This offseason, we’re going to take a closer look at all 31 Division I college baseball conferences and use the last five seasons’ worth of data to examine where each league has been and project forward to where it might go.
The West Coast Conference has turned into an absolute free-for-all in recent years. In the last five full seasons, six different teams have finished in at least a tie atop the conference standings, and the automatic bid has gone to a different team in each of those years.
This comes after a period of time when the conference had more of a set hierarchy at the top. At various points in the league’s modern history, Pepperdine, which won a national title in 1992, Loyola Marymount and San Diego have all been the most prominent and successful program in the conference.
In fact, one of those three teams won all but two of the automatic bids awarded between 1999 and 2014. In the last five years alone, three teams other than those three won auto bids, with Saint Mary’s and Brigham Young being first-time winners of that honor.
For teams that have historically found themselves stuck in the middle of the pack or worse in the WCC, that’s good news, but it begs the philosophical question about whether or not that’s good for the league as a whole.
It certainly means that it’s deeper. In any given year, you can talk yourself into at least half the teams in the conference winning the regular-season title, and that level of parity means that getting into the WCC’s notoriously stringent four-team postseason tournament is an accomplishment in its own right. Few would argue the overall quality of the conference, either, as it finished ninth in conference RPI in 2019.
But what the conference hasn’t had in a while is a team with a perceived national title ceiling. Pepperdine was one win away from Omaha in 2014, which technically makes them the last team that had a realistic chance. You really, however, have to go back to those Waves teams that went to seven regionals between 2001 and 2008 and hosted in 2006, and to a San Diego team that hosted in 2007 and won the conference three out of four years between 2007 and 2010, to find year in and year out examples of teams with that potential.
Perhaps iron will sharpen iron and a more competitive WCC will develop another team on that level, but for now, that’s its challenge.
*2020 records not included
With no one team running away with the five-year standings and all but three teams over .500 in WCC play in the last five years, the perception of the conference being one of parity holds up to scrutiny. But what you can also see here is that a lot of that winning has come at the expense of the three programs at the bottom of the standings, which are all well under .500. With Santa Clara and Portland both off to good starts in the abbreviated 2020 season, perhaps that trend is in the process of reversing, but the data about what has happened the last five years is clear.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each WCC 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.
With two regular-season titles and two regional appearances in the last five seasons, Gonzaga has gone from the quietly consistent program in the shadow of Pepperdine and San Diego to the quietly consistent program that has most been able to take advantage of the unpredictable nature of the WCC standings. Not only have the Bulldogs finished atop the standings twice in the last five seasons, but they also boast a pair of second-place finishes, and a 36-win season in 2016 ties the high-water mark during the Mark Machtolf era.
BYU has hit the accelerator on its program over the last five seasons. It finished in at least a tie atop the standings three times, which it hadn’t done at all since winning the Mountain West Conference in 2001, and got to its first regional since 2002 during the 2017 season. Things may only get better as time goes on, as the Cougars’ coaching staff welcomed in a top 25 recruiting class in 2019, suggesting they may be as good a bet as any team to lead the way for the next five seasons.
After about a decade of being a solid WCC team that just couldn’t quite get over the hump, LMU finally did so and got into its first regional since 2000 in 2019. That came two seasons after it won the regular-season title and four seasons after a 33-21-1 overall record was the program’s best since 2004. Former coach Jason Gill, now the coach at Southern California, did an outstanding job of steadily improving the program. His successor, Nathan Choate, a veteran assistant at several programs on the West Coast, is tasked with keeping that momentum going.
Eric Valenzuela, now the coach at Long Beach State, took a Saint Mary’s program with no history to speak of and turned it into a winner over the last five seasons. When he led the Gaels to a 33-25 record in 2016, it was the first time the team had finished more than one game over .500 overall since 1991. It was also the first time the program had ever finished atop its league’s standings, and the regional appearance that came at the end of the season was the program’s first ever. The program isn’t without its challenges moving forward, but Valenzuela certainly left it in better shape than when he found it, which should help new coach Greg Moore, formerly of Cal State Northridge and a successful assistant at San Francisco, hit the ground running.
The Toreros’ last five seasons have been solid. They won the league’s regular-season title in 2015 and enjoyed a 35-win season in 2017. But the arrow points down here because that’s a step back from what the team accomplished from 2010-2014, when it got to three regionals—including in 2010 when San Diego won the regular-season title with a 19-2 record—never finished below .500 in conference play, won 34 or more games overall four times and produced Kris Bryant.
Not unlike San Diego, Pepperdine had a lot to live up to with what it accomplished in the five years prior to this window of time. Between 2010 and 2014, it won the regular-season title twice, got to two regionals and came up two runs short of a trip to Omaha in 2014 at the end of a 43-win campaign. Although it got this five-year window off to a good start with a regional trip in 2015 and topped the league standings in 2018, it hasn’t quite matched its previous level. It’s worth noting, however, that the 2020 team was well on its way to getting back into the postseason, as it ended the season ranked inside the Top 25 and is part of our “Never Too Early” rankings ahead of the 2021 season.
The Dons have been consistent in the last five seasons, finishing no higher than fourth and no lower than sixth in the standings in any one season. Unfortunately for USF, that means that it only made one appearance in the WCC Tournament. The team never bottomed out and suffered through a nightmare-type season, but the last five years just don’t compare to the previous five years, when the Dons made two trips to regionals.
The period of time between 2010 and 2014 wasn’t altogether kind to Pacific, but it did go 31-23 in 2010 to set the program record for wins and finish fourth in the league after going 12-12 in WCC play. It also went 15-12 in conference play in 2014. There weren’t any similar successes in the last five seasons, when the Tigers never finished better than 12-15 in the WCC or better than eighth in the standings. Although there were no postseason appearances to be had in either case, what Pacific did the last five seasons doesn’t stack up to the previous five.
Although it bottomed out by going 12-40 overall and 5-22 in the WCC in 2019, Santa Clara has shown a lot of improvement in the last five seasons. A 26-26 campaign in 2018 was the program’s first .500 or better season since 2008. It also finished with nine or more conference wins four out of the last five seasons, and if that doesn’t seem like much, consider that it went 1-23 in league play as recently as 2013. The Broncos were also off to a promising start to the 2020 season when things shut down, as they had gotten out to a 12-5 start.
The last five seasons were tough for Portland, as it had seasons of seven, three, five and seven wins in WCC play, with a 10-41-1 season in 2017 serving as the low point. But like Santa Clara, things were looking up for the Pilots in 2020, what with a 12-4 start. That could provide confidence that the next five years will be significantly different.
Regional Teams by Year
|2-2 in Los Angeles Regional
|1-2 in Minneapolis Regional
|1-2 in Stanford Regional
|1-2 in Fort Worth Regional
|0-2 in Raleigh Regional
|2-2 in Fullerton Regional
The two best showings bookend this data set, with Pepperdine and LMU getting to regional finals in 2015 and 2019. The closest the WCC came to having a team get to a super regional was with LMU in 2019, when the Lions won the first two games of the Los Angeles Regional before dropping two straight to host UCLA in the final. Getting multiple teams into regionals once in five seasons is slightly down from 2010 to 2014, when the conference got multiple teams into regionals twice, but that may have more to do with current trends in college baseball than any sort of shortcomings from the league itself. Fewer postseason bids are going to mid-major programs, so while the WCC’s profile might be improving in some ways, including finishing as a top-10 RPI conference in 2019, the number of available bids has shrunk over the last several years. Getting more than one team into a given postseason is the best way for the conference to put itself in a position to break through to a super regional or the CWS again, so fair or not, getting back to that level will be a tough trick to pull off as long as it is sending one team at a time.
Top Draft Selections
|Kyle Holder, SS, San Diego
|Mitchell White, RHP, Santa Clara
|Cory Abbott, RHP, LMU
|A.J. Puckett, RHP, Pepperdine
|Paul Richan, RHP, San Diego
Though it’s not doing so at the clip of a major conference, the WCC consistently puts high draft picks into professional baseball, with the highlight of this data sample coming from Kyle Holder’s selection as a first-round pick of the Yankees. Although it won’t produce a first-rounder in this upcoming draft, LMU righthander Nick Frasso is expected, even in a shortened event, to continue the conference’s tradition of having players’ names called early.
The coaching carousel has been fairly active in the WCC in the last five seasons, but it speaks well of the quality of the coaches in the league that many of them have only left because they got offers to move up to bigger programs. Such was the case with Gill (Southern California), Valenzuela (Long Beach State), Neu (California) and Rodriguez (Baylor). Two of the changes that don’t fit that bill, Portland and Santa Clara pressing the reset button to hire Loomis and Filter, respectively, have perhaps begun to pay off, as both teams were off to good starts in 2020 before the season was shut down. Although the last of the changes didn’t make it into this table because it happened in January of this year, Pacific has actually changed coaches three different times since the end of the 2015 season. That speaks to the challenges that program has, but also, two of those changes came when the coach simply got an offer he couldn’t refuse. Neu left for a Pac-12 program at Cal and Garko left to join Joe Maddon’s Angels staff.