Ranking The Top 25 Reasons To Be Thankful For College Baseball In 2020
It’s Thanksgiving week and, as such, time to take stock of the reasons to be thankful. Even in a year that has been as difficult as 2020 has for college baseball, there are still plenty to appreciate.
Whether it’s the resiliency of the players, the college baseball we’ve been able to watch online this offseason or the new facilities under construction around the country, there’s a little something for everyone in college baseball to be thankful for.
Here are the 25 things we’re most thankful for, starting with the prospect of a 2021 season.
1. The 2021 season
It remains to be seen what form it will take and how it will play out, but there’s confidence that a 2021 college baseball season will be played. After the early cancellation of the 2020 season and the general uncertainty around college sports to this point, that alone is worth celebrating.
2. A return to Omaha
With the 2020 season cancellation came the cancellation of the College World Series, a huge blow for the sport and for the city of Omaha. By the time the 2021 event begins, it will have been nearly two years since the last CWS game, and that will make the return to action that much sweeter.
3. Resilient players
It’s been a challenging year for college baseball players, to say the least. Their season was abruptly halted in the spring and summer ball was thrown into disarray. Things haven’t gotten any easier this fall with a fall unlike any other and schools largely going with virtual learning. But, through it all, players have found a way to keep playing, keep getting better and to prepare for the 2021 season.
4. More talented rosters than ever
It’s a shame that a five-round draft reduced opportunities for successful college baseball players and promising high school prospects to move on to professional baseball, but the silver lining is that college baseball rosters have likely never been more talented than they will be in 2021, when all but the most elite prospects from last season returned to school and more highly regarded freshmen than ever made it to campus.
5. Fall ball in some form
From program to program, fall practice looked a little different. Some teams got in and got out quickly, others got a late start and others had to stop and start based on Covid-19 contact tracing protocols. But across the sport, players and coaches were just grateful to be together back on the field.
6. Kumar Rocker
Kumar Rocker will, in all likelihood, be entering his final season playing college baseball in 2021, so it’s important that we appreciate him while he’s competing at this level. Not only is he arguably the best pitcher in college baseball, but he’s also the most famous player in the sport after his sensational NCAA Tournament performance in 2019 that helped Vanderbilt win the national championship and earned him the CWS Most Outstanding Player award.
7. The work of the ABCA Diversity Committee
College baseball has long struggled to bring diversity into the sport, both among players and coaches. But, now, the American Baseball Coaches Association’s Diversity Committee, chaired by Southern coach Kerrick Jackson, is starting to attack the issue head on. The group has formed the Frank Robinson Baseball Coaches Association to provide professional development and help identify qualified minority candidates for job openings.
8. Get In The Game
A conversation this summer between Wake Forest coach Tom Walter and his former player Kevin Jordan led to the pair creating Get In The Game, a nonprofit educational program "to educate, inspire and empower young people to take action and create change in their communities." Their work to create meaningful change in communities is exciting and inspiring, in a year that needed a little of both.
9. College baseball available to watch online
College baseball is all over television and streaming services during the season, but it’s also never been easier to find video of the sport in other ways. YouTube is a treasure trove of classic games, and this fall, scrimmages and fall World Series games were all over the internet, available for college baseball-hungry fans to check in on their team.
10. More automatic bids going to regular-season champs
Conference tournaments are fun, but let’s be honest, oftentimes the automatic bid out of one-bid leagues ends up going not to the best or most talented team in the conference but the team that got hot at the right time. With more conferences scaling back or outright canceling their tournaments, more bids will go to regular-season champions, which could make for a more deserving, competitive NCAA Tournament field.
11. Return of Kevin Abel
Kevin Abel looked poised to embark on a decorated Oregon State career after he played a big role in helping the Beavers to a national title in 2018, but injuries kept that from happening as anticipated. Now healthy going into the season, Abel can make up for lost time and regain his place among the best pitchers in the country.
12. New facilities across the sport
Oklahoma State and Connecticut were set to open new stadiums in 2020, but they never got a chance to play in said stadiums because the season was halted before either could do so. Instead, they’ll break in new digs in 2021, to be joined by Florida, which was always set to open up Florida Ballpark this coming season. All three new stadiums are great additions to the college baseball landscape.
13. Bowling Green State’s reinstatement
Bowling Green in May became the first university to eliminate its baseball program amid the financial downturn in the wake of the pandemic. Quickly, however, the program’s alumni and supporters rushed into action and were within two weeks able to raise commitments for $1.5 million over the next three years. The fundraising was enough to convince the school to reverse its decision and reinstate the baseball program.
14. Summer ball getting college baseball going again
It was limited in scope, and there was no Team USA or Cape Cod League, but summer baseball was a palette cleanser after having college baseball taken away abruptly in March. It’s tough to draw too many conclusions from what we saw over the summer, but it was nice to have college baseball back in some form.
15. Alabama taking a step forward after several years in the SEC cellar
It has been a long road back to competitiveness in the SEC for Alabama, but it looks like the Tide has just about made it all the way back. They took huge steps forward in 2020, finishing the season 16-1, and with a young core coming back for next season, there’s no reason they can't improve once again.
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16. Premium prospects at mid-majors
The top college prospects for the 2021 draft aren’t just found at the blue blood programs in the sport, as there are several currently plying their trade at the mid and low-major level. Outfielders Ethan Wilson from South Alabama and Colton Cowser from Sam Houston State are both ranked among the top 10 college prospects in the nation. Lehigh righthander Mason Black is ranked in the top 30. Having elite players outside the major conferences makes the sport a little more fun.
17. Louisville’s position player group
Louisville might have the best position player group in the country. It’s a group that’s not only extremely skilled, but varied in its talents. In third baseman Alex Binelas, the Cardinals have a lineup cornerstone. In Henry Davis, they have a catcher with a cannon for an arm who can also hit for some power. In utilityman Lucas Dunn, they have a guy who can do a little bit of everything, and in outfielders Levi Usher and Luke Brown, they have two outfielders who can cover a ton of ground and swing the bat.
18. Creative coaches
College baseball coaches are used to thinking outside the box and rolling with the punches on things like roster construction and the draft, but 2020 threw even more at them than usual. They had to support their players through the unprecedented cancellation of the season, uncertainty throughout the summer and fall, and navigate unique roster movement caused by a shortened draft and extra eligibility. They’ve also had to cut budgets, navigate furloughs and recruit virtually.
19. Long Beach State’s bounceback
Long Beach State was one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 season, as it jumped out to a 10-5 start that included a series sweep of Wake Forest and a series win over Mississippi State. That was a very small sample, of course, but it would be huge for college baseball if the Dirtbags, one of the most iconic brands in the sport, were back to competing for championships.
20. Boston College potential breakout
Perhaps no team in college baseball is prepared to make a leap as big as the one Boston College appears ready to make. Led by three potential first-round picks in infielder Cody Morissette, outfielder Sal Frelick and righthander Mason Pelio, the Eagles are extremely talented and could be a contender in the ACC.
It’s becoming more and more common for premium players to forego all or part of their senior year of high school to enroll early in college. Last year brought two outstanding early enrollees to college in Arkansas infielder Robert Moore and Virginia lefthander Nate Savino, both of which quickly established themselves with Omaha contenders. They will be must-watch in 2021 as second-year freshmen.
22. A banner crop of college outfield prospects
The depth and quality of pitching in college baseball will be apparent all spring long and it will get plenty of hype before the 2021 draft. But the class of outfielders should not be overlooked. With the likes of Sam Houston State’s Colton Cowser, Florida’s Jud Fabian, Boston College’s Sal Frelick, Florida State’s Robby Martin, Louisville’s Levi Usher and South Alabama’s Ethan Wilson—to name several—in the first-round mix, it could be a banner year for college outfielders.
23. Louisiana Tech’s rebuild after the tornado
A deadly tornado touched down in Ruston, La., April 25 last year, doing significant damage to Louisiana Tech’s J.C. Love Field. The Bulldogs were forced to play home games at Ruston High the rest of the way and would have played in a number of different locations for home games in 2020. Louisiana Tech will now open the rebuilt “Love Shack” in 2021 to play true home games, and that’s worth celebrating.
24. Two-sport standouts
Two-sport athletes are nothing new in college baseball but the 2021 season will showcase a particularly interesting group, headlined by Mississippi outfielder Jerrion Ealy and Louisiana State outfielder Maurice Hampton, Jr. Others to watch include Michigan State’s Adam Berghorst, the rare defensive end/righthander and Iowa outfielder/first baseman Connor McCaffery, who pulls off the even more rare basketball/baseball combination.
25. Itchy Burts
The patron saint of great college baseball names, Itchy Burts will be back for one more season with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in 2021, and that’s great news for the Islanders and college baseball fans everywhere. More than just a fun name, Burts is a career .337 hitter and one of the most accomplished and experienced players in the Southland Conference.