Over the last couple of months, we’ve been covering the biggest sets of shoes to fill in the major conferences across college baseball.
To this point, we’ve looked at the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12. Today, we’re going to do the same with the American Athletic Conference. The American isn’t considered one of the elite leagues in college baseball, but given the level of success of its members over the last several years, it has clearly established itself as a force on a national scale.
Before we get started with the list of the five biggest sets of shoes to fill in this league heading into 2018, a quick reminder of the rules we’ve set for this series. For one, you’ll only find one player per team on this list. That’s just for variety’s sake. Also, this list was made just based on the production gap that the player leaves. We’re not concerned with how well equipped the team is to replace the production.
Let’s get started.
Robby Howell – UCF
There are starters in the conference who have flashier stuff, much better professional profiles, and more notoriety outside of the league, but over the last two seasons in particular, you’d be hard-pressed to find a starter who has been steadier than UCF’s Robby Howell.
In 2016, he was nothing short of outstanding in the weekend rotation. Over 15 starts, he had a 1.96 ERA, a .207 opponent batting average, and allowed just two home runs in 101 innings of work. He did all of this, mind you, without huge strikeout numbers, as he had 65 of those, to go along with 35 walks.
He followed that up with a quality senior season in 2017 on a Knights team that flourished under first-year head coach Greg Lovelady. He had a 3.32 ERA, a .235 opponent batting average, and a 94/42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 103 innings of work spread over 16 starts. For a pitcher, win-loss record isn’t always a great measurement of effectiveness, but Howell went 10-1 as a senior, showing his ability to keep his team in games and how improved UCF was as a team. In 2016, with an ERA under 2.00, he had gone 7-4.
Those two seasons of great success are a testament to Howell’s personal improvement throughout his career, as his first two years on campus were far from smooth sailing. As a freshman, he didn’t have a defined role and he struggled to the tune of a 9.00 ERA and a .363 opponent batting average.
As a sophomore, he had a more defined role as a starting pitcher, and he was durable in starting 15 games and throwing 80.2 innings, but with a 5.69 ERA and a .310 opponent batting average, there were still some tough times. Those tough times had to make his junior and senior seasons even sweeter.
Kevin Merrell – USF
There are a handful of players that USF could have put on this list, most notably guys like Phoenix Sanders and Luke Borders, but Merrell ends up being the choice because he really felt like the heart and soul of the Bulls program over the last few years under Mark Kingston.
For one, he was incredibly consistent at the plate throughout his career.
He jumped onto the scene as a freshman in 2015, hitting .346 with a .403 on-base percentage to go along with 21 stolen bases on a USF team that got into a regional for the first time since 2002. As a sophomore, he hit .320 with a .418 on-base percentage, 16 stolen bases, and an even 22/22 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
It was as a junior, though, that he took the biggest step forward. He hit .384/.464/.569 with 11 doubles, four triples, seven home runs, 38 RBI, and 19 stolen bases. Every one of those numbers except for the stolen base total was a career high for him, and in many cases, it blew away his previous best numbers. For example, in his first two seasons, he had never slugged higher than .401. His 11 doubles were just one fewer than he had in his first two years combined, and over his first two seasons, he had only hit one home run total before exploding for seven as a junior.
To top it off, he made that big jump offensively at the same time as he was shifting over to the more demanding shortstop position after having primarily played second base as a freshman and sophomore.
USF was recruiting at a really high level under Kingston, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue with Kingston assistant Billy Mohl now the head coach, but Merrell is going to be a tough one to replace.
Connor Wong – Houston
Jake Scheiner might seem like a more obvious choice for Houston, given the physical quality he brought to the UH lineup right from the start, but Wong gets the nod not only because of his production, but also for his versatility and varied tools.
First, the numbers.
He had his struggles adjusting to pitching at this level as a freshman, as he hit just .248 with a .320 on-base percentage, but there were flashes of what was to come. He collected four triples, which showed off some of his speed and slugged six home runs, which showed some pop that doesn’t come around often for a freshman playing the shortstop position, as Wong was at the time.
As a sophomore, he took a huge jump. He hit .304/.415/.439 with 14 doubles, five homers, 30 RBI, and nine stolen bases. The power was still there, and he was using his speed (this time more to steal bases than to leg out triples), but he was a better all-around bat handler and he was far more patient, as shown in his 43 walks compared to just 24 as a freshman.
The step forward in his junior season was just as impressive. He hit .287/.379/.494 with 13 doubles, three triples, 12 home runs, 36 RBI, and 26 stolen bases. Clearly, he was able to harness all of his tools and put it all together as a junior.
Now consider that he did what he did over his last two seasons while serving as the team’s primary catcher, a position he hadn’t played before taking over as a sophomore. And not only did he do a passable job, he became an asset behind the plate for the team.
By the time his junior year was over, Wong was a catcher who could also handle shortstop, third base, and the outfield, and at the plate, could bring power, speed, and a patient approach to the leadoff spot. Those types of guys don’t grow on trees, so it’s no wonder that the Dodgers scooped him up in the third round of the most recent draft. And that’s also why it’s going to be such a tough challenge for head coach Todd Whitting and staff to replace him.
Chris Carrier – Memphis
Memphis had some offensive pieces in 2017. Tyler Webb had a nice year, Trent Turner showed some pop, and freshman Alec Trela gave us a glimpse of the star that he could become.
But make no mistake about it; Chris Carrier made the Tigers’ offense go.
He hit .330/.438/.641 with 16 doubles, 16 home runs, 50 RBI, and ten stolen bases. Perhaps most impressively, he drew 30 walks after not drawing more than ten in any previous season at Memphis. Like Wong and Merrell, his final season was a cut above everything else he had done to that point, but that’s not to say that he wasn’t productive prior to that.
As a freshman, he had his struggles, as he hit just .156 over 32 at-bats, but as a sophomore, he .254/.325/.433 with five homers, showing some of the promise that we would see later in his career. As a junior, he took a decided step forward in hitting .280/.351/.467 with 16 doubles, three triples, six home runs, and 38 RBI, setting up his monster senior season.
Led by Webb and Trela, Memphis will have some big bats back in 2018, but it’s a tough ask to replace someone who provides the punch that Carrier did.
Corey Merrill – Tulane
Tulane had a ton of candidates for this list. Each of them had their ups and downs in a Tulane uniform, and many of them were four-year contributors to the program. That includes players like Hunter Williams, Jake Willsey, Lex Kaplan, and Hunter Hope, but pitcher Corey Merrill is the choice due to the versatility he showed throughout his four seasons, to say nothing of some of the impressive numbers he put up.
Merrill came to New Orleans as a part of a blockbuster recruiting class, and he immediately made an impact. As a freshman, in 14 games, ten of which were starts, he had a 3.60 ERA and a .235 opponent batting average over 55 innings pitched.
As a sophomore, he was dynamite. In 17 games, including 16 starts, he had a 2.12 ERA, a .222 opponent batting average, and 81 strikeouts in 102 innings pitched. As a junior, he was more of a swingman. He pitched in 15 games, only five of which were starts. He had a 2.05 ERA, a .220 opponent batting average, and 63 strikeouts in 52.2 innings of work. He also collected three saves.
He moved back to a starter’s role as a senior in 2017. With a 5.06 ERA, a .276 opponent batting average, and 29 extra-base hits surrendered, he didn’t show the level of dominance that he had in the past, but with 85.1 innings pitched, he still proved to be a durable arm that could get the Green Wave deep into games once again.
Pitchers who are comfortable in a number of different roles are tough to come by, making them difficult to replace. That will be the challenge for Tulane in 2018.
Honorable mentions, in no particular order
Willy Yahn – Connecticut
Hunter Williams – Tulane
Corey Julks – Houston
Evan Kruczynski – East Carolina
Phoenix Sanders – USF
Luke Borders – USF
Wills Montgomerie – Connecticut
Jake Scheiner – Houston
Jake Willsey – Tulane
Lex Kaplan – Tulane
Hunter Hope – Tulane
Ryan Noda – Cincinnati
Seth Romero – Houston