We are mere days from college baseball’s opening day, as one of sports’ best-kept secrets gets ready to roll again. Games begin all over the country on Friday, so here’s a look at seven storylines to follow in the 2022 NCAA baseball season.
Is Texas back?
Back at an elite level? That really isn’t even a question. The 'Horns were back on top of the Big XII (in the regular season, at least), back in the NCAA Tournament and back in the College World Series last year. But Texas is the rare program for which “just” getting to Omaha is closer to the baseline expectation than the ceiling.
This year’s Texas team, though, looks poised to hit those heights and seriously contend for the program’s seventh national title – but first since 2005. They’re a consensus No. 1 in the preseason polls, thanks largely to tremendous pitching depth. They lost a good bit of offense, but it’s not as though there’s a dearth of talent ready to step in.
Fans are back
It’s true of just about any sport, but college baseball just isn’t the same without fans. Crowds started to rise in the second half of 2021, but much of last season was played in front of empty or partially full houses. This year, limitations will be removed just about everywhere, and college baseball should feel like college baseball again.
It didn’t quite match the wildness of football, but the coaching carousel in baseball was in full swing this past year. You could just about fill out a compelling College World Series field with the power programs with new head men: Arizona, Arizona State, Cal State-Fullerton, LSU, Rice, Texas A&M and TCU.
Some of those changes seem as natural as can be. It’s hard not to expect former TCU skipper Jim Schlossnagle to succeed at Texas A&M. And while Jay Johnson has spent his whole career in the west, his success at Arizona clearly bodes well for his new job at LSU.
Some, however, are a little more curious. It will be fascinating to see how José Cruz Jr. (Rice) and Willie Bloomquist (ASU) fare their first time coaching college baseball in any capacity. Both are popular alums and former big leaguers, so it’s not like they don’t know baseball or the programs. But this is a different challenge. Even Chip Hale at Arizona, with extensive big league coaching experience, has never been on a college staff.
One of the longest-running stories in college baseball came to an end last year, when Mississippi State finally won its first national title. Now head coach Chris Lemonis must get his squad adjusted to being the hunted rather than the hunter. He brings back several of the stars of that run, most notably catcher Logan Tanner and right-hander Landon Sims, who transitions from the back of the bullpen to Friday night starter.
The fun part? The Bulldogs have to do it in the most stacked division in the sport, the SEC West. Just in State’s division are three other consensus Top 10 teams: Arkansas, LSU and rival Mississippi. On top of that, somehow MSU drew three of the top four teams from the SEC East for its cross-division series: Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.
Bats, bats, bats
There’s a ferociously talented crop of hitters in the upper ranks of the college game this year. The nature of the game means we won’t be returning to the “Gorilla Ball” of the late 1990s, but there’s no doubt that the balance of power in Division 1 this year tilts toward batters.
Take a look at MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Draft Prospects, and you’ll see eight college hitters before you get to the first college pitcher. It’s a diverse group too, with stars in the infield (Jacob Berry, Jace Jung, Brooks Lee), outfield (Top 100-bound Dylan Crews, Chase DeLauter, Gavin Cross) and plenty behind the plate (Daniel Susac, Tanner, Kevin Parada).
It’s no exaggeration to say there's been an unprecedented amount of change in all college sports the past two years. And baseball has seen even more than some other sports.
The no-penalty transfer rule has been in place for a few years, but its impact on 2022 is obvious with even a quick glance at a few rosters. The extra year of eligibility granted to athletes due to COVID adds an extra layer of complexity to roster management. And the past season's smaller MLB Draft led to more players staying in school.
It all has the potential to add up to an enormously exciting season, with a ton of experienced talent. But it also means the possibility of a wide-open season, with many of the usual rules about how to evaluate teams going out the window a bit.
You certainly can’t call this something to look forward to, but it’s unfortunately a big part of the upcoming season. Far too many top pitchers will be unavailable due to injury. Arkansas’ Peyton Pallette, Connecticut’s Reggie Crawford and Duke’s Henry Williams will miss 2022 after undergoing surgery. All three were at least candidates to be first-round picks, and all will be missed. Tennessee’s Blade Tidwell, projected to play a big role in the Vols’ rotation this year, will miss at least the start of the season due to shoulder issues.
And that’s before you get into pitchers returning from surgery, whose status and effectiveness won’t be fully known until play gets underway. That’s a list that includes Connor Prielipp of Alabama and Brandon Birdsell of Texas Tech.