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2016 MAC Baseball Preview: Five best starting pitchers

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At least a couple of junior hurlers will enter the 2016 season looking to solidify their standing in the forthcoming MLB draft.

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Despite the fact that some people just recently got over their New Years Eve hangovers, college baseball season is suddenly less than a month away. February 19th, the first day of regular season action for most teams across Division I, is rapidly creeping up around the corner. So, it's high time we start taking a look at what's in store for the 2016 season, beginning with starting pitching.

Thanks to the introduction of the flat-seam baseball, the number of home runs across college baseball shot up 44% in 2015, with a 8.2% spike in ERAs. The switch didn't just benefit hitters - pitchers saw a 8.3% increase in strikeouts - but it does mean that being able to keep the ball down and opponents inside the park is back to really meaning something again. But you don't need to take my word for it. Ask the top two seeds in the MAC tournament last season, who also happened to occupy the top two spots in the conference in team ERA. Or maybe ask Miami, who finished tied for second in the conference in home runs hit, but came in dead last in home runs allowed, and subsequently didn't even get a bid to the conference tournament.

Now, pitching is about much more than simply not giving up home runs, but you catch my overall drift here. Pitching matters, big time. And the teams who get led into battle by the guys on this list will have a solid head start on the rest of the conference when the chase for the MAC title commences.

Honorable mentions:

Sr. Derek Schneider (LHP, Western Michigan Broncos) - 18 appearances, 12 games started, 3.54 earned run average, 8.5 hits per nine innings, 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings, 3.9 walks per nine innings, 5 home runs allowed in 76 1/3 innings pitched.

Jr. Keegan Akin (LHP, Western Michigan Broncos) - 16 APP, 16 GS, 4.33 ERA, 9.6 H/9, 8.3 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 6 HR in 81 IP.

Jr. Nick Deeg (LHP, Central Michigan Chippewas) - 15 APP, 15 GS, 3.11 ERA, 8.8 H/9, 5.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 3 HR in 89 2/3 IP.

Sr. Jake Miller (RHP, Ohio Bobcats) - 25 APP, 10 GS, 3.43 ERA, 8.5 H/9, 7.8 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 4 HR in 76 IP.

Jr. Steven Calhoun (LHP, Toledo Rockets) - 15 APP, 15 GS, 2.86 ERA, 8.8 H/9, 6.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 7 HR in 88 IP.

Sr. Caleb Schillace (RHP, Toledo Rockets) - 13 APP, 12 GS, 2.66 ERA, 9.2 H/9, 4.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1 HR in 74 1/3 IP.

5. So. Zac Carey (RHP, Bowling Green Falcons) - 14 APP, 14 GS, 3.43 ERA, 8.6 H/9, 2.9 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 5 HR in 78 2/3 IP

I watched Miller transform Ohio into a championship team after his move to the rotation halfway through 2015, so I badly wanted to start this list with the Bobcats' senior. Setting aside my biases, though, Carey is the clear choice for the top-five spot, and could garner an even higher billing by season's end. He was the MAC's Freshman Pitcher of the Year and a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, both for good reason, as he led all pitchers in conference wins. He wasn't just the recipient of great fortune, either. He posted a 2.40 ERA in his last ten starts to earn a 7-0 record, which included a four-game stretch during which he allowed just 19 hits and two earned runs in 32 1/3 innings. The kid also proved he could handle big game pressure, tossing 7 1/3 innings of two run baseball to eliminate Kent State in the tournament. One would expect the strikeout numbers to rise in 2016, but even if they don't, not many people will balk at a 3.43 ERA and less than two walks a game.

4. Sr. Sean Renzi (RHP, Central Michigan Chippewas) - 18 APP,  7 GS, 2.33 ERA, 5.8 H/9, 8.2 K, 4.3 BB/9, 0 HR in 65 2/3

Renzi, like Miller, began the season in relief, but joined the rotation on April 11, and performed well enough in that short time to earn a first team All-MAC selection. In his seven starts, he tossed 46 innings, and allowed just a 2.15 ERA while holding his rate stats to similar figures. Renzi has a live arm that occasionally gets him into trouble control-wise, but that should just make the rest of his numbers more impressive. If he can put together that kind of run prevention while walking over four batters a game, one could only imagine what he might look like if he can improve his command. Having a live arm doesn't always translate to durability, however, and it'll be interesting to see what it looks like as it approaches 90 innings as a full-time starter.

3. Sr. Nick Jensen-Clagg (RHP, Kent State Golden Flashes) - 15 APP, 15 GS, 2.88 ERA, 7.1 H/9, 10.38 K/9, 3.65 BB/9, 7 HR in 93.2 IP

The MAC's best pitching staff of 2015 wouldn't have been what it was without its Friday starter, and Jensen-Clagg was as consistently dominant as just about anyone in the conference last season. Strip away a disastrous start at Buffalo, and you've got a staff ace who turned nine conference starts into 60 innings of work and a 2.25 ERA. Jensen-Clagg has improved each season he's been with the Flashes, but last season was undoubtedly his breakout, with a conference-leading 108 strikeouts compiled, including a pair of double-digit strikeout games. He may not be receiving the MLB attention his teammate is (more on that later), but his ability to hold down the Friday starter position on a staff that talented cannot be understated. And if there's room for even more improvement, MLB scouts won't stay quiet for long.

2. Jr. Zach Plesac (RHP, Ball State Cardinals) - 16 APP, 16 GS, 3.27 ERA, 8.72 H/9, 6.46 K, 3.19 BB, 12 HR in 107 1/3 IP

The MAC's lone representative when Louisville Slugger released its preseason All-America selections, Plesac was the horse Ball State hopped on and rode as far as he would take them in 2015. The then-sophomore threw more innings than anybody in the conference, tossed four complete games, and recorded three starts in which he threw more than eight innings and did not allow a run. Not all of Plesac's conference-highs were positives, however, as he also gave up the most hits (104) and homers of anybody in the MAC. The right-hander had a couple of memorable outings early in the season, including a 7 1/3 inning, one run outing against eventual No.1 overall seed Illinois, but took a step back down the stretch, allowing four runs or more in three of his last five starts. Plesac's ceiling remains very high, hence his placement on these rankings and the All-American pick, but he'll need to induce softer contact in 2016 if he wants his draft consideration to return to what it once was.

1. Jr. Eric Lauer (LHP, Kent State Golden Flashes) - 15 APP, 13 GS, 1.98 ERA, 6.6 H/9, 10.7 K, 2.7 BB/9, 7 HR in 93 2/3 IP

Lauer could be the third or fourth starter in an MLB rotation two or three years from now, but at the moment, he'll have to settle for being the MAC's most prized arm. Though Jensen-Clagg took over the role of Friday starter in 2015, that had nothing to do with an ineptitude on Lauer's part, as he finished with the best ERA, the second most strikeouts, and the second lowest opponent batting average among starters. He allowed more than three earned runs in just one of his 13 starts - the game in which Kent State was eliminated from the MAC tournament. He finished the regular season with seven consecutive starts of allowing one earned run or fewer, and threw at least six innings in each of those starts. Lauer shows an advanced command in the strike zone and an ability to limit free passes that will make him an asset to an MLB team sometime in the near future, and makes him the best pitcher in the MAC in 2016.