2020 West Coast Conference Baseball Preview
The 2019 season was a historic success for the West Coast Conference, at least in terms of quality from top to bottom. Five different teams finished inside the top 75 in RPI, and just as importantly when it comes to holding out hope for at-large bids from the conference, only one team finished sub-200 in the metric.
That helped the league finish as the ninth-ranked RPI conference, the highest rank since it was eighth in 2012, a season that featured Pepperdine finishing 30th and a Kris Bryant-led San Diego team at No. 40.
In the end, just one team from the conference got into a regional, the conference tournament champion Loyola Marymount. But the Lions did their conference mates proud by getting to the regional final in the Los Angeles Regional against top overall seed UCLA.
BYU was the closest postseason miss in the league. The Cougars won the regular season title, but when they got upset in the WCC Tournament, their at-large resume didn’t quite stack up, despite a top-50 RPI.
The clear next step for the WCC is to more consistently get multiple teams into regionals, which it hasn’t done since 2016, when Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s received bids.
What it might take for this to happen is one team in the conference becoming a fixture in regionals year after year, perhaps a smaller-scale version of what Gonzaga has done for the league in basketball. When you can all but guarantee that one team will get into the Field of 64, it’s easier to get a second, either via upset in the conference tournament or another team drafting off of that flagship team’s position in the metrics.
It’s not a foreign concept to the WCC, as this is essentially what it enjoyed during the recent period when it most often got multiple teams into regionals. From 2006 to 2013, the league got at least two bids five times, with San Diego being one of those teams each time it happened.
No one program stands out as being ready to go on that type of run at this moment, but the quality of the league in recent years has been such that it doesn’t seem out of the question at some point in the near future.
Player of the Year: Trevin Esquerra, OF, Loyola Marymount
Esquerra enjoyed a breakout season as a junior in 2019, hitting .322/.378/.622 with 20 doubles, 16 home runs and 60 RBI as the clear offensively catalyst for LMU’s first regional team since 2000. Without context, that’s an impressive season, but it becomes more impressive when you consider that he put up those kinds of numbers in a pitching-heavy conference playing in pitcher friendly parks. There also can’t possibly be a player who was more vital to what his team did offensively. The entire rest of the LMU team had six home runs as a group and his 20 doubles were nearly one-fourth of the team total. As a senior in 2020, Esquerra will try to replicate what he accomplished last season, even as he will be the primary focus of the opposing team’s scouting report week after week.
Pitcher of the Year: Nick Frasso, RHP, Loyola Marymount
Though Frasso did start five games in 2019, his season really took off when he settled into a role as a stopper at the back of the bullpen. By season’s end, he had a 2.22 ERA, 73 strikeouts compared to just 17 walks in 56.2 innings. The righthander only allowed 14 earned runs all season long, but eight of them came in starts within the first three weeks of the season. From that point forward, he was nearly unhittable, allowing earned runs in just four of his last 16 times on the hill. Over the summer, he pitched for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and continued his success, throwing four scoreless innings. In 2020, LMU will look to transition Frasso back into a starting role, at least initially, and if he takes to that this time around, he could prove to be the most dominant arm in the conference.
Freshman of the Year: Cy Nielson, LHP, Brigham Young
With a top-25 recruiting class having just arrived on campus, there are any number of BYU freshmen who could be candidates for this honor, but Nielson stands out among them. Even with a veteran pitching staff returning to Provo, the lefthander has already put himself in the mix to pitch in the Cougars’ weekend rotation competition thanks to an electric array of pitches highlighted by a fastball that can reach 95 mph and a plus breaking ball. The key for Nielson garnering these types of honors in the postseason will be harnessing his stuff and throwing strikes consistently.
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Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
1. Brigham Young (36-17, 19-8)
Typically a team known for explosive offenses, pitching led the way for BYU in 2019 and should do so again in 2020. Ultra-competitive righthander Easton Walker (7-2, 2.20) and fellow righthander Justin Sterner (8-3, 2.92), whose high-spin rate fastball sits 90-94 mph, return to the rotation, to be joined by Nielson, whose talent is off the charts. Jarod Lessar (3-2,4.44), who was a valuable swingman a year ago, could fight for starts as well, even if those come in the midweek. The bullpen is led by the returning closer duo of Reid McLaughlin (2.61, 4 SV) and Drew Zimmerman (4.17, 4 SV). Overall, the BYU coaching staff believes this is the most talented and deep pitching staff they’ve had.
That pitching depth will help buy some time for an offense that might take some time to come together. Outfielders Danny Gelalich (.328/.417/.455) and Mitch McIntyre (.291/.414/.508) return after serving as key pieces in the lineup last season, but they’ll be joined by a number of unproven players, including members of that standout freshman class in second baseman Peyton Cole, third baseman Brock Watkins and shortstop Andrew Pintar. How quickly these freshman get up to speed and the development of players moving into full-time roles like catcher Abraham Valdez (.288/.367/.423) and first baseman Austin Deming (.214/.293/.320) will have a lot to do with whether BYU can repeat as WCC regular season champs.
2. Gonzaga (31-24, 18-9)
With more than 30 wins in each of the last four seasons, the Bulldogs have emerged as one of the most consistent programs in the conference, and that shouldn’t change in 2020. Righthander Alek Jakob (7-3, 2.17), who has an argument to be the preseason pitcher of the year, like Frasso, will move into a role in the rotation after proving most effective in relief last season. His stuff won’t blow anyone away, but he comes at hitters from a low slot, messes with hitters’ timing in his windup, and is a plus competitor. He’ll be backed up on the weekends by a pair of seniors in lefthander Mac Lardner (6-4, 5.06), who had an outstanding summer in the Cape Cod League, and righthander Nick Trogrlic-Iverson (4-3, 5.05), who flashes good stuff, including a fastball up to 94 mph. A fourth starting option is sophomore lefthander Mason Wells (2-4, 5.31) who was pressed into duty on Fridays in conference play last season.
The departure of the Zags’ two best power bats from a year ago, Troy Johnston and Nick Nyquist, will be a hurdle to overcome, but a veteran group returns, led by third baseman Brett Harris (.305/.366/.444), shortstop Ernie Yake (.302/.378/.413), center fielder Guthrie Morrison (.306/.351/.392). Two players stand out as candidates to help fill in the void from a power standpoint. One is senior first baseman Ryan Sullivan (.252/.362/.514). His seven homers last season were good for third on the team, even though he had fewer than half the at-bats of most of the regulars in the lineup. The other is junior college transfer catcher Tyler Rando. Recent history and the talent on hand suggest Gonzaga will be a factor at the top of the league this season.
3. Loyola Marymount (34-25, 15-12)
With Esquerra in the lineup and Frasso on the mound, LMU will boast arguably the two best singular talents in the conference, but its ability to get back to a regional in year one of the Nathan Choate era will be based largely on how well the depth fills in around that pair. Esquerra’s two best running mates in the lineup, Nick Sogard and Brandon Shearer, are gone, which puts the impetus on returners like outfielder Tommy Delgado (.280/.348/.379) and Dylan Hirsch (.219/.330/.258) to take steps forward. Hirsch was light with the bat last season, but had an impressive fall for the Lions. Another hitter who had a big fall is Matt Voelker, who was exclusively a pitcher last season, but looks poised to become a two-way contributor. Matthew Piotrowski has the unenviable task of stepping into the starting shortstop role with Sogard’s departure, but has the skills to handle it. On the mound, Josh Agnew (6-4, 3.24) is back after serving as a workhorse in the rotation last season, as is top relief arm Kyle Mora (1-0, 3.27) and a quartet of pitchers who have pitched in a variety of roles in C.J. Fernandezees (4-2, 3.54), Alex Burge (3-1, 4.40), Voelker (2-5, 4.96) and Sean Paquet (0-1, 5.26). Even if Esquerra and Frasso end up having to do much of the heavy lifting, their presence alone will keep the Lions competitive week to week in the league. On the other hand, if depth proves to be a strength around those star players, they could be back in the mix for the postseason.
4. Pepperdine (24-25, 14-13)
It speaks to how competitive the WCC was last season that the Waves finished 14-13 in conference and that was only good enough for a tie for sixth. In 2020, enough talent returns for Pepperdine to break out of the pack a little bit and finish in the top half of the league. Offensively, middle infielder Wyatt Young (.313/.350/.364) looks like a star in the making. After a standout freshman season, he went to the Cape Cod League and hit .338 in an All-Star campaign. Infielder Aharon Modlin (.278/.357/.327) and catcher Joe Caparis (.341/.356/.420 in 88 AB) also return to support Young in the lineup. One breakout candidate to watch is Billy Cook (.279/.370/.519). His five home runs led the team in 2019, and that was without him playing a game after April 13, when he went down due to a shoulder injury. On the mound, workhorses Jonathan Pendergast and Easton Lucas are gone, leaving a sizable hole in the rotation. Key arms back to try to mitigate those losses include righthander Trevor Kniskern (4-5, 2.42) and righthander Jack Baird (0-2, 2.55), both of whom pitched in multiple roles a season ago. Pepperdine has a strong history of developing pitching year after year and it seems like a safe bet to assume they’ll do so again in 2020.
5. Saint Mary’s (35-22, 17-10)
The Gaels suffered heavy personnel losses after a third-place finish in the WCC last season, starting with coach Eric Valenzuela, who was hired away by Long Beach State. Veteran coach Greg Moore was hired to replace him and he brings a strong reputation to St. Mary’s. In addition, top hitter Joe Vranesh, two-way star Kevin Milam and Ken Waldichuk, arguably the team’s best starting pitcher, were all drafted and signed. Tyler Thornton, a Freshman All-American starting pitcher, transferred to Arizona State, and Bryce Willits, a .325 hitter last season, transferred to UC Santa Barbara. Led by righthander Carlos Lomeli (10-2, 3.05), converted reliever Dalton Ponce (2-4, 3.16) and redshirt senior lefthander Ty Madrigal (1-1, 5.06), who is at full health after missing most of last season due to injury, SMC should still have the starting pitching to compete with the best in the WCC. Offensively, the return of outfielder Ryan Novis (.328/.372/.402) is huge, not just as the team’s leading hitter, but also as their top base stealer. To build a quality offense around Novis, the Gaels will need returning players, such as second baseman Gio Diaz (.278/.344/.327) and first baseman Gabe Giosso (.267/.421/.400), to step into bigger roles or new faces like catcher Austin Elder, a transfer from Cal State Northridge, and junior college transfer outfielder Nico Lima, to make an impact right away. When you include injured players and those who graduated last season, seven of the team’s nine regulars from last year won’t be in the lineup in 2020, and that means bringing the offense along is the biggest key for the team’s success this season.
6. San Diego (32-21, 14-13)
In catcher Adam Kerner (.274/.351/.457) and first baseman Shane McGuire (.325/.444/.401), who will also do some catching, the Toreros have two of the better position players in the conference. Redshirt senior outfielder Paul Kunst (.289/.340/.414) and shortstop Cody Jefferis (.267/.350/.372) give the lineup some depth around Kerner and McGuire, and look for physical freshman outfielder Michael Dixon to make his mark right away. After putting up a 5.62 team ERA last season, USD will have to show improvement on the mound to compete at the top of the WCC, but with top starter Chris Murphy now in pro baseball, that might be a tough task. Lefthander Grady Miller (5-2, 5.72) brings some starting experience to the Friday starter role, and the same is true of righty Jake Miller, who will also fight for starts on the weekend. Righthander Jack Dolak (4-3, 12.05), who pitched primarily in relief last season, is also penciled in to start. Like Dixon in the lineup, look for freshman Carter Rustad to break through on the mound early on in his career. The super-projectable 6-foot-5 righthander with a fastball that can run into the mid-90s could be a future ace for the Toreros. If the pitching staff comes together and shows improvement over where it was last year, this team could be dangerous.
7. San Francisco (30-26, 15-12)
The Dons return a veteran position player group, highlighted by all-WCC catcher Robert Emery (.320/.386/.479) and shortstop Jack Winkler (.300/.379/.454), an intriguing 2020 draft prospect. Senior center fielder Tyler Villaroman (.285/.364/.337) is an elite base stealer and a plus defender at his position. First baseman Jacob Munoz (.273/.373/.344), third baseman Riki Urata (.223/.325/.223), outfielder Jacob Westerman (.210/.273/.336) and outfielder Nick Yovetich (.240/.352/.281) are all back after getting full-time reps a season ago. Without Jonathan Allen, who hit 17 of the team’s 39 home runs in 2019, the ceiling on the USF offense might be lowered, but having so much experience back raises the floor. The pitching staff is much more up in the air, but not necessarily on Fridays, when Riley Ornido (6-6, 4.13) takes the mound. The upside for the righthander is to be one of the best aces in the conference. Behind Ornido, the Dons are turning to two pitchers returning from injury in senior righthanders Grant Nechak and Landen Bourassa. Neither appeared in more than four games last year, but two years ago, Bourassa had a 3.02 ERA in 14 starts. In Alex Pham (3-4, 3.30), who struck out 90 in 71 innings last year, San Francisco boasts a top-notch relief arm that can be stretched out to throw not just two or three innings, but four or five. The key for USF competing to move into the top tier of the WCC will be the steadiness of the starting rotation and development of impact bats to support Emery, Winkler and Villaroman.
8. Portland (25-27, 7-19)
There is a lot to like on the Portland roster. Shortstop Chad Stevens (.284/.350/.422), one of the WCC’s top 2020 draft prospects, first baseman Tracye Tammaro (.261/.407/.430) and power-hitting catcher Hunter Montgomery (.245/.353/.490), whose nine homers led the team last season, provide a solid foundation for an offense that will also be relying on a number of freshman, including third baseman Ben Patacsil, who led the team in hitting this fall. Losing Chris Clements, whose 1.69 ERA was good for second in the league in 2019, is tough for the pitching staff, but the rotation looks like it’s in good hands. Eli Morse (2-8, 3.52) is back to pitch on Fridays, and a pair of relievers in Christian Peters (2-4, 3.12) and Connor Knutson (3-3, 2.85) will look to transition to weekend starter roles. Projected bullpen stalwarts Brett Gillis (1-0, 3.60) and Morgan White (1-0, 5.40) are a little more unproven, but both have big arms, with Gillis’ fastball sitting 92-94 mph and White getting up to 95 mph over the summer. In a highly-competitive conference like the WCC, it can be a slow climb for a program that began at the bottom, and that’s what Portland has been facing. But even if it hasn’t necessarily been reflected in the standings just yet, the Pilots are making clear progress and that should continue in 2020.
9. Pacific (23-26, 10-16)
The Tigers are dealing with a few very impactful losses. James Free II, the team’s best hitter in each of the last three seasons, signed with the Reds as a free agent after the season. Ace Ryan Shreve was drafted in the 16th round and signed. Then, to raise the degree of difficulty, coach Ryan Garko left for a position with the Angels on January 6. That said, there is some momentum on the field, as the last two seasons of 22 and 23 wins were the first time Pacific won 20 or more games in back-to-back seasons since winning 21 and 31 in 2009 and 2010. To keep that momentum going, the rotation of lefthander Lucas Sweany (3-3, 3.97), righthander Hayden Pearce (3-1, 3.75) and righthander Elijah Birdsong (0-2, 7.20) will need to step up to mitigate the loss of Shreve and talented second baseman James Arakawa (.304/.375/.356) will have to lead a lineup that could include as many as six newcomers.
10. Santa Clara (12-40, 5-22)
If the Broncos are going to make a move up the WCC standings, it will have to improve upon its .223 team batting average, and it might have the pieces to do so. All of the team’s top hitters from a year ago are back, including first baseman Ryan McCarthy (.249/.292/.381), second baseman James Dicochea (.256/.329/.345) and outfielder Jake MacNichols (.227/.313/.551), whose 16 home runs were good for a tie for second in the league. On the mound, lefthander Russell Grant (3-4, 3.49) is a proven commodity in the rotation and the right-handed pair of Travis Howard (0-2, 1.99) and Ethan Heinrich (0-1, 2.60) give Santa Clara a solid foundation in the bullpen.
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