Nine Unanswered Questions From The 2020 College Baseball Season
The college baseball season was only a month old when the spread of the novel coronavirus prompted the NCAA on March 12 to cancel the College World Series. The cancellation of the regular season by conferences around the country soon followed.
All that’s left of the 2020 season is one month’s worth of games and plenty of unknown questions about how the next three months would have played out. Here, we try to answer nine of the biggest questions from the 2020 college baseball season.
Was No. 1 Florida headed to its second national championship in four years?
The Gators ascended to the top spot in the Baseball America Top 25 after their sweep at Miami in the second weekend of the season. They started the season 16-0, the best start in program history, and were the last undefeated team in the nation before losing to Florida State on March 10, two days before the season was shuttered.
As well as Florida had played, however, there still was a lot of season left and the team that wins the College World Series is the one that is playing the best in June, not in March. So, a lot could have changed over the course of the 11 weeks leading up to Selection Monday. But as it stands, Florida had earned its ranking and status as favorite. It ranked in the top 20 in both fielding percentage (.984) and ERA (2.41) and its offense was scoring more than seven runs per game. And while RPI hadn’t fully normalized yet, Florida ranked No. 2 in the country, according to WarrenNolan.com.
The season hadn’t played out long enough to say definitively that Florida was the best team in the country, but signs were certainly pointing that way as conference play began.
Who would have won an outstanding player of the year race?
This year’s player of the year race was setting up to be outstanding. New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales made plenty of early headlines with his play and was hitting .448/.610/1.155 with 12 home runs in 16 games. Opposing pitchers were treating Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson like he was Barry Bonds and had already walked him 31 times in 17 games. He was taking advantage when he did get a chance to hit and was batting .340/.598/.780 with six home runs in 17 games. Texas A&M lefthander Asa Lacy was emerging as perhaps the best pitcher in a deep pitching draft class and was 3-0, 0.75 with 46 strikeouts and eight walks in 24 innings. Vanderbilt outfielder Austin Martin was hitting .377/.507/.660 with three home runs.
And that was just the early favorites. Mississippi third baseman Tyler Keenan was off to a scorching start. Duke righthander Bryce Jarvis had thrown a perfect game and started ACC play by carrying another perfect game into the seventh inning. Louisville lefthander Reid Detmers had already piled up 48 strikeouts in 22 innings. Not to mention players that would have trended up over the course of the season.
The big early numbers would likely have regressed a bit as the season went on. But the 2020 Player of the Year race was shaping up as a banner one that still didn’t have a clear favorite.
Who would have won Freshman of the Year?
The Freshman of the Year race was very much still developing at this early stage of the season. But there were a couple early standouts. Alabama lefthander Connor Prielipp was 3-0, 0.00 with 35 strikeouts and just six walks and five hits in 21 innings. Vanderbilt righthander Jack Leiter was doing his best to live up to the hype he came to college with as the highest ranked player in the 2019 draft class not to sign. He was 2-0, 1.72 with 22 strikeouts and eight walks in 15.2 innings. Virginia outfielder Chris Newell was hitting an impressive .407/.545/.729 with four home runs and eight stolen bases. Oklahoma third baseman Peyton Graham was off to a strong start, hitting .358/.457/.612 with three home runs and eight stolen bases.
The race would have come more into focus as the season continued. The last two Freshman of the Year—Kevin Abel in 2018 and Kumar Rocker in 2019—didn’t secure the award until their postseason performances. But Prielipp and Newell especially were off and running in 2020.
Could Vanderbilt have righted the ship and repeated as national champions?
Vanderbilt won the 2019 College World Series and was ranked No. 1 in the Preseason Top 25. But the Commodores had an up-and-down start to the season, including 1-2 weekends at both the MLB4 Tournament in Arizona and the Southern California College Baseball Classic. With so much change in the lineup from the national championship team, some growing pains were to be expected.
Vanderbilt’s pitching staff had lived up to the hype. It led the nation with a 1.84 team ERA and had already showed off its depth. The Commodores’ lineup was the greater concern, which had always been expected to be the case. Austin Martin was rolling and had seemingly settled in to center field, freshman shortstop Carter Young was impressing and junior outfielder Cooper Davis was off to a quick start.
The Commodores were still firmly in the experimental stage. Seventeen players had gotten at least one at-bat and coach Tim Corbin would surely have found a combination that worked over the course of the next couple months. With Vanderbilt’s elite pitching staff, it would not have needed to become a high-powered offense. The Commodores had all the pieces necessary to get back on track and make another run in June.
Would the ACC or SEC have gotten a record 11 NCAA Tournament bids?
In the Preseason Projected Field of 64, both the ACC and SEC were projected for 10 NCAA Tournament bids, which would have matched the record. The ACC was especially close to receiving an 11th bid in the projection and both conferences appeared to have the depth to challenge the record in 2020.
The first four weeks of the season do not give us enough data for RPI to fully normalize. Texas Tech, for instance was ranked No. 2 in the Top 25 and off to a 16-3 start but was No. 44 in RPI. Still, things were starting to come into shape, especially when looking at conferences as a whole. The SEC ranked No. 1 in conference RPI, a strong early sign for the conference. The ACC ranked third, behind the Big 12.
But could either have produced 11 NCAA Tournament teams? The SEC put 10 teams in the 2019 field and those 10 teams were all off to solid starts. Missouri last season just missed regionals and this year was ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions, but Alabama was off to a 16-1 start, giving the league another strong postseason candidate. Eleven bids is still a lofty number and the teams would have beaten up on each other in conference play. Could 11 teams have really gotten the 13 or so wins in conference play that they would need to impress the selection committee? As unlikely as that may seem, if we had released an updated Projected Field of 64 on March 18 as we were scheduled to do, there likely would have been 11 SEC teams in the field, provided no one fell on their face in the first weekend of conference play. Series to watch in that regard would have been Missouri at Alabama and Texas A&M at Auburn.
As for the ACC, the league got off to a shakier start. Georgia Tech, Louisville and Miami all lost high-profile series against SEC opponents (though Clemson did win its series against South Carolina). On top of that, North Carolina lost a home series against Dallas Baptist and Wake Forest was swept at Long Beach State. All of that dinged the conference’s RPI and it’s difficult to imagine a conference that ranked third in RPI at this point to put 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament. In an updated projection, the ACC would have likely received nine bids.
Would Alabama’s hot start have held up in SEC play?
The Crimson Tide went through a rough several years, dating back to their last regionals appearance in 2014. Mitch Gaspard resigned as coach in 2016 after back-to-back 32-win seasons and was replaced by Greg Goff, who lasted just one tumultuous, 19-win season in Tuscaloosa. Brad Bohannon was hired to replace him, and Alabama’s record improved in each of his first two seasons. But it hadn’t been able to get out of the SEC West cellar.
This season, perhaps a year ahead of schedule, Alabama looked like it was ready to take a big step forward. It went 16-1 and while its schedule wasn’t world-beating, it wasn’t a bunch of pushovers either. The real test lay ahead in SEC play, however.
Outfielder Tyler Gentry (.429/.554/.750, 4 HR), utilityman Brett Auerbach (.388/.506/.642, 3 HR) and catcher Sam Praytor (.350/.452/.667, 6 HR) gave the offense a strong core of older players, with freshman outfielder Owen Diodati (.309/.431/.673, 5 HR) adding another power bat. The pitching staff had seemingly hit on something with freshmen lefthanders Connor Prielipp (3-0, 0.00) and Antoine Jean (3-0, 3.18) joining sophomore righthander Connor Shamblin (1-1, 4.05) in the rotation. The bullpen was showing improved depth behind lefthander Brock Guffey (3-0, 1.04) and righthanders Chase Lee (1-0, 1.64, 2 SV) and Tyler Ras (0-0, 0.00).
How the young pitching would have fared in SEC play was the biggest question mark, but there was reason to believe that 2020 would have marked Alabama’s return to the NCAA Tournament and served as a stepping stone to more success in the coming years.
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Could Long Beach State and Pepperdine have hosted regionals?
Two of the biggest surprises of the season were Beach and Pepperdine, who both were ranked in the top 20 when the season was canceled. The Dirtbags (10-5) had won series against California, Mississippi State, Wake Forest and Xavier, with a telling road trip to Tulane on tap. The Waves (12-3) went 11-1 in weekend games, their only loss coming against Michigan.
Both teams were clearly tracking for NCAA Tournament bids, but could they have been in line for more? Despite their records, RPI wasn’t big fans of them yet. That may have changed down the line but playing in the Big West Conference and West Coast Conference would have made that an uphill battle in many respects. Beach was being held back because it played just one road game—a loss at San Diego State. Pepperdine was faring better in RPI but even though its schedule was full of big-name schools, many of them were off to sluggish starts, providing less of a boost than would otherwise be expected.
Ultimately, the Waves probably would have gotten squeezed out of the hosting conversation. While the WCC looked to be deep this season, hosting out of a traditionally one-bid league requires season-long dominance. The Dirtbags, however, were likely a series win at Tulane away from there being a Long Beach Regional in an updated Projected Field of 64. Whether they would have stayed on the host line all spring is a more difficult question. If they could have run through the Big West, a regional likely would have come to Blair Field. But the conference was deeper this year and the teams likely would have beaten up on each other enough to knock everyone off the hosting line instead of producing one dominant team.
Would Nick Gonzales have won the home run race?
Through March 12, New Mexico State shortstop Nick Gonzales had hit 12 home runs to lead the nation. Southeast Missouri State outfielder Justin Dirden had nine home runs and five players were tied at eight. Other players who coming into the season were expected to contend for the home run title like North Carolina first baseman Aaron Sabato (7), Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad (6) and Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson (6) weren’t far behind the pack.
Gonzales got off to a hot start in 2019 as well before seeing his numbers drop off some in conference play (he hit four home runs in 27 Western Athletic Conference games and 12 home runs in 28 nonconference games). NMSU this season had played 12 of its 16 games at home in altitude against some of the worst teams in Division I.
So, would Gonzales’ early lead have held up? It’s one of the unknowables this season has presented. Betting against Gonzales seems unwise given his incredible track record for hitting—no matter the environment (his seven home runs in the Cape Cod League this summer were tied for sixth most in the league). But teams would have stopped pitching to him, especially in conference games that had a bit more on the line than nonconference games against teams that weren’t going to be in the mix for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzales could have won the home run race. But one thing is certain: we would have really enjoyed watching a home run race of top prospects like Gonzales, Kjerstad, Sabato and Torkelson.
Would Spencer Torkelson have set the single-season walks record?
Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson has hit 54 career home runs, leaving him two shy of the program record held by Bob Horner that has stood for 42 years. With Torkelson a candidate to be the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, his college career is likely over, ending his pursuit of the Sun Devils’ record.
But that wasn’t the only record Torkelson was making a run at this spring. The junior was being treated by opposing pitchers like he was Barry Bonds—whose ASU freshmen home run record Torkelson broke in 2018—and had already been walked 31 times (15 intentionally) in 17 games. At that rate (1.82 walks per game), Torkelson would have needed to play 62 games to break the single-season Division I record of 112, which Coby Kerlin set in 1985 while playing for Texas. That rate would also have been a record, eclipsing Florida International’s Eric Cruz, who walked 1.50 times per game in 1990.
If Torkelson could have kept that rate up, playing 62 games would have been achievable. He simply would have needed the Sun Devils to reach the regional championship game (assuming no games lost to rain outs), which they would have been favored to do. It wouldn’t have been the most glamorous pursuit of history, but it certainly was on the table.