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The State of College Baseball and A Season Outlook

Photo courtesy of RazorbacksBSB

In case you didn’t already know, the 2021 College Baseball Postseason is about a month away and things are starting to get interesting. There are a few teams who have clearly set themselves apart from the pack, but similar to the MLB, you never know who’s going to win. Thankfully, you have me who’s been closely following all year and I’m ready to break it down for you.

To make things simple, I’ll start by laying out the current top 25 rankings as of Monday, 4/26. I’ll then get into teams to watch out for and ones that have surprised to this point. Finally, we’ll get down to the good stuff. I’m going to lay out my projections for the 2021 College World Series and predict a champion. Let’s get this show on the road.

Top 25 (according to D1Baseball):

  1. Arkansas Razorbacks
  2. Vanderbilt Commodores
  3. Texas Longhorns
  4. Tennessee Volunteers
  5. TCU Horned Frogs
  6. Mississippi St. Bulldogs
  7. Louisville Cardinals
  8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
  9. Oregon Ducks
  10. East Carolina Pirates
  11. Texas Tech Red Raiders
  12. Arizona Wildcats
  13. South Carolina Gamecocks
  14. Florida Gators
  15. Charlotte 49ers
  16. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
  17. Pittsburgh Panthers
  18. Stanford Cardinal
  19. Ole Miss Rebels
  20. Florida State Seminoles
  21. Gonzaga
  22. Nebraska Cornhuskers
  23. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
  24. UC Irvine Anteaters
  25. Old Dominion Monarchs

Watchlist:

#1 Arkansas (32-7)

The Swingin’ Swine do just about everything good, especially winning ballgames. They’re the undisputed #1 team in the nation in every single major poll, as well as the RPI rankings. The key to this team so far has easily been the offense. Yes, they play in the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Park, but they lead the nation in dingers and it’s not very close. With three guys at 10+ bombs and two more at 9, you can’t dispute the juice in these guys’ bats. On the other side of the ball, the pitching has been shaky at times, but Patrick Wicklander and Peyton Pallete are hitting their strides to form a lethal 1-2 punch. Coming out of the bullpen, Kevin Kopps has been one of the best, if not the best, reliever in the country, posting a 6-0 record, 5 saves and an insane 16.05 K/9 in 37 IP. This team is dominating everything in their path, but there is a tough road ahead.

#2 Vanderbilt (31-7)

Headlined by the historic rotation duo of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, every college analyst has been drooling over this electric rotation. Largely thanks to them, this team is top 5 in the nation in ERA, WHIP and K’s, but I’m not discounting the rest of the staff by any means. When you have two pitchers likely to both be top 5 picks in the upcoming draft, it’s easy to forget about the supporting staff. The bullpen has been pretty lights out as well, which gives this team plenty of promise heading into the postseason. As far as the bats go, they can hit for average well and have decent power, but not nearly as impressive as the aforementioned Hogs. My main piece to watch offensively is Freshman Enrique Bradfield Jr. He wears the #51 as an homage to Ichiro, and he’s about as close to Ichiro as any player in the nation. He’s excellent getting on base (.460 OBP) and once he’s there, he’ll make you pay, stealing 30 bases on 32 attempts so far this season. This team is about as dominant as it gets, they’re just unlucky the Hogs are playing as well as they are, keeping them at #2 in the current rankings.

#3 Texas (33-9)

I’ll start off by saying the Horns are one of the most well-rounded teams in the nation and absolutely a CWS contender, but I’m not sure I agree with them in the #3 spot. They haven’t played two of their toughest opponents of the year yet in TCU and Texas Tech, so I’m very interested to see how the next few weeks go for them. This team wins almost every game they should win, and a series sweep of current #13 South Carolina is certainly impressive, but the sweep in the College Classic vs. Arkansas, Miss. St. and Ole Miss is telling. Now that I’m done questioning them, this team ranks top 10 in the nation in runs scored, doubles, ERA and WHIP, so they absolutely can play. I’m not saying the Horns are a bad team at all, as I believe we’ll be seeing them in Omaha, but there just aren’t on that top tier that Arkansas and Vandy are on.

#4 Tennessee (32-9)

The Vols are another well-rounded team, reaching a top 10 mark in the country in runs scored and walks per 9. Their lineup seems to be a bit top heavy, with Liam Spence and Jake Rucker leading the team in nearly every offensive category, but I’ve also been impressed by Evan Russell, who had a 3 home run game in their win over Vandy a couple weeks ago. Their pitching staff has been impressive overall, posting a 3.70 ERA and aren’t too far outside the top 10 in the country with 380 total K’s. They’ve had some impressive wins, with a sweep of LSU and series wins over Georgia, as well as taking 1/3 from Vandy, but upcoming face-offs with Arkansas and South Carolina will be telling.

#5 TCU (30-10)

The Horned Frogs are coming in at #5 in the latest rankings, but I could argue they should be even higher. They are clearly one of the elite offenses in the country, leading the nation in runs scored, 5th in doubles, 3 HR’s outside top 10, and a single BA point out of the top 10 at .302 (there is a 3-way tie for the 10 spot at .303). Their pitchers are also very effective, as they are top 10 in strikeouts as well. The thing I like most about this team is the experience. Almost everywhere you look in the starting lineup, there are redshirt and true seniors, which will be very valuable come the Postseason. With head coach Jim Schlossnagle who has brought this team to yearly relevance at the helm, this team is extremely dangerous moving forward.

#6 Mississippi State (29-10)

Aside from a series sweep at the hands of the Hogs, this team’s record has virtually no blemishes. They played a very close series with the Commodores, losing 2/3, but keeping the game close in each contest. This team has solid bats, doing well in nearly every offensive category. The offensive talent is spread out well outside star Tanner Allen with plenty of guys contributing. The key to this team is their electric pitching staff. Their starters aren’t anything exceptional, but once you get to the bullpen, good luck trying to extend your lead or make a comeback. Led by flamethrower Landon Sims, the ‘pen has 8 arms currently under the 2.74 ERA mark. Landon Sims is on the Kevin Kopps level, if not above it, posting a mind blowing 17.67 K/9 to date. This staff leads the nation in whiffs by 42 and is 9th in WHIP. If the arms can continue at the current rate, the Bulldogs are almost a shoe-in for a ticket to Omaha.

#10 ECU (28-7)

Given the Pirates don’t play a very tough schedule compared to any of the aforementioned teams, they have bulldozed nearly everything in their path. They’re coming off the only blemish on their schedule in a series tie against UCF, but a sweep of #15 Charlotte shows what this squad is capable of. They’re getting it done on both sides of the ball, and although the only major stat they’re top 10 in the country in is batting average, this team will be pesky come the postseason. An offense led by Connor Norby (.428/.475/.697 and 10 HR) and Thomas Francisco (.392/.450/.559) will be a headache for any pitcher to face. Their pitching staff is also very solid, posting a 3.67 team ERA and 380 K’s, so I would want to avoid the Pirates at all costs in a regional.

#11 Texas Tech (27-10)

The Red Raiders are the most similar team to Arkansas on this list in how they live and die by the bats. The lineup is led by one of the best bats in the nation, Jace Jung, who’s tied for second in the nation in both bombs and RBI with 15 and 15 respectively and is raking at a .379/.489/.764 mark. With Dru Baker at a .388/.449/.496 slash and Cal Conley at the .336/.441/.559 mark, this three headed monster is a force to be reckoned with. As far as the arms go, the rotation is led by Redshirt Senior Patrick Monteverde and Sophomore Brandon Birdsell who are both solid, but I question the capability of the rest of the staff. The staff as a whole has posted a 4.40 ERA, which isn’t awful, but far from ideal. Series losses to Kansas St. and Baylor give some reason to doubt, but their series W over TCU shows what they are capable of. If the duo of Monteverde and Birdsell can avoid getting bounced early from their starts in the postseason, I can definitely see the Red Raiders riding the bats to Omaha.

#12 Arizona (27-11)

The Wildcats are my favorite to come out of the Pac-12. Oregon is ranked higher, but I have the Wildcats over the Ducks largely because of their offensive production. They lead the nation in batting average at the .331 mark and are second in runs scored and doubles with 325 and 92 respectively. Out of their 9 starters, only one is below the .297 mark. They don’t just hit for average though, as their propensity for extra base hits has propelled them to a team OPS of .948. Their offense is insane, but when you look at their pitching staff, things start to get shaky. So far, they’ve posted a very undesirable 4.91 team ERA, but they score about 8.6 runs per game, so they’ve been able to suffice. The starting rotation is bad, to be frank, but their bullpen is solid so I’m confident they can make some noise in the postseason.

#16 Louisiana Tech (28-11)

The Bulldogs are yet another team that can rake, as they’re currently in the top 10 in the nation in batting average and doubles. Similar to ECU, I love this team because of their experience. They have a bunch of guys who have been around the block a couple times and know how to handle themselves in big games. Hunter Wells, Taylor Young, Manny Garcia, Parker Bates and Philip Matulia are all veteran bats to watch out for. Their pitching staff is led by Jonathan Fincher, who has been the definition of lights out in 2021, posting a 1.79 ERA to date. I had the pleasure of watching this team face off with Arkansas in person and I was blown away by their performance. Although they lost the series 2-1, they gave the Hogs quite the scare, and I believe they can do the same to a couple other teams in the postseason.

Oregon St. (27-12)

The Beavers have been in contention many times in recent years, including the 2018 CWS title. All of those teams had guys that could rake, and that’s the case this year, but the main thing in common with every Oregon St. team is their top of the line pitching staff. In 2021, they’re top 7 in the country in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. The starting rotation is led by Kevin Abel and Cooper Hjerpe, who both sport sub 3.12 ERA’s. Nothing spectacular, but it’ll get the job done. I’d say the bullpen is their strength, as they have 9 dudes under the 2.84 ERA mark. On the offensive side, they hit for good average and decent power, but they’re not going to win this championship via the long ball. I also can’t forget to mention they’re 4th in the nation with a 98.5 fielding percentage, so don’t expect them to lose games by making errors. If their pitching continues at this rate, they have a good shot to make some noise.

Oklahoma St. (24-12-1)

The Cowboys aren’t ranked, but they have been for much of the year and are currently at the 16 mark in the RPI rankings. I’ll chalk this up to them already facing the meat of their conference schedule, and an out of conference series vs. Vandy certainly didn’t help their record (although they did take 1/3). Their 3-7 record vs. TTU, TCU and UT isn’t optimal, but I know this team can win a couple series if they get hot at the right time. They’re pretty solid on both sides of the ball, with star Christian Encarnacion-Strand leading the way on offense. He is sporting a .390/.462/801 slash with 15 HR and 51 RBI, so if they can get guys on in front of him, it’s bad news for their opponents. Their starting rotation is solid, led by Parker Scott and Justin Campbell, who both have sub 2.70 ERA’s. I’m confident the Cowboys can make some noise in the tourney.

UCLA (23-13)

The Bruins are another unranked team, but if you looked at just their team stat sheet, you’d think they’d be in the top 25 for sure. A .290 team batting average and 3.50 team ERA isn’t only visually pleasing, but pleasing on the field. The contributions offensively are spread out very evenly, with eight of their starters contributing at least 18 RBI. Kevin Kendall, Matt McLain and JT Schwartz are all hitters who can do some damage to a pitching staff. Although I like the lineup, I’m more impressed with their pitching staff. Their starters aren’t the best overall, but they have a nearly unlimited supply of plus arms out of the pen to run out there in any game. If their starters can give them 4 or 5 quality innings in a game, they’ll be tough to beat.

Spoilers

#15 Charlotte (30-11)

The 49ers might not necessarily be a “spoiler” or “Cinderella” team since they are the 15th best team in the country according to D1Baseball, after all, but nonetheless I doubt anyone out there would’ve predicted that going into the season. They’re a solid up and down their lineup and they’re tied for tenth in the country in batting average, but that isn’t what impresses me most. Their pitching staff isn’t anything to call home isn’t anything to call home about either. What I’m extremely impressed by is their quality wins. They blew out #4 Tennessee 9-0, took 3/4 from Old Dominion, who’s currently #25, and won an extra inning game vs. UNC in Chapel Hill. When you have a resume like that, I can absolutely picture them doing similar things to a 1 seed in a regional.

Fairfield (25-0)

If you’re unsure where Fairfield University is, as I was prior to writing this article, I got you. It’s a small college of 5,192 students in Fairfield, Connecticut. Yes, the Stags obviously have a strength of schedule nowhere near the other teams in this article, but a 25-0 record in baseball at any level is virtually unheard of. They’re doing it on both sides of the ball, with the #3 team batting average in the nation, along with a nation leading team ERA, WHIP and walks per 9. They don’t have a bona fide starting rotation, but their pitching staff includes six guys below the 1.80 mark. On the offense, they have five guys over the .365 mark. There truly is no weakness in this team. Although they’re currently the #2 team in the nation in the RPI rankings, they’re unranked in the polls and are projected to be a 3 seed in a regional, according to D1Baseball. Remember the Stags when you’re watching those regional tourneys.

College World Series Predictions

Since the current tournament field is solely speculation and projections right now, I can’t make it all match up and give you an accurate bracket. Because of that, I’m simply going to give you an 8 team hypothetical bracket based on current rankings. Here it is:

Round 1

Arkansas vs. UCLA

Vandy vs. Oklahoma St.

Texas vs. Texas Tech

TCU vs. Misissippi St.

Round 2 Winner’s Bracket

Arkansas vs. TCU

Vandy vs. Texas Tech

Round 2 Elimination Bracket

Mississippi St. vs. UCLA

Texas vs. Oklahoma St.

Round 3

Arkansas vs. Mississippi St. (MSU wins 1 but the Hogs win the elimination game)

Vandy vs. Oklahoma St.

CWS Final

Arkansas vs. Vandy

This would be my absolute dream series, and it may be unlikely #1 faces #2 in the final, but it happened in March Madness this year. The reason they get here is they’re both on a level nobody else is on right now. They’ve created a whole elite tier that only they reside in, largely due to coaching and recruiting. Tim Corbin of Vandy and Dave Van Horn of Arkansas are the two highest paid coaches in all of college baseball, and for good reason. Not only is it a matchup of SEC powers, but it’s a matchup of power pitching vs. power bats. In this case, the duo of Rocker and Leiter can’t handle the relentless Swingin’ Swine. The Hogs outlast the Commodores in a nail biter of a 3-game series, bringing the National Championship to Fayetteville that they were one strike away from in 2018.

2021 NCAA Baseball National Champions: Arkansas Razorbacks

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