last team to repeat as CWS champions was South Carolina in 2010-11, but the last team to play in back-to-back CWS finals?
Your Vanderbilt Commodores.
Vanderbilt was in the top 10 of college baseball in batting average (.310), home runs (100), runs (578), and scoring (8.1 per game) last season. Sure, they lost some of those weapons that piled up those numbers, but those that return — like preseason All-American Austin Martin — are more than capable of getting runs across.
The strength will be on the mound where Kumar Rocker, Mason Hickman — both D1baseball preseason All-Americans — anchor the rotation with Tyler Brown firing out of the bullpen. Throw in Jake Eder and you have four experienced pitchers who threw significant innings in the CWS last year. The SEC is a grind — nine teams made the D1baseball preseason top 25 — but that kind of experience on the mound is dangerous.
2. Who will slow down New Mexico State’s offense?
Well, it certainly was no easy task in 2019. The Aggies led college baseball in hitting (.356) and scoring (an absurd 11.1 runs per game) with a DI-best 1.042 team OPS. They lost quite a bit from that lineup — most notably Joey Ortiz and Tristen Carranza — but two exciting hitters return that are amongst the best in the game.
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Nick Gonzales is one of the elite bats in college baseball, first leading Division I with a .432 batting average last year and then lighting up the Cape Cod Summer League. Tristan Peterson also returns after hitting .400 with a team-high 20 home runs. While there are a lot of new faces — including new head coach Mike Kirby — there should be plenty of runs scored in Las Cruces.
Circle Feb. 25 on your calendars. New Mexico State travels to Tempe to take on Arizona State. This one could look more like a football score than a baseball game before it’s all over.
3. Who wins the home run crown?
Last year’s home run king — Vanderbilt’s JJ Bleday — will head to his first spring training with the Miami Marlins in 2020. The runner up — Austin Peay’s Parker Phillips — was also drafted at the end of the 2020 season. That means we’ll have some new contenders for the long-ball crown.
Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson has to be the top contender in the early going. He crushed 23 home runs last season, but here’s what’s really remarkable. The All-American first baseman hit only two home runs in his first 17 games, slugging 21 in his final 40, including three different streaks with a home run in at least three-straight games.
There’s always a top 10 home run leader (or two… or three) from the Ohio Valley Conference, so this year, we’re picking Tennessee Tech’s Jason Hinchman to hit a lot of home runs. Hinchman played just 16 games as a freshman before breaking out with a 24 home run campaign in his 2019 sophomore follow-up. Expect more of the same in the launching pad that is the OVC.
Other hitters we have our eyes on are Alex Toral from Miami (FL) and Sonny DiChiara from Samford. Toral completely exploded in his first full season last year with 24 bombs and the Hurricanes should be even better in 2020. DiChiara had a big freshman campaign, slugging 21 home runs and finished strong. He belted six home runs in his final eight games of the season.
4. Whose CWS droughts will come to an end in 2020?
If you make the assumption that the preseason top 25 are the top contenders to make it to Omaha — which is a very fair assumption — you’ll notice a few of those top teams have been absent from the College World Series for some time.
Earlier this preseason, we picked our eight for Omaha and while we agreed Louisville, Michigan, and Vanderbilt should make a return trip, there were a few teams that have a chance to make their first trip in quite awhile.
Both Arizona State and Georgia are getting a lot of buzz this preseason. The last time the Sun Devils were in Omaha, they fell victim to the South Carolina steamroller in 2010. This is one of the most successful CWS teams of all time and it looks like they may be geared up to make their long-awaited return. Georgia has waited even longer, last reaching the CWS in 2008 when they were on the wrong side of one of the greatest surprise runs in Omaha, as Fresno State went from “underdogs to wonderdogs."
Stanford was in that same College World Series with Georgia, and much like the Bulldogs, it was the Cardinal’s last appearance. The Cardinal have made 16 appearances and were winners of back-to-back titles in 1987-88. Our own CWS writer Anthony Chiusano thinks it’s that Stanford pitching staff that will help get the Cardinal back to Omaha.
How about the rest of the top 25? Both Georgia Tech and Oklahoma should have solid squads this season. Oklahoma is on a ten-year drought, while the Yellow Jackets look to get back to Omaha for the first time since 2006. But there are three teams looking to break some serious droughts: Wake Forest hasn’t been to the College World Series since 1955, while Duke — who has been close lately — hasn’t been to Omaha since 1961. East Carolina — who seems to be a perennial top -5 contender and Super Regional threat — has never made a College World Series.
5. What happens in Year 1 of the Mike Martin, Jr. era at Florida State?
Last year, the question was what do the Seminoles do in “11”’s walk into the sunset? Well, Florida State responded with a memorable run for Mike Martin, going into Alex Box Stadium and beating a tough LSU team to advance to their skipper’s 17th and final CWS.
Now, he’s gone and his son is taking over. How much will be different in Tallahassee?
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Don’t expect the winning ways to disappear because the winningest coach in NCAA history (of any sport, mind you) retired. Martin, Jr. has been a lifer in Seminole country, spending the last 22 years as an assistant to his iconic father. One of his primary roles was recruiting, so all the new faces coming in he’s already had a big hand in.
Martin, Jr. loses some star power in players like J.C Flowers and Drew Mendoza, but he returns five hitters in the Seminoles’ 2019 CWS lineup as well as CJ Van Eyk atop the rotation. Shane Drohan and Conor Grady made plenty of starts last season to give the pitching staff returning experience. All seems just fine at Mike Martin Field.
6. Who can be this year’s Michigan?
Remember how everyone predicted Michigan would reach the College World Series finals last year? Yeah, neither do we. So which team outside the top 25 has a shot to surprise a few people in 2020?
We’re picking Coastal Carolina, which certainly knows a thing or two about shocking the college baseball world.
This offense was a lethal one last year with a .307 batting average, 91 home runs, and 8.3 runs per game all top 15 marks in college baseball. Not all of those bats return, but Parker Chavers does and he was an absolute beast hitting .316 with 15 home runs and a 1.047 OPS. Shortstop Scott McKeon is also back after hitting .340 last season.
The Chanticleers will have some experience returning to the bump as well, headlined by Zach McCambley who made 11 starts as a sophomore last season. The anticipated return of Shaddon Peavyhouse after missing his 2019 sophomore season could provide a boost.
7. What does Cal Baptist do as a follow up to its strong 2019 DI debut?
The Lancers were a PacWest powerhouse in DII baseball for several years, pumping out MLB draft talent on a yearly basis earning them the nickname Pitcher U. Last year, Cal Baptist made the jump to the WAC and did pretty well for a first-timer.
So well, in fact, the Lancers tied for the regular-season conference title.
Not bad, right? Cal Baptist traveled to Las Cruces on closing weekend and took down New Mexico State two games to one to finish 19-8 in the WAC and tied atop the standings. While it was one of the more exciting stories of last year, it put a lot of pressure on Cal Baptist: A target on your back in your second year of Division I baseball is not necessarily a fun thing to have.
Cal Baptist loses a lot from their impressive debut season, but head coach Gary Adcock has always had talent ready to replace and roll onward. Over the Lancers last five years in DII baseball, Cal Baptist averaged 36.4 wins per season and made the NCAA DII regionals every one of those seasons. With Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, BYU and Fordham on the slate, 2020 will be a big test to see if that winning culture carries over to the WAC.