Three Strikes: Early Mid-Major At-Large Candidates, Transfer Update, Ross Dunn

Image credit: UConn RHP Enzo Stefanoni (Photo courtesy of UConn)

Early Mid-Major At-Large Candidates to Watch

It’s still a touch too early to live and die with movement in the RPI, although it’s not as premature as you might think. It’s probably smart to wait until every conference has a few conference games under its belt to draw too many conclusions, but five weeks into the season, there’s already quite a bit baked into that data. 

But regardless, what you can certainly do with the data we have now is project a few teams as possible RPI darlings based on wins they’ve already put on the board, especially when you consider the way that mid-major RPI darlings often manifest. 

It’s rare that a mid-major team makes a huge climb in the RPI. It can be done if you play a daunting midweek schedule or if you really run roughshod over the rest of your league, but typically, mid-majors who end up as at-large candidates begin the season high in RPI and hang on the rest of the way, suggesting that there’s a good chance that the mid-majors we’re looking at near the top of the RPI now are the ones we’ll be targeting as potential at-large teams come May. 

Here are a few teams, in alphabetical order, from outside the traditional power structure in college baseball (Power Five + the American, Big West and C-USA) that have already done some heavy lifting toward earning at-large bids and have an early RPI rank that suggests they can pull it off. Not all of them will get there, but look for many of these teams to pop up in the bracket when it’s all said and done. 

Connecticut: UConn feels like a power program in college baseball given its history, but in the Big East, at-large bids aren’t guaranteed. A win against Louisville during Opening Weekend should age extremely well, and there are already a whole host of potential top 100 RPI wins on the board, including over South Florida, Pepperdine (twice) and Southern California. The Huskies also always benefit from the high number of road games they play each year. The downside risk for UConn comes from not having a ton of high-RPI games scheduled once league play begins and midweek games become more regionalized. We got a preview of this on Tuesday, when UConn dropped 12 places in the RPI after one loss to UC San Diego, although it was still 22 in RPI as of Wednesday morning. Simply put, bad losses in the back half of the season have to be avoided, but as good as UConn has been this season, it’s easy to imagine the Huskies putting up the necessary gaudy record to be an at-large team if they don’t get the auto bid. 

Dallas Baptist: DBU always puts together a strong resume, and so far, 2022 is no different. A sweep of Southern Mississippi should be a big help, and an upcoming series with Maryland, a top-20 RPI team as of Monday morning, is another big opportunity. Midweek games will be a huge key for the Patriots. They have already played Texas Tech twice, plus Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (all losses), and they still have midweek games scheduled with Louisiana Tech, Baylor, Texas Christian (twice), Texas A&M and one more crack at both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The interesting thing about DBU, though, is that whether it can host is a better question right now than whether it will merely be an at-large team. It’s currently the No. 1 team in the country in RPI, and while that likely won’t last as it gets into Missouri Valley play, it portends good things about the Patriots’ RPI buoyancy this season. If DBU dominates the MVC, which is on the table, and starts winning some of its high-end midweek games, being a host isn’t out of the question. 

Georgia Southern: Sitting at 11 in the RPI Wednesday morning, Georgia Southern has benefitted from playing a tough schedule so far, with three of its opponents currently in the top 10 in RPI in Tennessee (three games), Georgia Tech and Georgia (two games). And while you might be inclined to see a 2-4 record in those six games as a negative, the RPI sees it as six high-end games—remember that even losses to top-notch RPI teams are positives on the overall RPI profile—and two elite wins as good as any a mid-major team has captured so far this season. It also helps Georgia Southern that the Sun Belt is the No. 6 RPI conference in the country right now, meaning that there are much fewer potential RPI landmines in conference play than there have been in past seasons. The Eagles are in a very good place from a metrics standpoint. 

Gonzaga: The Zags are currently inside the top 10 in RPI and look poised to more or less do what they did last season, when they were one of the last teams to miss the hosting cut. A series sweep of Oklahoma State on the road might end up being the best result on the board for any mid-major program, and like DBU, midweek games will also play a big role. Gonzaga already has quality midweek wins over California and Missouri, and it still has two games scheduled with Oregon State and Brigham Young, plus one more with Oregon, all of which should be good RPI games. Like UConn, a road-heavy schedule will also help. Gonzaga’s first home game was Tuesday against Oregon, a 9-5 loss, and its first home series isn’t until the first weekend in April against Pepperdine. If Gonzaga continues to win games as it has, an at-large bid is well within reach, and hosting can’t be tossed aside as a possibility, especially after the Zags came so close last season. 

Grand Canyon: Wins over Arizona and Oregon State are great building blocks for an at-large resume, and with an RPI sitting at 25 right now, GCU is in the discussion, but it feels like the Lopes are going to have to work hard to keep their resume together. In the new-look WAC, GCU has 15 conference games scheduled against teams with RPIs worse than 200. If it can avoid losing many of those games and pick up more wins against Arizona, Texas Tech and Stanford, against which it has six more games this season, an at-large bid is in play. It just feels like a very narrow line to walk. 

Liberty: A top-30 RPI team, Liberty will have its chances for an at-large bid buoyed all season by a series win over Florida on Opening Weekend, and a midweek win over North Carolina should also do heavy lifting. Future midweek games against Duke (twice), Virginia, UNC and Wake Forest will be important, especially as it’s not clear if the ASUN is going to be friend or foe when it comes to RPI this season. Liberty is in the better of the two divisions in the league when it comes to RPI, and Kennesaw State currently has a top-30 RPI, but the staying power of KSU specifically and the rest of the ASUN more generally remains to be seen. 

San Diego: The WCC feels strong enough to get a second team into the field (along with Gonzaga), and although Brigham Young and Portland both have RPI numbers in their favor as of this moment, San Diego’s resume feels like the one with the most potential staying power. A series win over Oregon to begin the season looks better with each passing week, as does the fact that it managed to sneak away with one win in its series loss to DBU. A series win over GCU also has a chance of being beneficial to both teams as a resume builder. If those three opponents maintain their place in the RPI, that’s six high-end wins right there, and USD still has a crack at Gonzaga to end the regular season. With some potential RPI landmines to come in WCC play, the Toreros might end up on a white knuckle ride to try to finish in at-large position, but they’re in good shape right now with an RPI inside the top 20. 

Texas State: Texas State, in addition to Georgia Southern, is in a strong position to help the Sun Belt get two teams into regionals for just the second time in the last five tournaments. The Bobcats are a combined 3-2 against Texas and Arizona, with all three of those wins coming on the road, helping their RPI sit just inside the top 30. Midweek games against Baylor and Texas A&M still to come also stand to help, but perhaps the most important factor in Texas State’s staying power is that the SBC currently has seven teams inside the top 100 in RPI, meaning that nearly the entirety of the Bobcats’ conference schedule is set up as potential RPI-positive or at worst RPI-neutral games. The Sun Belt champ hosting a regional, especially if it’s Georgia Southern or Texas State, is on the table. 

Others to monitor include Kennesaw State, Illinois State, Mercer and Southeast Missouri State, as well as the aforementioned BYU and Portland. KSU has the best RPI of this bunch (30), but it has work to do in terms of putting impact wins on the board. Similarly, Illinois State has its RPI working for it (36), but it’s 7-8 overall right now. 

Mercer has helpful wins against Florida State and Georgia Tech, and is in good shape right now with a 33 RPI, but it has a lot of RPI landmines to avoid the rest of the way, and that’s always a difficult path to walk. Southeast Missouri State is just outside the top 50 and has the most precarious path of the three, with the OVC promising to hurt more than help in terms of RPI, but it has already banked a road series win over DBU and it has a series at Oklahoma State still ahead. That provides a path for the Redhawks, perhaps, even if it’s a narrow one. You also can’t count out a third Sun Belt team as long as it’s as high in the conference RPI standings as it is, and that could open the door for any number of teams, including South Alabama and Troy. 

Updating Top Transfer Performances

After the first weekend of the season in this space, we took a look at how the top 10 players in our Top 100 Incoming Transfers list performed in their debuts with new programs. 

Now that we’re five weeks into the season, let’s take a look at transfer performance again, this time selecting the 10 best performers among the list of 100, in the order of where they were ranked on the list this past offseason.

Jacob Berry, Louisiana State (No. 1): The top-ranked transfer going into the season has lived up to expectations, hitting .349/.421/.699 with a team-leading eight home runs as part of a dynamic LSU lineup. 

Jack Moss, Texas A&M (No. 3): Moss has been an extraordinarily tough out in the Texas A&M lineup this season, as he’s hitting .397/.472/.493 with almost three times as many walks (13) as strikeouts (five). The power has been slower to come along, but he hit his first homer of the season Tuesday against Rice, so perhaps that’s a sign of things to come. 

Sonny DiChiara, Auburn (No. 14): DiChiara has been a success at Auburn on two fronts. For one, he’s mashing, with a .471/.618/1.039 slash line, 18 walks compared to five strikeouts and seven home runs. But he’s also become something of a cult hero with his big personality and catchy walk-on music that Auburn fans get into each time he comes to the plate. 

Dominic Johnson, Kansas State (No. 27): The best bat in what has been a solid Kansas State lineup, Johnson is hitting .468/.523/.714 with 13 doubles, which placed him second nationally coming out of last weekend, and he’s 4-for-5 in stolen bases. 

Chase Dollander, Tennessee (No. 39): Dollander has been just what Tennessee needs in the rotation, especially in light of being without Blade Tidwell. He has a 3.38 ERA, a 44-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .182 opponent batting average in 24 innings. His 16.5 strikeouts per nine innings led the country after his last start. 

– Chandler Simpson, Georgia Tech (No. 52): In a lineup primarily composed of sluggers, Simpson gives Georgia Tech a different dynamic with his ability to get on base and cause problems for the opponent with his speed. He’s hitting .468/.564/.565 with 13 walks compared to six strikeouts and 10 stolen bases. 

– Darren Williams, Kentucky (No. 71): Williams has been the most effective pitcher on the Kentucky staff so far. He’s allowed just one run in 18.2 innings—good for a 0.48 ERA—with 20 strikeouts and five walks. 

Jacob Meador, Dallas Baptist (No. 75): Meador has been about as good as it gets in the DBU rotation, putting up a 1.35 ERA, 33 strikeouts compared to 13 walks and a .163 opponent batting average in 26.2 innings. 

Miles Simington, South Alabama (No. 79): Simington has been good enough that he was covered in this space just last week. He’s hitting .455/.500/.636 with just six strikeouts in 66 at-bats.  

Eduardo Malinowski, Virginia Tech (No. 95): Despite being one of the last players included on the list of top transfers, Malinowski has been among the most impactful. He’s hitting .352/.455/.817 with nine home runs, which has him among the national leaders. 

Ross Dunn, the Other Florida State Lefthander

It’s easy for a pitcher to get overlooked when he’s in a rotation alongside All-American lefthanders like Parker Messick and Bryce Hubbart, but Florida State sophomore lefthander Ross Dunn has been so good that he’s forcing people to take notice of him. 

In five starts, he has a 1.42 ERA, a .161 opponent batting average and 45 strikeouts in 25.1 innings, which translates to 15.99 strikeouts per nine innings, good for third in college baseball. 

With that kind of performance, Dunn would be a Friday starter for a vast majority of teams in college baseball, including a good portion of teams in power conferences. In FSU’s loaded rotation, however, it makes him the Sunday guy, even as his ERA and opponent batting average are better than the numbers put up by Messick and Hubbart so far, as is his strikeouts per nine rate, although all three Seminoles weekend starters rank in the top 16 in that category nationally after last weekend. 

Dunn’s success isn’t just a function of guile and deception, either. He’s got plenty of stuff. His fastball has averaged over 92 mph this season and touched 96, and as you can imagine with his strikeout numbers, his whiff rates are through the roof on his offspeed pitches. 

His slider, which he throws in the low 80s, has a greater than 65% whiff rate, while his firm changeup thrown in the mid 80s has a whiff rate north of 50%. 

If you’re looking to nitpick what he’s done this season, you may be inclined to latch on to the fact that he’s only averaging about five innings per start, but that’s not really a fair criticism when you look under the surface. 

After throwing 2.1 innings in his first start against James Madison and four innings the next weekend against Samford, Dunn has carried a heavy load against the best teams FSU has played. Against California, Wake Forest and North Carolina State, he’s thrown six, seven and six innings, respectively. 

If Dunn is this kind of pitcher all season and Messick and Hubbart continue what they’ve done so far in 2022, FSU has three workhorses on its hands, and that kind of embarrassment of riches typically bodes well for a deep postseason run. 

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