2020 Ohio Valley Conference College Baseball Preview
The OVC is starting to earn a reputation for its inspired play in the postseason. You may remember Tennessee Tech winning the Oxford Regional back in 2018, but it goes beyond that. The year prior, TTU went to Tallahassee and won its regional opener against host Florida State. And just last year, Jacksonville State advanced to the regional final in Oxford.
In 2020, JSU looks like the team most equipped to do something like that again, but Morehead State, Eastern Kentucky and a resurgent Southeast Missouri State will all have something to say about which team gets that opportunity.
The conference is known as an offensive league, and that will continue to be the case, but it’s worth noting that the pitching has steadily improved. The overall conference ERA has dropped in each of the last three seasons and the 5.41 mark in 2019 was the lowest since 2014. With big-time arms like Eastern Illinois’ Will Klein, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville’s Collin Baumgartner and Kenny Serwa, and Morehead State’s Alex Garbrick returning, that trend could continue.
Two big-name head coaches enter the league this season in Morehead State’s Mik Aoki, who was previously at the helm of Notre Dame, and Tennessee Tech’s Steve Smith, who was the head coach at Baylor from 1995 to 2015 and more recently served as Auburn’s pitching coach. The latter brings with him the experience of 13 regional trips, three Big 12 regular season titles and a College World Series appearance in 2005. That’s simply a much better track record than you’re used to seeing from a first-year head coach in a mid-major league.
Player of the Year: Jason Hinchman, 1B, Tennessee Tech.
Hinchman took the torch from so many Tennessee Tech mashers of the past and ran with it in 2019, hitting .278/.420/.697 with 24 home runs and 55 RBI. His slugging percentage was the highest on the team, which is not only impressive because TTU is typically an extremely offensive outfit, but also because he was still on the roster with OVC legend Kevin Strohschein, the conference’s all-time hits king. The next step for Hinchman, not unlike Strohschein as a freshman and sophomore, is to be a more disciplined hitter overall and cut down on his strikeouts. If he can do that and take the next step, it would go a long way toward making this Tennessee Tech offense look a lot like those of the past.
Pitcher of the Year: Kenny Serwa, RHP, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
It says something about how coaches around the league view Serwa that he pitched in just seven games last year but was still voted second team all-OVC after going 3-2, 3.19 with 33 strikeouts and just six walks in 42.1 innings. He sprinted across the finish line as well, throwing at least eight innings in each of his final three starts of the season. The year prior, the righthander was SIUE’s steadiest starter, putting up a 4.45 ERA in 85 innings. Now, he’ll go into 2020 as one of the OVC’s most accomplished starting pitchers and a member of an exciting starting rotation for the Cougars.
Freshman of the Year: Preston Salazar, RHP/INF, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
The most high-profile recruit in SIUE’s freshman class, Salazar has a chance to help the Cougars on the mound and in the lineup. As it stands now, his pitching is ahead of his hitting, and he’s projected to jump into the weekend rotation right away. He features a fastball that reaches the low 90s and a slider, but it’s his competitive nature that the coaching staff points to as his defining feature so far. At 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, he shows strength in his athletic frame at the plate and can turn that into power production when he barrels the ball up.
Ranking the Top 50 Names in College Baseball in 2020
In Baseball America's annual list of the 50 best names in college baseball, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi's Itchy Burts takes the top spot for the third year in a row.
Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
1. Jacksonville State (39-23, 22-8)
The Gamecocks won the OVC regular season title by three games last season and will go into 2020 as the favorite again. Veteran offensive talent returns in catcher Alex Webb (.304/.367/.513), who should be on the shortlist of favorites to win player of the year honors in the league, junior third baseman Cole Frederick (.287/.340/.441), junior shortstop Isaac Alexander (.286/.349/.399), senior center fielder Tre Kirklin (.272/.348/.413), senior first baseman Andrew Naismith (.258/.354/.380), redshirt-sophomore left fielder Nash Adams (.255/.325/.450) and senior right fielder Chase Robinson (.217/.380/.427). Losing top hitter Nic Gaddis is tough, no doubt, but JSU has the talented depth to offset that departure. They endured a similar loss on the mound with staff ace Garrett Farmer, but again, the return of righthander Isaiah Magwood (3-1. 4.85) and lefthanders Dylan Hathcock (3-0, 4.02) and Michael Gilliland (6.23, 34.2 IP), the latter of whom will be moving from the bullpen, provides optimism that they won’t skip a beat in the weekend rotation. Righthander Trey Fortner (2-6, 5.93), who started 13 games last year, brings experience to the midweek slot. Bullpen roles will have to be figured out, but righthander Christian Edwards (4.99, 7 SV), the best prospect on the JSU roster, is a good starting point for building up that unit. Jacksonville State can beat you in a number of ways, and that sets it apart.
2. Morehead State (40-21, 19-11)
They may not have had the high highs of Tennessee Tech getting to a super regional, but over the last half-decade, coach Mike McGuire, now the coach at South Carolina-Upstate, turned the Eagles into the most consistent program in the conference. Now, Mik Aoki will look to keep the ball rolling with a team that, despite returning just 15 lettermen, should be in good shape to compete at the top of the league again. A weekend rotation of righthanders Jason Goe (7-2, 4.48) and Alex Garbrick (3-4, 4.32), plus lefthander Will Lozinak (8-1, 5.05) is solid from front to back. All three started ten or more games and threw 58.1 or more innings a season ago. Righthander Jake Ziegelmeyer (3.69, 8 SV) will close games once again, supported by lefthanders Cory Conway (4.91, 22 IP) and John Bakke (6.35, 5.2 IP). The lineup is where there is a little bit more turnover, but third baseman Stephen Hill (.327/.428/.462), projected DH Jon Burghardt (.296/.389/.519), first baseman Dom Peroni (.273/.378/.415) and Ryan Layne (.237/.288/.344), who could see time at second base and center field, are all back after successful 2019 seasons. Also in the second base mix is Bryce Hensor (.346, 26 AB), who was off to a scalding start before his season ended prematurely in March. Two years ago, Hensor hit .294/.433/.344 to earn OVC all-newcomer team honors. Plus, MSU plays in an offensive environment at home and these hitters know how to take advantage of that. If the offense really comes together, this could be another season of the Eagles challenging to get to a regional, but even if it doesn’t come together quite that well, the pitching staff should be able to keep the team competitive and in the top tier of the conference.
3. Eastern Kentucky (32-27, 16-14)
EKU returns several hitters among the best in the conference who were part of a Colonels lineup last season that showed great versatility. They could beat you with the long ball, test your pitching depth by drawing walks and forcing you into your bullpen early, or by creating havoc on the bases. Right fielder Nick Howie (.353/.474/.557, 11 HR, 16 SB) will be the catalyst for it all at the top of the lineup, supported by senior catcher A.J. Lewis (.303/.434/.521, 9 HR, 17 SB), shortstop Logan Thomason (.302/.374/.479) and second baseman Daniel Harris (.271/.325/.431, 9 HR). By the end of last season, coach Edwin Thompson and his staff had settled on a rotation of lefthander Brennan Kelly (4-4, 4.95), righthander Jacob Ferris (6-5, 6.17) and lefthander Will Brian (0-2, 5.50), and all three are back to reprise their roles. Perhaps the biggest loss from a year ago is closer Aaron Ochsenbein, one of the most dominant relievers in college baseball. It remains to be seen who steps up to fill in those innings, but junior college transfer righthander Louis Davenport and redshirt-junior righthander Darren Williams (3.40, 39.2 IP) will get a shot at mitigating Ochsenbein’s loss. A fifth-place finish in 2019 was EKU’s best under Thompson, but this team has a chance to set the bar higher in 2020.
4. Southeast Missouri State (23-32, 10-20)
The injury bug bit early and often for the Redhawks in 2019 and things snowballed quickly, leading to a tenth-place finish in the league. That was not at all indicative of the talent level on the roster, and better health for SEMO in 2020 should push them back into the top tier of the OVC. Returners who were healthy and productive at the plate last season include shortstop Tyler Wilber (.383/.480/.531, 19 2B), second baseman Connor Basler (.273/.381/.341, 21 SB) and center fielder Danny Wright (.270/.377/.327). Add in all those who missed all of part of last season, like catcher Wade Stauss, who clubbed seven home runs two seasons ago, first baseman Austin Blazevic (.281/.348/.414), left fielder Peyton Faulkner, who hit .281/.417/.357 two seasons ago, and right fielder Justin Dirden, who hit .340/.437/.665 with 16 homers in 2018, and they suddenly have a deep lineup on their hands. The top two spots in the rotation are locked in with the return of lefties Dylan Dodd (4-5, 5.33), who has been up to 94 mph with his fastball, and Noah Niznik (3-4, 3.63), who enjoyed an outstanding freshman season as the team’s most effective starter. Lefthander Blake Cisneros (4.91, 29.1 IP) is back in the bullpen, and look for junior college transfer righthander Rance Pittman to join him and lean on his slider to get outs. The Redhawks are likely going to be quite offensive in 2020. The key will be filling out the pitching staff around Dodd and Niznik.
5. Belmont (27-30, 18-12)
The Bruins have finished sixth or better in the OVC in each of the last five seasons. They have the talent, particularly on the mound, to extend that streak to six. Sophomore Joshua South (4-5, 3.89) will front the rotation after an outstanding freshman campaign. The Saturday spot will be manned by righthander Aaron Hubbell (4.08, 17.2 IP), who struck out more than a batter an inning in a relief role a season ago. Rounding out the rotation is righty Logan Bowen (6.46, 47.1 IP), who started four games and saved four games in 2019. Back in the bullpen is junior righthander Kyle Brennan (3.44, 9 SV), one of the best relievers in the league. Three of the most consistent hitters from last season are gone in Devon Gardner, Hunter Holland and Chas Hadden. Belmont wasn’t one of the more offensive teams in the conference last season, with no hitters above .300 or with more than eight home runs, so it will be of the utmost importance that it develops players into impact bats or have newcomers step up from day one. They do bring back a ton of experience in right fielder John Behrends (.277/.368/.348), third baseman Grayson Taylor (.274/.340/.392), center fielder Hagan Severance (.242/.370/.388), DH Chandler Adkins (.239/.406/.362) and catcher Jackson Campbell (.231/.322/.440, 8 HR). It’s a veteran group that could be poised for a jump forward. If that happens, it will raise the ceiling for what Belmont can accomplish.
6. Austin Peay State (32-25, 19-11)
A significant amount of star power departed Clarksville at the end of the season, with OVC home run leader Parker Phillips gone, along with ace Jacques Pucheu, the other two members of the weekend rotation in Brandon Vial and Josh Rye, the team’s two best relievers in Greg Leban and Brett Newberg, catcher David Martinez and leading hitter Aaron Campbell. That might make it sound like an impossible hill to climb for the Governors to compete in the top half of the league, but Austin Peay has finished lower than seventh in the OVC just once in the last 20 seasons and returners on offense create optimism that they can continue that consistency. Those players include outfielder Garrett Spain (.333/.412/.502), shortstop Garrett Kueber (.304/.409/.416), first baseman John McDonald (.289/.377/.422), utility man Malcolm Tipler (.271/.383/.431), third baseman Gino Avros (.257/.394/.342) and infielder Bobby Head (.244/.311/.445). That unit may not be able to totally make up the production lost, but they still should be able to score runs in bunches. Roles on the mound will largely be open for competition, but lefty Tucker Weaver (5.48, 21.1 IP) and righthanders Ryan Kouba (6.42, 40.2 IP), Luke Brown (7.52, 20.1 IP), Sebastian Martinez (8.55, 20 IP) and Tyler Thompson (8.57, 48.1 IP) are among the most experienced arms back in the fold.
7. Tennessee Tech (22-32, 9-21)
Tennessee Tech took its lumps with a young team last season, and then dealt with adversity off the field after the season, when coach Justin Holmes was relieved of his duties in November. Even with all of that, the Golden Eagles are in a good spot heading into 2020. That young team from last season has grown up a little bit, and now, they have a coach with Omaha experience at the helm in Steve Smith. It’s asking a lot for any offense to measure up to the historically good TTU offense from two years ago, but this group might be able to at least get into that neighborhood. Hinchman is obviously the marquee name, but Anthony Carrera (.271/.391/.538, 15 HR), John Dyer (.330/.420/.581, 11 HR), Gavin Johns (.251/.316/.357), Nathan McMeans (.294/.374/.365) and J.D. Funk (.245/.328/.481) are all coming off of successful seasons to varying degrees. Smith built a rightful reputation for developing pitching at Baylor and he’ll have some interesting pieces to work with this season, including lefthander Alex Hursey, who was a big part of the super regional team in 2018, but was limited to just eight appearances last season, righthander Mark Leonard (2-4, 6.43), righthander Jacob Cole (4.75, 47.1 IP), righthander Tyler Sylvester (3.45, 31.1 IP) and righthander Grant Phillips (7.31, 28.1 IP).
8. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (19-32, 11-19)
The 2020 season is shaping up to be the Cougars’ most successful season under coach Sean Lyons thanks to pitching depth the program really hasn’t had before. In Serwa and righthander Collin Baumgartner (2-5, 4.72), whose fastball has been up to 96 mph, the coaching staff feels like it has a 1A and 1B in the rotation. With Salazar added to the mix, if this trio is firing on all cylinders, it should be one of the best in the OVC. Lefthander David Llorens (6.79, 51.2 IP) has starting experience, but might be ticketed for a bullpen role this season, where the team can truly take advantage of his stuff, which helped him strike out 10.28 batters per nine innings last year. Righthanders Cole Milam and Braydon Bone are two other bullpen weapons to watch. When Milam is on his game and commanding his stuff, he can be untouchable, as he struck out 54 in 30 innings a season ago. Most of the pressing questions for the Cougars come in the lineup, where they lost several of their most accomplished hitters, including Dustin Woodcock, Brock Weimar and Peyton Cordova-Smith. Look for outfielder Dylan Burris to be a catalyst at the top of the order. He’s a quick-twitch athlete with good speed who will help SIUE create things in the short game. Center fielder Brady Bunten is a toolsy player with good speed who will hit near the top of the lineup as well. Justin Perkins (.252/.344/.447) and Raul Elguezabal (.265/.361/.416) will provide some extra-base pop, as will junior college transfer second baseman Connor Kiffer.
9. Murray State (24-30, 16-14)
A number of exciting offensive pieces return for the Racers, most notably right fielder Brock Anderson (.289/.351/.574). The best player on the roster, the senior led the team in hitting and home runs, while also possessing good range and a great arm in the outfield. Also back is senior second baseman Jordan Cozart (.324/.365/.561), DH Sean Darmafall (.264/.372/.354), left fielder Ryan Perkins (.262/.362/.476, 10 HR) and center fielder Jake Slunder (.263/.347/.282). To fill in around those veterans, Murray State will lean hard on junior college transfers in catcher Tanner Booth, first baseman Trey Woosley, third baseman Bryson Bloomer and shortstop David Hudleson. Two workhorse starters return to the rotation in righthander Trevor McMurray (3-7, 5.56) and lefthander Shane Burns (3-3, 3.84). With a .224 opponent batting average, Burns proved difficult to hit last season. That pair should give the Racers a ton of confidence going into every weekend, but the key will be the depth roles on the staff, including the Sunday starter and the bullpen, which appear wide open as the season approaches.
10. Eastern Illinois (26-30, 13-17)
Any discussion of Eastern Illinois in 2020 has to begin with hard-throwing righthander Will Klein (5.11, 24.2 IP). The top prospect in the OVC, the junior came on to most radars with the summer he put up in the Northwoods League, where he had an 0.85 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 21 innings of work. If he can keep that going in the spring, no matter what role he holds, it will be a boon for the Panthers. Righthanders Alex Stevenson (1.61, 22.1 IP), Jesse Wainscott (2.04, 17.2 IP), Alex Spahman (3.52, 23 IP) and Blake Malatestinic (5.10, 42.1 IP), and lefty Foster Anshutz (7-2, 6.15) will likely fill important roles around Klein. Offensively, the loss of Jimmy Govern, who spent the latter half of 2019 blowing through the Royals’ minor league system, is huge, but Christian Pena (.381/.457/.490), Grant Emme (.349/.426/.497) and Ryan Knernschield (.335/.420/.430) are fantastic building blocks for a rebuilt lineup.
11. Tennessee-Martin (25-31, 12-18)
The Skyhawks bring back experience on the mound, what with the return of righthander Winston Cannon (6-9, 5.83) and lefthander Sam Folks (5-6, 4.63) in the rotation, righty Seth Petry (4-2, 5.86) in the midweek role and righthanders Nick Wohlbold (3.03, 13 SV) and David Hussey (8.12, 54.1 IP) in the bullpen. That group is talented and proven enough to keep UT-Martin competitive. The key will be what they get from an offense that hit .233 as a team last season and will move on without top hitter Jordan Stoner, who led the team in many offensive categories. Returners Casey Harford (.312/.356/.463), Sean Dixson (.276/.345/.405) and Blake Davis (.260/.326/.433, 9 HR) will be important in that effort, as will junior college transfer outfielder Houston Wright, who hit .371/.436/.656 with 19 home runs at Spartanburg Methodist (S.C.) JC last season.
Top 2020 Draft Prospects
1. Will Klein, RHP, Eastern Illinois
2. Collin Baumgartner, RHP, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville
3. Christian Edwards, RHP, Jacksonville State
4. Alex Garbrick, RHP, Morehead State
5. Kenny Serwa, RHP, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville
6. Logan Goodnight, SS, Morehead State
7. Tyler Wilber, SS, Southeast Missouri State
8. Louis Davenport, RHP, Eastern Kentucky
9. Dylan Dodd, LHP, Southeast Missouri State
10. Houston Wright, OF, Tennessee-Martin