Ten College Baseball Programs On The Rise During Abbreviated 2020 Season
The cancellation of the 2020 season stopped every team in its tracks. Whether a team was having a breakout season or was off to a tough start, what they can all agree on is that they wish there was more baseball to be played.
But for those teams that came out of the gate hot, stopping the 2020 season short hurts even more, as they’ll never get to know what could have been.
Here are 10 teams that were on the upswing during an abbreviated 2020 season that ended up having dreams of more cut short.
The second-to-last undefeated team in the country, the Crimson Tide finished the season 16-1, with the only loss in a 3-2 game against Lipscomb in what turned out to be the last weekend of the season.
Ultimately, how improved Alabama proved to be in 2020 was going to come down to how well it played against SEC competition and now we won’t get to find out. Its non-conference slate wasn’t all that grueling, but it also wasn’t full of walkovers, so we have some evidence that the Tide would have been more competitive than in years past.
With 2020 wiped away, Alabama fans can start to get excited for the future. Coach Brad Bohannon has brought in back-to-back Top 15 recruiting classes and that young talent was starting to pay off for the Tide. Lefthander Connor Prielipp was building an early case to be the 2020 Freshman of the Year and he fronted an exciting, young pitching staff. Much of Alabama’s core will be back in 2021 and should be ready to fully take a step forward.
The most anticipated season for the Arizona State program in a long time was cut short before it even really got started in 2020. Sure, the Sun Devils got off to a bit of a sluggish start, but they had picked it up in recent weeks and all of their big-picture goals were still very much in view.
After losing three times in its first five games, ASU had lost just once since to finish the season 13-4. From an individual player perspective, the lost season will also rob everyone of getting to see what Spencer Torkelson can do and will likely see him fall three home runs shy of breaking the program’s career home run record, which has been held for 42 years by Bob Hoerner.
The 2021 season is much more up in the air for ASU than it is for some other teams. Many of its best players are elite draft-eligible prospects whose draft stock is unlikely to be affected by the uncertainty surrounding the draft. As such, the Sun Devils stand to lose a good portion of their top players without having been able to play out a full season with them all as upperclassmen.
The Knights were rolling in 2020. It was easy enough to dismiss a 4-0 start against Siena, but everyone sat up and took notice after they went on the road and swept a series at Auburn and then kept it rolling by winning three out of four against an improved Cal State Northridge team.
It would have taken UCF continuing to win at an impressive clip, but with other American Athletic Conference teams like Wichita State and Tulane also off to what might be considered unexpectedly fast starts, which would have boosted the overall strength of the league and everyone’s RPI, the door was open for the Knights to host a regional.
With a veteran club, there are some roster questions to be answered prior to 2021, but with Greg Lovelady’s ability to recruit at the high school and junior college level and the momentum from an abbreviated 2020, things are looking up in Orlando.
Long Beach State
There were few early-season stories better than that of Long Beach State, a 14-win team in 2019 that was 10-5, No. 12 in the Top 25 and already building a quality postseason resume.
Series wins against California, Wake Forest, Mississippi State and Xavier put the Dirtbags on the short list of best resumes through four weeks of play, opening the door for them to host if they were to run through and win the Big West.
Like Alabama, the disappointment over this season ending early should be mitigated by optimism about where this program is heading. Even in a small sample, it’s clear that year one of the Eric Valenzuela era was a huge success, and with a relatively young team on board, the 2021 season could be just as good.
It was so far, so good for the Irish under first-year coach Link Jarrett, and it’s not just that they went 8-2 against non-conference competition. They also went on the road the first weekend of ACC play and swept North Carolina.
Also worthy of optimism was a .302 team batting average. Notre Dame had its fair share of struggles offensively over the previous couple of years, but under Jarrett, who always had good offenses at UNC Greensboro, things were looking up.
A huge test would have come last weekend with a road series against Louisville. We would have learned a lot about the Irish in that series, but already Notre Dame had done enough to start dreaming about its first regionals appearance since 2015. While we’re left to wonder what could have been, the Irish faithful should be very bullish on their team’s prospects moving forward.
The Sooners were very much on the fast track to competing at the top of the Big 12 and hosting a regional in 2020. Righthander Cade Cavalli and lefthander Levi Prater were as good as expected, and righthander Dane Acker, who threw a no-hitter against Louisiana State at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic, gave Oklahoma one of the best rotations in the country. The Sooners also showcased a much-improved offense.
In addition, their postseason resume was already outstanding. It was still too early to read too much into the RPI, but the Sooners were 9-2 against the Top 50 in that metric without having played a conference game.
There are some draft-eligible players, led by Cavalli, who are likely to be taken in a round that will make it difficult to pass up signing, so the 2021 Sooners could have some rebuilding to do.
2020 Sun Belt Conference Baseball Stock Watch
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Much like Long Beach State, Pepperdine’s hot start to the season was one of the best stories of the first month. The Waves not only looked like a regional team, but their start was also setting up the West Coast Conference as a multi-bid league.
If their own RPI and that of the WCC as a whole had held or improved, the Waves might have had an outside shot to host a regional. Although everyone will have the opportunity to come back for the 2021 season, it’s not as cut and dry for the Waves as it is for teams with extraordinarily young rosters.
Pepperdine has some key seniors that will have to make a choice as to whether they want to extend their college careers, plus talented players like redshirt sophomore righthander Cooper Chandler and junior outfielder Billy Cook, who will likely have an opportunity to begin their pro careers. How much attrition the Waves suffer on the roster will have a lot to do with how they bounce back in 2021.
Even though the season ended prematurely, what Santa Clara accomplished in 2020 is worth celebrating. After winning just 12 games all of last season, the Broncos equaled that win total this season in just 17 games.
It’s also worth noting that they didn’t do it against the softest possible schedule they could assemble, either. They had four-game series with Georgia and Western Athletic Conference favorite Sacramento State, plus midweek games against Stanford and Cal Poly. They would have had a lot to prove in WCC play, but the fact that they had already set themselves up to be in the postseason conversation is impressive in its own right.
As a team not loaded with elite prospects for the draft, barring defections from upperclassmen looking to begin their post-baseball lives, there is plenty of reason to believe that Santa Clara could keep it going in 2021.
Tulane finished the season 15-2 with impressive team statistics, as it hit .303/.400/.494 and posted a 3.06 team ERA. Righthander Braden Olthoff led the way on the mound and gave up one earned run in 28 innings with 47 strikeouts and just three walks.
The metrics were also on the right track for the first postseason appearance for the Green Wave under Travis Jewitt, with a 27 RPI in the early going and a 3-0 record against the RPI Top 50.
Their schedule through four weeks didn’t end up being as difficult as it looked on paper, thanks in large part to Cal State Fullerton’s struggles, so earning some high-quality wins moving forward would have been key. In that way, it’s disappointing that the Wave’s series against Long Beach State set to begin the day after the College World Series was canceled didn’t happen.
Continuing the theme of teams off to a good start under first-year coaches, the Shockers were 13-2 under Eric Wedge. Both of those losses came in an Opening Weekend series loss at Northwestern State. Since then, they had ripped off 12 straight wins, with a sweep of Louisiana Tech the most impressive item on the resume.
The early postseason indicators were also good. That impressive start had Wichita State in position to eye its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013 (which was later officially vacated). It would have had to keep up the hot start once American Athletic Conference play began, but it was on its way to building a strong RPI.
How well Wichita State bounces back with a similar performance to begin 2021 will have a lot to do with the decisions made by talented upperclassmen who might have opportunities to begin pro careers, especially on the mound.