2020 Mountain West Conference Baseball Stock Watch
This offseason, we’re taking 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 it might go.
The last five seasons represented a bit of a step back for the Mountain West Conference. After getting at least two teams into the NCAA Tournament each year from 2009 to 2014, it was a one-bid league in each of the last five seasons.
Save for Fresno State in 2019, which got to the regional final in Stanford, the league’s postseason participants have also struggled to get deep into its regionals. But that’s actually not a new trend. If you take Texas Christian, a member of the MWC from 2005-2013, out of the equation, there are few instances of teams under the conference banner winning more than one game in the postseason.
To find a team other than TCU that advanced to a regional final prior to Fresno State doing so in 2019, you have to go back to 2009, when Utah pulled it off. Of course, Utah is now in the Pac-12, so in order to find an example of a current member going to a regional final while in the MWC, one must go back to Nevada-Las Vegas in the 2003 Tempe Regional.
And yet, despite those pieces of evidence working against the Mountain West, there is little doubt about the quality of play across the conference in a number of other ways.
San Diego State has developed into one of the most consistent programs on the West Coast. Fresno State, a program with a national title on its resume, joined the conference ahead of the 2013 season and immediately became a perennial conference title contender. New Mexico has emerged as a postseason contender and has been to the NCAA Tournament four times since 2011, and Nevada, which came over from the WAC with Fresno State, has been a quality addition to the league.
In the draft, the league had two first-round picks in 2019, the first time it had boasted multiple first-rounders since 2013, when it had three. It also had a first-round pick in 2015, which at the time gave the MWC first-round picks in three consecutive drafts.
Some of the big-picture goals out there for the conference are fairly obvious, like having a team advance out of a regional or being a multi-bid league once again. Perhaps the last five years have stalled some progress, but recent results aren’t necessarily indicative of the ceiling of the league, and those goals should be viewed as reasonably attainable in the short term.
*2020 records not included
|Team||MWC Record||Winning Pct.||Overall Record||Winning Pct.|
|San Diego State||84-64||56.76||175-128||57.76|
|San Jose State||52-96||35.14||96-182||34.53|
The five-year standings for the Mountain West paint a picture of a conference that has a very defined top and bottom half. The top four teams are separated by a little over seven percentage points, and there are just over six percentage points separating the bottom three teams. But there are more than 12 percentage points between fourth and fifth place, which separates the top and bottom groups. Given San Diego State’s success in reaching the postseason, which it has done three times in the last five years, it might be surprising to see it in third place here, but Fresno State and Nevada finished ahead of the Aztecs for different reasons. The Bulldogs have benefitted from consistency over the course of the entire five-season sample, finishing 18-12 or better in MWC play four out of five years. The Wolf Pack have been more inconsistent, but their 22-7 record in conference play in 2015 is the best for any team in this sample. That, combined with two other 20-win conference campaigns, pushed them to second place over the course of five years.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each Mountain 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.
It’s hard to know what to make of the last five seasons of Fresno State baseball. On one hand, it made just one regional appearance in the last five seasons after doing so twice from 2010-2014, which was part of a run of six NCAA Tournament runs in seven years. That’s a negative trend. But on the other hand, it has emerged as the most consistent regular-season team in the Mountain West, which is probably a better conference overall than the WAC, of which it was a member beforehand. The next five years will likely provide more clarity on how to define the Bulldogs as a member of the MWC.
Nevada won the regular-season title in 2015 with a 22-7 league record, three full games better than second-place San Diego State. It repeated the feat, albeit by 2.5 games this time, in 2018. Although the Wolfpack weren’t able to parlay either of those championships into NCAA Tournament appearances, and they’re still looking to break into the postseason for the first time since 2000, the last five seasons have been a big success for the program.
San Diego State—⬆️
Although the momentum started before this five-year sample began, San Diego State spent the last five seasons cementing itself as the Mountain West team best at finding its way into the NCAA Tournament, with postseason appearances coming in 2015, 2017 and 2018. As far as next steps go, the first would be to win more than one game in a regional, which it hasn’t done since 1990. Once it gets there, the next step would be winning a regional. The second goal is obviously a much steeper hill to climb, but given how often SDSU finds itself in the postseason, it’s attainable.
The Lobos have remained a force within the Mountain West, going to the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and winning the regular-season title in 2017, but what they accomplished in the last five seasons doesn’t quite stack up to what they did in the previous five, when they went to the postseason every year from 2010-2013 and won regular-season titles in both 2013 and 2014.
Air Force - ⬆️
Air Force still hasn’t broken an NCAA Tournament drought that goes all the way back to 1969, but it has become a much more competitive team over the last five seasons. During that time, it has won no fewer than 11 MWC games in any one season. That might be a modest achievement in some ways, but consider the rebuilding effort it has undergone. In 2014, it won 10 conference games, but before that, the Falcons had gone 11 seasons with seven conference wins or fewer. They still haven’t finished better than fifth in the conference since 2002, but the progress is clear.
There have been some close calls for Nevada-Las Vegas in recent years, such as falling in the championship round of the Mountain West Tournament in 2018 and 2019, but its last postseason appearance came back in 2014. Few doubt the latent potential that the UNLV program has, and it has shown it in flashes here and there through the years, but it has typically struggled to keep momentum going for any length of time for one reason or another.
San Jose State - ⬅️➡️
A third-place finish in 2018 was a bright spot, but overall, San Jose State has struggled to compete consistently in the Mountain West since joining the conference in time for the 2014 season. That’s not far off from SJSU’s reality in its last few seasons in the WAC, when it was a struggle for the Spartans to stay away from the basement of the standings. By conference winning percentage, the last three seasons are the best three-year run they have had since 2009-2011 in the WAC, so perhaps that is a sign of positive momentum.
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Regional Recap by Year
|2019||Fresno State||2-2 in Stanford Regional|
|2018||San Diego State||0-2 in Corvallis Regional|
|2017||San Diego State||1-2 in Long Beach Regional|
|2016||New Mexico||1-2 in Lubbock Regional|
|2015||San Diego State||1-2 in Lake Elsinore Regional|
Fresno State’s regional final appearance in 2019 was a notable achievement for both the program and the conference, but the result is perhaps a little bittersweet. The Bulldogs won the first two games of the regional, putting them one win away from a super regional, but lost two in a row to host Stanford. In the other four years of this data sample, MWC representatives in the NCAA Tournament all made relatively quick exits.
Top Draft Picks
|Bryson Stott, SS, Nevada-Las Vegas||2019||14th overall|
|Taylor Ward, C, Fresno State||2015||26th overall|
|Ryan Jensen, RHP, Fresno State||2019||27th overall|
|Justin Slaten, RHP, New Mexico||2019||86th overall|
|Luis Gonzalez, OF, New Mexico||2017||87th overall|
This is a good group of players for the Mountain West, with two of them already in Major League Baseball. Ward debuted in 2018 and has now played in parts of three seasons for the Angels. Gonzalez just debuted with the White Sox earlier this year. The three other players listed above were all selected in 2019, when the league had 24 draftees. The only draft which they had more was 2017, when 25 players were selected. Stott is the highest-drafted player from the conference since New Mexico’s D.J. Peterson was selected 12th overall in 2013.
|2018||San Jose State||Jason Hawkins||Brad Sanfilippo|
|2016||San Jose State||Dave Nakama||Jason Hawkins|
|2015||Nevada||Jay Johnson||T.J. Bruce|
|2015||Nevada-Las Vegas||Tim Chambers||Stan Stolte|
T.J. Bruce had big shoes to fill at Nevada given what Jay Johnson accomplished in leading the Wolf Pack to a dominant regular-season title in 2015, but he’s done a nice job following that up, leading the team to a regular-season title again in 2018. The transition from the late Tim Chambers to Stan Stolte at UNLV played out over a period of time, as Stolte took over on an interim basis ahead of the 2016 season before being named the permanent head coach on June 1 of that year.