2022 Mid-American Conference Preview
The Mid-American Conference title race went down to the final weekend in 2021, as Central Michigan and Ball State battled for the crown. The Chippewas held off the Cardinals for the championship—their second straight.
While both teams likely deserved regional berths, only CMU went to the NCAA Tournament as Ball State was left just on the wrong side of the bubble. But the selection committee ruled the Cardinals to be among the first four teams out of the tournament and the MAC missed its best opportunity in more than 25 years to earn an at-large bid.
After the MAC least season eliminated the conference tournament—as it did for several sports in a money-saving move during the summer of 2020 when the financial fallout from the pandemic was at its peak—the MAC Tournament will return this spring. The tournament will be hosted by the regular season champion.
It’s time for some #MACtion.
Can Central Michigan win a third straight title?
The Chippewas are on a sensational run under fourth-year coach Jordan Bischel. In 2019, his first season, they went 47-14 (22-5) and won the MAC Tournament to advance to regionals for the first time since 1995. After going 11-6 in the abbreviated 2020 season, they went 42-18 (31-9) to hold off Ball State for the conference title and reached the South Bend Regional final, falling to host Notre Dame.
CMU is 100-38 under Bischel and already is on the best run for the program since the 1980s. It has a strong chance to continue that form, as it enters 2022 as the conference favorite.
It starts on the mound for the Chippewas, as righthanders Jordan Patty (10-2, 2.46) and Andrew Taylor (11-4, 1.81) return to headline the rotation. Patty stands out more for his pitchability, while Taylor has the better stuff with a fastball that sits in the low 90s. Together, they are the conference’s top 1-2 punch and have the potential to be one of the better duos in the country.
Behind Patty and Taylor, CMU also returns lefthander Garrett Navarra (6-0, 4.14), a two-way player who thrived after joining the rotation midseason in 2021 and beat Connecticut in regionals. After losing closer Grant Frazer, CMU went into the transfer portal for righthander Jake Jones (Murray State), who figures to take on a key role in the bullpen. Righthander Clayton Brooks (0-0, 1.59) has made just 11 appearances in his first two seasons in Mount Pleasant but could be primed for a breakout spring thanks to his control.
CMU had an older offense in 2021 and therefore has some key hitters to replace, but still has plenty of experience in the lineup. Second baseman Mario Camilletti (.330/.502/.454, 8 SB) brings premium on-base skills to the leadoff spot. Shortstop Justin Simpson (.325/.473/.402, 12 SB) also returns, forming a strong double-play combination for the Chippewas. With Navarra (.285/.381/.406, 8 SB) and Jacob Marsee (.278/.396/.402, 7 SB) returning to the outfield, CMU again has the makings of a strong lineup—one more focused on on-base skills and speed than power. Redshirt-freshman outfielder Robby Morgan has breakout potential thanks to his big raw tools.
CMU enters 2022 as the clear favorite in the MAC and has the all-around talent to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Will Ball State again contend for a regional bid?
The Cardinals have come up just short against the Chippewas in each of the last two MAC seasons. Ball State finished one game behind CMU in 2019 and then lost twice to the Chippewas in the MAC Tournament. In 2021, it finished two games back in the standings and then fell just shy of the NCAA Tournament, listed among the first four teams out by the selection committee.
The Cardinals were arguably the biggest snub from the Field of 64 after winning 38 games (20 away from home) and posting a top-50 RPI and the No. 15 non-conference strength of schedule. But, in the end, it wasn’t enough to get the MAC’s first at-large bid since 1994.
Now, Ball State must regroup to make another run at regionals. The Cardinals' top starting pitchers John Baker (one of the most productive pitchers in program history), Chayce McDermott (a fourth-round pick) and Lukas Jaksich all departed, leaving a sizable hole on the mound. Righthanders Trennor O’Donnell (2-2, 3.74) and Andre Orselli (4-1, 4.91, 5 SV) return and will pitch in significant roles. But Ball State will need some new pitchers to step up to cover the more than 250 innings Baker, Jaksich and McDermott accounted for in 2021.
Offensively, outfielder Nick Powell (.351/.450/.530) returns after leading the Cardinals in hitting. Shortstop Adam Tellier (.311/.408/.415) is coming off a strong freshman season and infielder Trent Quartermaine (.306/.413/.425) adds another experienced bat to the lineup.
With a new-look pitching staff, Ball State will need its offense to carry some more of the load in 2022. The Cardinals aren’t lacking in talent, but if they are to challenge CMU at the top of the standings, they will need to grow up fast.
Can Kent State now jump back into title contention?
For the first two decades of the 21st century, Kent State was the conference’s powerhouse and it won either the regular season or conference tournament title in 17 of 20 seasons. But the Golden Flashes have slipped behind both CMU and Ball State over the last three years, finishing third in both 2019 and 2021.
If the Golden Flashes are to compete for the title, it will start at the plate. Leading hitter Cam Touchette is gone and catcher Michael Turner transferred to Arkansas, but Kent State last season led the MAC in batting and returns a lot of that lineup. Catcher Justin Miknis (.349/.432/.527) is coming off a strong redshirt-freshman season and returns to the lineup along with outfielders Justin Kirby (.301/.386/.473, 10 SB) and Collin Matthews (.332/.411/.508, 17 SB) and infielder Michael McNamara (.303/.410/.503). With so much talent returning, Kent State should again have one of the best offenses in the league.
The pitching staff is not as clearly defined. Ace Luke Albright was drafted in the sixth round and top reliever Jack Zimmerman must also be replaced. Lefthander Collin Romel (3-7, 5.32) does return to the rotation. Kent State added lefthander Ben Cruikshank as a transfer from Missouri State and he will be expected to take on a significant role. A potential X-factor is righthander Grant Vera, a converted infielder who can run his fastball into the mid 90s.
Developing more options on the mound will be critical to Kent State’s bid to rise back to the top of the conference.
Is Toledo ready to take a step forward to challenge the contenders?
The Rockets last season went 21-19 in MAC play, a big step forward after going 4-21 in conference play in 2019 and just 3-13 overall in the abbreviated 2020 season.
Toledo did it in large part thanks to an offense that averaged 6.33 runs per game and led the MAC with 64 home runs. Powering that offense was first baseman Chris Meyers, who won the MAC’s triple crown and was named conference player of the year.
Meyers is now gone after being drafted in the 13th round, but the Rockets’ offense still has powerful potential. Outfielders Nicky Winterstein (.331/.393/.492) and Scott Mackiewicz (.305/.414/.559, 7 HR) lead the returners in the lineup. Kent State will also get a boost from shortstop Jeron Williams, a junior college transfer, and the return of catcher Trey Wright, who was off to a strong start in 2020 but was sidelined last spring by injury.
If Toledo is to take the next step and join the MAC’s top tier of Ball State, Central Michigan and Kent State, it will need to make a jump on the mound. The Rockets ranked 10th in the conference in team ERA (6.79), ahead of only Akron, which finished in last place in the standings. Righthander Kyle Jones (1-10, 5.53) will lead the rotation, which will get a boost from the additions of lefthander Cole Daniels (Kentucky) and righthander Kyle Music (junior college). The X-factor is righthander Connor Brandon (1-3, 9.35), who has a mid-90s fastball but also walked 9.99 batters per nine innings last season. If he can harness his stuff, he could make a big jump.
Who is the next premium pitcher coming out of the MAC?
The MAC produced a pitcher who was drafted in the first round in both 2019 (Ball State’s Drey Jameson) and 2021 (Miami (Ohio)’s Sam Bachman). Two more pitchers were drafted in the top 100 picks in the last two years – Ball State’s Kyle Nicolas (2020) and Ohio’s Joe Rock (2021). In that time, the MAC has had just one position player drafted in the top 100 picks (Central Michigan’s Zavier Warren in 2020).
If the conference has become a pitching pipeline, who’s next?
Central Michigan righthander Andrew Taylor is the conference’s top pitching prospect this season. He went 11-4, 1.81 with 125 strikeouts and 24 walks in 94.1 innings in 2021 and set the program’s single-season strikeout record. He leans heavily on his fastball, throwing it 82% of the time in 2021, and can run it up to 95 mph. His heavy reliance on his fastball makes for an unusual profile, but his offspeed stuff made some strides in the fall and he’ll have a chance this spring to be the highest-drafted pitcher from CMU since Kevin Tapani went 40th overall in 1986.
With so many teams resetting on the mound, the MAC won’t match last season’s depth, when Bachmann led the way for five pitchers from the conference to be drafted in the top 10 rounds. But with Taylor leading the way, the MAC will again be well represented on draft day.
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