2020 Sun Belt Conference Baseball Stock Watch
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 Sun Belt Conference had the unmistakable look of a conference on the rise at the end of the 2016 season.
Louisiana was coming off of a three-year run where it went to two super regionals and hosted a regional. South Alabama was developing into a contender once again and had some exciting young talent on the roster, led by Travis Swaggerty. And best of all, Coastal Carolina, the 2016 national champion, was joining the conference.
The league had also recently come off of a larger round of realignment that added a number of teams projected to bring value, including Georgia Southern and Texas State.
A future that included more postseasons as a two-bid conference, perhaps even some postseasons as a three-bid conference and certainty more programs that appeared capable of winning national titles, looked to be coming into focus.
The reality of the situation since then hasn’t been quite that rosy. The conference has been a one-bid league in two of the last three years, and it hasn’t had a team win more than one game in a regional since 2016.
But it’s important to note that the story hasn’t fully been written yet. The potential for the Sun Belt to find another gear, even in a college baseball world where fewer and fewer at-large bids are going to mid-major conferences, is still very much there.
In Coastal Carolina, it has a perennial regional team with national championship history. Louisiana has been to the College World Series before and has the potential to do so again. South Alabama, Georgia Southern and Troy are often in the mix for the postseason late into the year, and there is a group of teams in the conference, led by Texas State, that are rapidly ascending and might be ready to break into a regional as soon as 2021.
Perhaps it didn’t happen as quickly as anticipated when things appeared to be cresting for the Sun Belt after 2016, but there are a lot of reasons to believe the best is yet to come for this iteration of the conference.
*2020 records not included
**Coastal Carolina’s record includes the 2015 and 2016 seasons spent in the Big South
***The Sun Belt went to a divisional format beginning in the 2017 season
|Team||Sun Belt Record||Winning Pct.||Overall Record||Winning Pct.|
With just four teams in the entire conference under .500 in league play over the last five seasons, these standings paint the picture of a very competitive conference. There’s a lot of truth in that, but it’s also worth noting that Coastal wasn’t in the league in 2015 or 2016. Had the Chanticleers been in the Sun Belt for those two seasons, other teams in the league would have taken on a few more losses those two years and perhaps the balance of teams over .500 versus under .500 would be a little more even. The other factor at play is that there is a fairly wide gap between the eight teams over .500 and everyone else, with Arkansas State coming in ninth, but nearly 10 percentage points behind eighth-place Arkansas-Little Rock. Some of the teams in the middle of the pack have often been able to pad records with wins against the handful of teams that have struggled to climb out of the bottom of the standings.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each Sun Belt 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 crowning achievement in Coastal Carolina program history, a national title, came in 2016, but it was a good five years for the Chanticleers even beyond that. They won three regular-season titles and made four total postseason appearances during that run. They did miss the postseason once, in 2017, but there was even plenty to celebrate about that season, their first in the Sun Belt. They even won the regular-season title, winning 22 league games along the way, the most since they went 25-0 in the Big South in 2010. Because the Sun Belt is ultimately a mid-major conference, Coastal may get squeezed out of a regional from time to time, but it’s clearly already the class of the conference.
The last five years were a success for South Alabama largely by virtue of going to back-to-back regionals in 2016 and 2017 for the first time since 2005-2006. It also won the regular-season title in 2015, tied for the top spot in the standings in 2016 and produced the 10th overall pick in the 2018 draft in Travis Swaggerty. Overall, the Jaguars have been a model of consistency over the last five seasons, finishing 16-14 or better in conference play each year.
This data sample, which captures the years 2015-2019, cuts off an outstanding run of years for the Ragin’ Cajuns from 2013-2016 right down the middle. A regional appearance in 2013 followed by a super regional appearance in 2014 was mirrored almost exactly by a super regional to begin this data set in 2015 and then a regional appearance as a host in 2016. The program got tough news in 2019 with the tragic passing of longtime coach Tony Robichaux, and now former Robichaux assistant Matt Deggs will look to carry on the legacy of his former boss.
You have to feel for Georgia Southern a little bit, because it has been far and away the best team in the Sun Belt to not make a postseason appearance in the last five seasons. It has finished over .500 in conference play each year and has won at least 18 conference games in four of the five years. It’s harsh, but because the Eagles broke through and got to a regional in 2014, just prior to this data set beginning, the arrow points down.
With one regional appearance in the last five years, Troy didn’t quite live up to what it did in the previous five years, when it got to regionals in 2011 and 2013, but the arrow is to the side rather than down because once you put that aside, the Trojans’ results were similar, and they’ve actually been more consistent recently. While they made regionals in 2011 and 2013, they also had under-.500 seasons in conference play in 2012 and 2014. In the last five years, on the other hand, they’ve finished over .500 every time.
It’s hard to compare the Bobcats’ last five seasons with the five seasons prior, because from 2010-2014, they were a member of three different leagues—the Southland, WAC and Sun Belt. While their conference record was better during this time than it was during the most recent five seasons, the Sun Belt is a tougher conference from top to bottom than the Southland and WAC, so Texas State gets credit for remaining competitive, with 13-17 its worst conference record in the last five years. It just missed out on the postseason in 2019 and had a promising campaign end prematurely in 2020. Perhaps, then, the 2021 season will mark the next breakout season for the Bobcats.
UTA’s story is similar to Texas State’s. It made the same Southland to WAC to Sun Belt move the Bobcats did, and while it hasn’t been to the postseason since 2012, its last season as a member of the Southland, it deserves credit for hitting the ground running after stepping up in competition level. The highlight of the last five seasons was 2017, when the Mavericks went 20-10 in conference play to finish atop the West Division.
The Trojans have come on strong in the last five years under Chris Curry. In 2016, by going 17-13 in Sun Belt play, they finished over .500 in conference for the first time since 2000. They did it again by going 15-14 in 2018, then took another step by going 18-11 in 2019. Little Rock did make a regional in 2011, but that came as a result of a Cinderella run at the Sun Belt Tournament at the end of a season when it had gone 10-20 in conference play. So despite not having any postseason appearances in the last five years to match up with that, the overall improvement in quality points the arrow up.
The last five seasons were a continuation of what Arkansas State has been within the Sun Belt for about a decade. The Red Wolves are perpetually competitive and never really bottom out, but they also haven’t enjoyed a big breakthrough. They finished under .500 in each of the last five seasons, but never finished worse than 11-19. Arkansas State’s next postseason appearance will be its first since 1994.
The Panthers moved from the Colonial to the Sun Belt in time for the 2014 season. Those two conferences are of similar quality, but they haven’t been able to compete as well in their current conference as they did in their previous one. After finishing over .500 in league play three out of five seasons between 2010-2014, Georgia State has done so once in the last five seasons, when it went 15-13 in 2015. New coach Brad Stromdahl, who took over after the 2019 season, will now look to get the team into the postseason for the first time since 2009.
ULM has made steady progress in the last couple of years under Mike Federico, and it was showing signs that 2020 might have been the best season of his tenure so far, but there’s no way around the fact that the last five full seasons were tough on the program. The Warhawks finished under .500 in conference play each season and bottomed out with a 6-24 Sun Belt record in 2017.
This five-year sample captures the five seasons that Appalachian State has spent in the Sun Belt. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, it has not been the easiest transition. Their 13-16 conference record in 2019 is far and away their best in the last five years, with the other four campaigns ending in either eight or nine Sun Belt victories.
North Carolina State Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
NC State is one of the most consistent programs in the country, and expectations should be high once again in 2021.
Regional Recap by Year
|2019||Coastal Carolina||1-2 in Atlanta Regional|
|2018||Coastal Carolina||1-2 in Conway Regional|
|2018||Troy||1-2 in Athens Regional|
|2017||South Alabama||1-2 in Hattiesburg Regional|
|2016||Louisiana||2-2 in Lafayette Regional|
|2016||South Alabama||2-2 in Tallahassee Regional|
|2015||Louisiana||3-0 in Houston Regional, 0-2 in Baton Rouge Regional|
You can see in the above table where the Sun Belt lost some steam in its postseason results. After Louisiana got to a super regional in 2015, hosted a regional in 2016 and was joined in getting to a regional final by South Alabama in 2016, the league’s postseason teams have gone a combined 4-8 in the last three seasons. Because the Sun Belt is a quality conference, its representatives in regionals will almost always be a threat, but they just haven’t shown that in the last few years.
Top Draft Picks
|Travis Swaggerty, OF, South Alabama||2018||10th overall|
|Blake Trahan, SS, Louisiana||2015||84th overall|
|Hogan Harris, LHP, Louisiana||2018||85th overall|
|Brandon Lockridge, OF, Troy||2018||157th overall|
|Hunter Gaddis, RHP, Georgia State||2019||160th overall|
Swaggerty showed a dynamic skill set in his time at South Alabama, helped the Jags to a couple of regional appearances and earned his place as the 10th overall pick in 2018 as a result. Trahan is the only big leaguer of this bunch, as he broke into MLB in 2018 with the Reds for 11 games, but hasn’t been able to get back since that point. The number of draft picks from the Sun Belt varied from year to year in this data sample, with a low of 17 players taken in 2016 and a high of 30 in 2018.
|2019||Georgia State||Greg Frady||Brad Stromdahl|
|2019||Louisiana||Tony Robichaux||Matt Deggs|
|2019||Texas State||Ty Harrington||Steven Trout|
|2017||Louisiana-Monroe||Bruce Peddie||Mike Federico|
|2016||Appalachian State||Billy Jones||Kermit Jones|
In this group, there are a couple of instances of coaches having to fill extremely big shoes. One is Deggs taking over in Lafayette. The late Robichaux took the Ragin’ Cajuns to a new level in his tenure, helping his team to four super regional appearances and a trip to the College World Series in 2000, in the process developing the program into a powerful brand name in the world of college baseball. The other example is Trout taking over for his former coach, Harrington, who led the Bobcats to 657 wins, three regular-season titles and four regional appearances in 20 seasons. The hiring of Federico at ULM seems to have paid dividends relatively quickly, as the Warhawks have improved in each of his first two full seasons at the helm and looked even better in the small sample that was the 2020 season.