2020 Horizon League Baseball Stock Watch
This offseason, we’re going to take deep dives into all 31 Division I 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.
Over the last five seasons, the Horizon League has been a two-horse race between Wright State and Illinois-Chicago. Wisconsin-Milwaukee is a quality third program that competes at the top of the conference with regularity, but when you get down to the things that matter in the end, namely conference record and postseason appearances, WSU and UIC are in a class by themselves.
The Horizon League has had shifting membership over the last decade due to both realignment and program extinction. After 2011, Cleveland State cut its baseball program, which took the Horizon down to six members at the time. After 2012, Butler moved to the Big East, bringing the conference down to five members for a year.
Oakland came over from the Summit League ahead of the 2014 season and Northern Kentucky moved over from the Atlantic Sun in time for the 2016 season. Valparaiso departed for the Missouri Valley Conference after the 2017 season. But even after all of that, the shifting hasn’t quite stopped, as Purdue-Fort Wayne will come over from the Summit League for the 2021 season.
*2020 records not included
**Northern Kentucky’s record includes 2015 season in Atlantic Sun
|Team||Horizon Record||Winning Pct.||Overall Record||Winning Pct.|
The spacing between the teams in the Horizon League is a sight to behold. Any time you have a smaller conference, like the six-team Horizon, there is naturally going to be more spacing between each team. But it’s incredible to see that only the space between NKU in fourth and Oakland in fifth is separated by fewer than roughly 7%. That reflects the codification of the hierarchy in the Horizon League over the last five seasons. There just hasn’t been a ton of movement up and down the standings.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each Horizon League 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.
The Raiders started winning big in the Horizon as far back as the mid-2000s under current Penn State coach Rob Cooper, but they’ve taken it to another level recently, with three regional appearances in the last five seasons and three of the five 40-plus win seasons in program history coming in 2015 (43 wins), 2016 (46) and 2019 (42).
The Flames dominated the Horizon in a previous era, winning the regular-season title every year from 2002-2009. Wright State improving rapidly under Cooper changed that dynamic, and UIC fell back a bit from 2010-2014, failing to win any championships and missing out on regionals each year. In the last five years, the Flames have bounced back in a big way, winning the league twice and making two regional appearances.
Between 2010-2014, the Panthers got to a regional in 2010 and won the league regular-season title in 2013. In the last five years, the quality of play has remained high, but they haven’t been able to replicate that level of success. Milwaukee’s best league finish was second place in 2016 and it suffered through a sixth-place finish (out of seven) in 2017.
Maybe an incomplete grade is more appropriate here, because NKU has only been up at the Division I level since the 2013 season, when it jumped to the Atlantic Sun, but there has been progress in the last few years. Specifically, NKU has been competitive in the Horizon two out of the last three years. In 2017, it went 17-13 in conference play to finish third in the standings. Last season, it was 12-17, which may not be impressive on its own, but it was good for fourth.
Oakland hasn’t been able to crack the top half of the Horizon League standings in the last five seasons, with a 12-14 fourth-place finish in 2018 its best in this data sample. By comparison, there were some highlights from 2010-2014, such as a second-place finish in the Summit League in 2012 and a third-place finish in 2013, its last season as a member of that conference. For that reason, the arrow points down for the last five seasons.
There has been a consistency to YSU’s performance in the Horizon League over the last decade, which is to say that it has struggled to stay out of the bottom of the standings. Going back to 2009, a fifth-place finish is the best that it has been able to do. However, the arrow for the last five seasons points down as opposed to it pointing to the side for one reason. In 2013, the Penguins, as the last-place team in the league, made a Cinderella run through the conference tournament to secure the automatic bid to regionals. With nothing like that to match in the last five seasons, the arrow points down.
2020 Patriot League Baseball Stock Watch
In the latest conference stock watch, we take a look at the Patriot League, which has been headlined by Navy and Army in recent seasons.
Regional Recap by Year
|2019||Illinois-Chicago||0-2 in Louisville Regional|
|2018||Wright State||0-2 in Fullerton Regional|
|2017||Illinois-Chicago||0-2 in Hattiesburg Regional|
|2016||Wright State||2-2 in Louisville Regional|
|2015||Wright State||2-2 in Champaign Regional|
Wright State entered this time period with back-to-back regional final appearances, both as No. 3 seeds, which also says something about how good those Raiders teams were. The Horizon League is not a league that is going to produce a No. 3 seed automatic bid by default. To that point, the next three Horizon champs, including WSU in 2018, were No. 4 seeds once they reached regionals. The 2017 Hattiesburg Regional was a near miss for UIC. It started the weekend with an 8-7 loss to Southern Mississippi in a game it once led 6-1. Then, in an elimination game against Mississippi State, it put together a late rally but fell short by a 5-4 score.
Top Draft Picks
|Daulton Varsho, C, Wisconsin-Milwaukee||2017||68th overall|
|Peyton Burdick, OF, Wright State||2019||82nd overall|
|Sean Murphy, C, Wright State||2016||83rd overall|
|Seth Gray, 3B, Wright State||2019||119th overall|
|Ryan Weiss, RHP, Wright State||2018||129th overall|
This is another area where Wright State has run the Horizon League, with four of the five highest-drafted players in the last five years coming from the program. Other programs, like Illinois-Chicago, have had plenty of players selected, but none have had as many high-end players selected as Wright State. Speaking of UIC, the 2017 draft was a highlight, as six players were selected from its regional team that season. That group helped the Horizon League set a record in 2017 for the most players selected in a single draft with 10.
|2018||Wright State||Jeff Mercer||Alex Sogard|
|2016||Oakland||Joe Musachio||Colin Kaline/Jacke Healey|
|2016||Youngstown State||Steve Gillispie||Dan Bertolini|
|2016||Wright State||Greg Lovelady||Jeff Mercer|
The offseason after the 2016 season was a busy one in the Horizon League, as it resulted in three of the four coaching changes in the last five years. This data is also another way one can examine how successful Wright State has been, as the program has had two coaches in this data sample earn the chance to lead bigger programs. After the 2016 season, Lovelady moved on to become the coach at Central Florida. Two years later, Mercer moved back to his home state to coach Indiana. The other most successful program in the conference, UIC, has been in the opposite situation, what with coach Mike Dee at the helm for more than 20 years now. Oakland made a unique change in 2016, moving on from Joe Musachio and turning the program over to young co-coaches in Colin Kaline and Jacke Healey. Kaline later took over as the sole coach for the program, but near the end of the abbreviated 2020 season, he stepped down, and this offseason, former Akron assistant Jordon Banfield was hired as the new coach.