2021 Mountain West Conference Preview
The Mountain West has a familiar flavor to it in 2021, as powerhouses San Diego State and Fresno State are projected to duke it out at the top of the standings.
But the conference has a new look as well. Boise State eliminated its baseball program in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, cutting the team just 14 games after restarting what was (and could again become) a long-dormant baseball program.
With the Mountain West back to seven teams, the league returns to a double round-robin format for the 2021 season. The teams will play a 36-game conference schedule with weekends consisting mostly of doubleheaders on Saturday and a Sunday series finale. The conference tournament has been eliminated and the regular season champion will receive the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
Only San Diego State lost players in the shortened 2020 draft, with two-way standout Casey Schmitt going in the second round to the Giants and shortstop Anthony Walters going in the third round to the Mets. Even with those losses, the Aztecs enter the 2021 season as conference favorites, though Fresno State and Nevada-Las Vegas should both challenge at the top as well.
Player of the Year: Jaden Fein, 1B, San Diego State
Fein earned co-Mountain West freshman of the year honors in 2019 after hitting .293/.354/.473 with four home runs during the 2019 season. He was off to another strong start through 15 games in 2020 as well, leading the Aztecs in hitting at .348/.404/.435. Fein has impressive raw power and a chance to hit double-digit home runs over a full season and should be one of the most consistent bats in the conference in the middle of San Diego State’s lineup. He’s played both corner outfield positions but should be the team’s primary first baseman this season.
Pitcher of the Year: Troy Melton, RHP, San Diego State
Melton is the top 2021 prospect in the conference and was off to an excellent start to the 2020 season. He started four games and helped San Diego State get big wins against Oregon State and Coastal Carolina, while striking out 26 batters and walking nine in 22.1 innings of work. Melton is an athletic righthander with a fastball in the 92-95 mph range, a low-80s breaking ball and a firm changeup with solid sinking action.
Newcomer of the Year: Diego Alarcon, 3B, Nevada-Las Vegas
The left side of Nevada-Las Vegas’ infield will be made up of new faces this year, with shortstop Brendan Brooks (a UC Irvine transfer) and Alarcon manning the hot corner. Alarcon should add an infusion on on-base ability and power to the Rebel lineup. In two years with El Camino (Calif.) JC, Alarcon hit .340/.425/.488 with seven home runs and more walks (33) than strikeouts (24). If his offensive production translates to the MWC, Nevada-Las Vegas could be looking at a deep, productive lineup.
The highest-ranked commit to a MWC program from the 2020 class was lefthander Ricky Tiedemann, who was originally committed to San Diego State. After instead enrolling at Long Beach (Calif.) JC there’s not an obvious, high-profile prep for newcomer of the year. However, SDSU infielder Fisher Pyatt this summer excelled in the San Diego League, where he earned first-team honors and hit .330. Pyatt has the ability to play all three infield spots at a high level and has a chance to make an impact with the bat in his first year as well.
Predicted Order of Finish (2020 records)
1. San Diego State (10-6)
Entering the 2020 season, San Diego State was the favorite to reclaim the conference title after Fresno State’s 2019 championship. While the Aztecs were the only team in the conference hurt by the draft, the club is still poised to be the team to beat with plenty of returning veterans and one of the deeper pitching staffs it’s had in recent memory. Preseason Pitcher of the Year Troy Melton is ready to lead a rotation that also includes righthanders Kohl Simas and Mike Paredes. Simas and Paredes both throw in the low 90s with Simas bringing a high-spin breaking ball and Paredes boasting a four-pitch mix and impressive strike-throwing ability. The lineup returns plenty of experienced bats, including preseason player of the year Jaden Fein, as well as backstop Wyatt Hendrie (.286/.417/.367), right fielder Matt Rudick (.313/.347/.478) and left fielder Ryan Orr (.295/.338/.361). There are a few newcomers who could play big roles on the infield including freshman third baseman Fisher Pyatt—who can handle all three infield positions and hit .330 in the San Diego collegiate league last summer—and former Oregon infielder Max Foxcroft.
2. Fresno State (9-7)
The Bulldogs return the entirety of their lineup that led the conference in slugging (.478) in 2020, including leading hitter third baseman Ryan Higgins (.350/.400/.600) and catcher Zach Presno (.321/.441/.804, 8 HR), who led the team and conference in home runs. The team gets power from right fielder Nate Thimjon (.233/.356/.650, 6 HR), who was second in the conference in homers during the shortened 2020 season. Fresno State was third in the league in team ERA (4.72) a year ago but will need to replace lefthander Jaime Arias (2-1, 3.75) who led the team with 24 innings in 2020. There are internal options with experienced arms Jamison Hill (1-1, 4.67) and Nik Cardinal (0-1, 3.27), as well as righthander Oscar Carvajal (2-2, 6.14) who has excelled as a reliever at Fresno State and in the Cape Cod League, but struggled in a starting role.
3. Nevada-Las Vegas (6-11)
The Rebels return plenty of players on both sides of the ball including seven projected starters in the lineup and four starting pitchers from the 2020 season. That should give UNLV depth on both sides of the ball. The program also adds transfers to the left side of its infield, with the potential impact bat of Diego Alarcon at the hot corner and UC Irvine transfer Brendan Brooks slated to take over shortstop after sitting out the 2020 season. Catcher Eric Bigani (.394/.431/.530) was one of the best hitters in the conference a year ago and will be joined by right fielder Austin Kryszczuk (.341/.472/.537) as two of the best pure hitters on the team. Righthander Chase Maddux (1-0, 2.59) is back in the pitching staff for the sixth year with the program and led the team with 24.1 innings in 2020. He’ll be joined by second-year freshmen Josh Sharman (2-1, 4.13) and Noah Mattera (0-2, 6.35) in the rotation, while fourth-year junior Conner Woods (0-1, 2.53) is back in the bullpen after a strong start to 2020.
4. New Mexico (14-4)
New Mexico was off to an exceptional start in the 2020 season thanks to a high-contact, high-OBP lineup backed by a competitive pitching staff that posted the second-best ERA (4.45) in the conference. The team should have a strong foundation in 2021, as each of the team’s top three starters return. Righthander Will Armbruester (1-0, 1.14) led the conference in ERA and opponent batting acreage (.173) and struck out 24 batters to just three walks, while righthander Tristin Lively (2-0, 2.95) managed a top-five ERA. Righthander Aaron Makil (2-0, 5.01) led the team with 25 strikeouts and should round out a strong, reliable starting rotation. The New Mexico lineup didn’t show much power (just six home runs) in 2020, but led the conference in average (.297) and walks (98). Infielders Kyle Landers (.417/.532/.567) and Kyler Castillo (.400/.465/.480) are back in the fold after leading the team and conference in hitting in 2020.
5. Nevada (2-12)
Nevada struggled in a major way in 2020, ranking at the bottom of the conference in both runs scored (32) and team ERA (6.49). However, the team returns its entire starting rotation and both Owen Sharts (0-3, 4.91) and Shane O’Malley (1-2, 4.29) have a chance to rebound and help back up righthander Jake Jackson (1-3, 3.00), who led the team in innings a year ago. Sharts led the conference with 32 strikeouts in 2020, but also allowed 27 hits in 22 innings. The offense will also need rebounds from key players, most importantly infielder Josh Zamora (.236/.276/.273) who is a career .324/.389/.503 hitter but never got going in 14 games last season. Newcomers to watch include freshman outfielder Jacob Stinson and junior college transfer Dario Gomez.
6. Air Force (7-12)
Air Force ended the 2020 season on a three-game winning streak, but finished in the middle of the pack overall with a 7-12 record. The team has a solid group of pitchers who will try and find success in the hitter-friendly confines of Falcon Field—which sits 7,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains. Despite that, righthander Ryan Stohr (1-2, 3.32) found success on the mound and managed a top-10 ERA in the conference, while lefthander Stevan Fairburn Jr. (0-1, 4.91), righthander Luke Chilcutt (1-1, 6.75) and righthander Jason Shuger (0-0, 3.00) could give the Falcons a solid starting staff. Air Force has proven to be a disruptive basestealing team, but without Ashton Easley, who graduated and signed with the Marlins, they will need more offense surrounding Cole Blatchford (.343/.405/.627) and Gabriel Garcia (.305/.358/.424).
7. San Jose State (5-12)
San Jose State has finished near the bottom of the conference in each of the last two seasons, but it wasn’t too long ago when the Spartans had a third-place finish (2018). It should be an uphill battle to get back into that range in 2021. San Jose State does have a pair of reliable bats between designated hitter Ruben Ibarra (.357/.493/.554) and third baseman Troy Viola (.277/.343/.462), but they will need others to step up around them. Righthander Jonathan Clark (1-1, 2.25) had a strong start to the 2020 season and will look to continue that performance in a full-time starting role. He’ll be joined by righthander Spencer Long (0-2, 4.82) and lefthander Ben Polack (1-0, 3.18).
Top 10 Prospects For 2021
- Troy Melton, RHP, San Diego State
- Wyatt Hendrie, C, San Diego State
- Owen Sharts, RHP, Nevada
- Kohl Simas, RHP, San Diego State
- Jaden Fein, OF, San Diego State
- Ryan Higgins, 3B, Fresno State
- Zach Presno, C, Fresno State
- Jamison Hill, RHP, Fresno State
- Matt Rudick, OF, San Diego State
- Edarian Williams, 2B, Nevada-Las Vegas