|Zack MacPhee, 2b, Arizona State|
|It's a strange year for college hitters. No draft-eligible hitters have separated themselves as the cream of the crop as of yet, though Texas-Arlington's Michael Choice, Cal State Fullerton's Gary Grown, Virginia Tech's Austin Wates and Auburn's Hunter Morris are among the late first- to second-round talents who have performed well.
Fullerton shortstop Christian Colon was generally regarded as the nation's top draft-eligible position player coming into the season, and he has recovered from a slow start, hitting .327/.429/.611 with eight homers and eight steals. Colon might still be the first college hitter drafted, but he doesn't quite belong in the Player of the Year discussion at this juncture.
The nation's best overall player—considering only Division I players, and thus excluding CC of Southern Nevada phenom Bryce Harper—is Rice sophomore third baseman Anthony Rendon, who has hit for power and drawn boatloads of walks while playing stellar defense, but his lack of protection in the lineup has caused his batting average to slide to .320. He might be the favorite for Player of the Year when all is said and done in 2010, but he's not a slam dunk at midseason.
Without a consensus pick, let's give the nod to MacPhee, the best player for the nation's No. 1 team, Arizona State. The 5-foot-8, 172-pound second baseman's batting average (.429) is 100 points higher than Rendon's, and he actually has a higher on-base percentage than Rendon (.525 to .511), a higher slugging percentage (.755 to .701), and more RBIs (36 to 34), though he has just three homers to Rendon's 11. MacPhee's 10 triples lead the nation, and he has 11 steals in 12 attempts, demonstrating his ability to put his well-above-average speed to use.
MacPhee has also taken advantage of his speed and added to his offensive versatility by learning to switch-hit, after spending most of last year batting only from the right side.
"He really just kind of locked into switch-hitting last summer," Arizona State coach Tim Esmay said. "He didn't switch-hit at all for us last year. He toyed with it in high school, and last year we toyed with it, but we decided to concentrate on letting him survive being a freshman. The thought process this summer was, ''Hey, why not go try it in the Cape and figure out if you can do both?' He's settled in from both sides, and he feels comfortable."
MacPhee is not big, but he has very strong, quick hands, and he has begun to harness his electric bat speed. As a freshman in 2009, MacPhee hit just .270/.403/.377 in 204 at-bats; his OPS has jumped a full 500 points from last year's .780 to this year's 1.280 through 98 at-bats.
Hitting in the No. 2 hole behind fellow sophomore Drew Maggi has helped, too. Maggi is always a threat to run on the basepaths, helping MacPhee see plenty of fastballs. And he has taken full advantage, emerging as an elite run producer and the player who really makes ASU's offense go.
"The one thing about Zack MacPhee is he's the true sense of a ballplayer," Esmay said. "He's just got this bottle of energy that he shows up with every day, and what's nice is now he's kind of controlled that energy. He knows how to use that in a positive manner. I've just seen a maturity in him this year. The explosiveness, the bat speed, the competitive edge that he has—that has always been there, but we're seeing now that, like a lot of guys after their freshman year, the game is slowing down for him."
|Drew Pomeranz, lhp, Mississippi|
A slew of other pitchers with overpowering stuff and eye-popping numbers did not quite crack our All-America team but very easily could have. Among them: Hawaii junior righty Josh Slaats (3-1, 1.03, 41-9 K-BB in 35 IP); Texas A&M junior righty Barret Loux (4-2, 1.98, 64-13 K-BB in 41 IP); The Citadel junior righty Asher Wojciechowski (7-0, 2.62, 68-16 K-BB in 48 IP); Texas sophomore righty Taylor Jungmann (3-1, 2.94, 62-16 K-BB in 49 IP); North Carolina junior righty Matt Harvey (3-1, 2.20, 51-24 K-BB in 45 IP); Ohio State junior righty Alex Wimmers (6-0, 1.98, 46-13 K-BB in 41 IP); and UCLA sophomore righties Gerrit Cole (6-0, 2.49, 61-20 K-BB in 43 IP) and Trevor Bauer (5-1, 2.28, 59-12 K-BB in 43 IP).
There is also a stellar group of shut-down closers in college baseball this year, headlined by Texas A&M flame-throwing righty John Stilson (6-0, 0.96, 4 SV, 58-9 K-BB in 38 IP), Louisville sidearmer Neil Holland (4-0, 0.34, 7 SV, 30-6 K-BB in 27 IP); Texas junior righty Chance Ruffin (4-1, 0.59, 7 SV, 42-10 K-BB in 31 IP); and UCLA sophomore righty Dan Klein (2-0, 0.00, 6 SV, 29-4 K-BB in 20 IP).
But Pomeranz is our choice for top pitcher of the first half because of the dominance he has displayed against a high caliber of competition, as well as the utterly overwhelming stuff he has shown, making him a strong candidate to be the first college player drafted in June.
|Drew Pomeranz vs. Chris Sale|
scouting consensus is that junior lefthanders Pomeranz of Mississippi
and Sale of Florida Gulf Coast will both be drafted among the first 10
picks in June, and maybe the top five. Both have excellent stuff and
good size, though Pomeranz is considerably more physical at 6-foot-5,
231 pounds than Sale at 6-6, 183. An American League crosschecker gave
a side-by-side comparison of the two lefthanded
"Sale's fastball probably has more movement than Pomeranz's does. Pomeranz does it as easy as you could see—it looks like he's throwing batting practice fastballs out there, and it's 93-94. It's just a very easy delivery, whereas Sale's a little bit herky-jerky with that delivery; he's got a lot going on. Sale I've seen up to 95, and he can reach back late in the game and maybe get a 93, but he'll pretty much settle at 91-92. Pomeranz can go back in the sixth or seventh and get 93-94 when he wants to. He'll probably pitch with a 60 fastball (on the 20-80 scouting scale), a firm 92. It's truer than Sale's, but the thing I like about Pomeranz's fastball is the angle he's able to create with it—he's able to go to both sides. Sale, with that cross-body finish, kind of struggles to get out on the front side consistently and get his fastball in on righthanded hitters. Pomeranz can get it in on righthanded hitters well. I would see Sale pitching more with a 55 fastball, whereas Pomeranz will pitch with a 60.
"Sale has a good slurvy slider, but Pomeranz has a true 12-to-6 downer curveball that is a true swing-and-miss pitch for me. I would say Sale's breaking ball is a solid 55, and I'd give Pomeranz's a 60. Sale's slider is very effective to lefties because of the angle that he's throwing it from and the direction he's landing in his delivery—everything's pointing away from a lefthanded hitter. When he's throwing that slider slashing across, it's hard for lefties to hit it. Against righties he can bury it on the back foot at times, but he can get around it and give it a sweepy action at other times, and when it's up it can get hit.
"Sale's changeup is really good—I would give it a 60. It's got good arm speed, good fade/sink action. He's able to repeat it and throw it back to back, which I like. He's not afraid to use it against lefties and righties. Pomeranz doesn't really have to use the changeup that much because he's not afraid to pitch with his fastball and he's not afraid to pitch to contact, but when he does throw it, it's a solid-average pitch with a chance to be a 55-type pitch in the future with more use. He's got enough hand feel with it and enough touch with it, there's no doubt it'll be a tick above-average pitch.
"For me, the difference is Pomeranz is a bigger guy, more durable for a starting role, and Sale has a real frail body, for me. I'm not sure how long Sale's body will last, and I have some real questions about the arm action on the back. It's an upside-down takeaway—that's a red flag in the baseball industry, it usually leads to some elbow problems down the road. It's easier for Pomeranz to repeat it and there's less effort there. Over the long haul of a season, Pomeranz won't have to exert as much effort as Sale will have to exert. Command for me with Sale will probably be average, and Pomeranz for me would be a tick above—he throws more quality strikes in the zone. Sale will be a little more scattered.
"With Pomeranz, the body's there, the stuff is there, he's durable, he's pitched in a major conference and been successful, he's pitched with Team USA and been successful. If I had to put my $2.5 million on one, I'd put it there."
|Matt Purke, lhp, Texas Christian|
Expectations could not have been higher for Purke from the day he set foot on TCU's campus. An unsigned first-round pick who turned down at least $2 million from the Rangers to attend school, Purke was expected to be a dominant ace from the start of his collegiate career.
Through seven weeks, Purke has managed not to disappoint, despite the massive hype surrounding him. He stepped into TCU's weekend rotation immediately and has emerged as the Horned Frogs' Friday starter over the last few weeks. He is 3-0, 3.52 with 48 strikeouts and nine walks in 38 innings.
"Certainly, because of what happened in the draft last year, he has a lot of eyes on him and gets everyone's best effort each and every at-bat," TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "To be able to handle that at his young age and limited experience really is a tribute to his makeup and his parents."
From the outset of the year, Purke showed the stuff that made him a first-round pick last year: a 91-94 mph fastball, an excellent changeup and a 77-80 power curveball. And he has become more polished as the season has progressed.
"Matt has really improved from the beginning of the season," Schlossnagle said. "His stuff is about the same as it was when we began, but his ability to handle baserunners and the adversity that comes throughout each outing continues to get better."
Honorable mention goes to Florida DH/third baseman Austin Maddox, who is hitting .356/.383/.610 while leading the Gators in homers (seven) and RBIs (34).
|Daniel Bibona, lhp, UC Irvine|
He also misses plenty of bats with his outstanding changeup, good slider and impeccable fastball command. As good as he was as a junior, Bibona might be even better as a senior, going 4-2, 2.54 with 60 strikeouts and 11 walks in 50 innings.
"I think it's about command, I really do," Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said earlier this season, explaining why Bibona is so tough. "He's one of those guys you can ask for the fastball in and you have a really good chance to get it in, against both right- and lefthanded hitters. If he were in the middle of the plate, like anybody else, he'd get hit. And he won't give in. It's not just that he'll throw the breaking ball on 3-2 counts or anything. If you're asking for the fastball to a spot on 3-2 counts, you have to be able to throw it there. He has the confidence that he can do that and the confidence to pitch out of trouble."
Honorable mention goes to Texas A&M outfielder/shortstop Brodie Greene, who has done more than a little bit of everything for the Aggies, hitting .411/.481/.750 with six homers, 26 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. He started the year in center field, then slid to shortstop when sophomore Adam Smith struggled and provided stability in the infield. He has hit atop the lineup, in the middle of the order and in the No. 2 hole; he has hit for power, used the gaps and caused havoc on the basepaths with his speed. And he is the heart and soul of the Aggies.
|Tim Esmay, Arizona State|
Any coach who guided his team to a 27-1 start would have a strong case for midseason coach of the year, but Esmay's case goes far beyond Arizona State's gaudy record.
A former ASU assistant under both Jim Brock and Pat Murphy, Esmay was fired by Murphy last summer—then rehired as interim head coach when Murphy himself was fired amidst an investigation into NCAA violations in November. Murphy's high-profile ouster was stunning, and it sent the program into a state of disarray, which only intensified as details about the NCAA investigation and the politics behind Murphy's departure trickled out.
Into that cauldron stepped Esmay, and almost immediately he provided the reeling program a steadying hand.
"It was all kind of an unknown—everybody was trying to figure out where everybody sits," Esmay said in March. "That part has been good. I can't say enough about the strength of these young men. They signed up for an experience at Arizona State, and they're committed to make sure that program is everything they expected it would be.
"I think everybody feels like it's still the Sun Devil Way, I think that's the whole key. I think everyone wanted to make sure that the expectations are the same. There is a lot of energy out here, but these kids just love to play. They love to play. I've got to remind myself that they do love to play, so we've got to make sure the environment is such that they can still come out every day with some energy."
Mission accomplished. Arizona State started the season 24-0, the best start in the program's illustrious history. The Devils have done it without two-time Pac-10 pitcher of the year Mike Leake and 2009 Pac-10 player of the year Jason Kipnis, but that was expected—those players were high-profile junior draftees, and ASU had plenty of time to plan for their departures. But the Sun Devils expected to have senior lefthander Josh Spence, a third-team All-American last year and an unsigned third-round pick. Spence has yet to pitch while working his way back from an arm injury, yet the ASU staff has not missed a beat, ranking third in the nation in ERA (2.69). Part of that is a credit to first-year pitching coach Ken Knutson, just as fellow first-year assistants Travis Jewett and Mike Benjamin deserve their share of credit for the strong performance of the offense and defense.
But Esmay has steered the ship with a remarkably steady, delicate hand. He has shown a knack for pushing all the right motivational buttons and making all the right lineup decisions to put his players in the best position to succeed. He is a slam-dunk choice for midseason coach of the year, and he should be rewarded by having the interim tag removed from his title.
|Biggest Leap Forward|
In a banner year for the Pac-10, Oregon coach George Horton and UCLA coach John Savage would be strong choices for coach of the year if not for Esmay. The Ducks and Bruins are also the top candidates for this category, though Arizona and California have also made significant strides from 2009 to 2010. But no program has been transformed in the span of a year more than Oregon.
The Ducks' troubles in 2009—their first season since the program was resuscitated from its 28-year hiatus—have been well documented. They ranked 298th out of 299 Division I teams in batting (.227) and dead last in scoring (2.7 runs per game), en route to a 14-42 overall record.
But Oregon matched last year's win total on March 20, just the fifth week of the 14-week season. The offense still is far from dynamic, but it is much more respectable than it was a year ago, hitting .277 and averaging 5.8 runs per game. The Ducks are 19-10 overall, and though they dropped two of three in their first two conference series (at Arizona and against Arizona State), they did hand the Sun Devils their first loss of the season. The next two weeks present challenges—Oregon makes back-to-back road trips to Stanford and UCLA—but the Ducks are much better equipped to handle those tests than they were a year ago.
"Our guys seem to be tougher mentally, more resilient," Horton said earlier this season.
They also have one of the nation's best pitching staffs, ranking fifth nationally in ERA (2.95) and seventh in fewest walks allowed per nine innings (2.52). Sophomore lefty Tyler Anderson (4-3, 2.23) and finally healthy senior righty Justin LaTempa (2-2, 2.70) give the rotation an excellent one-two punch, and the bullpen is loaded with quality arms.
"Our pitching, we thought it was good last year, and it kind of broke down with the pressure that was on them, but we think it's even better this year," Horton said. "We think we're really deep in quality too. The velocity and stuff part of it doesn't lie."
Neither does the won-lost record. There's a long, tough road still ahead, but halfway through the season, the Ducks have a realistic shot at a regional bid. And that's serious progress in Year Two after the program's resurrection.
Early on this spring, Georgia's struggles could be chalked up to a bevy of injuries, particularly in the infield. The Bulldogs deserved a little slack, common logic went, but surely they would pick it up once they returned to full health.
That excuse doesn't fly anymore. Starting middle infielders Kyle Farmer and Levi Hyams are back, and both have played well in the 15 or so games they have been in the lineup, hitting .382 and .349, respectively. But Georgia's problems have only gotten worse.
The Bulldogs ranked 22nd in the preseason largely on the strength of their deep stable of power arms. Weekend starters Justin Grimm, Michael Palazzone and Jeff Walters have all shown very good velocity, but all three have been repeatedly lit up, and the bullpen has been just as bad or worse. Remarkably, Georgia's talented staff ranked 266th in the nation with an 8.20 ERA through Sunday—and the team ERA actually climbed to 8.62 after UGa. gave up 29 runs in two midweek losses to Clemson.
Those losses were just the latest in a string of embarrassing defeats for the Bulldogs. Florida State outscored Georgia 37-7 in a three-game sweep in March. Auburn pummeled the Dawgs by scores of 20-3 and 19-3 in the bookends of a three-game sweep two weeks later. Mississippi State scored 20 runs in its two victories against Georgia the following week. Louisiana State put up 15 in the finale of last weekend's series in Baton Rouge.
"We just don't understand the value of getting ahead in the count," Georgia coach David Perno said after Tuesday's loss to Clemson. "When you don't get ahead, the little hits start falling in and Clemson had that happen tonight. The toughest thing about this team is the uncertainty and not knowing what you're going to get this late in the season is demoralizing . . . We're going to turn the corner on this pitching staff and I will be right there monitoring our progress."
Heading into this weekend's series against Mississippi, Georgia is 10-19 overall and 2-7 in conference play. And the schedule doesn't let up, with series against ranked opponents Arkansas, South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the following three weeks.
|Top Week Eight Storylines|
|• The showcase showdown this week is Virginia's series against Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers saw their six-week run atop the rankings come to an end this week following their series loss to North Carolina State, but now they return home to Davenport Field, where they are 18-2 this season. The athletic, fast and pitching-rich Cavaliers are built for the spacious dimensions of their home field, but the Yellow Jackets are built for power: They average 2.24 home runs per game, most in the nation. Georgia Tech will likely need to find other ways to win this weekend, because home runs figure to be hard to come by. But Tech has plenty of quality arms and an excellent defense in its own right, with a .976 fielding percentage that ranks 19th in the nation—though Virginia ranks fourth (.981). Expect a competitive, compelling series.
• UCLA faces its first road series of the season at No. 17 Oregon State, in a matchup of two of the nation's top four pitching staffs in terms of ERA. All of a sudden, the Bruins don't seem quite as invincible as they did during their 22-0 start (after all, they've lost two of their last three games), but their stellar weekend rotation and rock-solid bullpen should make them a favorite in just about every series they play. Oregon State scored just 10 runs in its three-game series at Southern California last weekend, and the Beavers should find scoring even more difficult against UCLA's elite staff. That means there is little margin for error for OSU starters Greg Peavey, Tanner Robles and Sam Gaviglio.
• South Carolina travels to Vanderbilt for a pivotal series in the SEC's Eastern Division. The Gamecocks sit atop that division at 7-2, but Vandy is just two games back at 5-4, with Florida in between at 6-3. This could be a lower-scoring series than the average set between these two teams; Vandy leads the conference with a 3.27 ERA in SEC games, and South Carolina is second at 3.38. Offensively, the Gamecocks have shown more power, the Commodores more speed, and both rank in the middle of the SEC pack in batting during league games. Translation: This is an evenly matched series that could go either way, so give the slight edge to the home team.