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2023 Mid-American Conference Baseball Season Preview

Ball State and Central Michigan need to reload and Kent State returns enough production to return to the top of the MAC baseball world.

Kenneth Bailey

College baseball starts the 2023 season this week with games all across the south and west. Friday, February 17th is officially opening day, and all eleven MAC schools are away from home.

The coaches poll from the MAC baseball coaches has been released without any major shakeups from the previous season's standings.

Ball State has been picked to win the MAC with Toledo, Central Michigan and Kent State qualifying for the MAC Tournament. Ball State had the best regular season conference record and hosted the tournament in 2022, eventually dropping both Championship Games to Central Michigan.

The Chippewas went on to the Gainesville regional and went 1-2 with both losses coming to the hosting Florida Gators.

2023 Returning Production

College sports can be boiled down into three parts; talent acquisition, talent development and talent deployment.

The development in college baseball is a huge portion of why players chose college. Some of the college players have already been drafted to MLB teams after high school and chose to go to college for whatever reason. Without a doubt, one of them is to mature and develop into a better draft position.

Those players don’t usually end up in the MAC, but even if the player went undrafted out of high school, almost all of them are at least interested in getting to the next level.

The offenses in the MAC are almost always more developed than the pitching. Scoring runs is a must to be a competitive MAC team. The table below is the returning production for each school ranked by quality.

2023 Returning Hitting
Team At-Bats OPS wOBA
Ohio 919 0.939 0.409
Kent State 1362 0.901 0.394
EMU 830 0.887 0.387
WMU 1318 0.873 0.383
Miami 1153 0.830 0.367
CMU 941 0.808 0.362
BGSU 1373 0.797 0.353
Toledo 1336 0.799 0.352
Ball State 922 0.778 0.344
NIU 937 0.752 0.339
Akron 692 0.724 0.324
MAC Average 1071 0.826 0.365

The average program returns 1,071 at-bats of the average total of 1,810. A full-time starter usually ends up with between 150 and 200 at-bats over the course of the season.

Akron is an outlier with less than 700 at-bats returning from 2023. The Akron program is in its third year since the team was re-established, so the state of the roster hasn’t hit a steady state yet. Kent State returns more than three-quarters of its production from the previous year and is well above the MAC average in quality. They could be looking at a return to form after a few down years based on Kent State’s baseball history.

Pitching in the MAC is best viewed through the lens of what the MAC averages are. The MAC average ERA was 6.81 in 2022. It’s extremely high compared to professional-level baseball, but that's springtime #MACtion. Runs come in bunches and there are always baserunners.

2023 Returning Pitching
Team Innings ERA WHIP FIP
CMU 227 4.31 1.47 5.33
Toledo 224 4.95 1.64 6.19
EMU 300 6.25 1.78 6.32
Kent State 303 6.41 1.71 6.50
Ball State 280 4.76 1.49 6.58
Miami 229 6.37 1.84 6.78
Ohio 250 7.00 1.94 6.94
NIU 234 7.86 2.09 7.11
WMU 306 8.35 2.12 7.48
BGSU 260 9.14 2.20 8.26
Akron 283 9.20 2.23 8.37
MAC Average 263 6.78 1.93 6.90

I like Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) as a measure of MAC pitching since it only looks at what the pitcher can control. Large differences between FIP and ERA can be for multiple reasons. FIP ignores all defense and all batted balls that don’t go over the fence. Baseball has a significant amount of “batted ball luck” which explains why games can be won and lost and why small sample sizes are not good for baseball. Defense is the hardest part of baseball to numerically analyze, but FIP can give us some insight into which teams play great defense.

Central Michigan has the best returning pitching staff by any quality metric. They also have the highest percentage of innings to replace coming from 2022. Western Michigan is the exact opposite. They have the fewest innings to replace, but they need to be better than they were a year ago.

Akron Zips

Last Season 15-41 (11-29)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 40% (11) Returning Innings % (Rank) 64% (5)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.324 (11) Returning FIP (Rank) 6.71 (11)

Last season was a tough one for the Akron Zips, but the program didn’t exist from 2016 to 2020. The college baseball season was barely underway when the NCAA canceled the season, so the Zips played their first full season of baseball in 2021. It’s understandable for a team to have a difficult time essentially coming back from the dead. They were last in runs scored and runs allowed and finished last in the conference.

The Zips turnover their lineup and have the most production to replace from the previous year of any MAC school. That might not be a bad thing. Left fielder Nick Arrivo and catcher/first basemen Michael Sprockett return to lead the offense. They are joined by Jack Poist, a Division III transfer outfielder that has a career 0.890 OPS, and Ethan Schimony, an athletic high school catcher that has an opportunity to make an impact right away.

They don’t have to totally rebuild the pitching staff, but they do need improvement. Conor Steinbaugh was a reliable start for the Zips that graduated last season. Brett Dietrich and Sammy Tortorella were reliable arms in the bullpen that will probably be asked to pitch more innings than their combined 52 last year. Freshman lefty John Allen posted an ERA under one in his senior season of high school and Emmett Gillies showed a high spin rate in scouting events.

Looking forward to this season, the Zips are still light on upperclassmen. They have a new manager Tim Donnelly, who has been an assistant coach all over the country and is the son of former MLB manager Rich Donnelly. Most of his positions have been hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, and the Zips desperately need to bring in talent at a level more consistent with the rest of the MAC. The broader context of the team not existing in 2019 can’t be ignored.

Their focus should still be to acquire talent and develop the players.

Ball State Cardinals

Last Season 39-17 (32-7)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 48% (8) Returning Innings % (Rank) 59% (6)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.344 (9) Returning FIP (Rank) 4.92 (5)

The Cardinals had the best regular season record and hosted the MAC Tournament in 2022. The tournament didn’t go their way and they lost two games on championship Sunday to Central Michigan. It was a great season that left a bad taste in the mouth.

Ball State has a lot to replace to get back to that level. Pitcher Tyler Schweitzer and left fielder Zach Cole were both draft picks after the season and leave massive shoes to fill. Fellow outfielders Amir Wright and Nick Powell leave as well, leaving the Cardinals with no starting outfielders from the 2022 squad. Trenton Quartermaine lead the team with 14 home runs and also graduated. Ryan Peltier and Hunter Dobbins are the best bats returning from a year ago. They will be joined by three transfer outfielders with a minimum OPS of 0.883. Logan Flood is an NAIA transfer with home run power and 31 stolen bases, Nick Gregory has 39 stolen bases to his name from two seasons of JUCO baseball and Jalen Martinez had a JUCO OPS of 1.116.

Ty Johnson was named to the All-MAC Second Team a year ago and could step into the Friday starter role. Two big arms from the bullpen are back, Ryan Brown and Sam Klein, to make the Cardinals a difficult game for almost any team in the nation. The problem they have is 88 productive innings left from the heart of the bullpen and will need to be replaced. Two high school recruits that can touch the low 90s with their fastball are on their way in Blake Bevis and Cole Wise. Wise struck out 71 in 39 innings in his final season of high school baseball.

Ball State has its program in a position to reload and not rebuild. They have recruited high school and the transfer portal well and should expect to finish the season in the top four. Finding the right mix in the tournament is going to be the key for them.

Bowling Green Falcons

Last Season 18-34 (14-24)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 83% (1) Returning Innings % (Rank) 64% (4)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.353 (7) Returning FIP (Rank) 6.60 (10)

The 2022 Bowling Green Falcons regressed slightly from their 2021 conference record of 18-22. The pitching staff posted the worst ERA in the league, second worst FIP and their offense couldn’t make up for it with a below average wOBA and runs scored. The Falcons fielding percentage was second highest, but that tells us that they didn’t make mistakes when they could reach the ball. Their FIP to ERA difference suggests that hits were dropping in more against them, or that their defensive range was limited. Maybe both.

They have returning starters all over the field and throughout the pitching staff. The only major departures are first baseman Adam Furnas, starting pitcher Andrew Abrahamowicz and reliever Jeremy Spezia. The catcher Kyle Gurney earned All-MAC Second Team with his 0.966 OPS and Ryan Johnston was named to the All-MAC Defensive Team at short stop. Utility outfielder Nathan Archer will be important to the offense with extra base power. Starter Gage Schenk will be their #1 starter heading into the season.

Leighton Banjoff transfers in from Nebraska to compete for the first base job in new scenery. The coaching staff is certainly hoping he can make an impact immediately. Freshman Brady Birchmeier might give him a run for his money at the first base spot as a highly rated high school recruit. DJ Newan is another high school position player that might crack the lineup with good measurables including a 99 MPH exit velocity. Jacob Turner is a high school pitching recruit that didn’t get much attention from recruiting ranking services until late into his high school career. His fastball touches 90 MPH with a really high spin rate. He could be a reliable pitcher for the Falcons this season.

If the Falcons can get back to around 0.500 this season that will keep them in the tournament race deep into the season. They have the returning pieces to believe that growth is possible and some interesting additions that could get them there. Twelve players graduate off this roster after the season. The Falcons should make a push in 2023.

Central Michigan Chippewas

Last Season 39-16 (30-7)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 47% (6) Returning Innings % (Rank) 44% (11)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.362 (6) Returning FIP (Rank) 3.67 (1)

The Chippewas are becoming NCAA Tournament regulars at this point. Prior to the Gainseville regional, multiple players said they weren’t satisfied making the field anymore. They wanted to win a regional. It was unfortunate seeding that had the national runner-up in their regional, but they showed tremendous grit the entire tournament season.

Three players from that team were selected in the MLB draft. Pitcher Andrew Taylor was a second-round compensation pick, Jakob Marsee went in the sixth round and Mario Camilletti was drafted in the eighth. Jordan Patty and Jake Jones also leave the pitching staff— and leave major holes to fill. Adam Proctor leaves the starting catcher position available, but good players are everywhere on this roster. Justin Simpson was an All-MAC first-team short stop, and Danny Wuestenfeld lead the team with nine home runs in 2022. Both return in 2023. Super two-way player Garrett “Tournament Gary” Navarra can fill any role they need and Adam Mrakitsch pitched really well as the fourth starter down the stretch.

It’s easy to recruit when you’ve made the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years. There are too many interesting players to mention them all, but here are a few highlights. Keegan Batka can touch 95 MPH with his fastball and struck out 10.4 per nine innings at JUCO ball. Two high school pitchers come in highly regarded and are six-foot-seven and six-foot-eight. It seems Central Michigan has a type. AJ Costic is another JUCO player that can step right in at second base. He hit for 1.043 OPS with even strikeouts and walks. That generally indicates a good eye at the plate.

The sky is the limit for this squad.

Some major pieces left the team but even if their first option to fill the void doesn’t work out, there’s another player waiting in the wings. I think the pitching depth they had last season, especially starting pitchers, isn’t going to be matched, but they are clearly a high end MAC program. A fourth-straight MAC Tournament win is on the table.

Eastern Michigan Eagles

Last Season 22-34 (16-24)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 45% (10) Returning Innings % (Rank) 66% (3)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.387 (3) Returning FIP (Rank) 4.66 (3)

Eastern Michigan’s season in 2023 was a mixed bag. They definitely weren’t a bad team, but they weren’t in the top tier either. Going 1-7 against CMU and Ball State really pushed the record to the sub 0.500 mark and kept them from making noise for the MAC Tournament fourth seed.

Left fielder Matt Kirk won the MAC Player of the Year Award and returns to defend that title. He hit 17 home runs in 2022 and was named to the All-MAC Defensive Team. Kirk did it all and a repeat season could get him drafted. Catcher Aaron Doney also hit the cover off of the ball and returns for this season. They will be centerpieces in the Eagle lineup in 2023. However, the losses were heavy. Daniel Warkentin, Brady Huebbe and Gabe Denton all leave and take their well-above-average wOBAs with them.

The pitching staff is where the real improvements could be made. A core of four pitchers that had ERAs ranging from excellent to better than average return to carry the load. Adam Falinski and Thomas House will start games and hand them off to Luke Russo and Zach Gillig. Jagger Jeffries joins the team as a JUCO transfer after striking out 127 batters in 75.2 innings pitched with a 1.55 ERA. He could be an immediate boost.

Kyle Schroedle joins from division three after hitting 36 home runs in his career at that level. He might struggle with strikeouts at the division one level, but he’s clearly better than a division three talent. Logan Milene is a JUCO outfielder that hit 16 home runs in two seasons and Cole Wilcox is another JUCO outfielder who stole 64 bases. Power bats and power arms are what the Eagles are after.

The strategy might work. The Eagles brought in ten transfers and most had a clear reason why they were worth taking a chance on. They need improvement across the board, but the returning pitchers are already in the top half of the league and they brought in so many power bats that they have to score more runs than they did in 2022. Even if it’s solo home run after solo home run. The Eagles have a real shot at being a disruptor this season.

Kent State Golden Flashes

Last Season 24-29 (19-19)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 76% (2) Returning Innings % (Rank) 68% (2)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.394 (2) Returning FIP (Rank) 4.84 (4)

Before the era of Central Michigan dominance, the Kent State Golden Flashes were going to the College Baseball World Series. It’s been a minute since that happened, but Kent State is the legacy baseball program in the MAC. A 19-19 conference record isn’t even close to the standard at Kent State.

The bad news is right fielder Justin Kirby and starting pitcher Collin Romel graduated. The good news is that basically everyone else is back.

Kirby had an OPS over 1.000 and Romel was their most reliable starting pitcher. They will be tough to replace. Romel might hurt more than expected unless starting pitcher depth was found this offseason. The team leader in starts posted an ERA over 10 in 2022. If the Flashes had options, they would have used them. Ciaran Caughey joins out of high school as a highly-rated recruit that touched 90 MPH with his fastball two years ago. Kent State is taking a flyer on Cal transfer Mitchell Scott. He struck out 9.7 per nine innings but gave up 10 home runs in 45.1 innings.

As far as the offense goes, three players return after winning postseason awards. Left fielder Josh Johnson and shortstop Michael McNamara were both on the All-MAC second team and Justin Miknis made the All-MAC Defensive Team at catcher. Kolton Schaller joins as a freshman after hitting for an impressive 1.585 OPS in his senior season.

After a season of low turnover, Kent State returns a majority of its production from a year ago and its high quality. Their roster sets up to make a run at the regular season title and host the MAC Tournament. Kent State has a large and experienced senior class. This is the year for them to pull it off.

Miami RedHawks

Last Season 23-33 (18-22)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 63% (5) Returning Innings % (Rank) 49% (9)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.367 (5) Returning FIP (Rank) 5.12 (6)

Miami finished the season 18-22 with at least a four-game losing streak for the second straight year. Coming into the last weekend of the 2022 season, they had a mathematical chance to make the MAC Tournament. They ran into the Ball State buzzsaw and were swept. Miami heads into 2023 hoping they’ve found the missing pieces to get over the middle of the MAC hump.

Starting pitcher Jonathan Brand was excellent for the RedHawks last year and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the eighth round. Miami had two consistent starters, Brand being one and Zach Maxey the other. Maxey returns as an All-MAC second-team pitcher with a 2.28 ERA. Kenten Egbert started games early in the season but transitioned to the bullpen later in the year.

There are good arms returning, but they need to find depth in the new faces. Tyler Chadwick could fit the mold. He’s joining his third college team after being drafted very late out of high school by the Reds. Hopefully, Oxford suits him. Left-handed pitcher Luke Ross was at one point committed to Minnesota but ends up joining the Miami team as a highly-rated prospect.

Most of the offense from 2022 returns with catcher Cole Andrews being the only big loss. Shortstop William Escala and left fielder Nick Niebauer will also need to be replaced, but they were pretty close to the MAC average player offensively. David Novak was an All-MAC first-team designated hitter and outfielders Benji Brokemond and Zach MacDonald had an OPS over 0.900. Indiana transfer Evan Applewick should get a chance at shortstop and Jonathan Vigoa is an athletic high school catcher that could see playing time early.

The RedHawks did a good job addressing their losses with transfers and high school players. Their offense should produce runs and if Cristian Tejada can return to his 2019 form that would be huge for them. They need to find at least two more reliable starting pitchers so they can improve from series splits to series wins. With only six seniors, it might be a year early to be aiming for the MAC Tournament, but it wouldn’t be shocking for that to happen this year.

Northern Illinois Huskies

Last Season 14-40 (13-25)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 56% (7) Returning Innings % (Rank) 55% (8)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.339 (10) Returning FIP (Rank) 5.45 (8)

The Huskies struggled in 2022. There’s no way around that. They needed at least one win to avoid finishing in a last-place tie with Akron, a team in their second year back from not existing. Northern Illinois lacked power bats on offense and their pitchers struggled to get strikeouts and walked too many batters. It’s been a while since the Huskies were a dangerous team in the MAC.

They lose three starters from their lineup which is in line with the MAC average. Carlos Aranda leaves the designated hitter position and was the only full-time starter with an OPS over 0.800. Outfielders Eric Erato and Malik Peters return to lead the offense, but they will need help getting it back in line with the rest of the MAC. Jake Nelson is a JUCO transfer second baseman that might get a shot along with Jake Kohanzo. Kohanzo could be a two-way player with a high spin rate and 102mph exit velocity from the plate.

The Huskies have to replace more than half of their innings pitched from 2022, but that might not be an issue. Matt Salomonson pitched 41 innings and will likely need to pitch more in 2023. He was the only pitcher with an ERA below the MAC average. Jacob Wilde and DJ Hess are JUCO transfers with ERAs around 3.50. Wilde struck out 132 in 119.1 innings with only 39 walks.

NIU brought in 13 transfers this offseason and only three high school athletes. They seem to be trying to shorten their turnaround time as much as possible and it might work. Expect to see different lineups and a lot of different pitchers in the non-conference schedule in the first three weeks while the coaches figure out what they have.

Ohio Bobcats

Last Season 29-22 (21-15)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 53% (9) Returning Innings % (Rank) 57% (7)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.409 (1) Returning FIP (Rank) 5.28 (7)

Ohio won three games of their four against Western Michigan on the final weekend of the season to secure the fourth seed in the MAC Tournament. Based on wOBA, there were two distinct groups of offenses in the MAC last season. Ohio, Ball State, Central Michigan, Kent State and Western Michigan were all within four points at the top of the MAC. The Bobcat offense was one of the best in the MAC in 2022. The pitching was good enough to win games, but they struggled to limit runs scored by the other good offenses.

One of the best offenses in the MAC returns the best players in 2023. Third baseman Colin Kasperbauer and catcher Mason Minzey made end-of-season All-MAC teams, and AJ Rausch had to have been the next player named. Isaiah Peterson and Spencer Harbert will be missed in the outfield, but JUCO transfer Gideon Antle brings a 1.098 OPS and might soften the blow a little. Another JUCO transfer, Alec Paltino, will try to step into the first base role left by Cael Baker.

The top end of their pitching staff departed including long-time starter Edward Kutt IV. Stud relievers Brett Manis and Eamon Horwedel also leave, but Horwedel transferred to Michigan as a grad student. Brendan Roder and Jacob state will be the top starters for this year's Bobcat squad and both had ERAs under five, which is better than the MAC average by run and a half. More JUCO transfers join the pitching staff with big strikeout numbers. Mitchel Hemmen struck out 10.1 per nine and Trent Spoon struck out 11.4 per nine innings.

The Bobcats are another team that addressed their needs with JUCO transfers. They’ve played better competition than high school players and, in Ohio’s case, each has proven they can play at the college level. Ohio has a solid core returning this season and should be in the mix for the fourth tournament spot.

Toledo Rockets

Last Season 32-24 (23-16)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 70% (3) Returning Innings % (Rank) 47% (10)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.352 (8) Returning FIP (Rank) 4.53 (2)

The Rockets missed the MAC tournament in 2021 by two games and jumped to the three-seed behind their stellar pitching staff in 2022. Scoring runs was a struggle for Toledo and the leading culprit was a low on base percentage. Central Michigan slugged three points better over the whole season and scored 134 more runs with the help of 157 more walks. That’s making it sound as if the Rockets had a bad season. They did not at all, but the gap between them and winning the MAC Tournament is clear.

Toledo had three starting pitchers that could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league. Kyle Jones, Connor Brandon and Jordan Power gave the Rockets a chance to win every time they toed the slab. Unfortunately, they graduated from the program. Their combined 241.1 innings will be hard to replace, but every other pitcher they had that pitched at least nine innings is back. Camryn Szynski was great in the back half as the fourth starter and Cal McAninch did not give away free passes coming out of the bullpen. Ryan Hughes from Loyola Marymount transfers in and was the #14 pitcher in Arizona out of high school.

John Servello and Darryn Davis depart as starters and plus pieces for the Rocket offense. Mason Sykes, the first baseman and the best hitter from a year ago, returns to lead the offense with the designated hitter and All-MAC Second-Team player Garret Pike. Jeron Williams contributes as a MAC average hitter and an All-MAC Defensive Team shortstop. Just like Eastern Michigan, Toledo focused on bringing in power bats. Owen Jackson transfers from JUCO baseball with a 1.332 OPS, 33 home runs and a high walk rate. All of those are good signs for a power hitter. Luke Walton and Wesley Parker have the size for first base and have 99 MPH and 104 MPH exit velocities respectively out of high school.

Finding good fits for the new power bats could be tricky with two established players at first base and designated hitter. No matter what, an attempt has been made to address the lack of offense. Existing pitchers will be leaned on to replace the three excellent starters and their inning load. Hopefully for the Rockets, new faces can make an impact as well and get them back to the MAC Tournament.

Western Michigan Broncos

Last Season 18-36 (15-24)
Returning At-Bats % (Rank) 74% (4) Returning Innings % (Rank) 72% (1)
Returning wOBA (Rank) 0.383 (4) Returning FIP (Rank) 5.82 (9)

Western Michigan dropped six games from the conference win total from 2021 to 2022 and fell from the fourth seed in the MAC Tournament to one of the worst teams in the MAC.

They were a half-team like Toledo but inverted. Their offense was great and could compete with any offense in the MAC. The pitching couldn’t hold a glass of water. The team ERA of 8.85 and 2.18 WHIP means that the average inning was two base runners and a run scored every time. Three other MAC schools were in the same boat, but it’s tough to win games with that average stat line.

For better or worse, almost everyone on the pitching staff is back. Brendan Lovell pitched 55 innings primarily from the bullpen and Easton Sikorski was drafted in the 17th round by the Reds. He was injured most of the season but was drafted based on his earlier performances. Hayden Berg and Dane Armbrustmacher are going to lead the way this year and should be a decent one-two punch in game one. James Geshel and Mike Kelly are names to watch as fresh faces that could make an immediate impact.

Connor Charping was the rare catcher that could rake and steal bases. He hit 0.348 with 21 extra-base hits and stole 26 bases. Justin McIntyre and Charping are the only two full-time starters lost from a very good offense. Dylan Nevar, Jimmy Allen, Gavin Doyle and Cade Sullivan were all well above the MAC average wOBA and all come back. Connor Ostrander is a high school middle infield with a scouting report that says he might be able to make an impact this season.

It’s simple for the Broncos in 2023. Improve the pitching. The bats are there to get it done. If the arms can develop to the MAC average, they will give everyone on their schedule (except LSU) a tough game.