by Anthony Franco
The calendar has flipped to February, and the college baseball season will officially get underway later this month. Baseball America, D1 Baseball and the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper have all dropped their initial top 25 lists in the past month, and there’s a consensus in the top tier. Each publication has Vanderbilt and LSU 1-2 in some order, while all three place UCLA somewhere in the top 5. It’s worth examining that trio of teams more closely to see if any separate themselves.
Each outlet’s rankings are worth checking out in full, but this examination will approach things from a slightly-different angle. The other publications crowdsource coaches and scouts to project upcoming player development; Evolution Metrix will look to what the players have already produced. We’ll look at teamwide performance in 2018, as well as the regular-season and summer league performances of each team’s key returnees. Obviously, this isn’t comprehensive; most notably, it won’t encompass incoming freshmen. There are no statistical track records to examine for Kumar Rocker, Landon Marceaux or Matt McLain, but those players will be essential to their programs’ Omaha hopes in 2019. We can mentally adjust for their arrivals, but this exercise focuses on the players already on campus in 2018. It supplements, not replaces, the top 25.
Team Production: Vanderbilt had a good, but not elite, team in 2018. They went 35-27 overall, 16-14 in SEC play. That was more than enough to warrant an NCAA tournament appearance, where they swept their way through the Clemson regional. An up-and-down super regional against Mississippi State saw the Commodores fall just shy of a trip to Omaha. While their impressive postseason leaves optimism in Nashville for 2019, it obscured the fact that, altogether, Vanderbilt was essentially an average SEC team.
Vanderbilt’s .375 on-base and .429 slugging as a team was nearly identical to the respective conference averages of .375 and .434. Typifying a modern offense, they walked and struck out a fair amount, hitting for enough power to score a passable number of runs. All told, they finished ninth in the SEC in run-scoring. It was much the same on the pitching side. Their staff ran one of the conference’s higher strikeout rates, but they issued a few too many walks. Toss in an above-average defense, and Vanderbilt’s run prevention was average as well. Holding your own in the nation’s strongest conference is no small feat, but on 2018 performance alone, Vanderbilt wouldn’t look like a contender for the #1 ranking in the country the following season.
Returnees: Of course, Vanderbilt returns much of its core from last season. JJ Bleday slashed .368/.494/.511 in a half-season’s worth of playing time, with a mid-season oblique strain slowing him down. Had he qualified, that .494 OBP would’ve ranked second in the conference, behind top five overall pick Jonathan India. While Bleday predictably couldn’t keep up that level of production with wood bats, he was one of the top ten hitters in the Cape Cod League last summer. Even as a corner outfielder, he’s got a real chance to be the SEC’s best hitter next season. Austin Martin didn’t hit for power last year, but he showed exceptionally advanced strike zone awareness and finished second in the conference in OBP as a freshman. Stephen Scott returns for his senior season after slugging .601, while Philip Clarke and Pat Demarco held their own as freshmen. Clarke has defensive questions behind the plate and Demarco’s aggressive approach got him into some trouble on the Cape, but both look like solid bets for average or better production in 2019. Only shortstop Connor Kaiser, an anchor of the Commodores’ plus defense, stands out as a key loss on the position player side.
On the pitching staff, ace Drake Fellows returns after a strong 2018, as does ERA leader Patrick Raby. Returning their entire weekend rotation is a plus, but the Commodores’ staff is not without its holes. Fellows shouldered a heavy workload in 2018, Raby’s peripherals didn’t support his stellar run prevention and the bullpen lost key cogs Chandler Day and Reid Schaller. Vanderbilt’s star-studded recruiting class was pitching-heavy, which will be instrumental given the uncertainty among the returning group. While Vanderbilt’s offense looks like a surefire high-powered group, the pitching staff is more volatile.
Team Production: LSU entered 2018 with sky-high expectations, so their season has to be considered disappointing. They weren’t bad, but 2018 wasn’t commensurate with their top ten preseason ranking. They finished 39-27, went just 15-15 in conference play and got obliterated twice by the eventual national champions in the Corvallis regional. Their .283/.366/.421 line as a team was only a little below the SEC average, but the pitching staff really struggled. LSU allowed 5.19 runs per nine innings last year, third-worst in the conference, with unimpressive strikeout and walk rates. Pitching depth was especially a problem, with the Tigers running out ten different starters or openers, with only AJ Labas emerging as a reliable option. The bullpen struggled, and Zack Hess, their innings leader, worked to a 5.05 ERA. Hess has elite stuff that could push him into the first day of next year’s draft, but he’ll need to be a more consistent strike-thrower in 2019 to do so.
Returnees: LSU doesn’t return quite as much talent as Vanderbilt will. The starting outfield of Daniel Cabrera, Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson returns, each on the heels of a strong season. Cabrera especially stands out after slugging .525 with nearly as many walks as strikeouts as a freshman. He’s one of college baseball’s most exciting players. Beyond that trio, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty. The Tigers’ second-best hitter from 2018, Austin Bain, is gone, and while Brandt Broussard and Hal Hughes form a strong middle-infield defensively, neither hit well last season. Starting shortstop Josh Smith will be back after a fantastic 2017 season, but he lost almost all of 2018 to a stress reaction in his vertebrae. He’s got All-America upside, but there’s certainly some risk that he doesn’t return to his prior levels of production.
On the pitching staff, LSU returns virtually everybody. As noted, though, this wasn’t a particularly good group in 2018. Ma’Khail Hilliard was fine as a freshman, and Hess no doubt has upside, but his first year as a starter was up-and-down. Labas threw a ton of strikes last year, but his 5.3 K/9 isn’t eye-catching. In the bullpen, Todd Peterson and Matthew Beck are back after fine, but unremarkable seasons(Peterson’s postseason hitting heroics notwithstanding). Like Vanderbilt, LSU has a stellar crop of incoming pitching prospects whom this analysis can’t account for; there’ll be no shortage of upside toeing the rubber in Baton Rouge in 2019. Still, it’s striking to see a top three team with zero preseason All-Americans, per D1 Baseball.
Team Production: Much the same as Vanderbilt and LSU, UCLA had a good, not great, 2018 season. They finished 38-21 overall, 19-11 in Pac-12 play. Their superior conference record to either of the SEC schools discussed was due in part to the Pac-12’s comparative lack of depth. While 2018 was a strong year for the Pac-12 overall (producing the national champions is a strong start), its four regional participants paled in comparison to the SEC’s ten. Washington State and Utah provided a bit of fluff for the conference’s elite. Nevertheless, Oregon State and Washington made clear that the top of the conference could compete with any team in the country, and UCLA was among that group all year. The Bruins were one of the best offensive teams in the conference, tied for second in on-base and third in slugging. The story was similar on the mound; despite not possessing the firepower of teams like Oregon State and Stanford, the Bruins finished second in the Pac-12 with a 3.08 team ERA.
Returnees: Most importantly, UCLA returns its top position player from last season. Only presumptive top ten picks Adley Rutschman and Andrew Vaughn outhit consensus preseason All-American second baseman Chase Strumpf, who popped 12 home runs en route to a .363/.475/.633 line. Also returning following great sophomore seasons are Michael Toglia and Jeremy Ydens, the latter of whom had a strong performance on the Cape as well. Only Daniel Amaral stands out as a key departure on the position player side for the Bruins, but the rest of the lineup is light on power. As with LSU, UCLA returns three potential All-Conference performers, but they’ll need more from top prospect Garrett Mitchell, who only slugged .331 as a freshman. Fortunately, Mitchell hit well in the Northwoods League this summer, albeit again with limited power. The course of his development as a hitter will go a long way toward determining UCLA’s offensive capabilities.
On the pitching side, UCLA returns two strong performers from last season, more so than their SEC foes. Ryan Garcia pitched his way into the starting rotation midway through 2018 and continued to dominate, ultimately working to a 2.23 ERA with 8.92 K/9 against 2.70 BB/9. Following the season, he emerged as the ace of the eventual-champion Wareham Gatemen on the Cape, tossing 28 more quality innings against the best competition in the nation. Also back is Zach Pettway, who stepped into the rotation immediately as a freshman and showed exceptional control, walking fewer than two batters per nine en route to a 3.35 ERA. A mere repeat of those performances would give the Bruins of the top 1-2 punches in the conference. Even with Jake Bird and Jon Olsen, the Bruins’ top two pitchers entering 2018, departing for pro ball, UCLA is set up nicely on the mound in the season to come.
There’s no clear-cut choice among the trio, and any analysis will obviously be incomplete. Freshmen aren’t accounted for, comparing across conferences is difficult and even the returnees won’t follow a linear path. Entering last season, Josh Smith looked like a huge piece for LSU. He barely played, and a season later, his outlook is a lot less certain. Vanderbilt took the top spot for two of the three publications, and this analysis seems to favor them as well. UCLA may return a stronger pitching staff, but Vanderbilt’s lineup is more likely to contribute one through nine. For 2019, it seems advantage Commodores, however slight that may be.
Note: Stats pulled from schools’ websites and the Baseball Cube