Midseason Update: The Awards Ballot
With seven weekends in the books and seven more to go before Selection Monday, it is time for our annual Midseason Report, which we present in lieu of our usual Weekend Preview. We'll have a few quick takes for Easter Weekend on Thursday morning, but today, let's hand out some midseason awards.
Most Outstanding Player
Mike Zunino, c, Florida
This honor came down to a battle between the offensive and clubhouse leaders for the top two teams in the nation—Florida and Florida State. Seminoles senior center fielder James Ramsey has louder numbers overall, and his leadership qualities cannot be overstated. But Zunino is putting up huge numbers while also withstanding the added day-to-day rigors of the catcher position. From his crouch behind the plate, he runs the show for the nation's best team.
"He's their heart and soul, no doubt," said one opposing coach who has played the Gators. "He's their leader. He's their guy, not only from a numbers standpoint, but leadership too. As good as their pitchers are, I believe he makes them better."
And to get Zunino's offensive production (.350/.413/.700 with nine homers and 33 RBIs) from a catcher is an incredible luxury for the Gators, who have played a robust schedule that included nonconference series against Cal State Fullerton and Miami.
Read more about Zunino in Conor Glassey's profile of the Midseason MOP
James Ramsey, of, Florida State
Maybe we're giving Zunino a slight edge in the race for Player of the Year, but Ramsey's unparalleled offensive production deserves its own award. Ramsey ranks third in the nation in OPS (1.417), and he's done it against considerably stronger competition than Southeast Missouri State's Trenton Moses and Tennessee Tech's Zach Stephens, who rank above him. Ramsey is hitting .426/.556/.862 with nine homers and 31 RBIs, and he has a stellar 27-16 walk-strikeout mark.
Ramsey has been a productive player for the Seminoles for years, but he has gradually matured into the nation's most dangerous hitter. Asked to compare the player Ramsey has become with the player he was when he arrived in Tallahassee, FSU coach Mike Martin said there was no comparison.
"Impossible. He's not even close to the same player," Martin said. "He's turned himself into a guy that can hit the ball out to all fields. He used to be a dead pull guy, and (assistant Mike Martin Jr.) spent a lot of time with him on going the other way. He's a tough out, righthanded pitcher or lefthanded pitcher."
Florida State has a history of upperclassmen putting up video game numbers en route to All-America honors—recent examples include Buster Posey, Tony Thomas and Shane Robinson. Ramsey fits right in that category. We'll have an in-depth profile of Ramsey next week on the college page.
Andrew Heaney, lhp, Oklahoma State
In the BBCOR era, pitching rules, and there is no shortage of worthy candidates for this award. This year, there is no Stephen Strasburg or David Price or Trevor Bauer whose performance has clearly separated him from the rest of the pack. You could make a fine case for South Carolina's Michael Roth, Arkansas' Ryne Stanek or Rice's Matthew Reckling, who join Heaney as starting pitchers on our Midseason All-America team. You could make similarly compelling cases for Stanford's Brett Mooneyham, Arizona State's Brady Rodgers, LSU's Kevin Gausman, Mississippi State's Chris Stratton, Duke's Marcus Stroman, Mississippi's Bobby Wahl, San Francisco's Kyle Zimmer and others.
But we'll go with Heaney, who has the best combination of a sparkling ERA (1.69), a sterling strikeout-walk rate (69-9), a low batting average against (.198) and a pair of complete-game shutouts on his resume. Even in his lone loss, he struck out 10 while allowing just two runs (one earned) over seven innings on Opening Day at Cal Poly.
Scouts questioned Heaney's durability in the past because his slender frame lacked physicality. But he has gotten stronger as a junior, and his ability to pitch effectively deep into games has stood out this spring.
"He's in the best shape he's ever been in physically, and he's just throwing the ball pretty well," Oklahoma State coach Frank Anderson said in March. "That gives you confidence when you're physically strong. And the work that you put in makes you that much tougher. It gives you the ability to control your body deeper into games, you don't get worn down, and it increases your chances of holding your velocity over the course of a game."
Carlos Rodon, lhp, North Carolina State
If you prefer a hitter, Oregon State slugger Michael Conforto (.359/.417/.620 with six homers and 34 RBIs) would make an outstanding choice for top freshman. But we'll give the nod to the overpowering Rodon, who quickly emerged as the staff anchor for an N.C. State team with regional hosting aspirations.
At 6-foot-3, 234 pounds, Rodon is incredibly physical for a freshman, and his stuff is simply electric. His fastball regularly reaches the mid-to-high-90s even late in games, and his power slider is a wipeout offering. He also owns a good cutter and changeup, and his ability to use all four pitches has helped him go 4-0, 1.49 with 59 strikeouts and 12 walks in 48 innings.
"I've never seen a guy command as many pitches as he does at his age," Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said in March. "He's a big, strong guy who loves to compete, loves the game."
March 16: Mississippi State at Louisiana State
Injuries had the Bulldogs reeling as they went into Baton Rouge, forcing them to move hard-throwing junior righthander Chris Stratton from the bullpen (where he was most comfortable) into the Friday starter job for his first start of the year. He matched up against LSU sophomore righty Kevin Gausman, a preseason All-American who figures to be drafted inside the top 10 picks in June.
Both righties pitched into the ninth inning, and both were brilliant. Gausman struck out 11 over 8 2/3, while Stratton fanned 17 over 8 2/3, and both exited with no-decisions, as the game headed to extra innings with the score tied 1-1. Mitch Slauter's solo homer off LSU closer Nick Goody in the top of the 10th gave MSU the lead temporarily, but the Tigers rallied for two runs in the bottom of the frame against perhaps the Southeastern Conference's best closer, Caleb Reed. JaCoby Jones hit a walk-off RBI single to center to end it.
Most Surprising Team
Our projected field of 64 at the midway point features a trio of surprising No. 2 seeds in New Mexico State, Auburn and Oregon—none of whom projected as regional teams heading into the season. Kentucky was included in our preseason NCAA tournament projection, but the Wildcats have jumped from the last SEC team in our preseason field to a national seed in our midseason field. No one could have expected the Wildcats to sweep their SEC-opening series against defending champion South Carolina and win their first 22 games en route to a 27-2 start, which also includes back-to-back road series wins at Tennessee and Georgia.
Seven weeks into the season, Kentucky looks like one of the nation's most balanced teams, with a deep stable of quality arms on the mound and a lineup that features a nice blend of power, athleticism and depth.
"Our starting pitching's been solid," UK coach Gary Henderson said in March. "We've got some solid, if not better than that, depth in the bullpen, so we've got some options back there. You never feel like you're held hostage and have to run that starter out there for seven innings every time. Our starting position players have been outstanding playing defense. And our concentration at the plate has been really good."
Most Surprising Player
Tyler Smith, ss/2b, Oregon State
The Beavers were excited about Smith's athleticism when they recruited him, but after he hit .247 as a freshman and .221 with just four extra-base hits in 113 at-bats as a sophomore last year, there was little reason to expect he would go on to earn the shortstop spot in our 2012 Midseason All-America team.
But Smith has been a dynamo for the young Beavers, hitting .463/.526/.573 with six steals in six attempts. He gradually assumed the bulk of the shortstop duties this spring, fielding at a respectable .946 clip.
"Smitty's had to go out there and play for us out there and done a heck of a job," Beavers coach Pat Casey said last month. "The one thing this year that he's finally realized is he's a competitive guy, and he's found a way to relax and play, stay with an at-bat, handle pitches he couldn't handle in the past."
Mississippi outfielder Zach Kirksey, LSU outfielder Raph Rhymes, UCLA outfielder Jeff Gelalich.
Mike Martin, Florida State
The Seminoles entered the season ranked No. 20 in the nation thanks to a quality lineup led by Ramsey and veteran infielders Jayce Boyd, Devon Travis, Justin Gonzalez and Sherman Johnson. But uncertainty about their young pitching staff prevented them from ranking higher. Even surprising Kentucky entered the year with three juniors in its weekend rotation; the Seminoles have bolted to a 24-4 start and the No. 2 ranking with a weekend rotation headed by a pair of freshmen, Brandon Liebrandt and Mike Compton.
The Seminoles have done a great job developing their young arms, but Martin deserves particular credit for the brilliant way he has structured his pitching staff. He had faith that new pitching coach Mike Bell could get the most out of Liebrandt and Compton, and he recognized that the two freshmen were better suited for starting roles than veterans Hunter Scantling and Robert Benincasa, who have anchored the bullpen.
"Those guys really adjusted and bought into their roles," Martin said. "It's just been a credit to Bell and the way these guys have done such a good job of getting it done in a new role, because they were all starters last year."
Putting players in the best positions to succeed is the mark of a great coach, and few—if any—do it better than Martin.
Fourth-year studs abound
The state of Florida features four teams ranked inside the top 20, and all four have something very important in common: each has gotten huge production out of a star player who returned to college for a fourth year. In the year of the senior, Ramsey is the poster boy, of course. But fellow Midseason All-Americans Peter O'Brien and D.J. Hicks (a fourth-year junior) have made major impacts at Miami and Central Florida, respectively. And Preston Tucker has teamed with Zunino to form the nation's most imposing power-hitting duo at Florida.
"I know recruiting and the freshmen get all the attention, but to get a guy like him back, it was huge," Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said early in the spring. "To plug him in there in the middle of the lineup, it just doesn't happen very often to get a guy like him back for his senior year."
Tucker, like Ramsey and O'Brien, turned down a significant six-figure bonus offer to head back to Florida as a senior. Hicks lacks their prospect cachet and went undrafted after floating a high price tag to scouts, but his veteran presence has meant a great deal for UCF.
"When you've got veteran players that come back to school, and they turn down the opportunity to play pro baseball, it means they enjoy the experience of playing at that school," UCF coach Terry Rooney said. "They believe in the university. It makes for a very special season."
The phenomenon isn't limited to the Sunshine State. There are more quality seniors and fourth-year juniors having big seasons in college baseball than any time in recent memory. Our Midseason All-America team features five of them, with Rice righty Matthew Reckling and South Carolina lefty Michael Roth joining Hicks, Ramsey and O'Brien. The Gamecocks also got back fourth-year junior righthander Matt Price, the nation's most accomplished and respected closer.
Throw in Texas A&M's Ross Stripling, TCU's Jason Coats, North Carolina's Jacob Stallings, Alabama's Taylor Dugas, California's Chadd Krist, Mississippi's Matt Snyder and Zach Kirksey and Auburn's Derek Varnadore, and you've got the makings for an all-senior team that could rival any all-junior team. And Mooneyham, another redshirt junior, is yet another fourth-year player having an All-America-caliber season.
Maturity matters in college baseball, and it's no coincidence that eight of the top 11 teams in the rankings at the midway point have standout fourth-year players helping to lead the way: Florida (Tucker), Florida State (Ramsey), North Carolina (Stallings), Stanford (Mooneyham), Texas A&M (Stripling), Rice (Reckling), Ole Miss (Snyder and Kirksey) and South Carolina (Roth and Price).