After three weekends of baseball, conference play starts this Friday. Weather and roster flexibility become a much larger part of the season as teams head north. Muncie is projected to be rainy and 38° F on Friday when they host Western Michigan.
With eleven teams in the conference, one team plays a non-conference opponent every week. Buffalo shuttered their baseball program in 2017, but if they came back it could be uninterrupted springtime MACtion after week three. Central Michigan is the odd one out this weekend. They won’t get a break the rest of the way.
The non-conference schedule is far from balanced, but quite a bit can be learned from the games played so far.
End of the Non-Conference Tiers
After three weekends of baseball, it’s useful to take stock of the league. Some teams played very well, others still need some sorting and three look like another tough season is in front of them.
Off to a Good Start:
Kent State goes 8-4 to start the season and looks like they’re back to their winning ways. They took two games from a solid Jacksonville State squad that sits at 8-5 with a win against #6 Florida. The Golden Flashes went 5-0 last week with two wins over Murray State and a weekend sweep of UT Martin. The series against Wofford looks bad, but Wofford is the favorite to win the SoCon.
The underlying data is strong too. They are a top-half MAC team in every quality metric. Their offense is scoring 7.45 runs per game and their starter's ERA (3.48) is just over two runs better than second place. The bullpen is a little shakier but, they are still a run better than the MAC average.
Ball State has had their bullpen carry the water for the pitching staff so far and for good reason. They have the league’s best ERA at 4.33 and 12.8 strikeouts per nine. Their starters have been good as well, but they run into trouble more frequently. They’re hitting the ball hard on offense, but lagging under the average in runs per game. That seems like it will correct itself over the season. A tough series opened the season at Charlotte, but the Cardinals are 6-2 since then.
Toledo is hitting the cover off the ball on the way to a 5-4 start. They lead the MAC with 19 homers. Their returning hitters have progressed early in the season and the offseason bats acquired all had the same trait: power. It’s paying off early for the Rockets. The biggest surprise has been their ability to find pitchers. They lost three excellent starters before this season. Their starters haven’t been as good as their bullpen, but they’ve got time to sort that out.
Eastern Michigan was my dark horse pick before the season for the MAC title and they haven’t shown anything that makes that seem impossible. A four-game sweep of Towson gets them to a 6-4 record and they make their opponents earn their wins. They have the lowest strikeout rate from their batters and score 7.2 runs per game. Their pitchers have time to figure out how to limit the free passes, but the team WHIP is in good shape. Their numbers suggest the good start should continue.
Could go either way:
Central Michigan sits at 5-5, which is good, but the losses from last year's team might be starting to show their impact. Their runs per game is a strong 7.2, but their strikeout rate is nearly 40 percent and they’ve had almost no power to this point in the season. The teams their numbers compare with are not who they’ve kept company with recently.
The pitching has been solid, but their strikeouts are way down. That isn’t automatically a problem, but pitchers can take pressure off themselves by getting outs without the defense. They could easily pull ahead as they enter the MAC schedule, but it’s not obvious at this point that is going to happen.
Miami’s season has been two distinct stories. The offense is solid and averages 7.64 runs per game. They lead the MAC in team wOBA, OPS and on-base percentage. However, they have a team ERA of 9.60 and allow two baserunners per inning. The offense cannot keep pace with how many runs they allow.
The pitching staff has good stuff which must add a layer of frustration to the problem. It might be too good though. They lead the MAC in strikeouts per nine with 12.8. Ball State had a tough opening weekend for walks but since then has managed the problem. The RedHawks are right on their heels in walks per nine without an outlier weekend. They also lead the league in wild pitches and hit batters. They are seemingly just as likely to strike you out as send one to the backstop. Controlling the runs allowed will be key to taking a step forward this season.
The last team here is Western Michigan. The first two weeks didn’t result in any wins for the Broncos and the stats were bad. Playing the #1 team for roughly a third of the schedule will skew the numbers. The second weekend was agonizingly close to getting some wins but opportunities weren’t converted. The third weekend saw the Broncos win three of four.
If the opening weekend is removed from the data, they're the MAC’s second-best offense. The pitching staff still needs some work, but it might be serviceable for the MAC. It’s convenient to remove their worst weekend to make them look better, but no one on their schedule is going to have talent like LSU.
Off to a tough start:
Ohio mashed their way to the four-seed in the MAC Tournament last season and they’re off to a 2-8 start in 2023. The pitchers are struggling to get outs in any way they can, despite low walk numbers. It looks like the Bobcat pitchers are extremely hittable this year which is not where they wanted to be.
The offensive numbers are misleading for Ohio. They lead the MAC in runs per game and batting average with solid numbers across the board. Their one-game high is a 27-run outburst against Navy. That game is doing a lot of work to skew the offensive stats. With just that game removed, the Bobcats' average drops from 7.80 runs per game to 5.89. It’s bleak right now in Athens.
Akron has improved massively from 2022, but this weekend is proof enough that they still have a long way to go. They won the Friday matchup with Purdue 2-1 and dropped the other three a combined 13-53. They sit at 4-7 and the Zip offense is driven by newcomers and slugging their way to success. They’re still under the MAC average, but it’s the defining quality of their offense.
Northern Illinois made it to Sunday of the second weekend before snagging their first win. It’s not the fault of their pitchers, they’ve been a top-half unit. The batters have just been underwhelming all along so far. They lack the power to drive in the base runners they do get, and the pitchers have the lowest strikeout rate in the MAC. The Huskies going to need to play strong defense to convert the extra balls in play into outs consistently.
Bowling Green has been led by Gage Schenk on the mound and Rigo Ramos out of the bullpen. That’s pretty much the end of the good news. A near series win against #16 Louisville turned into a four-game sweep at the hands of Evansville by a combined 10-41. The bats are ice cold, earning four runs a game, with a team batting average of .206. Maybe the bats need time, maybe Bowling Green is going to tread water this year.
The MAC had a winning weekend
In the opening weekend, the MAC went 11-25 and followed that with a 10-28 second week. Those aren’t good records, but it’s in line with what the MAC usually achieves in the early season. This weekend the 11 teams combined to go 24-17.
The stats made a huge jump as well, everything went in the right direction:
This may be driven by the opponents they played. No program had a weekend series against a ranked team, which is different than the first two weeks. A .106 jump in OPS is huge especially paired with a more than half-run reduction in ERA.
Even if the competition decreased, Kent State swept UT Martin, Eastern Michigan swept Towson, and Toledo swept Middle Tennessee State. On top of the three sweeps, Ball State and Western Michigan each won three games of four in their weekend series of rotating opponents.
Winning weekends aren’t common for the MAC and should be recognized when they happen.
- The Bobcats were the only team to not hit a home run this week as their power woes continue. It’s such a stark difference from a year ago it’s hard to stomach. The batting average is there, just no power.
- Akron has Friday figured out, but not much else. Sammy Tortorella has been excellent as the Friday starter and some combination of Emmett Gillies and Brett Dietrich land the plane.
- Bowling Green had a stinker of a weekend against Evansville. After taking a game from #16 Louisville and losing a one-run game, they were never competitive in any of the four games.
- Toledo unleashed the dinger machine against Middle Tennesee State. They hit nine home runs across three games in their sweep. They lead the MAC with 19.
- Central Michigan split a pair of neutral site games in California against Saint Mary’s. Weather knocked two games off of their weekend which should set them up to handle a heavy load this week of six games.
|MAC Team of the Week|
|C||Matthew Rivera||Ball State||4/10, 3 Runs, RBI, 2B, BB SB|
|Corner IF||Cade Sullivan||WMU||11/21, 5 Runs, 12 RBI, 2B, 3 HR, HBP|
|Corner IF||Aidan Longwell||Kent State||11/21, 5 Runs, 9 RBI, 2B, 3B, HR, BB, HBP|
|Mid IF||Aaron Harper||NIU||8/15, 6 Runs, 10 RBI, 2 HR, 5 BB, 2 SB|
|Mid IF||Jeron Williams||Toledo||6/14, 4 Runs, 7 RBI, 2B, 2 HR, SB|
|OF||Caden Konczak||Toledo||6/12, 3 Runs, 6 RBI, 2B, 2 HR, 2 BB, 2 SB|
|OF||Will Morrison||WMU||10/17, 8 Runs, 7 RBI, 2 2B, 2 BB, HBP|
|OF||Zach MacDonald||Miami||5/15, 5 Runs, 4 RBI, 4 2B, HR, 3 BB, SB, HBP|
|Extra Hitter||Ryland Zaborowski||Miami||6/18, 6 Runs, 8 RBI, 2 2B, 3 HR, BB|
|SP||Ben Cruikshank||Kent State||Win, 6.1 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 6 K|
|SP||Sammy Tortorella||Akron||Win, 8 IP, 5 H, BB, 5 K, 4 HBP|
|SP||Noah Johnson||Toledo||Win, 6 IP, 5 H, BB, 8 K|
|RP||Tanner Knapp||Ball State||7.2 IP, 2 H, 3 BB, 9 K|
|RP||Ryan Palmblad||CMU||Save, 4 IP, 4 K|
|RP||Nick Bonk||NIU||2 Saves, 3 IP, 4 K|
Aaron Harper from Northern Illinois had an amazing weekend. The Huskies scored 37 runs over the four-game series and Harper drove in ten. Western Kentucky had a hard time keeping him off base. On top of his eight hits, he drew five walks and stole two bases.
Aidan Longwell did most of his damage from the plate with 11 hits and nine runs batted in, but his mid-week pitching performance was good as well. He pitched 4.1 innings, allowed two runs and struck out six. The other corner infielder, WMU’s Cade Sullivan was one of two players this weekend to hit three home runs.
Toledo swept Middle Tennessee State and shortstop Jeron Williams and outfielder Caden Konczak were major reasons why. Konczak was the seven-hitter in the first two games and was frequently on base for Williams, the lead-off hitter.
Kent State’s Ben Cruikshank is the first pitcher to make this list twice, and deservedly so after allowing five base runners and no runs in 6.1 innings of work. He very nearly got the complete game shutout in the seven-inning first leg of the doubleheader, but he was 106 pitches into the outing.
Akron had Connor Steinbaugh last year as their shining star on the pitching staff and Sammy Tortorella has filled those shoes nicely. He had to dance around Purdue base runners, including four reaching by HBP but held the Boilermakers to one run in eight innings. In the 20 innings not pitched by Tortorella, Purdue scored 53 runs.
Tanner Knapp appeared twice this weekend for Ball State and absolutely rolled. Two hits and three walks over 7.2 with nine strikeouts is a manager’s dream from the bullpen. Ryan Palmblad has almost no stats, which is ideal for a pitcher. Almost everything that goes in the stat line for pitchers is imperfections. Palmblad had none. Nick Bonk was similarly dominant in two save appearances for NIU.
|3-4||vs Purdue||L||0-13 F/7|
|3-5||vs Purdue||L||4-23 F/7|
|Next Opp.||vs. Eastern Michigan|
|Ball State Cardinals
|3-4||vs Purdue FW||W||11-0|
|3-4||vs #3 Wake Forest||L||4-7|
|3-5||vs Purdue FW||W||13-9|
|Next Opp.||at Florida A&M (Tue), vs Western Michigan|
|Bowling Green Falcons
|3-4||at Evansville||L||3-9 F/7|
|3-4||at Evansville||L||0-11 F/7|
|3-5||at Evansville||L||4-8 F/7|
|3-5||at Evansville||L||3-13 F/7|
|Next Opp.||at Ohio|
|Central Michigan Chippewas
|3-5||at Saint Mary's||L||0-6|
|3-5||at Saint Mary's||W||12-6|
|Next Opp.||at San Jose State (Mon), at Saint Mary's (Wed), at Sacramento State|
|Eastern Michigan Eagles
|Next Opp.||at Oakland (Tue), at Akron|
|Kent State Golden Flashes
|2-28||at Murray State||W||6-4|
|3-1||at Murray State||W||4-3|
|3-4||at UT Martin||W||6-0|
|3-4||at UT Martin||W||12-3|
|3-5||at UT Martin||W||9-6 F/10|
|Next Opp.||vs Youngstown State (Tue), vs Northern Illinois|
|Next Opp.||at Wright State (Tue), at Dayton (Wed), vs Toledo|
|Northern Illinois Huskies
|3-4||at Western Kentucky||L||8-9|
|3-4||at Western Kentucky||L||5-7|
|3-5||at Western Kentucky||W||18-10 F/7|
|3-5||at Western Kentucky||W||6-5 F/10|
|Next Opp.||at Minnesota (Tue), at Kent State|
|3-4||at Southern Illinois||L||9-11|
|3-4||at Southern Illinois||L||3-11|
|3-5||at Southern Illinois||L||4-7|
|Next Opp.||at Kentucky (Wed), vs Bowling Green|
|3-4||at Middle Tennesse State||W||8-0|
|3-4||at Middle Tennesse State||W||13-3|
|3-5||at Middle Tennesse State||W||11-7|
|Next Opp.||at UT Martin (Tue/Wed), at Miami|
|Western Michigan Broncos
|3-3||vs NC A&T||L||7-8|
|3-5||vs NC A&T||W||10-1|
|Next Opp.||at Presbyterian (Tue), at Ball State|