Under the Radar: After Tough 2018, BYU Is Contending Again
Two seasons ago, Brigham Young went 38-21 overall and won the West Coast Conference Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
Last season, it brought back a veteran squad full of players who made that 2017 regional trip, and hopes were high once again. But it was also a team that had some culture issues, and as a result, the Cougars limped to a 22-28 record.
Following last weekend’s sweep of preseason WCC favorite Saint Mary’s, and at 21-6 overall, the 2019 BYU team is just one victory shy of tying last year’s win total with an entire half of the season remaining. It will try and pass that mark this weekend as it visits San Diego.
Not only is the success on the field more like what the Cougars accomplished in 2017, but culturally, it’s a team that compares to that regional team.
“It’s such a change,” coach Mike Littlewood said. “2017, we go to regionals, 2018, we bring back virtually the same team and have some culture issues, guys worrying about the draft, just personality issues, and then to turn around like this is pretty gratifying for the team and especially the older guys who have gone through all those three years.”
Where this particular edition could be even better than the team two years ago is on the mound.
For all the success the 2017 Cougars had, they finished the season with a 4.67 team ERA and had just one regular starting pitcher with an ERA under 5.00.
This season, they have a 3.19 team ERA. Their whole weekend rotation has an ERA of 2.25 or better. And all but one pitcher who has thrown more than four innings this season has an ERA under 5.00.
Some of those numbers could inflate as the Cougars navigate their WCC schedule, and it’s worth noting that their home facility, Miller Park, provides an offensive atmosphere that will become even more favorable to hitters when the weather warms up.
But even when you take that into consideration, it’s already safe to say that this is an area of improvement for BYU. Littlewood credits the addition of pitching coach Michael Bradshaw, who previously was Arizona’s assistant director of baseball operations.
“He’s done a tremendous job with our pitchers,” Littlewood said. “We probably have some more talented guys, but he’s got them all on the same page, knows each of them individually and their strengths and weaknesses. We’re just pounding the zone, throwing a lot of strikes, and making the other team beat us instead of beating ourselves.”
BYU’s most effective pitcher this season has been 5-foot-9 sophomore righthander Easton Walker. He’s 31.2 innings into his 2019 season and he’s still sporting a 0.00 ERA. After opening the season in the bullpen, he earned a promotion to the rotation, where he’s continued to flourish.
“Mentally, you would look at him and not know if he’s up five runs or down five runs or it’s tied in the ninth with the bases loaded,” Littlewood said. “He’s just calm, cool, collected. He’s legit, and what makes him good is his command. He’ll sit 86-88, he’ll touch 89-90 once in a while when he wants to, but curveball, slider, changeup, all for strikes and where he wants to throw it. You can never really get comfortable in the box sitting on one pitch.”
Joining Walker on the weekends are a pair of tall righthanders in 6-foot-4 senior Jordan Wood and 6-foot-5 sophomore Justin Sterner.
Wood pitched in a swingman role on the regional team in 2017 but stepped up to become the staff ace in 2018, going 5-4, 2.66. This season, he’s at it again at 4-0, 2.25 in a team-high 44 innings. Sterner is 5-2, 2.04 with 39 strikeouts in 35.1 innings.
BYU’s success on the mound is not to say that it can’t get it done on offense, because it can win games that way as well.
The Cougars are hitting .290 as a team, led by infielder Brian Hsu, who leads the team in hitting at .380, catcher Noah Hill, whose offense has taken a big jump in his first season as a full-time player with a .363 batting average, shortstop Jackson Cluff, who leads the team with ten doubles, and outfielder Brock Hale, the best power bat on the roster.
Hale, a senior, has been a four-year contributor in the program and a key catalyst in each of the previous two seasons. In 2017, he led the team in hitting at .395 and on-base percentage at .481, and last season, he did it again with a .342 batting average and .425 on-base percentage. With seven home runs so far this season, he’s up to 28 for his career, with 36 career doubles.
He’s the type of hitter, frankly, that a coach doesn’t expect to have back for a fourth year.
“I definitely said a few thankful prayers after the draft,” Littlewood said. “Brock Hale should be in low-A or high-A right now. It’s absolutely unbelievable to me why he’s not playing pro ball.”
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Just how good is this fearsome foursome? How much separation is there between them and how do the players compare and contrast with one another?
Even with their series with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, two projected WCC contenders, behind them, the Cougars still have a tough road ahead, in large part because 2019 is shaping up to be a banner year in the league.
Every WCC team with the exception of Santa Clara has a winning record, and even if it’s still a touch too early to take RPI data too seriously, it’s worth noting that all of those teams have RPIs hovering right around 100 or better, with BYU checking in just outside the top 40.
“Right now, you look and eight out of our ten teams in our league have 14 wins or more, and Gonzaga, who is clearly one of the better teams, has 12 wins just because of their schedule,” Littlewood said. “So, nine out of the ten teams have 12 wins or more, which is absolutely incredible when you look at all of the competition we’ve played.”
With such a high level of competition, getting to Stockton, Calif., for the conference tournament is no easy task, and then getting through the four-team field to grab the automatic bid will be even tougher.
But with the metrics being so kind to BYU and the rest of the league to this point, maybe the automatic bid isn’t the only path to the postseason.
The WCC has been a two-bid league fairly often in the past, most recently in 2016, and it looks like the league is trending that way again this season. Looking ahead, if BYU continues to pile up wins at anything close to the clip at which they’ve done so already, it will be in position to at least be in the at-large discussion.
With the obvious caveat that these RPI figures will change as the season goes on, BYU has in front of it 13 more games against teams currently inside the top 100 of the RPI, and with both Pacific and San Francisco currently sitting just outside the top 100, the Cougars could have as many as 19 such games left in the most optimistic scenario for the conference.
They’re currently 9-3 against top 100 teams, so even if they don’t keep up their current pace, it’s not difficult to imagine them having something like a 16-10 record against that subsection of teams. That, plus a strong conference finish and an overall win total pushing 40 would give BYU a resume that stacks up well against 2018 NCAA Tournament at-large teams such as Jacksonville and Troy, which earned at-large bids from mid-major conferences.
Or you can go back a few years and find an even better comparison with 2015 Bradley. That was a team that rode the wave of a conference (in that case, the Missouri Valley) having an unusually good season from a metrics standpoint to get into the NCAA Tournament with an 8-13 mark against the top 100 and few wins that you would define as marquee wins.
BYU’s resume is also going to be short on those high-end wins, and there’s not really anything it can do to change that. None of those upcoming games against the top 100 are against teams in the top 50, and they’re only 2-2 in their top 50 chances as it stands right now.
But piling on solid wins against good competition, avoiding bad losses from an RPI perspective, and putting together a gaudy overall record is a path well-traveled to regionals, and with a well-balanced team and a quick head start on putting together that exact resume, BYU looks ready to walk that path.