|Rich Poythress, 1b, Georgia|
|For the second straight year, the nation’s top hitter at the midway point is a Georgia Bulldog. In 2008, Gordon Beckham earned the nod, batting .432/.530/.871 with 16 home runs and 39 RBIs in 139 at-bats. Beckham went on to hit 28 homers and drive in 77, and it certainly helped to have Poythress hitting behind him in the lineup.
Poythress smacked 15 homers of his own and drove in 75, but he’s on pace to shatter those numbers in 2009, even without Beckham. Through 32 games, Poythress is hitting .431/.530/.846 with 14 home runs and 56 RBIs in 123 at-bats. He leads the nation in RBIs. As good as Beckham was in the first half a season ago, Poythress has posted even louder first-half numbers this year.
“It was a little bit of a shock what Gordon did as far as the power numbers and the high average together in the same year,” Georgia coach David Perno said. “With Rich, it’s not surprising. Rich did it last year. Yeah, he was hitting behind Gordon, but sometimes that’s even tougher to do, to drive in 75 runs last year with the guy in front of you having 28 home runs—that’s difficult to do. It’s definitely helped us, him getting off to the start he’s gotten off to.”
Just as Beckham’s plate discipline (28-12 strikeout-walk ratio at the midway point) fueled his monstrous 2008, Poythress continues to draw plaudits for his mature approach. He had 46 walks and 40 whiffs last year, and this year he has 24 walks and 17 strikeouts. Perno said Beckham was probably the best power hitter he has ever coached, but that Poythress is just as threatening—and an even better pure hitter.
“Gordon could hit it out any time, any pitch—he just had lightning in his hands,” Perno said. “Rich’s strength is just being a complete hitter. He walks more than he strikes out, uses the other side of field better than anybody I’ve had, and he has great plate discipline. The power is in there, but he’s more of a complete hitter than just a power hitter. I think the power numbers will just show up, with his approach.”
They certainly have shown up in a big way thus far.
Honorable mention goes to North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley, who is well on his way to a third straight season batting better than .400. Ackley is hitting .413/.522/.738 through 126 at-bats, and he’s already matched his single-season high (set in 2007) with 10 home runs.
|Stephen Strasburg, rhp, San Diego State|
|A preposterous amount of hype accompanied Strasburg into 2009, and if anything the hoopla has magnified as the season has progressed. But through it all, Strasburg has not been distracted and has managed to exceed even the most stratospheric expectations. Through eight starts, the junior righthander is 7-0, 1.49 with a 107-11 strikeout-walk ratio in 54 innings. Opponents are hitting just .177 against him, and he is on pace to break Ryan Wagner’s Division I record of 16.8 strikeouts per nine innings, set in 2003. Strasburg is averaging 17.7 strikeouts per nine.
On top of that, Strasburg is a lock to be selected No. 1 overall in the draft in June, provided the Washington Nationals are willing to break draft bonus records to sign him. Strasburg is a rare talent indeed, with a fastball that reaches triple digits and a vicious power breaking ball, not to mention the makings of a quality changeup that he seldom has to use at the college level.
In any other year, Arizona State’s Mike Leake and Josh Spence, Kansas State’s A.J. Griffin or Missouri’s Kyle Gibson would be fine choices for top pitcher honors at the midway point. But not in the Year of Strasburg.
|Danny Hultzen, lhp/1b, Virginia|
If the season ended today, Hultzen might be the Atlantic Coast Conference pitcher of the year. His 58 strikeouts in 46 innings are one off the league lead, as are his five wins. His 2.17 ERA ranks third among ACC weekend starters. As Virginia’s Friday starter, Hultzen has recorded wins against Florida State standout freshman Sean Gilmartin and Miami All-American Chris Hernandez, among others. He’s also established himself as one of the nation’s top pitching prospects, with an 88-93 mph fastball, an excellent breaking ball and a very good changeup.
That alone might be enough to earn Hultzen top freshman honors at midseason, but he’s also spent most of the season playing first base and hitting in the middle of Virginia’s high-flying offense. Hultzen is batting .363/.464/.438 with 19 RBIs in 80 at-bats over 25 games.
“He’s got really great poise, for an 18-year-old,” Cavs coach Brian O’Connor said in March. “He’s got great poise, and he’s a competitor. He’s a really good athlete, and the majority of the time when he’s not pitching he’s playing first base and hitting three-hole in at least half our games.
“It’s not common at all (for a freshman to start on Fridays), but he’s got that kind of stuff. Also, because he’s such a valuable position player for us, I like him pitching Friday night because you get the rest the day before on Thursday, then the rest of the weekend he can concentrate on being a position player.”
Honorable mention to Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon (.388/.451/.686 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs), who is having the best offensive season of any freshman.
|Kent Matthes, of, Alabama|
When asked to explain why his powerful offense is averaging more than nine runs per game, Alabama coach Jim Wells starts by mentioning Matthes, a guy who’s “just having that year.”
Matthes has always been talented, but as a senior he’s made the leap to offensive terror. After hitting eight home runs in 2007 and 11 in 2008, Matthes has already equaled his combined total from the past two years. In just 111 at-bats, he has 19 home runs, leading the nation. A career .293 hitter entering this season, Matthes is hitting .405/.493/1.036 with 54 RBIs. Just as notable is his improved plate discipline: he carried a 30-108 walk-strikeout ratio into this year, but through 30 games he has drawn 16 walks and struck out just 16 times.
“It’s wonderful—I told him yesterday what a great thing it is to sit back and watch him play,” Wells said. “He’s such a good person, and he’s been here four years. He didn’t play a lot his freshman year but has played all the time since then. The key thing for him is just maturity. He’s gotten all the at-bats and coaching, he’s relaxed and confident. He’s gotten better fundamentally in his legs. When you watch him hit, even when people are getting him out, he doesn’t jump at the ball. He’ll occasionally spin off balls like all guys do at times, trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark, but he can correct himself fairly quick. He has power to all fields.
“The other thing is he’s developed into a good baserunner and a good outfielder, and he has thrown out some guys in the outfield, which is unusual. He’s just an all-around good player.”
Honorable mention goes to Mississippi righthander Scott Bittle, who has transformed himself from the nation’s most dominant closer a year ago into an equally dominant weekend starter. Since moving to the rotation, Bittle has made two starts, allowing just four hits and two walks while striking out 23 over 16 shutout innings.
|Jim Morris, Miami|
Miami began the season in unfamiliar territory: outside the top 25 rankings. They lost three first-round picks (Yonder Alonso, Jemile Weeks and Carlos Gutierrez) from last year’s dominant club, not to mention a pair of star outfielders (second-rounder Dennis Raben and third-rounder Blake Tekotte), a slugging third baseman (fourth-rounder Mark Sobolewski) and a weekend starter (24th-rounder Enrique Garcia). Another weekend starter, lefthander Eric Erickson, was lost to Tommy John surgery before the season even began.
Those losses left Miami with two All-Americans: shortstop Ryan Jackson (a second-team preseason All-American) and lefthander Chris Hernandez (last year’s national Freshman of the Year). Amazingly, both players have struggled to some degree in 2009—Jackson is hitting just .280 while Hernandez has a 5.80 ERA—yet the Hurricanes just keep on winning. Their 24-8 record includes series sweeps of Florida and North Carolina State, plus series wins over Duke, Virginia and Florida State.
Morris, the 1994 Coach of the Year, has long been acknowledged as one of the very best coaches in the nation, but he might be doing his best coaching job so far in 2009.
“If you look at their numbers you say, ‘Wow, how are these guys winning?’ But they’re winning all these games,” said a National League area scout. “Watch them on the field, you think they must be doing it with mirrors. They don’t make a lot of mistakes, which is a sign of Jim’s teams usually. It’s that mystique; they believe they’re going to win because every year they win. Everybody that comes in there, they feel the pressure. Whether (the Hurricanes) have a great team or just a so-so team, it’s a confidence thing. Other teams get in there, they’re winning 4-0, and they start thinking, ‘Oh (shoot), we’re shutting out Miami.’ They start putting pressure on themselves, and Miami won’t make any mistakes, and they’ll capitalize when the other team makes mistakes.”
|Biggest Leap Forward|
|The Lions haven’t made a regional since 2000 and are coming off a seventh-place finish in the eight-team West Coast Conference in 2008. They finished just 7-14 in the league and 23-32 overall, and coach Frank Cruz was fired in the offseason. LMU replaced him with Jason Gill, who had proven his recruiting mettle in stops at Oregon, Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and LMU.
Gill had no time to recruit players for this team after taking the job this summer, but he’s proven that he’s much more than just a good recruiter. The team he inherited lost 10 straight games in March, slumping to an 8-12 record, but Gill has rallied the Lions to wins in 13 of their last 15 games since. At 21-14 overall and 6-1 in the WCC, Loyola Marymount is in position to compete for a trip to the league championship series and a regional berth.
“We’ve got a couple thumpers in the middle of the lineup (Angelo Songco and Ryan Wheeler), but other than that, we scrap,” Gill said in late March, after LMU swept a four-game series against defending national champion Fresno State. “They’re tough outs, they’re advancing runners, they’re hitting behind runners well, they’re sacrificing themselves. I had one scout tell me they’re like flies at a picnic—they won’t go away. I would say the resilience of them is probably is the biggest deal.”
|In many ways, 2008 was a banner year for the Pacific-10, which placed four teams in the preseason top 10 and had more front-line talent than any other league. But this spring has been another story entirely.
Arizona State (23-7) and Oregon State (19-6) have met or exceeded expectations, but the rest of the conference is a mess. Take away the Sun Devils and Beavers, and the other eight teams have an aggregate record of 105-124 (.459 winning percentage). Preseason top 15 teams UCLA (12-18) and Stanford (12-12) have been two of the nation’s more disappointing teams, and Southern California (15-14) and California (15-15) have failed to make the most of their significant talent, as well.
With the Big West having its best season in years, the Pac-10 could feel the crunch when the NCAA tournament field is filled out. If Selection Monday were today, the league would get just two regional bids. For a league that has won far more national titles than any other, having two regional-caliber teams isn’t just a disappointment. It’s an embarrassment.
|Keep An Eye On|
The Golden Flashes were the surprise member of the preseason Top 25, ranking 18th in the country. They fell out of the rankings after going 0-2 at Kennesaw State in early March, but they have quietly cruised to a 22-6 mark since. Scouts have continued to flock to see righthanders Brad Stillings (who has reached 95 mph and flashed a plus slider) and Kyle Smith (88-92 mph fastball with life, along with a good slider and changeup) and lefty Jon Pokorny (90-91 with a good curveball). And scouts who see the Flashes come away impressed with them, not just for their draft-eligible talent but for their quality as a team.
“Traditionally they don’t start real fast,” said a National League area scout. “They had some publicity early, but I think it’s a team that’s going to sneak up on some people at the end of the year. Obviously the pitching is about as good as you’ll find, they’re starting to come on strong. Pokorny’s a pretty rare college arm out of the bullpen. The hitters aren’t quite the prospects the pitchers are, but they’re a bunch of good college bats who are tough outs. I think they’re going to peak at the end of the year and make some noise in the postseason.”
Other pitchers have emerged almost out of nowhere to give Kent State a deep stable of power arms. Freshman lefthander Andrew Chafin reaches the low 90s and flashes a plus breaking ball, according to the scout, and another scout was excited about freshman righty Kevin McMillen, who is still working on his command but showed a fastball in the 92-95 range and a slider with some bite.
“I’m trying to figure out what (pitching coach Mike) Birkbeck and (head coach Scott) Stricklin are putting in the water up there, because they run some guys out there who can really throw it,” said the second NL area scout. “Offensively, I’ve seen them score a lot of runs. They play well to their yard—they’re a team that I think will be pretty tough at home. I’ll be interested to see what they do as they continue on, whether the bats continue to play in regionals.”
Barring a huge upset in the Mid-American Conference tournament (which would likely be followed by a snub from the selection committee because of a modeststrength of schedule), we’ll get to find out soon enough just how far the Flashes can go in the postseason.