(Photo via the FAU baseball website, seen here)
It is no secret that the state of Florida has produced successful college baseball programs in recent years; the University of Florida is coming off a national championship season and ranks as the top team in the country according to Baseball America’s initial top 25. In CBBSN’s analytical power rankings, two more programs from the state join the Gators in the top 15. Given the amount of talent in the state, it is easy to understand how Florida Atlantic can get lost in the shuffle, but the Owls have put together an impressive and underrated run of success under ninth year Head Coach John McCormack. They have won three regular season conference titles (and another conference tournament championship) in that time, earning four NCAA tournament berths in the process. After finishing on the outside looking into last season’s national tournament, the Owls return an impressive core with a realistic chance of returning to regionals this spring. At the heart of that group is shortstop Tyler Frank, a first-team All-Conference selection as a sophomore and the first Florida Atlantic player ever to play for the Collegiate National team.
Despite not qualifying for the NCAA tournament, FAU had a decent season in 2017, finishing third in Conference USA with an 18-12 record. Their hopes for a second straight tournament berth were dashed by a legendary Rice program, who despite disappointing during the regular season, swept through the conference tournament to earn their 23rd consecutive regionals appearance. Despite their most impactful player being a position player, the strength of last season’s team was pitching. Anchored by juniors Alex House and Jake Miednik, both of whom ranked in the top ten in the conference in innings pitched, the Owls posted a 4.43 ERA that ranked second in the conference.
House, a 24th round draft pick by the Astros, has departed; Miednik, the team strikeout leader, returns as one of the better senior prospects in college baseball, and he will front the staff in his second year in Division I after being named Spalding’s JUCO National Pitcher of the Year in 2016. Also returning are junior Kyle Marman, who will be transitioning to the starting rotation after a strong Cape Cod League performance out of the bullpen, and senior reliever Drew Peden, who managed a stellar 47:6 strikeout to walk ratio last year. McCormack recently acknowledged his excitement over his returning talent, telling the Sun-Sentinel that “this is probably the deepest [pitching] staff we’ve ever had,” no small statement considering the success that the program has had under his watch.
While the pitching staff is the team’s strength, the offense has two of the top prospects in the conference in Frank and outfielder Cody Wilson, a JUCO transfer from Palm Beach State College. Much of the attention surrounding the team will understandably go to Frank, who slashed .336/.448/.540 while playing the most demanding position on the field. Named by Baseball America as the conference’s best defensive infielder, it is instead Frank’s offensive profile that generates excitement. Most impressive of his offensive skills is his strike zone awareness; in his two seasons in Boca Raton, he has drawn walks in nearly 15 percent of his plate appearances against a miniscule 11 percent strikeout rate.
In his sophomore season, Frank’s power numbers took off, as his slugging percentage jumped nearly .200 points and he hit 11 home runs, tied for 11th in C-USA. This power breakout put him firmly on the national radar; Baseball America included him on their ranking of the top 200 draft prospects for 2018, and he was selected to play on the Team USA Collegiate National team alongside some of college baseball’s biggest stars (Nick Madrigal, Travis Swaggerty, Seth Beer, among others). Frank struggled in his limited postseason play, hitting .162 with Team USA and slashing .262/.290/.431 with Hyannis in the Cape Cod League. Neither those struggles nor the newfound attention that his star shortstop has received concern McCormack, who raved about Frank’s maturity. “He doesn’t let (the attention) intrude on his teammates,” McCormack told the Sun-Sentinel. In fact, that experience may benefit Frank’s relationship with his teammates, as he told the school’s website that his time with Team USA made him more comfortable in taking on a leadership role for the upcoming season. Independent of his intangibles, Frank is poised to have a big on-field impact for the Owls this season as he looks to build off his stellar sophomore season.
Joining Frank in what should be an improved Owls lineup is Cody Wilson, who slashed .323/.375/.479 as a freshman at Palm Beach State, stealing 11 bases in the process en route to being named the team’s MVP. Despite his lack of D-I experience, Wilson is being entrusted with a key role, starting in center field and hitting in the middle of the order in FAU’s season-opening series against George Washington. Also returning is senior corner outfielder David Miranda, the team’s most potent power bat a year ago, when his .590 slugging percentage ranked seventh in the conference. While Miranda had some trouble with strikeouts, his power and plate discipline should once again make him one of the bigger offensive threats in the conference.
Most of the core of a 35-win team returns to campus in 2018, making the Owls a legitimate threat to return to the NCAA tournament this season. After finishing 57th in RPI in 2017, it is arguable that they deserved entry last season, and, given their prior success and returning talent, it is unsurprising that Baseball America projected FAU to reach regionals in their preseason bracket. Consider also that the Owls boast a handful of the conference’s best professional prospects, and they should be an interesting team to follow this season. They may not be the most noteworthy or eye-catching school in the state, but Florida Atlantic has quietly built a solid baseball program this decade, and the 2018 team has the potential to be one of their strongest yet.