(Photo via Baylor Baseball’s website, seen here)

After a lull at the beginning of the decade, Baylor looks to be on the rebound after they reached the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2012. At the forefront of this new era is sophomore catcher Shea Langeliers, a Blue Jays draftee out of high school who anchored one of the better offenses in the country last season. Langeliers has both set the Bears up for near-term success and set himself up for a bright long-term future. Even so, the team has some questions to answer, particularly on the pitching side, as Baseball America does not project them to earn a repeat regionals berth in the upcoming season. With their performance last season and their two talented position players to anchoring the offense, the Bears stand a good chance of beating that expectation.

By most metrics, Baylor was a top-25 program last season. They finished 34-23 overall, 12-12 in a stacked Big 12 Conference that sent seven of nine teams to regionals (our conference rankings emphasize the Big 12’s strength). Baylor’s conference record probably does not do their season justice, as they finished 24th in the nation in RPI, and 21st in CBBSN’s power rankings, which weighs Pythagorean record, opponent strength of schedule, and RPI to best reflect a team’s true talent level. After a 2016 season in which they finished below .500, won only three conference series, and lost their two conference tournament games by a combined 19 runs, 2017 qualifies as a surprising success. Still, it ended in disappointing fashion, as the Bears failed to win a single postseason game, losing to West Virginia and regular-season conference champion Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament before being knocked off by in-state rivals Texas A&M and Houston at regionals. With three key freshmen from last year, including their All-American catcher, returning to Waco, 2018 brings an opportunity for redemption, another chance to exceed preseason expectations.

The road back to regionals will not be easy, as Baylor needs to navigate through a loaded Big 12 field. They will begin that challenge in a few weeks against the reigning regular season champions, with a three-game set lined up against the Red Raiders from March 16-18. In the interim, they face some non-conference tests which may go a long way towards building their resume for selection day. On the docket, in addition to No. 11 UCLA, who took two of three in a series played last weekend, are two teams who finished in last season’s CBBSN top 20 in Texas A&M and Sam Houston State. Both of those teams have returned many key pieces from last year’s teams and both project to return to the NCAA tournament this season. The conference slate, meanwhile, will be as tough as ever, with three teams currently in the Baseball America top 25 and three more projected for NCAA tournament berths.

Leading them through that gauntlet will be Langeliers, a power-hitting catcher who slashed .313/.388/.540 as a freshman. Lauded for his above-average raw power, advanced receiving skills, and above-average arm, Langeliers was selected to play in the nation’s top summer league after his fantastic debut season. He showed that power with Chatham in the Cape Cod League, hitting six home runs and slugging .469 with wood bats over 145 plate appearances, although he also caused moderate concern among scouts about his hit tool by striking out 35 times. Despite the strikeouts, his power, advanced defense, and statistical production as a freshman in one of the nation’s best conferences have him firmly on draft radars for 2019. Baseball America ranks Langeliers as the fifth-best college sophomore in the country, while Fangraphs is even more bullish, slotting him as the fourth-best overall prospect (high school or college) in that class. Behind only two high schoolers and a college pitcher on Fangraphs’ rankings, Langeliers has a chance to be the first college position player off the board that June. Until then, he will look to validate the excitement by leading a Baylor offense that should be the calling card of the team over the next couple years.

Baylor, as a team, slashed .295/.380/.444 in 2017, good for second in the conference in all three categories. Given the strong pitching staffs across the Big 12, that rated as among the most impressive offensive performances in the nation. By Batter Rating, the Bears’ offense was 19th overall. Three of their top five plate appearance leaders, including Nationals draftee Kameron Esthay, have moved on, but the Bears return two key sophomores. Alongside Langeliers is infielder Davis Wendzel, who started 47 games and slashed .301/.428/.529 as a freshman. Particularly impressive about Wendzel’s season was his dominance of the strike zone, drawing 30 walks and striking out only 22 times. With above-average raw power and a patient approach, Wendzel is off and running in the early going, with a .409/.500/.818 line over the season’s first six games.

On the other hand, Baylor’s pitching staff presents some question marks, with Cody Bradford the only returning starter for a staff that ranked seventh in the conference in ERA and eighth in strikeouts. Coach Rodriguez, though, is optimistic, pointing to Bradford’s development and the return of reliever Troy Montemayor, who has struck out 51 hitters in 48 2/3 relief innings in the past two seasons, as pluses. In the early going, Bradford has been stellar; he is yet to allow a run into 13 innings, having struck out 15 in the process. Even if Bradford continues to perform well, Baylor will need quality innings from some of its depth options. Hayden Kettler, who posted a 3.35 ERA last year as a freshman reliever, transitions to the starting rotation, and whether he develops into a solid second option behind Bradford should go a long way towards determining how far Baylor’s pitching staff can take them.

Baylor will be an interesting team to follow in 2018 as they look to build off their quality 2017. According to the advanced metrics, they were an even better team last year than their 34 wins would indicate. From a scouting perspective, they are a must-watch, with a potential top five draft pick in 2019 behind the plate and another interesting prospect in the infield. On top of that, they will see a lot of action against quality competition, both thanks to a difficult non-conference schedule and elite competition in the Big 12. If their young pitching staff can take a step forward to support what should again be a great offense, they stand a good chance of being a pleasant surprise for the second consecutive year.

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