Are You Ready for MAC Baseball?

Do you care about MAC sports?  Do you like baseball?  Would you enjoy MAC Baseball but the void of information makes it hard to follow?  Then this article is for you!  The typical source of information before the season is the coaches poll.  That’s usually about it for information published pre-season.  This year, the rankings seem to make sense based on the 2018 conference standings.  Kent State, Ball State, Miami, and Central Michigan all occupy the top 4 spots in both lists.  Are last years standings an accurate predictor for this season?

Returning Players

This is the first time I’ve done research like this for college baseball, so I have no baseline for this information.  One thing I do know is that this can be interpreted by looking at the quality of the returning players and how large their contribution was the previous season.  In general, the more returning at bats or innings returning, the more the quality can be relied on.

Batting Production

The table shows the amount of at bats that are returning in 2019 for each team and the OPS+.  OPS is on base percentage plus the slugging percentage which represents how offenses are performing.  Rather than show a bunch of decimal numbers for each team, I’m showing OPS+ which takes the teams OPS and divides it by the league average OPS, and multiplied by 100.  Ball State has a 104 OPS+ which means that they’re lineup coming back is 4% better than the league average returning player.

The offense to watch is Ohio with one of the best returning group of players, headlined by first baseman Rudy Rott.  He leads all returning players in OPS, helped out by 15 homeruns.  Ohio tied for the lead in the MAC with 47 homeruns as a team and return 34 of them to the roster.  The next highest team returns 20.

Kent State and Toledo also return high quality at bats from the 2018 squad, but not as many of them.  Northern Illinois lost five players that were regular contributors to the offense and they were among their top seven hitters from 2018.  Fresh faces are going to drive the Husky offense this season.

Western and Central Michigan return a lot of players in 2019.  Both clubs will look or some player development to move north of average in league play.  Western Michigan outfielder Nate Grys figures to be a force in MAC play.  He is the only other returning player with double digit homeruns.  For the Chips, Zach Heeke plays first base and gets on base a ton.  In 245 plate appearances he drew 41 walks and was hit by a pitch 25 times.  That’s one hit by pitch almost every other game.

Pitching Production

For the pitchers, the quantity returning is in respect to innings and the quality is looked at two ways:  ERA+ and OPS+.  ERA is a stat that everyone understands and has a lot of contributing factors that may not be under the pitchers control.  OPS allowed by a pitcher tends to be a better predictor of performance than ERA so we’ll take a look at that as well.

A smaller group of players eat the majority of the pitching innings so the ranges of players leaving is more volatile.  Ohio loses all three normal starters and Ball State loses their mid week spot starter and a few relievers.  That’s how much these can change.

Ohio’s fortunes changed a bit on the pitching side.  They have the fewest returning innings and the OPS+ suggests the relievers charged their runs to the starters.

Ball State brings back almost three quarters of their innings from 2018.  John Baker is their best starter and averaged six and a third innings per start while striking out 11 per 9 innings.  The Cardinals also return their best reliever Nolan Gazouski.  Gazouski appeared in 25 games and pitched 42 innings.  The numbers suggest that his stuff is so good he can’t always control it.  He struck out thirteen batters per 9 innings while walking almost eight per 9 innings.

Western Michigan lost all of their quality pitchers and are really looking for some player development.  Kent State returns a really good bullpen but need to replace all three starters.  Bowling Green is in a rough place.  They lost 60% of the innings from a bad team and the returning guys aren’t the good ones.  Pat Leatherman for Central Michigan has the best starter ERA of any returning pitcher and the rest of his stats are solid.

Did the Coaches Get it Right?

Given all this information, did the coaches get it right?  I think Kent State got the votes due to their track record.  The last time they didn’t have the best record in regular season was 2015.  This season might be the year that Ball State challenges for the tournament bid.  Miami got a first place vote, although they lost a lot of power from their lineup that was very dangerous last year.

The only thing that really jumps out as out of place is Northern Illinois’ first place vote.  I have to assume that came from the head coach Mike Kunigonis unless they don’t vote for their own team, but I don’t think that’s the case.  They return a touch above average pitching and the worst and smallest group of hitters from 2018.  Overall they came in 9th in total points, even with a first place vote.

The teams that I expect to be at the top this season are Kent State, Ball State and Central Michigan.  There are two teams looking to build for the future, Northern Illinois and Bowling Green.  The rest are all really interchangeable and depending on new contributors to separate themselves.

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