Image credit: GCU SS Jacob Wilson (Photo courtesy of GCU)
Grand Canyon Continues Run as Model of Consistency
Grand Canyon is at it again.
The Lopes are 31-15 overall and 17-4 in the WAC, which is five games better than the second-place team in the West Division of the conference, Cal Baptist, and three games better than Sam Houston State, the top team in the Southwest Division.
“I like the makeup of the team, I like the chemistry, I like the way we’re staying relatively healthy,” said Grand Canyon coach Andy Stankiewicz.
GCU has been in this position enough that it almost feels old to see it atop the standings. In eight seasons as a member of the WAC, Grand Canyon has won three outright conference regular season championships and last season finished tied for the title with Cal Baptist before going on to win the WAC Tournament and securing its first-ever bid into the NCAA Tournament.
But as natural as it feels for Grand Canyon to have been this consistent as a member of the WAC, it’s still worth marveling at how it’s done it.
The Lopes were a Division I program between 1991-1998, but didn’t find much success and dropped down to Division II ahead of the 1999 campaign.
Over the next 15 seasons in Division II, GCU found moderate success here and there, but never quite seemed to fit in. It was a member of two different conferences, the California Collegiate Athletic Association and the PacWest, and also spent some time as an independent.
Finally, in 2013, Stankiewicz’s second season at GCU, a spark seemed to catch, just in time for the Lopes to make the move up. After going 27-23 overall and finishing third in the PacWest the year before, GCU won the PacWest in its final season as a member and made a run all the way to the Division II College World Series.
That team came back nearly in its entirety, which certainly set GCU up for success in its return to Division I, even if everyone involved knew the kind of jump it was making.
“We had a good foundation of players here already,” Stankiewicz said. “I coached at Arizona State prior (to coming to GCU) and went to Omaha two out of the three years I was there, so I had a pretty good feel for what we were going to be competing against.”
Still, history is littered with examples of successful Division II programs needing quite a bit of runway to get adjusted to Division I. In addition to a jump in competition level, the move also represents a jump in expenditures, facilities expectations, length of the season and a number of other things.
It can take some time for a program to find its footing in uncharted waters, but that wasn’t the case with Grand Canyon, which hit the ground running.
“We’ve got an administration here that’s tremendously supportive. They built a nice, beautiful stadium. We’ve got four full-size (batting) cages, we’ve got a turf half-field and we have weather,” Stankiewicz said of some of the advantages GCU had as it moved back to Division I. “We’re in a state with two other Division I programs that are two of the best in the history of the game. We got that, but at the same time, it’s just two (teams), and Arizona’s got a lot of good baseball players here.”
The 2021 regional appearance, so far, represents the crowning achievement of this building job. It was the product, to Stankiewicz’s point, of all the behind-the-scenes work to prepare for the Division I move, the program building being done during the four-year transition from 2014-2017 when GCU wasn’t eligible for postseason play and a well-rounded team coming together last season.
This year’s team went into the season having to replace key position players like catcher David Avitia, shortstop Channy Ortiz and center fielder Brock Burton and three of its four top starting pitchers from last season, including ace Pierson Ohl, and nevertheless it looks poised to run it back.
“We lost some pivotal players, but we’ve been able to hold onto some offense and our pitching has been pretty good,” Stankiewicz said.
The lineup is more physical than it was last season. Outfielder Tayler Aguilar’s 17 home runs are nine more than any GCU player had last season and are already more than any GCU player has had in a single season since the program moved back up to Division I. And as a whole, the team’s 53 homers have eclipsed the 2021 team’s 48.
Aguilar (.301/.364/.693), third baseman Juan Colato (.383/.412/.617) and shortstop Jacob Wilson (.356/.418/.600)—who is the second-toughest player to strike out in all of Division I—are among the most dangerous bats in a lineup hitting .306/.381/.480 as a group.
“The lineup is just kind of spread out a little bit. I think that’s one of the things you try to create (is) depth in your lineup so it’s not just one or two guys,” Stankiewicz said. “We try to build it so there’s four or five guys that hopefully put good at-bats together at any given time. We do have a little bit more thump, a little bit more physicality.”
The GCU pitching staff is like others before it in that it features a couple of very dependable relievers who can really shorten a game in lefthander Eli Ankeney (2.56, 31.2 IP) and righthander Vince Reilly (3.08 ERA, 10 SV) and a starting rotation of pitchers who throw strikes above all else.
Specifically, this rotation is led by righthander Nick Hull (5-1, 3.48), who had opportunities to play elsewhere as a grad transfer this season but chose to return to GCU, and freshman Daniel Avitia (5-4, 3.30), who had a choice of his own last offseason to attend GCU—located less than a mile from his high school, Alhambra High—or sign with the Cubs, which drafted him in the 19th round.
He chose the college route, and after initially bringing him along slowly this season, the righthander has taken to a role in the weekend rotation, where the Lopes project him to be a key cog for the next several years.
“It just felt like ‘let’s just kind of work him in slow,’ and (pitching) coach (Jon) Wente did a great job of helping him understand his role early on was just kind of out of the bullpen,” Stankiewicz said. “But the more we watched him we’re like ‘okay, how much longer can we do this? We can’t afford to not start him.’ So that’s to his credit. He just kept on throwing strikes.”
Winning the automatic bid is the surest way back to the postseason, but GCU has also put itself in position to perhaps get there via an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the WAC Tournament.
In addition to piling up wins in WAC play, the Lopes have scored impactful victories over Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona (twice), San Diego and Texas Tech (twice), helping their RPI climb all the way to 30 as of Wednesday morning, which would likely be good enough for a bid if the season ended today.
This Grand Canyon team checks a lot of boxes if you’re looking for a sleeper team to win a regional. It has a deep lineup with physicality, it has good frontline pitching and some depth on the staff, and perhaps most importantly, after going 0-2 in the Tucson Regional last year, it’s ready to write a better ending to what was already a pretty good story.
“The great part is we have some guys that tasted it last year,” Stankiewicz said. “They got a taste. They tasted the sweet and they tasted the sour at the end.”
Of course, it might be underselling it to call Grand Canyon a sleeper. This team is good, just like nearly every other Grand Canyon team that has competed in Division I this time around, and it seems just a matter of time before a breakthrough postseason run arrives.
Checking in on Top Transfers
Periodically throughout the season in this space, we’ve checked in on how some of the top transfers in college baseball have fared in their first (and in many cases, only) season at their destination program.
As we enter the home stretch of the regular season, let’s take a look at how the top 20 transfers from our offseason ranking have panned out.
- Jacob Berry, Louisiana State – Berry has been every bit as productive as anticipated at LSU. He’s hitting .377/.464/.680 with 15 home runs and more walks (21) than strikeouts (17). He leads the Tigers in all three slash line categories, home runs and is tied with Dylan Crews for the team lead in RBIs with 45.
- Adam Maier, Oregon – Oregon announced in April that Maier would miss the rest of the 2022 season with injury. The righthander is an intriguing prospect in this summer’s draft, but could also elect to return to Eugene next season.
- Jack Moss, Texas A&M – Moss is one of a number of effective transfers for Texas A&M. He leads the team in hitting with a .362 batting average and has a .362/.419/.508 slash line with 12 doubles, four homers and 35 RBIs.
- Micah Dallas, Texas A&M – Dallas has been a workhorse in the Texas A&M rotation all season and he leads the Aggies with 60.2 innings, but his performance has faded in SEC play. Dallas has a 5.49 ERA overall, but that number jumps to 8.13 in seven conference starts.
- Jace Bohrofen, Arkansas – With a .232/.316/.435 slash line, Bohrofen’s raw numbers aren’t pretty, but he was heating up in early March right before he went down for about a month with injury. Given that he’s seen more playing time lately, it also appears the coaching staff is ready to lean on him a bit more down the stretch.
- Victor Mederos, Oklahoma State – With a 6.60 ERA, it’s clear it hasn’t been easy for Mederos at Oklahoma State this season, but more often than not, he has left his starts having given the Cowboys a chance to win. Last weekend against Texas, however, he departed after just one inning with an apparent injury, inviting uncertainty about his availability moving forward.
- Tyler McManus, Louisiana State – McManus has found himself in a catcher platoon this season, primarily with Hayden Travinski but also including Alex Milazzo. He’s hitting .266/.398/.532.
- Griffin Doersching, Oklahoma State – When Doersching has been healthy, he’s been one of the most impactful transfers in the country, but unfortunately he’s been limited to just 22 games this season. In those 22 games, he’s hitting .306/.388/.624 with six home runs, which is still good for fourth on the team despite having played in just about half of the team’s games.
- Jack Washburn, Mississippi – Washburn had worked his way into the weekend rotation for an Ole Miss team desperately looking for answers on the mound, but he left his start against South Carolina on April 16 with an injury and hasn’t appeared in the two weekends since. He has a 3.34 ERA in 32.1 innings.
- Alex Toral, Florida State – Though he’s hitting just .209/.322/.516, Toral’s 11 doubles and 12 home runs show that he’s done what he was brought in to do, and that’s deliver some extra thump to the Florida State lineup.
- Chris Lanzilli, Arkansas – Lanzilli has been nothing short of a centerpiece in the Arkansas lineup. He’s hitting .318/.421/.477 with six home runs. The biggest highlight of the season so far for him was a walk-off home run on March 13 to lead Arkansas to a win over Illinois-Chicago.
- Eric Reyzelman, Louisiana State – Reyzelman has been a key piece of a strong LSU bullpen. In 28 innings, he has a 2.57 ERA, 46 strikeouts, which is third on the club behind starters Blake Money and Ma’Khail Hilliard, and a .189 opponent batting average.
- Dylan Rock, Texas A&M – In a lineup that includes Moss and a handful of other transfers, Rock has arguably been the best of the bunch at Texas A&M. He’s hitting .329/.472/.651 with a team-leading 12 home runs and more walks (32) than strikeouts (31).
- Sonny DiChiara, Auburn – Arguably the most impactful transfer in college baseball, DiChiara has put together a season that places him among the frontrunners for national player of the year honors. He’s hitting .436/.597/.842 with 15 doubles, 13 homers and 50 walks compared to 28 strikeouts.
- Josh Hood, North Carolina State – One of just three players to play in and start all 42 of NC State’s games, Hood has brought extra-base power to the lineup. He’s hitting .269/.345/.532 with 12 doubles and 11 home runs, including four home runs last week alone.
- Brett Walker, Texas Christian – While he’s never going to be a guy to pile up strikeouts and he gives up plenty of hits, Walker has been a steady hand at the back of the TCU rotation. In 53 innings across 10 starts, he has a 4.92 ERA.
- Carter Rustad, Missouri – A starter during his time at San Diego, Rustad has been an effective member of the Missouri bullpen this season. He has a 4.03 ERA, a .238 opponent batting average and 34 strikeouts compared to 11 walks in 38 innings.
- Hunter Jump, Kentucky – Jump has been a key piece in the Kentucky lineup all season long. He has a .290/.365/.364 slash line and his 18 strikeouts in 176 at-bats gives him the lowest strikeout rate of any Wildcats regular.
- Michael Turner, Arkansas – Turner has taken to SEC baseball well, as he’s emerged as arguably Arkansas’ most consistent hitter to this point of the season. He’s hitting .323/.396/.516—his .323 batting average being a team-best mark—with 11 doubles and six home runs.
- Brooks Carlson, Auburn – The original No. 20 player on the offseason list, Matt McCormick, stepped away from baseball after arriving at Tennessee in the fall, so we’ll move Carlson into this discussion. He started the season in a part-time role, but has pushed his way into more playing time in SEC competition. He’s hitting .300/.384/.418 on the season.
Putting 2022 Team Home Run Leaders in Context
If you’ve been watching games involving some of the biggest names in college baseball, you might come away with the distinct feeling that home runs are up across the sport.
After all, No. 1 Tennessee leads the country in home runs, No. 4 Virginia Tech is tied for sixth and another Top 25 team in Georgia Tech is in the top 10, alongside major college baseball brand names like Texas, Florida and Mississippi State.
Here’s the full list of the top 10 teams in college baseball in home runs, through Tuesday’s action.
Of note, Tennessee has already broken its single-season program record for home runs with three weekends of play still to come, plus the postseason.
The Division I single-season record for home runs in a season, 188 by LSU in 1997, is out of reach. That record, of course, was set at a very different time in college baseball history even though it wasn’t all that long ago. The bats used back then were much livelier and college baseball was a more offensive environment in general.
The more interesting comparison is with the last six full seasons, which were all played with the current set of equipment standards, including a lower-seam baseball that was adopted ahead of the 2015 season after a four-year period between 2011-2015 when offensive production was depressed thanks to a change to less lively bats before the 2011 season.
These are the team home run leaders from the last six full seasons.
Tennessee has already surpassed all but two of these teams, and at its current rate of 2.4 home runs per game, it would have 134 by the end of the regular season, giving it a chance to pass the 2018 Tennessee Tech team at some point in the postseason.
For the rest of 2022’s top home run-hitting teams, equaling or surpassing 135 home runs is a stretch goal, but ODU is on pace to end up with 122 home runs at the end of the regular season, and every team currently in the top 10 in home runs is on pace to have at least 100 by the end of the regular season, totals that in three of the last six full seasons would at least tie a team for the national lead.
Whether it’s a one-off, a product of baseball being a more home run-oriented game now, a result of the increased velocity—and in turn, exit velocity—seen in the game today, or more likely, a combination of a lot of factors, it’s clear that long balls are up this year, at least when looking at the top teams in the category this season.