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This offseason, we’re going to take 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 they might go.
Most conferences that have undergone massive realignment still have a core of schools that have been part of the membership for as long as anyone can remember.
That’s not the case with the Western Athletic Conference, which is quite literally a completely different conference than it was in 2005, when Rice, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech made up the baseball membership. For that matter, you only have to go back to 2012 to find a time when just two current members, New Mexico State and Sacramento State, were in the fold.
Truthfully, it’s impressive that the conference has simply continued to exist, because the league spent the entirety of 2012-2014 fighting off mass defections that led to it having to discontinue playing football.
In total, just since the end of the 2012 season, 10 different baseball programs have left the WAC. That includes not just longtime members like Hawaii, which had been in the conference since 1979, but also one-year members like Texas-Arlington, Texas-San Antonio, Texas State and Dallas Baptist. It also includes North Dakota, which cut baseball at the end of the 2016 season.
Given how much shuffling the WAC has endured, it seems fitting that this iteration of the conference enjoyed arguably its best season in 2019, perhaps as something of a payoff for some stability in its membership. It had a player in New Mexico State shortstop Nick Gonzales drafted seventh overall, the conference standings came down to the final day of the regular season, with five teams being separated by just one game, and those five teams all won 34 or more games overall.
The winds of realignment have begun to blow again, however. Chicago State eliminated its baseball program earlier this year, Cal State Bakersfield just officially moved to the Big West and Northern Colorado will depart for the Summit League ahead of the 2022 season. Coming in to fill those voids are Dixie State and Tarleton State, programs from Utah and Texas, respectively, that are moving up from Division II.
The WAC has survived movement before, and in order to thrive moving forward, it will have to do so again.
*2020 records not included
**California Baptist’s record reflects only the 2019 season results
|Team||WAC Record||Winning Pct.||Overall Record||Winning Pct.|
|New Mexico State||82-46||64.06||158-122||56.43|
|Cal State Bakersfield||65-62||51.18||133-157||45.86|
|Texas-Rio Grande Valley||50-75||40.00||125-138||47.53|
Cal Baptist appears at the top here, but that’s only with one season of data. Among those with a full five-year data sample, Grand Canyon comes out on top, but due to being ineligible for the postseason until 2018 and coming up short in the WAC Tournament the last two seasons, the Lopes are still looking for a postseason appearance to go with all of their success in the regular season. New Mexico State had a tough 11-win season in 2015 but was otherwise outstanding in the seasons in this data set, while Sacramento State was consistent throughout the five-year sample, finishing .500 or better overall and in the WAC each year.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each WAC 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. Note also that many of these programs only recently moved up from Division II or out of being an independent program, and as a result, there will be more arrows pointed up than there would otherwise be.
We don’t have enough information to make a judgment on Cal Baptist yet, but its one full season in Division I went about as well as it possibly could have. The Lancers finished with a 19-8 WAC record in year one, good enough to put them in a tie atop the conference standings. It will be the 2023 season before CBU is eligible for postseason play, but it has already gone about laying a firm foundation.
Grand Canyon’s path is one that Cal Baptist would like to follow, as the Lopes only recently came out of their Division I transition period, but spent the entirety of their transition period as one of the best teams in the WAC. In the last five seasons, GCU has won the regular-season title three times, including in 2017, when it put up a dominant 20-4 WAC record. The program’s first postseason appearance since moving back up to Division I is the next step.
New Mexico State—Up
In the last five seasons, the Aggies won the 2019 regular-season title, came in second place three different times, got to a regional in 2018 and developed Nick Gonzales, the best player in program history, all coming on the heels of an 11-win season to begin this data set. That’s an excellent run, and one that will be hard to live up to in the next five seasons.
With two regional appearances, Sacramento State has more postseason trips than any team in the conference over the last five seasons. Over this time, it has also established itself as one of the most consistent members of the WAC and one of the most consistent programs on the West Coast more generally. Its 170 overall wins over the last five seasons, an average of 34 per season, is made more impressive when you consider that the Hornets annually play tough competition out of conference in the region.
Seattle hasn’t been in Division I for that long and has been in the WAC only since the 2013 season, but there’s no doubt it made real strides in recent years. The 2016 season was a highlight, with the Redhawks winning 37 games overall and the WAC regular-season title with a 21-6 conference record.
Cal State Bakersfield—Up
The Roadrunners, which began playing baseball in 2009 and joined the WAC for the 2013 season, enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2015, getting to the program’s first regional and eliminating Mississippi while there. The rest of this five-year sample hasn’t been smooth sailing but that success alone has the arrow pointing up for Cal State Bakersfield.
Utah Valley—To the side
A member of Division I since the 2004 season, Utah Valley spent time as an independent and in the Great West Conference before joining the WAC ahead of the 2014 season. It did get to a regional in 2016. That’s a groundbreaking achievement for the program, no doubt, but the arrow is to the side rather than up because of UVU’s relative dominance of the Great West Conference before moving to the WAC. Granted, the level of competition there was lower than what they see now, but for a period between 2010-2012, the Wolverines went a combined 76-4 in conference play, including a 28-0 season in 2012.
Another program, like Grand Canyon, that has yo-yoed up and down from Division I in its history, Northern Colorado joined the WAC from the Great West in time for the 2014 season. Since then, the Bears have struggled to find their footing in the conference, with an 11-12 league record in 2016 and a fifth-place finish in the standings in 2018 the best in this data sample. After one more year in the WAC in 2021, Northern Colorado will be off to the Summit League.
Texas-Rio Grande Valley—To the side
Formerly known as the UT-Pan American Broncs, the UT-Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros quietly have as much history as any program in this conference and even got to the College World Series back in 1971. Since joining the WAC from the Great West at the same time as Utah Valley and Northern Colorado, the Vaqueros have also struggled to compete consistently in the league, but the 2019 season was a step in the right direction, with the team finishing as part of a three-way tie atop the standings.
It was a tough five-year run for Chicago State in a number of ways, culminating in the June announcement that the program would be cut. The 7-17 conference records in 2017 and 2018 were the best CSU had to offer, as were the 13 overall wins the Cougars achieved three different times in the sample.
Regional Recap by Year
|2019||Sacramento State||1-2 in Stanford Regional|
|2018||New Mexico State||0-2 in Lubbock Regional|
|2017||Sacramento State||0-2 in Stanford Regional|
|2016||Utah Valley||0-2 in Baton Rouge Regional|
|2015||Cal State Bakersfield||1-2 in Los Angeles|
The record for WAC teams in the postseason over the last five seasons isn’t particularly good, with a 2-10 record as a conference. Both of the wins actually came against No. 2 seeds in elimination games. In 2019, Sacramento State eliminated UC Santa Barbara. In 2015, Cal State Bakersfield sent Mississippi packing. The last time a WAC entrant won more than one game in a regional was 2010, when Hawaii got to the final of the Tempe Regional. The last time two teams from the WAC got into the postseason in the same year was 2012, when Fresno State and New Mexico State both got in. Obviously, those feats both came at a time when the WAC was a very different conference, and while winning multiple games in a regional is probably achievable under the right circumstances, it’s unlikely the conference will be a two-bid league anytime soon.
Top Draft Picks
|Jake Wong, RHP, Grand Canyon||2018||80th overall|
|Joey Ortiz, SS, New Mexico State||2019||108th overall|
|Kyle Bradish, RHP, New Mexico State||2018||121st overall|
|Daniel Johnson, OF, New Mexico State||2016||154th overall|
|Marcel Renteria, RHP, New Mexico State||2017||187th overall|
Obviously, this data sample doesn’t encompass New Mexico State’s Nick Gonzales being selected seventh overall in the 2020 draft, but even still, this group has a distinct Aggies flavor, with four of the five highest-drafted players coming from that program. Johnson just got to the big leagues, as he broke summer camp as a part of the Indians roster. In this data set, the 2019 draft was the best draft for the WAC, with 18 players selected, but overall, the number of players taken has fluctuated fairly wildly in the last five years, with a low of seven taken in 2017.
|2019||New Mexico State||Brian Green||Mike Kirby|
|2017||Cal State Bakersfield||Bob Macaluso||Jeremy Beard|
|2017||Texas-Rio Grande Valley||Manny Mantrana||Derek Matlock|
|2015||Cal State Bakersfield||Bill Kernan||Bob Macaluso|
Taking over for a coach who engineered a massive program turnaround, and one who recruited and developed the best player in program history, Kirby has big shoes to fill at New Mexico State. UTRGV hiring Matlock seems to have paid dividends quickly, as the Vaqueros finished tied at the top of the WAC standings in just his second year on the job.