Image credit: East Carolina celebrates its 2018 American Athletic Conference Tournament championship (Photo courtesy of ECU)
This offseason, we’ll be taking deep dives into each and every conference in college baseball. Looking back on five years’ worth of data, we’ll examine where each league has been and try to project forward to where the league might go.
The American Athletic Conference has been a quality baseball league since its creation ahead of the 2014 season. That first year, just two teams from the conference, Houston and Louisville, got into regionals, but Louisville made it all the way to the College World Series and Houston made a super regional.
At the end of that season, Louisville and Rutgers departed for the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, Temple cut its baseball program, and East Carolina and Tulane arrived from Conference USA. Since then, the conference has settled into a place between the true power conferences in the country and the sport’s mid-major leagues.
In each of the last five seasons, three or four AAC teams have appeared in regionals, East Carolina has twice advanced to a super regional, and ECU and Houston have both served as regional hosts.
Conference membership has settled in recent years when compared to the shuffling that happened in the league’s first two years of existence, but there have still been changes. Wichita State joined the American in time for the 2018 season, and while that move was made primarily with basketball in mind, adding a program with the history of Wichita State helps from a baseball standpoint, too.
Now, Connecticut is on the way out to return to the Big East. As a consistent postseason participant with a brand-new stadium, the Huskies’ departure will be a blow to the conference.
With Louisville still the only team to reach the CWS under the American Athletic Conference banner, the next step for the league is clear.
*2020 records not included
Because ECU dominated the league in 2019 with a 20-4 conference record and perhaps because it has been to two super regionals in this data sample, it wouldn’t have been crazy to assume that the Pirates would run away with the five-year standings, but that wasn’t the case for two primary reasons. For one, Houston has been extremely consistent in the last five years, with an 11-12 league record in 2016 its worst in this data set. Second, ECU really struggled in 2017, finishing last with a 7-17 record, which helped bring it back to the pack. UConn coming in third here illustrates how much the league loses by having the Huskies leave the conference. In all measures, beyond just the record, it has been the third-best program over the last five years. Wichita State has only been in the AAC the last two full seasons, so note that its record here also reflects three seasons spent in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each America Athletic Conference program performed over the last five full seasons. The arrow designation of up, down and to the side represent the results of the last five seasons, not a projection of the years to come.
This five-year data sample lines up with the five full seasons that Cliff Godwin has been on the job, and that pairing has been extraordinarily successful. In 2015, Godwin’s first season, ECU got into the postseason for the first time in three years. In his second season, it got to its first super regional since 2009 and in 2019, a 20-4 league record gave the Pirates their best winning percentage in conference play since they went 25-5 in Conference USA in 2004. ECU is undoubtedly disappointed to still be stuck on the doorstep of its first-ever trip to Omaha, but that doesn’t change the fact that the last five years have been a huge success.
This data sample just misses Houston’s 2014 super regional appearance, but it still paints a picture of a highly-successful run of seasons for the Cougars. They finished in at least a tie atop the conference standings three different times and hosted regionals in 2015 and 2017, even if they weren’t able to advance out of either of those regionals. When you consider that Houston, a proud program with a lot of history, hadn’t been to a regional at all between 2009 and 2013, there’s no way to look at the last five years as anything but positive.
The goal of this section is to compare the last five seasons with the five seasons prior, and through that lens, there is an argument to be made that the arrow should be pointed down for UConn. After all, it hosted a regional in 2010 and then broke through to a super regional in 2011. The Huskies haven’t done anything like that in the last five years, but what they have done is become more consistent. After that 2011 season, they finished the next three seasons fifth, eighth and seventh in the conference standings, although that eight-place team went on to win the automatic bid in the Big East Tournament. After a sixth-place finish in the first season of this data set, UConn hasn’t finished lower than a tie for fourth in the last four seasons, all while getting to three more regionals. In the face of disadvantages from weather, and until now, a subpar facility, the Huskies have been a model of consistency.
Tulane came into the years featured in this data sample mired in a long regional drought, having missed out on the postseason every season since 2008. In 2015, the first year with David Pierce at the helm, the Green Wave got back into a regional, and in 2016, they won the American regular-season title. The last three seasons haven’t featured the same highs as those first two seasons in the data sample, but the team’s quality has remained high, finishing above .500 in the league twice in that time. Although it’s not a part of the calculus for our purposes here, It’s also worth noting that the 2020 Green Wave had a real chance to be the best team in the Travis Jewett era, so perhaps another breakthrough is around the corner in 2021.
The Bulls’ last five seasons have been the best five seasons for the program since going to four regionals in five years between 1993-1997. The 2015, 2017 and 2018 seasons ended with regional appearances, a second-place conference finish in 2018 was USF’s best since coming in second in the Big East in 2009 and the 42 wins in the 2017 season were the most since the 1996 team won 47 games. That success helped Mark Kingston make the move to becoming the head coach at South Carolina after 2017, with Kingston assistant Billy Mohl tasked with keeping things going moving forward in Tampa.
There have been some highlights for UCF over the last five seasons. Most notably, in Greg Lovelady’s first season in 2017, the Knights went 40-22 overall, tied for the AAC regular-season title and got to the program’s first regional since 2012. But in the five years prior, they got to two regionals and were just generally more consistent. Other than 2017, UCF has finished fifth, sixth and seventh (twice) in the conference standings in the last five seasons. In the five years prior, it only finished worse than fifth once. The arrow might be pointing down for the last five seasons, but it was certainly pointing up in 2020, as the Knights ended the season in the Top 25. They’ll likely go into the 2021 season as the favorites in the American.
In 2019, by virtue of winning the American Athletic Conference’s automatic bid, Cincinnati made its first regional appearance since 1974. And then the Bearcats went to Corvallis and won their regional opener against host Oregon State to put the icing on the cake. That alone means the last five seasons should be considered a success, but it’s not the only reason that it should be framed that way. For example, its second-place finish in the league standings in 2019 was its best since coming in second in the Big East back in 2008, and 31 wins were the most for the program since winning 39, also in 2008. Scott Googins was known for leading his Xavier teams to their best results when it mattered most and it seems like he’s on a similar path at Cincinnati.
The Wichita State brand is still powerful in college baseball, but it has been a long time since the Shockers truly competed on a national scale, and the last five seasons were particularly tough. Wichita State hasn’t finished better than fourth in the conference, whether in the American or the MVC, in the last five seasons. The most promising season in this data set, a 35-21-1 campaign in 2018 that featured a start hot enough that the Shockers looked like a regional lock at one point, ended with a second-half collapse and an seventh-place finish in the conference. In a recurring theme in this league, Wichita State is another team that provided reasons for optimism in 2020, Eric Wedge’s first season at the helm. Perhaps that shift continues into 2021.
The results haven’t changed much for Memphis in the last five seasons compared to the five seasons prior. The Tigers haven’t been to a regional since 2007 no matter how you compare those two eras. But Memphis has struggled to compete since moving to the American from Conference USA, save for a 12-12 fifth-place finish in 2015, and for that reason, the arrow points down.
Regional Recap by Year
4-1 in Greenville Regional, 0-2 in Louisville Super Regional
2-2 in Conway Regional
2-2 in Houston Regional
3-0 in Charlottesville Regional, 1-2 in Lubbock Super Regional
1-2 in Gainesville Regional
While the next big-picture goal is rightfully to get a team currently in the conference to the College World Series, it would do well to put itself in that position by getting more teams to the brink. Over the last five seasons, ECU has done all of the heavy lifting in that regard with its two super regional appearances. In 2018, UConn got the nod over Houston as the best result, because while both teams went 2-2, the Huskies eliminated host Coastal Carolina along the way. Similarly, in 2015, USF is the choice rather than Houston and Tulane, two other teams to go 1-2, because its win over Florida Atlantic was the most impressive of the bunch.
Top Draft Selections
|Alec Bohm, 3B, Wichita State
|Ian Happ, OF, Cincinnati
|Kody Hoese, 3B, Tulane
|Shane McClanahan, LHP, South Florida
|Anthony Kay, LHP, Connecticut
The American Athletic Conference has had little issue producing high draft picks over the last five seasons. After Louisville’s Nick Burdi, the 46th overall pick, was the highest-drafted player from the AAC in its initial 2014 season, the league has had a player taken in the first 33 picks of the draft every year since. In addition to the players in the above table, South Florida shortstop Kevin Merrill was taken 33rd overall in 2017. The 2018 draft was the high-water mark. Not only is Bohm the highest draft pick in the history of the conference, but 38 total American Athletic Conference players were selected.
Wedge’s hiring is one of the most unique the sport has seen. It’s fairly common for a beloved alumni figure to come back to coach his alma mater, like Wedge is doing in Wichita, but what’s far more rare is a former big league manager coaching in college baseball. Googins, who was previously at crosstown rival Xavier, leading the Musketeers to three regional trips in his last four seasons there, made a ton of sense as the hire for Cincinnati at the time. So far, it’s paid off in a big way in the form of a 2019 regional appearance for the Bearcats. Jewett and Lovelady are in a similar position right now as coaches who may have been poised to lead their teams through breakout seasons in 2020 before the season was canceled. Now they’ll try to replicate that in 2021 instead.