Image credit: Tanner Bibee, Cal State Fullerton (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
This offseason, we’re taking a deep dive into all 31 Division I college baseball conferences, using five years’ worth of data to examine where each league has been and to try to project forward to where they might go.
The Big West has historically operated as a pseudo power conference in college baseball. Has it ever really been on par with the Pac-12, for example, in terms of depth of talent and program success up and down the conference? No, but it has had its moments.
Cal State Fullerton is on the shortlist of the greatest college baseball programs in history. Few teams ran hotter than Long Beach State did in terms of on-field success for a nine-year period from 1989 to 1998 and then again in terms of player development in the late 90s and early 2000s. And UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara have both taken turns recently as teams capable of making runs to the College World Series.
As it stands today, those brand names in the Big West are still very strong, but it’s tough to make sense of where the league stands on the whole in 2020, and your view on the conference probably depends on what you value.
On the one hand, the league is going in the wrong direction in terms of the number of teams it puts into the postseason. In 2018, the Big West put just one team into regionals for the first time since 2012, and by doing so again in 2019, it was the first time there was just one team from the conference in the postseason in back-to-back years since 1985-1986.
It’s a similar story in terms of high-end talent. The Big West didn’t have a player taken in the top 100 picks in 2018 or 2019 (or 2020, actually, but that draft is outside of this five-year data sample). Prior to that, at least one player had been taken in the top 100 selections every year going back to the 1985 draft.
But on the other hand, you can’t really argue with the results if the ultimate goal is to get teams to the College World Series.
In 2015, Cal State Fullerton made the trip, UC Santa Barbara made its first CWS appearance in 2016 and Fullerton went back in 2017 after winning an all-Big West super regional against Long Beach State. For that matter, in 2018, Fullerton was one extra-inning super regional loss against Washington away from doing it again.
This five-year data sample captures the careening fortunes of the Big West in recent years, as it includes seasons when the league got three teams into regionals and had players selected in the first 10 picks of the draft, along with seasons with just one team in the postseason and no players taken before the beginning of the fourth round.
The next few seasons might be pivotal for the Big West as it either reverses the recent downturn, proving worries about the league’s future as a power in college baseball to be overblown, or continues down the path of being a one-bid league all too often.
What complicates things a bit more is upcoming expansion, with UC San Diego moving up from Division II and Cal State Bakersfield joining from the WAC. History shows that there can often be a period of adjustment for teams moving up from lower divisions or from smaller conferences, which can damage their RPIs, and by extension, the league’s RPI.
As those two expansion programs get acclimated, it’s natural to expect metrics will improve with them, but initially, it could be a minor deterrent to multiple Big West teams breaking through to the postseason.
*2020 records not included
|Team||Big West Record||Winning Pct.||Overall Record||Winning Pct.|
|Cal State Fullerton||82-38||68.33||177-123||59.00|
|UC Santa Barbara||66-54||55.00||179-108||62.37|
|Long Beach State||66-54||55.00||139-139||50.00|
|Cal State Northridge||53-67||44.17||143-137||51.07|
It’s no surprise to see Fullerton at the top of the five-year standings. It has been the most consistent program over the entire history of the Big West, and that has continued in recent years, even as a 27-year postseason appearance streak came to an end in 2019. Cal Poly coming in second here might surprise some, given that the Mustangs haven’t been to the postseason since 2014, but lately, the program has repeated a pattern of playing brutally difficult out of conference schedules that sometimes push the team out of at-large bid range early in the season, before rebounding to play really well in the Big West, leading to multiple second-place finishes in the last five seasons. Long Beach State has had the most volatility of any team in the league over the last five years. It won the conference title in 2017, and two years later, finished last. Perhaps fittingly, the team tied with LBSU in the five-year standings, UC Santa Barbara, has had similar ups and downs. It won the conference in 2019, but finished eighth and seventh in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each Big West 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.
Cal State Fullerton—??
Despite representing the best of the Big West, the arrow is down for Cal State Fullerton’s last five seasons, largely because of that broken regional streak in 2019. However, there are other nitpicks to be had with what the Titans have done in the last five seasons. For example, they haven’t won 40 or more games overall since 2013 after having won 40 or more games in all but two seasons in the decade leading up to the 2013 season. Fullerton is still the bully on the block, but it doesn’t intimidate the rest of the neighborhood quite as well as it used to.
Despite consistently finishing near the top of the Big West in recent years, the arrow points down for Cal Poly’s last five seasons when you compare it to the five seasons prior. In 2013, the Mustangs got to a regional and then came back in 2014 and hosted a regional of their own. By comparison, the last five seasons haven’t resulted in any postseason appearances, although the young talent in the Cal Poly program right now is impressive and could change that very soon.
UC Santa Barbara—??
The Gauchos are as ascendant as any Big West program over the last five years, even in spite of a couple of down seasons in 2017 and 2018. After consistently existing as a middle-of-the-pack Big West program at best for a number of years, UCSB hosted a regional for the first time in 2015, got to the College World Series for the first time in 2016 and returned to the postseason in 2019, likely falling just a couple of wins short of hosting a regional again along the way.
Long Beach State—??
It’s tough to know what to make of Long Beach State’s last five seasons. On the one hand, it really bottomed out in 2019, going 14-41 overall and 8-16 in the Big West, one year after a mediocre 2018 season. But on the other hand, it fell just one win short of Omaha in 2017, and the 2016 and 2017 postseasons were the first time the Dirtbags had been to back-to-back regionals since 2007-2008. Things also appear to be looking up in the long term, as first-year coach Eric Valenzuela had his team off to a hot start in 2020.
UC Irvine – ??
The arrow points down for UC Irvine if for no other reason than it last went to the College World Series in 2014, one year before this data sample began. But also, the Anteaters haven’t been to the postseason since that most recent Omaha trip after going to regionals eight times in 11 seasons between 2004 and 2014. The 2019 team came closest to breaking back through with a 37-17 record, 17-7 mark in conference play and an RPI in the 50s, but a subpar mark against the best teams on the schedule kept it out again.
Cal State Northridge—????
First-year coach Dave Serrano, who previously led UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton to Omaha, had Cal State Northridge off to a fast start in 2020, but the five years prior to that were more of the same for the Matadors. That is to say that CSUN didn’t make any postseason appearances (the last one came in 2002) and had to work hard to finish in the top half of the Big West standings.
Since joining the conference ahead of the 2013 season, Hawaii has struggled to compete at the top of the Big West, and that continued over the last five seasons. Going 12-12 in league play, which happened twice, is the best the Rainbow Warriors could do in this data sample, with fifth-place finishes in 2015 and 2017 serving as their best in terms of the conference standings.
UC Davis – ????
The Aggies are currently looking for their first regional appearance and first above-.500 season in the Big West since 2008, when they earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and went 13-11 in conference play. When comparing the last five years and the five years prior, the results are largely the same. In the last five seasons, UC Davis’ average finish in the standings was seventh, exactly the same as its average finish from 2010-2014.
It has been relatively subtle, but the last five years have been a bit tougher on the Highlanders than the five years prior. Between 2010-2014, UC Riverside won 10 or more conference games four out of five seasons. In the last five seasons, they’ve eclipsed 10 Big West wins once. They also hasn’t finished over .500 overall in any of the last five seasons and bottomed out during this data sample, with a 4-20 conference record in 2015.
Regional Recap by Year
|2019||UC Santa Barbara||0-2 in Stanford Regional|
|2018||Cal State Fullerton||3-0 in Stanford Regional, 1-2 in Fullerton Super Regional|
|2017||Cal State Fullerton||3-0 in Stanford Regional, 2-1 in Long Beach Super Regional, 0-2 in College World Series|
|2017||Long Beach State||4-1 in Long Beach Regional, 1-2 in Long Beach Super Regional|
|2016||Cal State Fullerton||1-2 in Starkville Regional|
|2016||Long Beach State||2-2 in Coral Gables Regional|
|2016||UC Santa Barbara||3-0 in Nashville Regional, 2-0 in Louisville Super Regional, 1-2 in College World Series|
|2015||Cal State Fullerton||3-0 in Fullerton Regional, 2-1 in Louisville Super Regional, 0-2 in College World Series|
|2015||UC Santa Barbara||0-2 in Lake Elsinore Regional|
These results illustrate the conundrum that is the Big West. There aren’t as many postseason teams listed here as the conference would ultimately like, but teams from the league do a good job of winning games once they get there. In fact, it’s so ingrained that Big West clubs play well on the big stage that it was somewhat jarring to see Fullerton lose a home super regional to Washington in 2018. Overall, five of the nine individual regional teams over the last five seasons have advanced to a super regional, and of those five teams, four of them went 3-0 in a regional to advance. UC Santa Barbara has the strangest postseason history in this data sample, with a 5-0 path to the College World Series in 2016 bookended by 0-2 showings in regionals in 2015 and 2019.
Top Draft Picks
|Dillon Tate, RHP, UC Santa Barbara||2015||4th overall|
|Keston Hiura, 2B, UC Irvine||2017||9th overall|
|Spencer Howard, RHP, Cal Poly||2017||45th overall|
|Thomas Eshelman, RHP, Cal State Fullerton||2015||46th overall|
|Garrett Hampson, SS, Long Beach State||2016||81st overall|
This is a good group, with all five players listed having already collected big league service time, including Hiura, who had a breakout half-season for the Brewers as a rookie in 2019, hitting .303/.368/.570 with 19 home runs in 84 games. Eshelman spent part of 2019 and the start of 2020 in the big leagues with the Orioles and Hampson first made it up with the Rockies in 2018. Tate, the highest-drafted player in this data sample, broke through with the Orioles in 2019, but it hasn’t been the easiest go of it in pro baseball for him. He’s been in three different organizations already and his 2020 season got started late due to injury rehab. The most recent big leaguer is Howard, who made his debut with the Phillies on Sunday.
|2019||Cal State Northridge||Greg Moore||Dave Serrano|
|2019||Long Beach State||Troy Buckley||Eric Valenzuela|
|2018||UC Irvine||Mike Gillespie||Ben Orloff|
The Serrano and Valenzuela hirings already seem to have paid dividends with their respective teams both playing well in 2020 before the season was canceled. The same can also be said of Orloff at UC Irvine, even as he had big shoes to fill after taking over for Mike Gillespie. In 2019, his team won 37 games, led by an outstanding starting rotation, even if it did end up on the wrong side of the at-large bubble.