College baseball roundtable: Takeaways, most impressive teams, players and what to expect going forward

We’re more than halfway into the college baseball season, and the year’s biggest theme? Offense. Home runs all over the place. And it’s not for a lack of star pitchers, of whom there are plenty.

This season has been exciting, and with conference play halfway complete, our college baseball experts discuss their biggest takeaways so far, the most impressive teams and players and what they expect to happen in the final few weeks of the regular season.

Biggest takeaway from the first half of the season?

Chris Burke: Offense is exploding all over the country. We have a home run pace that is on track to break the all-time record for college baseball and runs are being scored on par with the late ’90s. In an era where pitchers are throwing harder than at any time before, the hitters are still winning.

Kiley McDaniel: Paul Skenes is the best pitching prospect I’ve seen in college in some time. I find him more impressive than Jack Leiter by a hair, right there with the best in the past decade or so: Casey Mize, Carlos Rodon and Gerrit Cole.

Ryan McGee: It’s the SEC versus the world. There is a lot of growing irritation around college baseball about the best players and coaches bailing on other traditionally great regions and programs to join the ranks of the “S-E-C! S-E-C!” But unless someone steps up to break the “It just means more” blockade, this doesn’t feel like a trend that will be reversed soon.

Kyle Peterson: Power is back across the board. We are on pace for the second-most home runs per game in NCAA history, second only to 1998 when the national championship game was 21-14. I’m all for offense, but we need to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.

Mike Rooney: We are in an era of explosive offense in college baseball. And we are playing at a vastly improved pace. More action and less down time … mark me down for yes. This offensive environment has led to a multitude of incredible comebacks. We are also seeing several off-the-radar programs making noise in the power conferences. Looking at you Boston College, Kentucky, West Virginia and Southern Cal. I love how this all sets up for the postseason.

Which player/team has impressed you most?

Burke: Ethan Petry, South Carolina. Petry has put together one of the best seasons any true freshman has ever had in the SEC. He’s first in slugging (.906) third in batting (.438) second in homers (18), second in RBIs (56) and the list goes on and on. There are some monster seasons being had around the country, but to do all of this as a freshman and to be leading the Gamecocks back to the center of the national stage has Petry in the mix to win the Golden Spikes in his first season. It’s incredible!

McDaniel: Petry was 120th on my draft rankings last year as a high school corner bat. I liked him and now I feel like I got bullied into lowering him on my list when scouts told me he had a reasonable signability number but was still probably going to school. He’s now one of the best hit/power combos in college baseball and a clear first-round talent. His whole at-bat leading to the home run against Skenes was very impressive.

McGee: I totally tried to find a team other than LSU as an answer to this question, but *checks notes* yeah, they are totally the answer. They’ve been ranked No. 1 all season. Dylan Crews is still hitting .500 and has scored 10 more runs than anyone else in the nation. Oh, and Texas A&M head coach Jim Schlossnagle just said that Tigers ace Skenes is “pitching in the wrong league … he needs to be in the American or National League.” That seems pretty good.

Peterson: Either Crews or Petry. Crews is the most complete player in the country and has an OBP% of .648. Petry is putting together one of the best offensive seasons we’ve ever seen from a freshman. Petry’s slash line is .424/.488/.879 … but within the SEC it reads .444/.508/1.093. That’s offensive in every sense of the word. As far as team, Wake Forest is doing everything right. The Deacs lead the nation in ERA and are top 15 in home runs. Wake is the most complete team in the country for me.

Rooney: The LSU duo of Crews and Skenes is the easy answer here. This pair project to go first and second overall in the MLB draft. No college teammates have ever pulled this off. It begs the question, is this the best hitter-pitcher teammate pairing in college baseball history? Lance Berkman and Matt Anderson (Rice 1997) or Trea Turner and Carlos Rodon (NC State 2012-14) may like a word, but the discussion is a blast nonetheless.

Biggest surprise of the season so far?

Burke: Tennessee’s struggles. The Vols were preseason No. 2 largely because most of us expected them to have the best pitching in the country. Well, that hasn’t been the case in SEC play, and the revamped position player group has struggled even more than expected. Add all that up and Tennessee is 5-10 in the league halfway through conference play. On the heels of getting swept last weekend in Fayetteville, Tennessee now has a conference ERA of 5.16 (6th), a team fielding percentage of .952 (14th) and a league batting average of .240 (12th). Those numbers better improve drastically in the second half of conference play if Tennessee wants to hear its name called on selection Monday.

McDaniel: Continuing with the Gamecocks’ trend, South Carolina has been much better than I expected. Alongside Petry, both Gavin Casas and Cole Messina have been revelations. Now that Will Sanders has righted the ship, Jack Mahoney and Noah Hall give them a solid weekend to compete at the top of the SEC.

McGee: Hey, Ole Miss … y’all OK?

Rooney: Wake Forest entered 2023 as the nation’s No. 6 ranked team. So, this was clearly a very good club. That said, the sheer dominance of Tom Walter’s team feels surprising. The Demon Deacons have been dominant from start to finish. They have survived injuries to stars like Nick Kurtz and Teddy McGraw. And pardon the blasphemy, but this roster is more complete than that of No. 1-ranked LSU. This is a super team, and I’m here for it.

Peterson: I thought Arizona State would be better this year, but the Devils are on fire. They are currently 11-3 in the Pac-12 and host Oregon State this weekend. This current Devil squad is looking like those when their head coach, Willie Bloomquist, was leading them to Omaha as a player. Credit to Bloomquist for the job he and his staff have done in a short period of time.

Which team has the most to prove down the stretch?

Burke: Wake Forest. Stay with me here. Wake has put itself in position to be the overall No. 1 seed. That said, this is uncharted territory for Walter and his program, and it will be interesting to see how they handle it down the stretch. The Deacs are 31-5 overall and 14-3 in ACC play, they are a no-doubt regional host. How they handle that bull’s-eye on their back down the stretch will be fascinating to watch.

McDaniel: Tennessee and Florida State have both been pretty underwhelming this year. The handful of the best players on the Noles have lived up to expectations, but there’s little depth performing behind them right now. Tennessee has been harder to figure, with solid all-around performances and with an admittedly tough schedule thus far, but there have been more losses than anyone expected.

McGee: Amid the five-team SEC bunkhouse stampede at the top of the national rankings, there sit the two teams on the opposite ends of Tobacco Road: No. 2 Wake Forest and No. 7 East Carolina. Wake hasn’t been to the College World Series since winning it all in 1955 and ECU is the best college baseball program that has never made it to Omaha. Until the Demon Deacons and Pirates can finally figure out how to get to the banks of the Missouri River in June, there will always be doubts about their lofty rankings. This time around feels very now-or-never for both.

Peterson: Tennessee. The Vols have not been very good so far and sit at 5-10 in the SEC at the halfway point. If the season ended today, Tennessee doesn’t get into the postseason. It has the horses to make a run, but that run needs to start really soon.

Rooney: Tennessee is scuffling and it has been puzzling. The Vols enter Week 7 of SEC play having lost five of their six conference series. Last year’s juggernaut went 9-1 in SEC series. Head coach Tony Vitello returned his entire weekend rotation (Chase Dollander, Chase Burns and Drew Beam), and all three right-handers are healthy and projected as future first-round picks. Yet, the Vols’ announced rotation versus Arkansas contained none of those names. Tennessee is searching for an identity and that is shocking given the massive personality that was the 2022 Vols.

What should we expect in the rest of the season?

Burke: Homers, homers and more homers. The ball is flying out at a historic pace and the weather is just heating up. Enjoy the stretch drive; there is going to be plenty of offense to keep you entertained.

McDaniel: Can Wake Forest compete with the top of the SEC? You could argue the top five teams in the country outside of Winston-Salem are all in the SEC. The Demon Deacons embrace analytics with standout power both in their bats and in their pitching staff, but haven’t quite had that big national breakthrough. This could be the year.

McGee: I wouldn’t call this an expectation, but rather more of a hopeful prediction: Chaos. I want to see chaos. This time last year we were all openly speculating about candidates to become the new head coach at scuffling Ole Miss … and then two months later we were watching Mike Bianco and the Rebs dogpiling in Omaha. I will take more of that, please. So, who is going to step up?

Rooney: We should expect the Big 12 and Pac-12 title races to last until the final day of the regular season. We should expect Crews’ batting average (.500) to dip below .500, but not by much. We should expect Jac Caglianone (Florida) and at least three others to hit 30 or more home runs. We should expect Petry to run away with Freshman of the Year; he will push Crews for SEC Player of the Year honors while he’s at it. And we should expect the Sun Belt to secure more regional bids than any other league outside of the Power 5. #FunBelt

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