Image credit: Kent State infielder/righthander Pavin Parks (Courtesy of Kent State Athletics)
Like so many other conferences, the story of the Mid-American Conference in recent years is one of shifting membership, but unlike most, its changes have come from contraction more than realignment.
Akron cut baseball at the end of the 2015 season, with Buffalo doing the same after 2017. This spring, Bowling Green announced it was going to do the same. However, the conference is just down one program as it stands now, with Buffalo the only one to remain shuttered.
After a four-season absence, Akron began playing again in 2020. In a more dramatic about-face, Bowling Green was saved by alumni and donors just two weeks after its cut was announced.
Meanwhile, at the top of the conference, the quality has remained relatively high. Big leaguers continue to come from MAC institutions at a rate equal to or higher than many other similarly-sized conferences, and the best teams the league has to offer can compete well nationally, as shown by Kent State’s historical success and most recently, Central Michigan’s foray into the postseason.
In this five-year sample, the conference has a fairly well-defined gap between its top and bottom halves in terms of winning percentage in conference play, but when you look at a metric like postseason appearances, those same top programs aren’t necessarily running away with things.
That’s just the way things go in traditional one-bid leagues, but the bigger picture ramification is that it doesn’t bode well for a conference’s chances to succeed in the postseason if it often doesn’t put its best team into the field of 64.
*2020 records not included
**With just one season in this sample, Akron is not included in the table below. The Zips went 13-14 in the MAC in 2015.
The standings bring the divide between the top and bottom half of the conference into clear view, with Kent State, Central Michigan, Ball State, and to a lesser degree Miami, head and shoulders above the rest of the conference in terms of MAC record. For the most part, the performance of these teams in the last five seasons has been fairly static. The top teams have been the top teams and the teams near the bottom have mostly been near the bottom. Miami is the biggest exception. It has 11-16 and 8-16 MAC records in this data set, but at the same time, has 17-10 and 14-10 marks as well.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each MAC 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.
A down arrow is harsh for the program with the best record in the conference over the last five seasons, but remember that these arrow designations are in comparison to the previous five-year period. From 2010-2014, the Golden Flashes went to four regionals, got to a regional final in 2011 and got to the College World Series in 2012. By comparison, they have made just one regional appearance in the last five seasons, so despite continuing to pile up wins, the results don’t stack up.
Central Michigan had spent most of its recent history competing near the top of the MAC but never quite breaking through to the postseason. That changed in 2019 under first-year coach Jordan Bischel, when the Chippewas went 22-5 in MAC play and captured the automatic bid for their first regional appearance since 1995. That’s enough for the arrow to be up, but beyond that, CMU also won their division (the MAC used a divisional format prior to 2019) or the conference outright in three out of the last five seasons.
The Cardinals have found consistency in the last five seasons, winning 30 or more games overall each time and never finishing worse than 14-13 in MAC play. That came after a five-year period that featured a 15-win season in 2011 and a 14-win season in 2012, both of which also ended in sub-.500 conference records. With no regional appearances since 2006, getting back to the postseason is the next goal for Ball State.
Miami has had some ups and downs over the last five seasons, with MAC records ranging from 8-16 all the way to 17-10. The good has outweighed the bad overall, and that tracks with what it was doing in the previous five seasons, when it finished over .500 in three out of five seasons from 2010-2014, peaking with an 18-9 MAC record in 2014. Not unlike Ball State, despite all of the regular-season success, the Redhawks haven’t been to the postseason since 2005, making the next step for the program clear.
The Zips had one of their best seasons in recent history in 2015, going 28-30 and 13-14 in the MAC. After a four-year absence, they returned to college baseball in 2020 with former Reds all-star Chris Sabo at the helm. Given that it started back from zero, it will likely be a long, steady climb back to respectability for Akron.
The last five seasons have been an improvement for Western Michigan on a couple of fronts. Most notably, it secured the automatic bid in 2016 and got into the postseason for the first time since 1989. But it also finished right around .500 each year in MAC play, which is a step up from the previous five seasons, when it had 8-19 (2013) and 5-22 (2010) marks along the way.
Ohio had some ups and downs year to year over the last five seasons, but the ups were outstanding. In 2015, it went 36-21, which is the highest win total for the program this century, and got to a regional for the first time since 1997. Just two seasons later, it did it again, which is the first time Ohio has been to the postseason in at least two out of three seasons since it went four straight years from 1968-1971.
There have been moderate highs and moderate lows for Northern Illinois in recent years, but mostly, it has been a steady program that both never really bottoms out but also rarely competes at the top of the conference. That’s true of the program broadly, but has also been the case in particular over the last five seasons, when the Huskies finished over .500 in the MAC twice, but never with a record better than 14-10.
The Rockets finished under .500 in MAC play twice between 2010-2014 and twice in the last five seasons, but not all sub-.500 seasons are the same. In this data sample, a 9-15 MAC record in 2017 was, at the time, the worst since going 5-17 in 2005, and a 4-21 record in 2019 gave Toledo its fewest conference wins since it went 3-10 in 1983. In 2020, coach Rob Reinstetle was in his first season of trying to get the program turned around after that tough 2019 campaign.
Similar to conference mates Ball State and Miami, Eastern Michigan is chasing success that it enjoyed early in the 2000s. It got to regionals in 2003 and 2008 and won the regular-season title in 2007. While it hasn’t matched that success in recent years, it came much closer from 2010-2014 than it has in the last five seasons, when it finished above .500 in conference play just twice.
Right now, there is only optimism and relief around the Bowling Green program after having been saved from extinction. But there is also a lot of work to be done for new coach Kyle Hallock and his staff to get the Falcons back to respectability in the MAC. They began this data set by going 14-13 in 2015, but they haven’t won more than nine conference games since, and the program hasn’t finished over .500 overall since 2010.
Regional Recap by Year
|1-2 in Starkville Regional
|1-2 in Lubbock Regional
|0-2 in Lexington Regional
|0-2 in Louisville Regional
|0-2 in Champaign Regional
Despite coming in seventh in the five-year standings, Ohio has more postseason appearances than any other MAC program in the last five seasons. Sixth-place Western Michigan also makes an appearance here. The four teams who come in above .500 in MAC play—Kent State, Central Michigan, Ball State and Miami—account for just two of the last five regional trips among MAC teams. No team from the conference has won more than one game in a regional since 2012, when Kent State made its Cinderella trip to Omaha.
Top Draft Selections
|Eric Lauer, LHP, Kent State
|Drey Jameson, RHP, Ball State
|Keegan Akin, LHP, Western Michigan
|Alex Call, OF, Ball State
|Jake Latz, LHP, Kent State
Clearly, the 2016 draft was a high-water moment for the MAC, as it had three of the top 86 picks in the draft. That draft is also particularly notable for having produced Eric Lauer, who advanced to the big leagues very quickly with the Padres and is now with the Brewers. By having two of the five highest-drafted players on this list, Ball State also continued its long history of having players drafted early. Going back further into the past, BSU has produced as many first-round picks as any team in the conference this century, including the league’s only first overall selection in Bryan Bullington in 2002.
There was relatively little coaching turnover in the MAC in the last five years, thanks in large part to the fact that a number of programs made changes just prior to this data set beginning in 2015. Bischel brought immediate results to CMU, as he led his team to its first regional since 1995 in his first season on the job. Sabo had a difficult job in front of him already in re-starting the Akron program, but it may have gotten a bit more difficult in recent weeks, what with associate head coach Jordon Banfield taking the head job at Oakland and pitching coach Dan McKinney following him there. Although it came after this data set finished, it should be noted that Bowling Green has also gone through a coaching change, with longtime coach Danny Schmitz taking a fundraising role within the administration and pitching coach Kyle Hallock taking the reins as the program is jump started.