This Year’s ‘Covid Seniors’ Saw College Baseball Transformed


Image credit: (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Next year, there will be a few remaining college baseball players representing the last remaining members of the “COVID classes.” But for the majority of 2020 freshmen who saw their (first) freshman season ended early because of the pandemic and for those who were freshmen in 2021, the end of the 2024 season will mark the end of their college careers. As they depart, they can truly say they saw—and survived—one of the most significant eras in college baseball history.

Changes? This group knew nothing but change.

Those COVID-freshmen arrived on campuses before the NCAA began allowing players to benefit financially from their names, images and likenesses (NIL).  They leave a system where some players make enough in NIL to classify themselves as walk-ons and allow other players on the team to receive scholarship money.

The transfer portal had also yet to become a dominant factor in college baseball. The class arrived in a system that did not guarantee eligibility for players who transferred from one Division I school to another. They leave with transfers freely allowed.

The 2020 freshmen showed up at school unaware the MLB Draft would never again be 40 rounds. Cut to five rounds in 2020 because of the pandemic, the draft became 20 rounds from 2021 onwards thanks to a new collective bargaining agreement.

If those 2020 freshmen turned down a pro contract out of high school, they did so in a baseball ecosystem that still included multiple rookie and short-season levels. Roster limits for MiLB teams were extremely lax. By 2021, more than 40 MiLB teams disappeared from affiliated baseball. The in-season roster limits for the minor leagues fell to 165 active players, which represented a 60 to 70 player reduction from 2019-2020 for some teams. So players are leaving college also knowing there are fewer opportunities to land a job in affiliated ball.

They also leave school as probably the most massive class college baseball has ever seen.

When these players were in high school in 2019, freshmen generally received about 16-17% of Division I at-bats. Sophomores received 22-23%, juniors 33-34% and seniors got around 27%.

The outgoing class, partly by the nature of it being a “double class” of 2020 and 2021 incoming freshmen, has blown up those percentages:

As freshman, this outgoing class took 19% of at-bats, the highest percentage of freshman at-bats from 2015 to 2024. When they were sophomores, they took 31% of at-bats, an eight percentage jump from normalcy, which again was the highest percentage.

As juniors in 2023, they took 37.4% of at-bats, the largest share any class had taken in any year from 2015-2023. And this year as seniors, they had 39.4% of at-bats. Not only is this the largest share of at-bats by any class in any year in the study, it’s a massive 12% jump in senior at-bats from where it was pre-pandemic.

The 2024 pitching numbers are similar, with seniors logging 34.2% of all innings. Juniors had 29.9% of innings, sophomores had 20.4% and freshmen had only 15.5%.

Now that COVID classes are graduating, it will be fascinating to see what becomes the new normal in terms of playing time distribution. It’s possible freshman will start to regain some of the at-bats they’ve lost to this massive senior class, but that’s not a sure bet. Since that massive 2021 freshman class became sophomores in 2022, the share of at-bats for freshmen has yet to top 13.3%. Before the pandemic, it was at 16% or more in every year from 2015-2019.

A similar trend has been seen for sophomores. Before the pandemic, sophomores hadn’t dipped below 21.6% of at-bats. Since the COVID class moved through its sophomore year in 2022, the share of sophomore at-bats has yet to top 20%.

These could be anomalies from such a massive class, but it’s also possible that the rise of the transfer portal has created a paradigm shift. If a freshman is less ready to contribute than an upperclassman acquired as a transfer, he may sit on the bench (or not be recruited at all). And if a school fears that it will lose underclassmen to transfers, there’s also less incentive to get them early playing time in hopes that it will pay off in following years.

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