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Three Strikes: Georgia Tech Rambles On, AAC Postseason Race

Brant Hurtercourtesy
Georgia Tech LHP Brant Hurter (Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech)

Georgia Tech has already proven that it is a very good team this season. Its 10-5 record is the best in the ACC Coastal Division and is only a half-game behind the 10-4 mark of Notre Dame, which owns the best record in the conference overall.

The Yellow Jackets are also the only team to take a series off No. 6 Louisville, currently the highest-ranked team in the ACC. They lost a series to upstart Pittsburgh at home, but have otherwise handled their business thus far.

“I think we’ve been very competitive,” coach Danny Hall said. “I think our league is really strong top to bottom, (and) I think three of our series have been road series and to win every road series is always good. We stubbed our toe at home against Pittsburgh, but I think we’ve beaten some really good teams.”

Some of the reasons Georgia Tech is in this position are obvious. As is typically the case on The Flats, this lineup can mash. It's hitting .304/.391/.488 as a team with 51 doubles (tied for seventh in the country) and 23 home runs in 20 games.

Returning players like first baseman Drew Compton (.347/.432/.613), shortstop Luke Waddell (.341/.426/.541), outfielder Tres Gonzalez (.323/.489/.508) and second baseman Austin Wilhite (.310/.369/.379) are all having nice seasons, but a couple of newcomers have also played huge roles.

One is Vanderbilt transfer third baseman Justyn-Henry Malloy, who is hitting .338/.447/.597. At Vanderbilt, his plate discipline really stood out in small samples, as he walked more than he struck out in a Commodores uniform. That has continued at Georgia Tech with 15 walks compared to 11 strikeouts, but he has also added four home runs, good for a tie for second on the team, with his power being something of a surprise even to the coaching staff.

The other impactful newcomer is freshman catcher Kevin Parada, whose numbers have made him an early favorite for national freshman of the year honors. He’s hitting .410/.459/.679 with a team-leading eight doubles. Hall knew his freshman backstop was good, but wouldn’t have guessed he’d be quite this successful this quickly.

“I don’t think anybody saw him hitting .400 (and) hitting three-hole,” Hall said. “We thought he was a really, really good player, but he’s better than what I even thought he was, let’s put it that way.”

The Yellow Jackets have also gotten good starting pitching at the front of the rotation. Lefthander Brant Hurter has been steady as the Friday starter. In 31.1 innings, he has a 3.45 ERA and 38 strikeouts. He had a tough start against Louisville where he gave up seven runs in 1.2 innings, but in each of his other five starts, he’s allowed two or fewer runs.

Fifth-year junior righthander Andy Archer, a reliever prior to this season who has also dealt with several injuries in his career, has been even better in the Saturday spot. He’s 4-1 with a 1.82 ERA, 37 strikeouts and a .200 opponent batting average in 34.2 innings. In his last two starts against Wake Forest and Duke, he has thrown a combined 14 scoreless innings with 17 strikeouts. The Duke start, an eight-inning, nine-strikeout performance, was his best in a Georgia Tech uniform.

“It was his longest outing, and what people have to understand is that this is the first year he’s been a starter, even though he’s been here a long time between his injuries and us having him in the bullpen early in his career," Hall said. "So, it’s the first time he’s started. I think he’s a lot like Brant in that each start he’s getting, he’s getting more and more comfortable, getting used to it.”

But just as easy as it is to see why Georgia Tech is a very good team, it’s also clear why Georgia Tech is not a complete team as it stands today.

For one, it has not been good defensively to this point, as evidenced by its .961 fielding percentage, which came out of the weekend 215th in the country.

But on that front, there are signs of improvement. The Yellow Jackets didn’t make an error on the way to winning the Duke series, and they haven’t had a multi-error game since the finale of the series loss to Pitt on March 14, when nine of the Panthers’ 18 runs were unearned thanks to three Georgia Tech miscues.

What has continued to be an issue is the bullpen. Georgia Tech has 11 pitchers who have made four or more appearances in relief and just two of them have ERAs better than 4.61.

One is the team’s closer, righthander Zach Maxwell, whose fastball averages better than 95 mph and has been up to 99 this season. He has a 2.89 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 9.1 innings. The other is lefthander Josiah Siegel, who has been a bit of a pleasant surprise to the coaching staff so far. He didn’t make an appearance this season until the calendar flipped to March, but since then, he’s held opponents to five hits and two earned runs in eight innings of work.

Talent-wise, lefthander Luke Bartnicki is the best the Georgia Tech bullpen has outside of Maxwell. He’s been inconsistent this season, as shown by his 4.61 ERA, but he’s also had his moments, such as throwing five combined scoreless innings in two appearances in the Duke series.

“I think Bartnicki and Maxwell are two elite arms, one lefthanded, one righthanded, late in games” Hall said. “Both of those guys, I thought, threw real well this weekend (against Duke). We’re probably looking for just more guys (to step up), whether it’s left (or) right in those middle innings if we have to go to somebody.”

In practical terms, this shortcoming has kept Georgia Tech from finishing weekends as well as it otherwise would, with the bullpen issues exacerbated by the fact that it isn’t getting deep starts from lefthander Sam Crawford (2-2, 4.91) on Sundays to the same degree that it’s getting deep starts from Hurter and Archer.

A close shave in the Sunday win to clinch the series against Louisville, the Sunday loss in the Pitt series and the Sunday loss against Duke were all games where the Yellow Jackets had trouble stopping the bleeding.

To be fair, injuries really haven’t helped the situation. Righthander Jackson Finley, who pitched in five games this season, will miss the rest of the campaign with a torn UCL. Highly-touted freshman righthander Marquis Grissom Jr. has also yet to appear this season, although Hall says he’s likely just a few weeks away from doing so. And on top of that, the ACC limiting teams to 50 games has also taken away some midweek contests that would normally be proving grounds for younger pitchers against softer competition.

But with all that said, if Georgia Tech is going to compete to get to the College World Series for the first time since 2006, which its talent level and high ranking suggest is an achievement very much on the table, it will have to be able to bank on its bullpen more than it has to this point of the season.

The good news is that everything else about the team is good enough that the Yellow Jackets don’t really have to have it figured out right away, especially if the improvements in team defense over the last two weeks hold. The lineup is good enough to win slugfests with just about anyone, and the Yellow Jackets can depend on Hurter and Archer to give them two quality starts most weekends. Again, this is a very good team and that will buy it some time to become the best version of itself.

“That’s ultimately the goal,” Hall said of lining things up to prepare for the postseason. “You’re obviously caught up in each series and each game. You’re trying to figure out who to pitch and what to do in those games, but big picture, if you keep improving, which I think we will, you’re always looking down the road (at) let’s be hitting on all cylinders when it comes time for May and June.”

The version of Georgia Tech that we’ve seen so far is a good enough version to keep the team near the top of the ACC, which in turn will put it in position to host when the field of 64 is announced. It’s what it does from there that will reveal how much progress it has made in shoring up what has ailed it so far.

Tough Going in the American Athletic Conference

Save for East Carolina, which has earned its place in the top 10 with a 17-5 record, the first six weeks of the season have not been particularly kind to the American Athletic Conference.

Just two teams, East Carolina and Wichita State, are more than one game above .500 as the league enters conference play this weekend, and some of the presumed contenders for the conference crown alongside the Pirates haven’t played the part so far.

Central Florida came into the season ranked and won a series at Mississippi, a top-five team in the country and the No. 1 team at the time, but it has also lost three series already this season, including getting swept at home by Liberty.

Tulane came just a couple of plays away from winning a series against Mississippi State the same weekend UCF took down Ole Miss, but it has won just two of its six series overall.

There is still much baseball to be played, but it’s not too early to begin wondering about the possibility that the conference is a one-bid league. That might seem unfathomable given the strength of the league, but the numbers currently aren’t in its favor.

It’s still a touch early to fixate on RPI too much, and because there has been much less cross-conference competition this season, there is a debate to be had about how useful the metric is this season anyway, but it can give us a high-level view of where things stand.

From a conference perspective, the American is currently seventh in conference RPI, a handful of spots behind where it typically is. And while there is still time to improve its standing, it will have to do so without the benefit of impact nonconference games, as the AAC just finished its entire slate of midweek games for the season on Tuesday. On its face, all of that is bad news for postseason hopes, but let’s look for comparisons with recent seventh-place leagues, just in the event that ranking sticks.

In three of the last four seasons, the seventh-ranked RPI conference was the Big Ten. In 2016, that resulted in three teams in the field, with the other two seasons (2017 and 2019) resulting in five, although it would have been four both times had it not been for Iowa and Ohio State, respectively, stealing bids as conference tournament champs.

That should be taken as good news for the AAC’s prospects because it shows a willingness by the committee to put that many teams in from a conference that isn't in the top five in RPI. But that’s a tricky comparison because there are caveats galore.

For one, as a league with just eight members, the AAC isn’t getting five teams into the field even in its best season. By percentage, five Big Ten teams into the field is roughly the equivalent of three in the AAC.

Second, it’s important to note that there can be differences in the reasons why a league is seventh in RPI.

In the Big Ten’s case, it typically has a couple of teams with RPIs above 200 and at least a couple of others nearing that range, which serve as anchors on the collective RPI. The RPI settles where it does, though, because the Big Ten counteracts that with at least five or six teams that are in the top 75 or so.

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In the case of this year’s AAC, meanwhile, it ranks seventh in RPI not because it has multiple teams dragging it down and just as many propping it up, but because everyone except ECU is somewhere in the middle. After Tuesday’s games, every team but ECU was packed in somewhere between 87 and 186 in the metric.

So perhaps the case of 2018’s seventh-ranked RPI conference is a better comparison. That was the ASUN, which got two teams into the field, including a host in Stetson. That season, Stetson emerged as a host candidate as it put together a gaudy overall record.

Jacksonville got in as a second team by simply taking care of business against every team other than Stetson in the ASUN, finishing second in the conference and coasting in on the RPI high tide created by the Hatters.

It’s very easy to see the AAC recreating that scenario, with ECU playing the role of Stetson and a team like UCF playing the role of Jacksonville, with the early-season series win over Ole Miss serving as something that really puts the Knights over the top.

The best news of all for the AAC, though, might be that traditional metrics like RPI won’t be as effective a tool this season, leaving the committee to lean on things like perception of the strength of a conference, the eye test and regional advisory committees to fill in gaps. Someone is going to finish second in the AAC, and there’s a good chance that the team that does will do so with an impressive league record. And maybe that will be enough to get a team from a traditionally strong conference into the field.

But that just serves to illustrate the hole that the conference is already in, because it’s not in a place where we can project teams to make the field of 64 based on results we’ve seen thus far, but rather, we’re looking for teams that fit the bill of being able to take advantage of the strength of the best team in the conference in order to prop up an otherwise mediocre resume.

Taking a Look at College Baseball’s Home Run Leaders the Last Two Seasons

Coming into the 2021 season, college baseball was largely devoid of recognizable names among its top returning sluggers, and there was good reason for that.

Many of them were selected in the 2019 draft, including Vanderbilt’s J.J. Bleday and California’s Andrew Vaughn, and the 2020 season was stopped short of allowing that next class to put up another season’s worth of monster numbers. Then, the 2020 draft meant the departure of players like Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson and Arkansas’ Heston Kjerstad.

But now, one look at the home run leaderboards from 2020 and 2021 show that a few players are coming together as a new group of home run hitters poised to define this era of sluggers in college baseball.

Below are the players who ranked high on the list nationally in home runs in 2020 and appear on that same leaderboard this season. Note that the 2021 home runs stats are through games on Sunday, March 28.

Player2021 HR (rank)2020 HR (rank)
Wes Clarke, South Carolina13 (1)8 (t3)
Niko Kavadas, Notre Dame10 (t3)7 (t8)
Brock Anderson, Murray State8 (t14)8 (t3)
Jake MacNichols, Santa Clara8 (t14)7 (t8)
T.J. Collett, Kentucky8 (t14)5 (t36)

There isn’t a sure-fire first-round pick in this group like there was with Vaughn or Torkelson in the last two classes, so it’s entirely possible, and perhaps likely, that a player that currently lacks a multi-year track record of being high on the home run leaderboard, like Texas Tech’s Jace Jung or Georgia Tech’s Kevin Parada, ends up being the power bat that defines the 2021 or 2022 seasons in college baseball. It also could be a player like Memphis’ Hunter Goodman, who could go on a torrid run at any time.

With that said, the above table of top returning sluggers provides a fascinating variety of player archetypes in the sport. In Clarke and Kavadas, you have arguably the two most feared true power hitters in college baseball right now and players who have made talent evaluators stand up and take notice, despite defensive limitations.

Anderson is the classic small-conference slugger who has quietly put up impressive numbers in the shadows for several years. MacNichols actually had the distinction of being college baseball’s leading career home run hitter going into 2021, with 37. And Collett is a veteran heart-of-the-order bopper who has been consistent since stepping on campus but just happens to not be as famous as some of his SEC counterparts.

As much fun as it would be to have Torkelson back in college baseball for another season, the beauty of the situation is that it has given us the chance to get to know a whole new class of sluggers.

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