'We've Got A Challenge Ahead:' College Baseball Readies For Unprecedented 2021 Season
To tell the story of the 2021 college baseball season—a season that will be unlike any other in the sport’s history, one that will come with coronavirus testing and protocols designed to limit its spread, but also more talent than ever before—we have to start at the end of the 2020 season.
Last season was the first in decades to not end with a dogpile and fireworks in Omaha. Instead, it was aborted a month after Opening Day, just as the coronavirus began spreading in America. That incompleteness reverberates through the sport today and will for years to come. To explain this year, we must first understand what happened last year.
The season began like any other with the fanfare of Opening Day on Feb. 14—Valentine’s Day. Just four weeks later, it was over.
On the morning of March 12, the college sports world was just beginning to feel the seismic effects of the nascent pandemic. Within 24 hours, it had seen the Ivy League become the first conference to cancel athletics and the NBA go on pause following the positive test by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Still, no one expected what the day would bring.
Conference after conference followed the Ivy League and NBA’s lead, placing their own seasons on pause. Then, at 4:14 p.m., the NCAA released a statement that it was canceling all its winter and spring championships—including the College World Series—due to the spread of the coronavirus. The season was over.
Stunning, unprecedented scenes played out across the country. Team buses turned around midway through their drives to weekend series. Teams that were in the air that afternoon landed to news that they needed to get back on the plane and come home. Assistant coaches who were out on recruiting trips were pulled off the road and told to turn around. Everywhere there were confused, devastated team meetings full of unanswerable questions and uncertain futures.
In Oxford, Ohio, for a few hours, however, everything continued as normal. As college sports came to a screeching halt around them, Miami (Ohio) and Penn State played on at McKie Field. They had started their regularly scheduled game 10 minutes before the NCAA’s announcement and nobody moved to stop them on a surreal day.
The RedHawks and Nittany Lions had arrived at the field knowing the future was uncertain. Penn State coach Rob Cooper gathered his team before the game and asked them to focus on the moment and not worry about what was going on around them.
“I know you’ve been on social media; you’ve heard what could be happening, but honest to God, we don’t know what’s happening,” Cooper told his team. “What we do know is we get to play. Let’s control that part of it.
“It was a real weird deal,” he said. “I was trying to focus on letting the guys play but the whole time I’m thinking, ‘What do I do if they say we can’t play anymore?’ ”
By the time the game started, Cooper knew the NCAA would soon be announcing its decision. Penn State deputy athletic director Scott Sidwell texted him at 4 p.m. to tell him what was in the works. Cooper chose not to tell his players. After the first inning, he inserted the two seniors on his roster who didn’t start the game, in case this was the final game of their careers.
Once he made those changes, Cooper managed the game as he typically would, trying to win what was now the final game of the season. But he also found himself appreciating the game more, knowing that it was his team’s last.
“Usually as a coach you don’t get to do that,” he said. “You’re constantly in the moment. But to almost not care about the outcome because you knew you weren’t going to play the next day, that’s something I’ll remember. It’s probably something we as coaches need to do a better job of on a daily basis.”
Penn State took a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning before MU scored five unanswered runs for a 5-1 victory in a tidy 2 hours and 20 minutes. It was 6:24 p.m. The season that had been canceled for little more than two hours was now officially done.
In the McKie Field outfield, Cooper broke the news to his team in a postgame meeting.
“We had three seniors—one’s back—but they’re looking at each other like, ‘We didn’t expect today to be a senior day,’” he said. “Guys were disappointed. They were bummed. They were sad. I don’t think it had hit them how much disruption this was going to be, but they understood.”
Around the country, players had similar reactions. They didn’t—couldn’t—know what lay ahead for the world in the fight against the virus and how much everyone’s lives would be upended in ways that stretched far beyond the diamond.
No one could have predicted the ways the pandemic would affect the sport itself. In the weeks after the season was canceled, the NCAA, NAIA and the National Junior College Athletic Association all moved to grant eligibility relief to all spring sports athletes, effectively giving everyone an extra year of college eligibility. Major League Baseball moved to reduce the draft from 40 rounds to just five.
Between returning seniors and fewer drafted players, there were now more players than ever in college baseball. The NCAA moved to eliminate the roster caps baseball operates under, allowing unlimited rosters instead of the 35 players to which teams are typically limited.
Summer baseball was upended. The Cape Cod League and USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team were canceled. Many other leagues were also canceled, and the leagues that were able to continue did so in a much more limited way than normal.
Fall ball was similarly disrupted. Local restrictions caused some teams to miss out entirely. Other teams were limited by what their school would allow. Still others had largely normal fall practices, albeit under tight medical protocols.
The economics of college athletics were attacked early in the pandemic, as markets dipped and typical revenue streams like football attendance slowed. That led to belt tightening around the country and led Boise State, Chicago State and Furman to eliminate baseball. La Salle has already announced the 2021 season will be the last for its baseball program.
It was—in so many ways—a trying year. But now, with the 2021 season fast approaching, it is easier to feel the optimism around the sport. MLB, the NBA, college football, college basketball and more are showing it is possible to play through these challenging times. Multiple vaccines are being distributed around the country. College baseball has more talent than ever before.
After the longest, toughest offseason in the sport’s history, college baseball is back. It will look different this spring. It won’t be easy to thread the needle of testing protocols and virus outbreaks and a multitude of logistical challenges. But around the country, players, coaches and teams are eager to return to action.
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Florida raced out to a 16-0 start last year, the best in program history, and climbed to No. 1 in the nation. It established itself as a national championship favorite behind a talented, well-rounded roster that included some elite underclassmen—outfielder Jud Fabian and lefthander Hunter Barco were considered among the top prospects in the 2021 and 2022 draft classes, respectively—as well as several veterans with high-end draft potential in 2020.
Everything had come together for the Gators, coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
“We had a collection of older guys who had made a significant jump in their performance from Year 1 to Year 2,” he said. “We had some older guys make a jump from (sophomore) to junior year, and then we had some really talented freshmen come in to complement the roster. I think there’s a lot of things that happened, but obviously starting the season the way we did, I didn’t have those type of expectations, which I never do with any team, but it was a really fun group to coach.”
In a normal year, Florida would next have had to deal with heavy personnel losses. Junior righthanders Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich led the rotation, and while they might not have had the upside of some previous frontline Florida pitchers like A.J. Puk or Brady Singer, both were expected to be drafted well—Mace in the top 100 picks and Leftwich within the next couple rounds. Seniors Austin Langworthy and Kirby McMullen were the kind of experienced hitters who are usually well regarded. Second baseman Cory Acton and outfielder Jacob Young, both draft-eligible sophomores, and junior catcher/first baseman Brady Smith were sure to generate interest as well.
But 2020 was anything but typical. The combination of the NCAA’s decision to give eligibility relief to all spring sports athletes in 2020, allowing everyone on a roster last spring another year of college eligibility, and MLB’s decision to cut the draft from 40 rounds to five, while also capping signing bonuses for nondrafted free agents at $20,000, threw the draft—already an unpredictable exercise—into further disarray. Signability became more important than usual, because teams couldn’t afford to miss on one of the small handful of players they would select.
The draft’s reduction meant more than 1,100 fewer players would be selected in 2020 than in 2019. Not all of those players would have signed, but most would have. In a 40-round draft, Florida might have hoped to have gotten one or two of its draft prospects back for 2021.
Instead, it became one of the sport’s biggest winners in the draft when none of its players was selected. Langworthy and Smith went on to sign as NDFAs, but from the best team in the country in 2020 the Gators return eight of nine regulars and every pitcher who appeared in a game.
Florida’s good fortune with the draft didn’t stop there. While top recruits Zac Veen and Colby Mayo were both drafted and signed, the Gators still brought to campus six newcomers who ranked among the top 500 draft prospects in the country. Only three schools in the country brought in more.
There are individual reasons why each of the Gators opted to play the 2021 season in college. In the cases of Mace and Leftwich, O’Sullivan said if the 2020 season had continued, he believes both would have pitched their way up draft boards and into pro ball. Instead, their return is a boon for the Gators.
“Certainly, them not signing professionally has very little to do with their ability,” O’Sullivan said. “It had all to do with their signability. Both of them stuck to their numbers and felt like they had some unfinished business from a personal standpoint and from a team standpoint. With them coming back, frankly, we’ve put ourselves in a position where this is one of the more talented rosters we’ve had—and we’ve had some pretty talented ones in the past.”
No matter what the individual reasons are for each player to have returned to school or chosen to go to college instead of the minor leagues out of high school, ultimately it was the change in rules both for the draft and college eligibility that were behind it all. In addition to the NCAA offering eligibility relief, it adjusted its roster-size rules, temporarily lifting the 35-man roster cap and raising the maximum number of players on scholarship from 27 to 32. Those moves give schools more flexibility to both welcome back last year’s seniors and their 2020 recruiting class.
Florida is an extreme example. It both brought back a nearly intact roster and an elite recruiting class—though the group of newcomers is smaller than its typical recruiting class. But across the country there are teams that have more talent—among returners or newcomers, or both—than they do in a typical year.
While it’s impossible to quantify, this is surely the most talented college baseball has been collectively in history. For much of the 20th century, it was rare for premium players to attend college—most went directly to pro ball. That has begun to change in recent decades, but the combination of MLB teams drafting and signing the best high school players every year and the NCAA limiting baseball teams to 11.7 scholarships spread across a 35-man roster has limited the amount of premium talent matriculating in college.
In 2021, however, increased talent can be found seemingly anywhere. Teams as varied as McNeese State and Oklahoma and Southern Illinois were able to bring back large senior classes. What all that extra talent will equate to on the field is more of an unknown, however. There are still just nine spots in the lineup and still just 27 outs in every game.
Keeping everyone happy and engaged may require more management than coaches are used to, but everyone seems excited for the challenge, including O’Sullivan.
“The most exciting thing is trying to figure out as a staff how we’re going to manage so many good players and really build the team concept,” O’Sullivan. “You know as well as I do that the most talented team is not always the team that wins the last game of the year in
“So, we’ve got a challenge ahead of us to figure out how we can mold all of these really talented players and collectively strive for the same goal at the end of the year.”
After the abrupt ending of the 2020 season, the players scattered away from campuses as they always do. Only last year, because the season’s final day came in March, they didn’t head to summer ball teams or the minor leagues or jobs and internships. Mostly, they went home.
With classes moved online for everyone, players had to adjust to their new virtual classrooms. They filled their free time with fishing and Netflix and FaceTime. For many, it was the longest extended break from the game they had in years—or ever.
As the weeks and months passed, they found ways to train, often with a little improvisation. Michigan lefthander Steven Hajjar built a pulldown machine in his basement with a rope and a lawn chair. Florida State outfielder Robby Martin did speed work at a field near his house. Miami teammates Adrian Del Castillo and Anthony Vilar worked out with Salvador Perez.
No matter how they went about it, it still wasn’t the same as playing with their teammates. The yearning for that normalcy and to see their teammates again made fall practice more anticipated than ever.
“It was really exciting getting back with the guys and the coaches,” Indiana shortstop Jeremy Houston said. “Just getting back to our field, taking ground balls on our field, hitting on our field is cool to see.”
While the baseball felt familiar this fall, much of what surrounds it did not. Protocols varied from school to school, but masks, social distancing, contact tracing and disinfectant were commonplace. Fall games against outside competition were canceled. Several programs around the country had to take a pause due to the number of positive cases within the team.
No matter the restrictions, however, the players and coaches were largely happy to be back in action.
“This team hasn’t flinched on anything this fall,” Boston College coach Mike Gambino said. “Stuff is constantly getting thrown at them and they don’t flinch. They love being around each other, they love being here. To spend a spring with them and be back playing games is going to be awesome.”
The same protocols teams played under this fall will mostly be back in the spring. The specifics will vary from conference to conference and school to school, but the broad strokes will mostly be the same. Masks and social distancing policies akin to what MLB instituted last summer will be in place. Consistent testing will be required, with contact tracing and isolation following any positive test. Teams will be required to have a minimum number of healthy players at the key positions of pitcher and catcher to play a game. Attendance at games will be severely limited and, in some cases, not allowed.
The protocols are what is required to play a season through the pandemic, but they will make it a season unlike any college baseball has seen. Disruptions to the season should be expected, as games suddenly are canceled or moved around, like they have been in every American sport playing outside of a bubble environment.
It will take some adjusting, for players and coaches alike. Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri said he has reached out to coaches in other sports and in professional baseball for tips on how to handle the changes. Those conversations led Mainieri to limit the number of times the full team was together this fall. That helped the team get through fall practice uninterrupted, but it could also have an effect on LSU’s cohesion.
“I only met with our full team three times during fall,” Mainieri said. “I’m a little bit nervous about team-building because that’s something I always placed a lot of emphasis in.”
Protocols to limit the spread of the virus and budget cuts to manage the financial crisis college sports endured in 2020 have also had a profound effect on this spring’s schedule. While some conferences, including the Big 12 and Southeastern, have pressed ahead with a status quo schedule, others have dramatically altered their structure. The Atlantic Coast Conference added two weekends of conference play and cut the maximum number of games allowed from 56 to 50. Other conferences have made similar moves. The Big Ten, most dramatically, is opting for a conference-only slate. While it is likely to be the only major conference to make such a move, some individual schools will forego non-conference games, a move that will both limit travel and cut costs.
College baseball’s schedule format has never been uniform across the country, but it has been a long time since the sport has had such disparity in scheduling. As a result, the selection committee will have a much more complicated task in May when it comes time to pick the NCAA Tournament field. Not only will teams have played much different schedules than normal, they also will have played more regional schedules than they have in decades.
Those changes will be felt in the Ratings Percentage Index, which the selection committee uses to compare teams. The RPI metric has some flaws in the best of times—some believe it weights away games too heavily and it is harsher on teams that are more geographically isolated and can’t play as diverse a set of opponents—and they will be exacerbated in 2021, according to Boyd Nation, who runs the college baseball analytic website Boyd’s World.
“I expect we’ll see some really weird RPI results this year because there will be much less inter-conference play,” he said. “I think this will be a really disconnected year where your place in conference standings has more to do with RPI than usual.”
Adjusting the RPI to account for this year’s peculiarities is unlikely at this stage. The selection committee is expected to lean more heavily on its regional advisory committees, which are composed of coaches who rank the tournament contenders in their region, but they too will likely be less reliable this year if there are fewer non-conference games and, therefore, fewer opportunities for them to watch teams from outside their own conference.
Those complications, however, start to feel manageable when you consider that last year there was no NCAA Tournament. Any games in Omaha this June will be a welcome sight after such a long, difficult offseason.
The disappointment of 2020 will not soon be forgotten by anyone in college baseball. But the promise of 2021 gives the sport a chance to put it in the past. The explosiveness of Vanderbilt righthander Kumar Rocker’s slider, the power of Miami catcher Adrian Del Castillo, the dynamism of UCLA shortstop Matt McLain and the five-tool potential of Florida center fielder Jud Fabian should be the enduring images of the spring, not the crushing blow of a canceled postseason.
Or maybe it will be the greatness of Florida or the promise of Virginia or the power of Louisiana State righthander Jaden Hill or the precociousness of Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada. As Opening Day approaches, anything and everything seems possible.
Penn State coach Rob Cooper feels it too. He said sometimes it feels like yesterday that he was in the outfield in Oxford, Ohio, telling his team the season was over. Sometimes it feels like that meeting happened years ago.
No matter how the 2021 season goes, he wants to make sure to hang on to the feeling he had that day, of playing like there’s no tomorrow.
“It’s important for me to reexamine what it was like that day knowing we’re not playing the next day, making sure we experience each day, and we enjoy it,” Cooper said. “It’s real easy once this gets kicked back up and we’re playing and guys are struggling or doing well and you get lost in the fog of the grind.
“A year ago, you didn’t have a chance. There was no choice about it.”