Giving it the Old College Try
BY DEB SEYMOUR
Although Major League Baseball doesn’t depend on its players having gone to college (which makes it a bit different from the NFL, for example, which effectively uses college football as its minor league training ground), there are college baseball programs around the country that are feeders for MLB and their seasonal rivalries are often quite competitive. This all culminates in the annual College World Series – played in Omaha, Nebraska since 1950 and attracting fans from around the country.
Because the College World Series runs concurrently with the MLB season, its popularity is disadvantaged by taking a back seat to the major league games played at the same time; but nevertheless it has its own spirited fan base and can act as a showcase for some of the more noteworthy talents participating in the MLB draft.
Last college baseball season, Vanderbilt University’s Commodores, aka “the Vandy Boys,” had two top pitching prospects, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, combine for 358 strikeouts (179 apiece), the first pair of college teammates in at least 30 seasons to lead the country in strikeouts.
With 14 wins and 179 strikeouts across the 2021 season, Kumar Rocker became just the second player since 1988 to lead the nation in both strikeouts and wins in the same season. The only other pitcher ever to do so was Long Beach State’s (and eventual MLB pitcher) Jered Weaver, back in 2004.
Vanderbilt set a program record in strikeouts across the 2021 season. The Commodores recorded 790 punch-outs, while posting 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings to rank second in the nation. The Vandy Boys won both the 2014 and 2019 College World Series; and though they didn’t win it all in 2021, 15 of their players became MLB picks.
Vanderbilt, however, has only fairly recently become a pretty regular college baseball juggernaut; but there are other colleges that produce a significant prospect pipeline for the major leagues – and some even more so than the Commodores.
By far and away, the most prolific College World Series winning team has been the University of Southern California (USC) Trojans. Although USC hasn’t won a World Series since 1998, from 1948-1998 the Trojans won 12 College World Series. They claimed a record five straight titles from 1970-1974, while no other team in College World Series history has ever won more than two consecutive titles.
The University of Southern California USC Trojans players celebrate after winning the NCAA Division I Baseball College World Series against the Arizona State Sun Devils on 6th June 1998 at the Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, United States. The USC Trojans won the game 21 - 14. (Photo by Vincent Laforet/Getty Images)
Louisiana State University (LSU) and the University of Texas come closest to the Trojans in terms of College World Series wins. Both the Tigers and the Longhorns have six World Series wins, with Arizona State coming in just behind them with five wins. Other colleges that have been pretty prolific over time at the Omaha event have been the University of Arizona, Cal-State Fullerton, and the University of Miami. It’s no coincidence that a significant number of the MLB players who went to college over the past 50-75 years graduated from one of the colleges just mentioned.
Every year, eight teams make it to the College World Series. The process to win is a double elimination challenge; but by the time the final two teams are left standing, they play a best-of-three series for the national championship.
The teams have gone through a seeding process prior to reaching the World Series, based on their win-loss records within and externally to their division throughout the season. They then play a tournament that includes a regional competition and then a super-regional competition. The culmination for the winners of those competitions is the opportunity to compete in the College World Series.
This year’s bracket looked like this just prior to the start of the series:
The participants are the Oklahoma Sooners, the Texas A&M Aggies, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Texas Longhorns, the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Stanford Cardinal, the Ole Miss Rebels, and the Auburn University Tigers. Four of these teams were unseeded; and yet the playing field is considered by college baseball experts to be pretty level.
Some of these teams are recent regulars at the College World Series, such as the Longhorns, whom we’ve already mentioned. But this year, 10 of the top 13 seeds did not get to the College World Series, including the number one seed, Tennessee. For reasons that are reminiscent of the old adage “that’s why the games are played,” the last time the top seed won a national championship was the University of Miami in 1999. The past three tournaments, the number one seed didn’t even make it to Omaha.
The eight teams that did make it this year include the number two seeded team in the NCAA tournament, Stanford. Also number five Texas A&M, number nine Texas, and number fourteen Auburn.
As we’ve already hinted a couple of times, Omaha’s most familiar face is Texas, who this year has made its 38th College World Series appearance. That’s 13 more than second-place Miami, who isn’t there this year but has been there 25 times in the past. Only 37 College World Series have been played without the Longhorns. When they met Notre Dame Friday night, it was the program’s 152nd College World Series game. Nobody else has more than 100. It was Notre Dame’s eighth. And yet, the Longhorns have already been eliminated from this year’s College World Series – by their in-state rival, the Texas A&M Aggies.
Three past national champions are/were participants this year – Texas, Stanford, and Oklahoma. But none of the schools that won the past 15 titles are present. Four SEC schools are participating, Arkansas, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M. If this were a couple of years from now, after Oklahoma and Texas move to the SEC, that would make six SEC teams – or 75 percent of the field.
Head Coach Dave Van Horn of the Arkansas Razorbacks talks with players during a time out during game 2 of the series against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Baum-Walker Stadium at George Cole Field on May 15, 2022 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Razorbacks defeated the Commodores 11-6. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
As of Sunday night, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and Texas A&M had advanced to the second round of play from Bracket 1. From Bracket 2, Arkansas and Ole Miss had already advanced to the second round, with the decision between Stanford and Auburn waiting till Monday’s game result.
Some of the most exciting players to watch in this year’s World Series included two from the Bracket 1 team already eliminated, the Texas Longhorns: Murphy Stehly and Ivan Melendez. Stehly had evolved into protection in the lineup for the dangerous hitter Melendez, who turned away overtures from the Miami Marlins last offseason to return to Texas. Melendez hit .396 with 32 homers and 94 RBIs this season for Texas. He’s a candidate for the 2021-2022 National Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Stehly hit .375 with 23 doubles, 19 homers, and 61 RBIs this year, which was just what Melendez needed to give him the opportunity to be a threat at the plate all season.
Texas Longhorns infielder Ivan Melendez (17) winces in pain after being hit by a pitch during the game between Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma State Cowboys on May 1, 2022, at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin, TX. (Photo by David Buono/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Other exciting players to keep an eye on from Bracket 1 include Oklahoma Sooner Peyton Graham, who this season hit .336 with 20 homers and 70 RBIs, and the Fighting Irish’s Jack Zyska and Jack Brannigan, who both have a strong propensity to be power hitters.
From Bracket 2, there’s Stanford’s Brock Jones, a college baseball star in his own right. He’s a likely first-round MLB draft pick for center field, as he slashed .327/.455/.665 this year. Auburn’s first baseman, Sonny DiChiara, had a season line of .392/.560/.809 with 22 homers. DiChiara leads the nation in OBP and ranks third in OPS. Another likely early round MLB draft pick.
Stanford Cardinal Outfielder Brock Jones (7) celebrates after winning the PAC-12 Baseball Championship game between the Stanford Cardinal and the Oregon State Beavers on May 29, 2022, at Scottsdale Stadium, in Scottsdale, AZ. (Photo by Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Timothy J. Elko of Ole Miss hit .302/.412/.656 with a school-record 22 home runs and 71 RBIs; so you might want to keep an eye on him. And Arkansas third baseman Cayden Wallace is an almost surefire first round MLB pick this summer, for his all-around ability as a five-tool player.
One noteworthy aspect of the current college baseball scene is the coaching that’s impacting the best teams – some of whom are volunteers and/or former MLB players or coaches. Troy Tulowitzki at Texas has proven to be one of the premier hitting coaches in baseball; Michael Earley at Texas A&M has completely turned around that program’s offense; and Reggie Willits has had a huge impact on Oklahoma’s offense all year long.
There are multiple pitchers and defensive players in this year’s College World Series who merit recognition as well; too many to elaborate here – but suffice it to say that there are enough starting pitchers, bullpen arms, and pure defensemen to make this years’ College World Series as exciting and competitive an event as it’s ever been. If you have a free moment, tune in if you can; and who knows? You may even get to see some future professional baseball stars in the making.
- Credit the NCAA website and its writers for providing many of the facts, figures, and details provided in this story.