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2021 Mid-American Conference Baseball Preseason Primer

With a long list of high-profile prospects and multiple teams positioned to win now, the MAC is anybody’s to take in 2021.

Miami Baseball Celebrates (Miami Athletics) Miami Athletics

It’s been nearly a full calendar year since MAC baseball teams have laced up, dug into the batter’s box, and taken the field, but NCAA baseball is back and #MACtion has returned to the diamond.

There is a lot to unpack when it comes to the 2021 NCAA baseball season. After a blanket eligibility waiver granted by the NCAA for all spring athletes and a severely reduced 2020 MLB draft (cut from 40 rounds to five), rosters will look very familiar again this season with many top MAC talents returning for another year. Take any national prospect ranking of your choosing and you are sure to find MAC names up and down every single list as a number of deep and talented rosters prepare to take the field.

Scheduling fiascos are also sure to be front-and-center this spring. MAC schools were allowed a generous helping of 54 games this season (with COVID and weather already making an impact), but there will be no conference tournament in 2021 and the MAC regular-season champion will earn the lone automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It’s unfortunate seeing as very rarely does the MAC regular-season champ win the tournament championship and teams built for the intense NCAA postseason are going to be denied the opportunity to even compete.

But baseball is back and if you want to watch some of the most talented college baseball players across the country, just tune into a MAC baseball game in 2021. As for which team will come out on top, it’s literally anybody’s guess. While Central Michigan enters as the defending MAC champions, Kent State is always in the conversation as a dangerous NCAA tournament team and Miami’s starting rotation can compete with any program in the country. Buckle up.

Central Michigan (2020 record: 11-6)

The Chippewas are not far removed from arguably their best season in program history after winning 47 games in 2019 and taking home both regular-season and postseason MAC titles, while leading the conference in team batting average (.299) and on-base percentage (.421). They appeared destined to repeat their performance in 2020, leading the way in those same categories before the shutdown.

Luckily for head coach Jordan Bischel, he returns virtually his entire roster in 2021, outside of the uber-talented Zavier Warren who was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the third round of last year’s MLB draft. But All-MAC catcher Griffin Lockwood-Powell (.326 career BA and .445 OBP) returns, as does on-base machine Zach Heeke (.455 OBP).

On the mound, RHP Jordan Patty will be the Chippewa’s Friday night starter after going 3-0 with a 0.72 ERA last season and RHP Ian Leatherman is expected to move from his bullpen role into the weekend rotation. Leatherman is quickly moving up the ranks of top MAC draft prospects and is primed for a breakout year for CMU. The Chippewa’s have the right mix of veteran talent and up-and-coming pieces to repeat as MAC champs in 2021 and will have an opportunity to prove themselves as a Top 25 program nationally with an early-season series against 14th-ranked West Virginia in mid-March.

Western Michigan (2020 record: 9-6)

The Broncos haven’t won a regular-season title since 1989 (their 2016 title was a MAC tournament win crown) and haven’t had a winning season since 2008, but they ended 2020 with a winning mark and return the preseason Player of the Year in OF Blake Dunn. Despite a challenging non-conference schedule, there’s plenty of reason for optimism surrounding the WMU program in 2021. Dunn is a multi-tool standout with elite speed and owns a career .335/.420/.457 batting line with 47 stolen bases in his career. He took advantage of being able to play in the Northwoods League this past summer, hitting .349 with a .510 OBP and 37 stolen bags in 63 games with Kalamazoo. There might be a bit of a chip on his shoulder after being passed over in the 2020 MLB draft, which may end up being a nightmare for MAC pitchers.

Getting on base, putting runners in scoring position, and driving them in won’t be a problem for the Broncos, but the pitching staff will dictate how far this team goes this year. RHP Brady Miller is a sophomore with tremendous upside and will look to lead a young, high-ceiling pitching staff stacked with arms familiar with what it takes to succeed on the mound, coming from MLB families. Miller is a workhorse who tossed back-to-back seven-inning outings to close out 2020 against Louisville and Army, a positive sign to build on for 2021.

Kent State (2020 record: 7-6)

Central Michigan may have been voted as the preseason favorite to take the MAC, but Kent State fell just one point short in the vote, and for good reason. RHP Luke Albright will anchor the staff, bringing with him a 96 mph heater and four-pitch mix that has him ranked as one of the top MLB draft pitching prospects in the country. Albright recorded a 1.90 ERA last season and struck out 22 hitters in 23 innings of work, a rate sure to grow in 2021. Teams are going to have fits getting past Albright and then going up against LHP Collin Romel the next day. Romel owns a career 1.66 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 38 innings with Kent State, thanks in large part to one of the best changeups in the conference.

The Golden Flashes also return MAC hitting champ Ben Carew and his career .376/.449/.487 batting line, along with catcher Michael Turner who has more career walks (48) than strikeouts (47) in his three years. Despite taking the MAC in 17 of the last 20 seasons, it won’t be easy for the Golden Flashes in 2021. The battle between CMU, Kent State, Ball State, and Miami will be one of the best conference battles in the country, guaranteed.

Miami (2020 record: 8-7)

If you love elite pitching, don’t miss a Miami game this season. A deep starting rotation will be crucial for the Redhawks in 2021 as the MAC transitions to four-game weekend series this fall. It all starts at the top with RHP Sam Bachman. Bachman is a likely first-round MLB draft pick this summer with a fastball that touches 100 mph and a true swing and miss slider. He’s quickly trending up and showed off a bit of his potential last year, striking out 31 across 23 innings and allowing just one home run. Miami also features Jonathan Brand and his mid-90s fastball and elite curveball, along with 6’6 Tyler Bosma and 6’5” Jacob Webb.

At the plate, catcher Cole Andrews and infielder Will Vogelgesang are the mashers in the middle with the potential to drive in plenty of runs, and outfielders Christian Tejada and Benji Brokemond add speed and on-base ability to the lineup. Miami won a program-high 37 games in 2019 and with a deep roster returning in 2021, a speedy, quality defense in the field, and arguably the top rotation in the MAC, there’s a real possibility Miami exceeds that win total this season. It’s a bold stretch, but possible.

Northern Illinois (2020 record: 7-10)

In a league dominated by strong starting pitching, the Huskies are prepared to bring the bats in 2021 to try and sneak their way into the top of the conference. They will have to start with 21-straight road games, but Northern Illinois led the shortened 2020 season in total bases and bring back the majority of their production this season which ranked second in team batting average with a .270 mark. Catcher Jake Dunham is as durable as one can get behind the plate, starting 55 of 56 games at catcher in 2019 and all 17 games last season. The senior backstop led the MAC with four home runs and 18 walks in 2020 and has been a power-hitting leader in the middle of the Huskies’ lineup for the last two seasons. He’s also one of the top defensive arms in the MAC, gunning down 30 potential base stealers in 2019.

If weekend starters Mike Lasiewicz (12-12, 3.93 ERA) and Brandon McPherson (6’3” 225 pound sophomore with strikeout ability) can take the next step in their development, the Huskies might be able to take advantage of the 2021 schedule and be a threat to break up that is going to be a tight race at the top of the conference.

Ball State (2020 record: 7-9)

Ball State may not have quite the prospect firepower as many of the other top programs in the MAC this year but they are not short on experienced talent. RHP Chayce McDermott is next among the long list of MLB arms to come through the Cardinals’ program. He earned high praise from scouts this summer after showing off his mid-90s fastball and high-quality curveball. He’s a solid draft prospect, but won’t take the ball on Friday nights.

John Baker will return in 2021 for a fifth season after passing up MLB opportunities and while his repertoire isn’t overpowering or as impressive as other Friday night starters in the conference, he is one of the most accomplished pitchers in MAC history (18-11, 3.27 ERA, 297 K in 250 innings).

Ball State fans can usually rely on their pitching staff to lead the way and that will continue to be the case. As long as the offense shows up, this team will compete for a title. Luckily, the Cardinals return eight hitters to their lineup. Defending MAC Defensive Player of the Year Chase Sebby is back behind the plate and second baseman Noah Navarro and first baseman Trenton Quartermaine also return after combining for 41 hits last season (both top four in the conference). This year’s roster has the makings of an underrated squad who will surprise a number of opponents and they will be battle-tested entering MAC after opening their season against Arizona, Kentucky, and Old Dominion, all on the road.

Ohio (2020 record: 3-7)

If the Bobcats want to turn things around in 2021, they are going to have to find some offense. They played just 10 games last season but hit .182 as a team with a .283 OBP and 10 total extra-base hits. Only Akron ranked worse offensively. A major shakeup has also recently thrown the Bobcats through a loop as head coach Rob Smith unexpectedly retired, leaving Ohio in search of a permanent coach and their first MAC championship in 40 years.

Luckily, Ohio will send out LHP Joe Rock every Friday night. Rock is ranked as one of the top pitching prospects in the nation and considered a Top 30 college prospect by most national outlets. Listed at 6’6” and 220 pounds, Rock can run his fastball up to 95 mph and also features a slider and changeup to form a major league quality repertoire. His skillset now needs to translate to the field where strikeouts have been low and walks have been high. A standout 2021 season will help carry Ohio to a number of wins and skyrocket him MLB draft boards.

Toledo (2020 record: 3-13)

Last season was a tough year for the Rockets who surrendered 10 or more runs in 25 percent of their games. Toledo ranked 10th with a 7.38 ERA and surrendered a league-high 88 walks and 16 home runs in 2020. The bullpen will be strong in 2021 with Kyle Bischoff and his mid-90s heater and Layne Schnitz-Paxton’s starter’s repertoire in the bullpen, but the major question mark is the starting rotation.

Luckily, the Rockets have one of the top offenses in the MAC, led by 1B Chris Meyers. Meyers brings impressive raw-power to the plate which has translated to 12 home runs so far in his career. After hitting eight in his first 99 games with the Rockets, Meyers hit four in 16 games last season. He also owns a career .398 OBP with 73 career walks. Not only will Meyers be a crucial piece to Toledo’s lineup, but he will also look to stabilize the starting rotation as a rare and exciting two-way player. This could also be the year that Darryn Davis emerges as one of the top hitters in the MAC. In 68 games, the third-year player has a career .347/.416/.445 batting line, lives in the gaps, and had 13 walks last season, more than double the number of strikeouts he had (6).

Eastern Michigan (2020 record: 2-12)

The record may not have been what EMU wanted last season and many of the individual numbers were ugly, but neither of these paint the full picture. This roster is much better than the statistics show. Friday night starter Davis Feldman is back for a sixth season after missing a significant amount of time throughout his career due to injuries. When healthy, he’s a probable late-round MLB draft pick. Feldman looked great over the summer pitching in an exhibition in Texas during early-quarantine, so well it was surprising to not see him land a free agent contract after the MLB draft. Justin Meis finished third in the MAC with 29 strikeouts last season, but home runs were an issue. They will be a strong duo in 2021.

The schedule is rough for EMU but will be a great test for this program, including an early-season contest against SEC foe Mississippi State. But with an underrated pitch staff and the leadership of veterans like catcher Nick Jones (four-year captain), the Eagles are a team to watch in 2021. Nick’s brother, Nate Jones, could be the key to unlock a fun offense for Eastern Michigan. They won’t overpower their opponents, but speed and defense can be equally as effective.

Bowling Green (2020 record: 2-11)

What an offseason for the Bowling Green Falcons. Shortly after having their season ended prematurely, BGSU eliminated the baseball program before a phenomenal fundraising effort quickly revived the storied program. Much of the roster returns, but a handful of players remained in the transfer portal and moved on, including their top hitter in Jake Wilson (Liberty). Head coach Danny Schmitz is also gone after a 30-year run with the program. Former pitching coach Kyle Hallock will have his work cut out for him and a 17-game road trip to begin the 2021 season as he tries to settle in.

Offensively, catcher Kyle Gurney is back with much-needed on-base ability (.362 OBP) at the plate and the ability to be the quarterback of the infield. BGSU is not short on experienced, powerful starting pitching. Tyler Hays (1.66 ERA last season) is one of the more underrated arms in the conference and he’s going to be followed up in the rotation by multiple fourth-year options, including Jeremy Spezia, Nathan Lohmeier, and Andrew Abramhamowicz. The biggest question will be how much offensive support this staff receives.

Akron (2020 record: 1-11)

2020 was supposed to be a joyous year for the Akron Zips as they returned to the field for the first time in four years after dropping the program for a few seasons, but then March 2020 happened. The Zips will try again at a full season but won’t begin until March 6, two weeks after other programs. Building a program from the ground up is a long process and this year’s schedule will give a young Zips team an opportunity to get their legs underneath them and enter MAC play with some confidence. Dayton is the only Division-I opponent on the non-conference slate.

The roster is full of JUCO transfers looking to prove they belong and the leader of the group may end up being Friday night starter Conor Steinbaugh. His curveball will strike out more than a handful of hitters this season. Akron beat Marshall for their only win just days before the end of the season last year and lost four games by two runs or less. If they can find some offense, the Zips will surprise the league with a few big wins. Saturday doubleheaders all year will help.