College baseball is just hours away after a near year-long hiatus. Fans are of course excited, but coaches have been dealing with COVID-19 protocols, quarantine policies, and testing results for the past five months; so they’re also itching to start playing games that actually matter.
Some schools unfortunately won’t get to start their season until a month after the rest of the country, such as Metro Atlantic schools that were hit with schedule changes in response to the pandemic. The Ivy, America East, and Big Ten also won’t get to start their seasons on the 19th for similar reasons. But 28 of the 31 conferences will be playing a game this weekend, so let’s look at the matchups I’ll be watching.
Air Force vs Notre Dame, 1:00 PM EST
Notre Dame was one of just four teams in 2020 to create more than 8 runs per game (ORC) and prevent less than 3.5 runs per game (RCA). They also had the 30th best offense/defense differential (ODD), which was 4.61 runs per game. It was an outstanding year for Notre Dame in regards to the advanced statistics, but for Air Force it wasn’t. They had a -1.25 offense/defense differential and finished well below league average in preventing runs.
Cole Blatchford is the name to watch for Air Force after posting his career best year BA, OBP, and SLG% last year. Notre Dame lost its power-arm out of the pen in Joe Boyle, but they have one of the best hitters in the country in Niko Kavadas. They’ll also have Spencer Myers back in the fold, who led the country in stolen bases last year. Tommy Sheehan is the arm to watch for Notre Dame as he’ll likely get the start.
#21 Miami at #1 Florida (SEC Network), 3:00 PM EST
No team was helped more by the shortened 2020 MLB draft than the Gators, both weekend starters eligible (Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich) were expected to go within the first 100 picks but are back for another year. Ironically, Miami lost all three of their weekend arms in Slade Cecconi (33rd overall to Arizona), Chris McMahon (46th overall to Colorado), and their ace, Brian Van Belle (UDFA signing with Boston). Fortunately for them, they got Alejandro Rosario; a freshman who was widely viewed as a top 100 prospect in last year’s draft.
Miami’s roster though is still quite exciting. Led by one of the best hitters, and probably the best catcher in the nation: Adrian Del Castillo, who is followed by the college baseball version of the bash brothers in Alejandro Toral and Raymond Gil; both combined for eight home runs last year, and 37 the year before. JP Gates, Anthony Vilar are back for another year with Chad Born, and Yohandy Morales likely to add some value as freshmen. The lineup is deep and with Daniel Federman, Alex McFarlane, Alejandro Rosario, and Victor Mederos on the mound. It’ll be an exciting team.
Florida’s lineup features the best player in the country, that being Jud Fabian. But their rotation is truly remarkable. As said already, Jack Leftwich, and Tommy Mace are the faces of the staff. But Hunter Barco, Brandon Sproat, Franco Aleman, Timmy Manning, and Ben Specht could all be the best pitcher on a dozen college programs. Colby Halter is the freshman I’m eager to watch as he turned down a lot of money to get to Gainesville.
Cincinnati at Clemson, 4:00 PM EST
When I say this will be the best series all week, I mean it. Cincinnati’s expected Friday starter is Evan Shawver. One of, if not the, best left-handed pitchers in the country. He’s been up to 95 with elite vertical movement on his FB and one of the flattest VAA’s in the country.
Cincinnati had the 19th highest wOBA as a team last year, and was above league average in each of the following categories: wRC+, OBP+, SLG+, OPS+. While I love Drake Batcho and Shawver (above), they finished 249th in FIP, and 134th in runs created against. The defense finished 173rd in DRS per game. They lost Joey Wiemer (114th overall to Milwaukee) to the draft and Jeremy Johnson, the team’s leader in runs created graduated. Griffin Merritt is one of their best bats, and finished first with a 207 wRC+ last year. His wRC+ actually finished 116th in the country last year among 2,107 qualified hitters.
Clemson as a team ranked 49th in offense/defense differential (3.35 runs per game) ast year, which had them sandwiched between Duke at 48 with a 3.41, and Texas Tech at 50 with a 3.28. Not a bad place to be.
The Tigers’ roster consists of A LOT of prospects worth watching; including Chad Fairey, Davis Sharpe, Mack Anglin, and Adam Hackenberg for the 2021 draft. Dylan Brewer, Jonathan French, and Caden Grice for 2022. It’s a deep roster, Kier Meredith, and Elijah Henderson produced the second and third most runs in 2020 trailing Sharpe (above). Sharpe actually finished 199th in the country with a .482 wOBA, which was three spots behind Matt McLain of UCLA, a preseason all-american and one of the best players among 2021 draft eligible prospects.
Wright State at #4 Vanderbilt, 5:30 PM EST
There has been talk about this series being pushed back to Saturday, Sunday, and Monday; but as it stands, the series is still scheduled to be played on time.
Kumar Rocker is scheduled to start for Vanderbilt on opening day. He’s the most well-known pitcher in the country and arguably the best player as well. There’s truly not a lot to say about Rocker, everybody knows how talented he is. He’s 94-96 consistently with a ML level slider and a body that looks good enough to line up at defensive end for the football team. It’ll be hard to fill the void offensively thanks to Austin Martin’s departure. But Isaiah Thomas, CJ Rodriguez, Carter Young, Cooper Davis, and Spencer Young are all part of a young but talented lineup.
Vanderbilt’s staff had the 11th lowest runs created against per game average in 2020, and also put up the 6.09 defensive runs saved, the 32nd most in the country. Even with three of their best arms gone in: Jake Eder (104th overall to Miami), Tyler Brown (101st overall to Houston) and Mason Hickman (154th overall to Cleveland). They still have Jack Leiter, Sam Hiboki, Ethan Smith, Thomas Schultz, Kumar Rocker, and recently added freshman Christian Litte, who was the highest ranked pitcher in his 2021 recruiting class until early-enrolling.
Wright State on the other hand is one of the better mid majors in the country. They generated 10.28 runs per game (adjusted for SOS), which is good for 18th in the country. But they had the 250th ranked defense (just 4.0 DRS) and the 184th ranked pitching staff (5.00 FIP, 112 wRC+ against). They’ll need Tyler Black to perform like scouts are hoping he will and a much better pitching staff as they ranked 251st in K%.
Miami of Ohio at Jacksonville, 6:00 PM EST
The expected Friday starter for Miami is Sam Bachman, who could be the most advanced pitcher in the country from a pitch design point-of-view. At least three pro teams will be in attendance for this one and there’s a reason. Bachman was sitting 94-97 in the fall with one of the best pitches in the country; a slider, that’s closest comparison is Trevor Bauer’s hybrid slider/cutter.
Both of these teams posted offense/defense differentials above league average in 2020, though Jacksonvilles’ 1.17 ranked 106th, and Miami’s 0.47 ranked 138th.
Jacksonville lost its best arm to the Blue Jays with the 77th overall pick (Trent Palmer), and its best bat (Scott Dubrule) to Mississippi State. They’ll have to find a way to replace the 8.3 runs generated by Duburle. The in-house replacement appears to be Christian Coipel, who had a .431 wOBA and 157 wRC+ last year.
There are so many other games worth watching, including these ones on opening night: Northeastern at #17 Wake Forest (4:00 PM EST), Santa Clara at #11 UC Santa Barbara (6:00 PM EST), Liberty at Campbell (5:00 PM EST), and Florida Atlantic at UCF (6:00 PM EST). I’m sure I’m missing other games, but these are the games I’ll be tuning into.
Catcher: Hayden Dunhurst, Ole Miss
Dunhurst posted a .427 wOBA, 154 wRC+, and 131 OPS+ as a freshman. His. 359 BABIP is rather low given all but 3 of his 25 BBE available via trackman were a positive number and 16 of them were between 0 and 35 degrees. He has an incredibly steep swing which means he can still hit his mishits hard, but it also means his 26.7 K% shouldn’t be in for much of a decrease. Dunhurst put 5 balls in play last year with an EV > 100 mph, which isn’t a lot but he did it quite a bit in his high school days. He ran into a somewhat bad stretch of luck and still managed to finish 486th in wOBA among 2,017 starters.
First Base: Maxwell Costes, Maryland
Only seven players produced more runs in 2020 than Costes. Three of them were selected in the most recent draft, including Spencer Torkelson. Costes posted a .630 wOBA, and ranked well above league average in wRC+ (287), OBP+ (181), SLG+ (203), and OPS+ (192) while facing the 55th hardest schedule in college baseball (Maryland’s 0.55 SOS). His 23.2 BB% was good enough to be 42nd in the nation and his 0.23 RC per PA were fifth in the country. He somehow managed to do all of this while running a .328 BABIP, which in comparison to the five players ranked above him, is the lowest by nearly .60 points. Costes’ average EV’s aren’t great, but 53.8% of them were > 90 mph.
Second Base: Cody Morissette, Boston College
Cody played every game in 2019 at 2B, and every game in 2020 at 3B. But he also played 1 G at 1B, 5 G at 3B, 9 G at SS, and 24 G at 2B in the Cape Cod league the summer of 2019. There’s a decent chance he’s the starting SS in 2021 for Boston College, but I’m listing him at 2B because he’s just too good to ignore. He generated the 54th most runs last year while walking 4% more than he struck out. The majority of Cody’s BBE are between 0 and 10 degrees which isn’t great unless you don’t hit the ball hard enough to hit at HR at 35 degrees, so it’s actually a good thing for a guy like Morissette that produces EV’s > 90 mph just 33.3% of the time. Because of his low LA’s he hits a lot of ground balls which is why his BABIP was and will be so high.
Third Base: Alex Binelas, Louisville
Binelas unfortunately only had seven PA in 2020 due to a hamate injury. But prorating his freshman year to mirror the 2020 one, he would’ve finished 349th in RC. Binelas’ primary reason he’s on here is because he does everything well. He makes contact. He walks a decent bit. He hits everything hard. And he does it all while producing EV’s in the upper 5% of the country. Binelas arguably had some of the worst luck as a freshman as his xBA’s and xSLG’s both exceeded the real life stats by about .50 points. Now Binelas isn’t good defensively but to be frank, hand-eye coordination is the biggest factor for college defense and he’s exceptional in that regard. His only issue is range, which is why he doesn’t make an insane amount of errors; as the balls he doesn’t get too don’t statistically hurt him.
Shortstop: Matt McLain, UCLA
The fact that McLain posted a 191 wRC+ last year with an average EV just 1.1 points above league average, and an average LA in single digits means he should’ve made a lot of contact. But he didn’t. He struck out 21.0% of the time and walked just 6.5% of the time. This is likely more of a SSS issue than a problem caused by McLain which is why I’m buying into another year where he posts a BABIP > .450 and a OBA that ranks within the top 10% of qualified hitters. There’s actually an outside – probably around 5% – chance that McLain’s luck runs out and his actual stats regress more towards his expected stats and he disappoints this spring, but I just can’t see a world in which a player with McLain’s swing doesn’t produce at an All-American level.
Left Field: Elijah Cabell, Florida State
Only 12 schools faced a harder schedule in 2020 than FSU. And Cabell by himself faced an avg fastball release speed 1.4 mph higher than the average. Facing some of the best competition (including Bryce Jarvis, Bryce Bonnin, Evan Shawver) he accumulated the 48th most runs in 2020 all with an insane 39.0 K%. There’s zero chance he strikes out that much again even with his extremely steep swing path, and even if he does, it’ll be with a far higher BABIP than the .349 he had. 9 of Cabell’s 25 BBE on trackman were > 90 mph with a LA between 10 and 40 degrees. Another word for that is a barrel. Cabell’s ISO also ranked 27th in the country which makes me think he’s in for a monster year where he strikes out about 18% of the time, like Torkelson, and puts up a wOBA > .550.
Center Field: Jud Fabian, Florida
Fabian is in my opinion, the most valuable player in college baseball. There aren’t enough metrics public to quantify WAR just yet, but we’re working on a solution and when it’s done, I’d imagine Fabian finishes towards the top. Fabian’s two years at Florida have been a bumpy road, but his success against top arms is evident. In fact, Fabian had 16 PA’s against the following six pitchers: Zack Thompson, JT Ginn, Asa Lacy, TJ Sikkema, Slade Cecconi and Kumar Rocker. He has a .231/.333/.538 slash line with 5 SO, 2 BB, and 2 XBH including a HR off Cecconi. Fabian’s power is pretty obvious, but he’s also one of just a dozen players to produce a EV > 100 mph and a LA > 40 degrees. The slope of avg EV by LA begins trending downward at about 28 degrees, so BIP > 90 mph are quite rare at such a high degree, but 12.5% of Fabian’s BBE were hit w/ those parameters (EV > 90, LA > 40). Now the reason this is relevant is because hitters with such egregiously steep VBAs should both swing and miss a lot, but Fabian didn’t. He had a 22.2 K% in 2020 with 106 swing and misses on the 1134 pitches he saw. With all of that being said, I expect Fabian to put a .500ish wOBA in 2021 with a K% below average (I’ll guess 25.0%), and a BABIP around .400.
Right Field: Christian Franklin, Arkansas
Only five players had an average EV > 97 mph w/ 20+ BBE in a (according to the data I have) trackman fitted stadium, Franklin was one of them. Not only did he consistently produce elite EV’s, but zero of his BBE were under 80 mph, and 64% of them were > 100 mph. Because of his ridiculous EV’s, he managed to run a .421 BABIP even with a swing path that trends towards flat at times. It’s not an issue, just a very unique ability and it basically means his approach is so good that he doesn’t mishit many balls. He ran a K% above league average (18.9%), and a walk rate also above league average (13.5%). Franklin was actually one of just 68 players (qualified) to post a wOBA > .500, a BABIP < .425 and a K/BB% above league average.
Starting Pitcher: Jack Leiter, Vanderbilt
Leiter posted a 2.84 FIP, 1.78 ERA, and 36.7 K% as a freshman last year while sitting 90-92, and touching 96 just once. He’s now sitting 93-95, touching 97 according to his fall data with an extra two inches of VB and a release height down half a foot. He’s added a cutter that already looks to be plus and could have the best stuff in the country when its all said in done. He’s barely 20-years-old and already throws five pitches. Hitters had a 8 wRC+ against him in last year and zero BBE in the data I have were between 0 and 25 degrees with EV’s over 95 mph, which is very good.
Starting Pitcher: Connor Prielipp, Alabama
No player was as dominant as Prielipp last year. His 1.62 FIP, and 0.00 ERA were among the highest in the country. And his 47.9 K%, 8.2 BB% combined to be one of the highest K:BB% ratios in the country as well. Hitting against a lefty sitting 92-94, its even harder when he’s 94-96, touching 98, which Prielipp has been this fall. He’s also one of only six pitchers to have a negative wRC+ against him last year. Prielipp’s slider is part of the reason as to why he’s so good. A pitch w/ < 20% spin efficiency thrown > 85 mph is extremely tough to hit much less make contact on. In fact hitters had a .053/.100/.053 slash line on his slider last year with 10 SO, and a 25.0 SwStr%. Missing bats is the best predictor of success (outside of just pure velocity), and Prielipp had a 23.1 SwStr% on 286 pitches, which is well above league average. So odds are if his velo has improved, and his peripherals were already good. He’s in for another massive year.
Starting Pitcher: Sam Bachman, Miami (Ohio)
Bachman throws three pitches, all plus or better, and all already optimized as he went to a third-party training site in the offseason and completely revamped his already good stuff. The fastball sits around 95, touching 100 with near perfect spin efficiency, the slider replicates Trevor Bauer’s hybrid SL/CT, and his CH has elite HB and near perfect spin efficiency as well. He put up a 3.14 FIP, and 29.0 K% last year with much worse stuff and walked nearly half as many runners as Prielipp.
Relief Pitcher: Nate Savino, Virginia
Originally Savino’s teammate, Andrew Abbott was pegged here. But he’s been named their opening day starter with Savino on the outside looking in. He’s 93-95 with heavy HB on a fastball that primarily looks like a sinker. The slider is the calling card which is a classic sweeper though it looked better in high school than last year as the spin efficiency trended towards the dead zone area. Savino’s 11.7 SwStr% is right around average and its self-explanatory as sinkers don’t miss bats and his had a 8.7 SwStr%. Throwing your best pitch just 25% of the time is quite the determent to a pitcher. Mirroring what Cole Wilcox and Jack Perkins (equally good pitchers with primary sinkers) did in ’19: throwing a fastball around 50%, slider around 35%, and changeup around 15% could be help out a ton in terms of producing more whiffs.
And to end off this article, here is my field of 64 projection:
Side Note: The Ivy League has canceled all conference play and gave up their auto-bid, so they don’t have any representation.