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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | May 28, 2021

The top college baseball players at each position, so far, in 2021

The college baseball freshmen who've made the biggest impact in 2021

Throughout the season, we've looked at the best sluggers and some impact freshmen, as well as the scariest lineups. Today we combine everything: let's make a starting lineup with the top player at each position.

COLLGE BASEBALL 2021, SO FAR: Top sluggers | Impact freshmen | Scariest lineups

There's quite a bit that goes into a "top" player. Obviously, we dive into the stats, but in college baseball, stats don't always tell the whole story. There's defensive prowess, leadership and the prospect of hearing their name called in the MLB Draft. But sometimes, the stats were just too good and did the talking.

This was no easy task, so be prepared to agree to disagree. These are my picks, and mine alone, so every player considered below made a very strong case as to why they deserve to be in the picture.

Catcher

Adam Creech | Louisville Athletics Henry Davis of Louisville

Considered: Adrian Del Castillo, Hunter Goodman, Liam McGill, Matheu Nelson, Andrew Susac

The pick: Henry Davis, Louisville (pictured) — Davis is not simply one of the best catchers in college baseball, he's one of the top prospects for this July's MLB draft at any position. We knew he could hit since he was a freshman and followed that by hitting .372 with three home runs in just 14 games last year when play stopped. This year has been more of the same: he's hitting .367 and his two home runs against Clemson in the first round of the ACC tournament gave him 14 on the year. Behind the plate, he's sensational with the buzz being around his plus-plus arm. He's thrown out 13 of 15 base stealers this year and while people have questioned his receiving skills in the past, he's vastly improved there as well. After allowing 13 passed balls in his first two seasons, he's allowed a mere two in 49 games, so far.

First base

Considered: Wes Clarke, Will Frizzell, Niko Kavadas, Dominic Keegan, JT Schwartz

The pick: Tyler Hardman, Oklahoma — This was no easy pick. We love the pure muscle and power of Notre Dame's Niko Kavadas — and he's shown it's for real leading the Cape Cod Baseball League in dingers back in 2019 — but we think Hardman has been the better all-around first baseman, defense included. 

Hardman is no slouch with the bat. In his 54 games thus far, he's had 28 multi-hit games and is now slashing .395/.481/.664 with 19 doubles and 12 home runs. He's also made many improvements at first base, even in fine tuning his stance to hold runners on — again, something that stats simply don't reflect. And while he does strikeout a bit, at roughly a 23 percent rate, he isn't afraid to draw a walk, walking roughly 13 percent of the time. Good plate judgment with a sound approach and improving defense give Hardman the spot... at least, for now.

Second base

Considered: Tyler Black, Jackson Glenn, Connor Norby

The pick: Jace Jung, Texas Tech — East Carolina's Connor Norby is having an absurd season, hitting .425 with 15 doubles, 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases (OK, that's also pretty strange and cool at the same time), but Jung is the no brainer here. Jung was on both our top sluggers and impact freshmen list and with the Red Raiders sitting at 36-13, he'll have a few more games under his belt this May to boost his numbers. Right now, he's hitting .356 with a 1.231 OPS to go along with 10 doubles, 20 home runs and 65 RBIs. He is one of the elite run producers in all of college baseball and gets the nod as top second baseman.

Shortstop

Considered: Ryan Bliss, Brooks Lee, Matt McClain, Luke Waddell 

The pick: Trey Sweeney, Eastern Illinois — I expect to take some heat here, with some big names not making the spot, but everyone considered made a really good choice. Brooks Lee and Matt McClain are much more likely to stick at shortstop at the next level, with great hands and quick feet. But we're going with some recency bias here and Sweeney's bat has been borderline absurd.

Sweeney, a redshirt-sophomore, is hitting .382 with a 1.234 OPS. His .522 on-base percentage is a top-ten mark in college baseball and that's because behind his raw power is a sound plate approach: he's walked 46 times and has struck out just 24. But there is that power as well — he finds the gaps with 10 doubles and can leave the park with 14 home runs. Now, will Sweeney stick at short at the next level? That's up for debate, but right now, he's one of the best hitting shortstops in the game and that gives him the slight edge. 

Third base

Charlotte Athletics Charlotte's Austin Knight.

Considered: Tyler Locklear, Jake Rucker, Braden Taylor

The pick: Austin Knight, Charlotte (pictured) — Earlier this season, we talked about five teams that pleasantly surprised us this season and the 49ers were right there. Here's what I said then:

Not even a conference preseason All-American, Knight leads college baseball with 20 doubles while pacing the team in average (.336), runs scored (33), slugging percentage (.664) and RBIs (37). He's also the only member of C-USA to appear on the Golden Spikes Midseason Watchlist.

Well, Knight never cooled off. He's hitting .351 with a 1.024 OPS to go along with 29 doubles — still the most in college baseball — 10 home runs, 61 RBIs and a perfect 11-for-11 on the base paths. He's made five errors at the hot corner, which isn't terrible by any means for such a tough position. Though Charlotte had two quick losses in the C-USA tournament, Knight went down swinging, driving in three with that division-leading 29th double in his final game.

Outfield

LSU Athletics Dylan Crews

Considered: Tanner Allen, Dru Baker, Kyle Battle, Jared Dupere, Sal Frelick, Aaron Zavala (amongst a slew of others)

The picks: Colton Cowser, Sam Houston State | Jud Fabian, Florida | Dylan Crews, LSU (pictured)

This was easily the hardest three spots to pick with so many candidates. But here's why each made the cut:

  • Cowser: On the year, Cowser is hitting .370 with a 1.137 OPS to go with 15 home runs and 16 stolen bases. How that power plays at the next level is a question mark since he is much more of a line-drive hitter to all fields, but there's no questioning his power is there. Paired with the ability to be a 20/20 player and sound defensive instincts, Cowser gets the first nod.
  • Fabian: Fabian made our list of top sluggers earlier this year, and that's primarily what earns him his spot here. Those 20 home runs are tied for the third-most in college baseball. There is some swing and miss, but despite the low average, that bat speed and sheer strength are enough to show that Fabian's power is for real.
  • Crews: The LSU freshmen was sensational this season hitting .350 with a 1.053 OPS to go with 56 runs scored, 14 doubles, 13 home runs and 11 stolen bases. It's also impressive that he walked 37 times and struck out 39 — that kind of plate approach isn't easily taught, so to already have it is a huge advantage. Reports are his exit velocity is consistently mid-90s, if not higher, so we may be just hitting the tip of the iceberg with Crews.

Designated hitter

The picks: Jacob Berry, Arizona and Ethan Long, Arizona State — In all our years at making hypothetical dream lineups at NCAA.com, we often skip the DH position. And while Berry and Long are perfectly fine in the field — Berry at third and Long at first — the two have played primarily at DH for the latter half of the season and the freshmen deserve a shoutout. Berry leads Arizona's offense, one of the best in DI, with a .375 average, 1.174 OPS, 14 home runs and 62 RBIs. Long is hitting .345 with a 1.167 OPS and went on an absurd tear where he hit 15 home runs in a 16-game span.

Starting pitchers:

Considered: Jack Leiter, Ty Madden, Doug Nikhazy, Nicholas Sinacola, Andrew Taylor

RHP: Kumar Rocker, Vanderbilt — Most people will have Rocker's teammate Jack Leiter here, and deservedly so. When it comes to stats, the duo is pretty much inseparable:

  • Jack Leiter: 8-2, 2.12 ERA, 127 strikeouts in 76.1 innings, .128 batting average against (BAA)
  • Kumar Rocker: 11-2, 2.45 ERA, 129 strikeouts in 88 innings, .16 BAA

So, why Rocker over Leiter? If history repeats itself, which it tends to do, we are getting to the part of the year where Rocker is at his best. He has an ideal pitcher's frame, and while he's listed at 6'4 and 255 pounds, that may be an understatement as he looks larger than life in person. A dominating force on the mound, Rocker does have four pitches — although like Leiter, his change is seldom used — and simply overpowers with near-triple digit heat. 

LHP: Matt Mikulski, Fordham — The numbers were just too good to ignore with Mikulski. On the season, the southpaw went 9-0 with a 1.45 ERA behind a 0.82 WHIP and 124 strikeouts in 68.1 innings pitched. Here's what's most important to note about those numbers: he's improved in every facet of the game. After having less-than-ideal walk rates in his first three seasons, Mikulski walked just 27 in 2021 and missed a lot more bats while holding opponents to a .127 average — the next closest in his career was a .232 BAA. Reports are his velocity is up to a consistent high-90s heater as well. That's a lot to like right there.

Relief pitcher

Considered: Nick Jones, Carson Palmquist, Landon Sims

The pick: Kevin Kopps, Arkansas — The right-hander has been lights out for the Razorbacks all season. He leads college baseball with his 0.71 ERA and has struck out 102 in his 63.1 innings. You may be wondering why the top pick at reliever isn't leading college baseball in saves — he has nine, which is plenty good — and that's because he's a perfect 10-0 on the season. Arkansas can roll into every game with the confidence that if they can get to Kopps, the game is pretty much over.

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Division I
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June 17 - 26/27, 2022
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