2021 Mid-Major College Baseball Stock Watch: Who is Trending Up, Down?
2021 Mid-Major College Baseball Stock Watch
It was a year of mixed results in the mid-major ranks of college baseball. There were some standout teams, including Louisiana Tech, which earned a spot as a host in its first year in a new ballpark, Old Dominion, which was a traveling one seed, and UC Irvine, which ran away with the Big West behind a pitching staff that had power conference depth.
On the flip side, though, none of those three advanced out of regionals, and it was a three seed in Dallas Baptist that was the sole mid-major representative in super regionals. It was also another year without mid-major representation in the College World Series.
College baseball is still a sport where teams outside of the power conferences can thrive, but as time goes on, it gets more difficult to bank on where those teams will come from on a year-to-year basis.
Presented here is analysis based on notable results from mid-majors in college baseball last season, as well as the trajectory of the program or conference moving forward.
Conference USA (arrow up)
Last season, Conference USA had a lot of things going in its favor. It had a few teams that were simultaneously ready to compete for the postseason at the same time. It had a clearly-defined top half and a bottom half that allowed its best teams to rack up wins weekend after weekend and kept the standings from getting muddied. And it ended up being an RPI darling in the end, which allowed the teams at the top of the standings to draft off of each other’s success.
It all added up to the conference getting four regional bids, including a host in Louisiana Tech and a traveling one seed in Old Dominion. None of the four made it out of regionals, which was a disappointment, but there’s no way to classify the 2021 season as anything but a smashing success that reversed the trend of the last several years that had C-USA looking increasingly like it was heading toward a future as a conference capped at two bids. Last season was probably more of a high-water mark than a new normal for Conference USA, but it established that the league’s high-water mark is higher than most assumed.
Sun Belt Conference (arrow down)
Coming into the season, it was fair to think that the Sun Belt might collectively be poised to have the kind of season that Conference USA ended up having. In Texas State and Louisiana-Monroe, it had veteran teams coming off of hot starts in the canceled 2020 season. It had an intriguing Louisiana team going into a second season under Matt Deggs, perhaps ready to make a leap. That’s to say nothing of Texas-Arlington and Georgia Southern, which are almost always contenders in the league, and Coastal Carolina, the program with the best history of winning big.
But as it turned out, none of those teams seemed to completely play up to their potential, including Texas State and Coastal, which surprisingly finished last in each respective division of the conference. South Alabama, which won the regular-season title and the automatic bid, showed well in the postseason by advancing to the regional final in Gainesville, but it being the only representative from the Sun Belt to play baseball in June was a disappointment for a league that began the year with promise of producing more than that.
Dallas Baptist (41-18, 18-6 in Missouri Valley), reached super regionals (arrow up)
Dallas Baptist had some ups and downs during the regular season. It lost non-conference series against Oral Roberts and Air Force, but on the other hand, it also got off to a very fast start in conference play. And while it still won the MVC regular-season title, four of its six losses in conference play came in the final two weekends. But DBU played its best baseball when it mattered most, as it won the MVC Tournament and the Fort Worth Regional to advance to the second super regional in program history.
DBU was eliminated by Virginia in super regionals after winning the first game of the series, but small as it might have been, the program took another step in just winning a game in supers. In its previous super regional, against California in 2011, it was swept. The consensus around college baseball is that it’s only a matter of time before the Patriots break through to the College World Series if they stay the course.
UC Irvine (43-18, 32-8 in Big West), reached regionals (arrow up)
The Big West favorite coming into the season was UC Santa Barbara, but in the end, UC Irvine ended up having the kind of dominant season that UCSB was predicted to have. Led by one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country and an offense that was more physical than you might expect from a Big West team, the Anteaters won the regular-season title in the league by several games.
The Big West is trending up right now as a newer group of coaches, including UC Irvine’s Ben Orloff, have a number of programs heading in the right direction, and the Anteaters look like they’re leading that pack right now. Not only did they impress last season, but with a good portion of that team back in the fold in 2022, it doesn’t look like they’re ready to take a step back any time soon.
Cal State Fullerton (20-35, 13-23 in Big West), no postseason (arrow down)
Long the class of the Big West, Cal State Fullerton has taken steps back in the last several years. In 2019, it missed regionals, breaking a streak of 27 consecutive postseason appearances, and in 2021, it finished ninth in the league with a 13-23 conference record. Particularly surprising for a program most closely associated with excellent pitching is that it had a 6.01 team ERA last season.
After the season, coach Rick Vanderhook announced his retirement, with Jason Dietrich hired to replace him. Dietrich, one of the best pitching coaches in the game, was in that role at Fullerton from 2013-2016. His task will be to get the Titans back to competing for trips to Omaha. With the program’s rich history and Dietrich’s track record, it’s hard to imagine Fullerton being down for too long, but this also may not be an overnight rebuild.
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Fairfield (39-5, 33-1 in MAAC), reached regionals (arrow up)
Fairfield put together a magnificent season in 2021. It went through a conference-only schedule with a 33-1 record. And though it was beaten out for the automatic bid by Rider in the MAAC Tournament, it earned an unprecedented at-large bid for its conference and advanced to the regional final in Austin, beating Arizona State to get there. Fairfield was known to be a very good team going into the season, but no one could have predicted it would be as good as it was.
Fairfield will almost certainly never have a season like the one it enjoyed in 2021, but it could be the jumping-off point for something bigger for the Stags. The MAAC is a conference of baseball programs that all look fairly similar from the outside. They’re all in the same tight geographic region, they’re all recruiting largely from the same pool of players, and for the most part, they have all the same limitations. So when Fairfield does what it did last season and becomes a national focus in college baseball, that could be a differentiator to help the program rise above the others.
Northeastern (36-12, 20-3 in CAA), reached regionals (arrow up)
The CAA split into two divisions last season, and Northeastern took full advantage of being in the more favorable North Division by going 20-3 in conference play during the regular season. But anyone who saw the Huskies live could tell you that it was more than a team that caught breaks in its schedule. This was a talented team that was the best in the region, even if it did end up exiting regional play a disappointing 0-2.
Mike Glavine and his staff have really built up this program nicely. The Huskies have consistently been among the best teams in the CAA over the last several years, and that shouldn’t change in 2022 with the return of two future pros on the mound in Sebastian Keane and Cam Schlittler and a solid core in the lineup led by Max Viera and Jeff Costello.
Pepperdine (20-25, 12-15 in WCC), no postseason (arrow down)
After coming out of the gate piping hot in 2020, Pepperdine, which returned just about everyone from that team, was looked at as the favorite in the WCC going into 2021. It didn’t play out that way, however, as the Waves began the season 1-7, admittedly against a tough non-conference schedule, and then never really found another gear. They were a bit more consistent in conference play, but they never won more than two series in a row and they went a combined 1-5 against Gonzaga and San Diego, the two best teams in the league.
More often than not under Rick Hirtensteiner, Pepperdine has been near the top of the WCC, so it seems like a safe assumption that it will return to that in short order, but nothing will be guaranteed next season, as the Waves lost a lot of key pieces from what was a veteran team last season. The clear next hurdle for the program is getting to its first regional since Hirtensteiner was elevated to head coach ahead of the 2016 season.