The year 2015 is the one that probably sticks out to you. That was the year that both Missouri State and Dallas Baptist finished inside the top ten in RPI, thanks in large part to the MVC coming in sixth in the conference RPI, leading to both teams hosting regionals, and Missouri State earning a national seed.
In conference play that year, Missouri State captured the league regular season title with an 18-3 mark, while Dallas Baptist finished second at 15-6.
While that might be the year that stands out as a banner year for MSU and DBU, taking a wider view, one of those two programs has won the league each year since then as well. In 2016, it was Dallas Baptist, as they went 15-5 to go along with a 44-19 overall record. Last year, that duo finished first and second again. MSU dominated, going 18-1 in MVC play, while DBU went 15-6 to come in second.
In 2018, can someone other than Missouri State or Dallas Baptist take home the MVC title?
Missouri State, coming off of their second super regional appearance in three years, has some key pieces returning. Jeremy Eierman, after monster season in 2017 and a summer spent with Team USA, will be looking to solidify his place as the next MSU slugger to develop into a premium prospect. Hunter Steinmetz is also back after developing into a formidable power/speed threat in 2017. The biggest reason for optimism surrounding the Bears in 2018, however, is a pitching staff built around Jake Fromson and Dylan Coleman.
Fromson was about as good as relievers can get last year, while also showing the ability to be stretched out to pitch multiple innings. Coleman has a ton of experience starting games and can be dominant at his best. Additionally, guys like Austin Knight and Nate Witherspoon were both effective as swingmen in 2017 and appear ready for bigger roles.
Still, there are questions here. Jake Burger, Justin Paulsen, Blake Graham, and Aaron Meyer is a lot of firepower to lose in the lineup, and the departed Jordan Knutson and Doug Still were both durable, effective starting pitchers.
DBU, meanwhile, was clearly the second-best team in the MVC last year with a team that didn’t feel anywhere near a vintage DBU team. They got hot at the right time and won the league’s automatic bid, but had it not been for that, they would have been left home for regionals.
The pitching staff wasn’t as good as we’ve come to expect with DBU last year, but with the entirety of last year’s primary weekend rotation back, M.D. Johnson, Jordan Martinson, and Ray Gaither, improvement can probably be expected. Ace relievers Seth Elledge and Dalton Higgins are gone, but returners Jimmy Fouse and Travis Stone were both effective last year, suggesting that they may be ready for prime time.
Offensively, losing Austin Listi and Camden Duzenack hurts, but Matt Duce, Jameson Hannah, Devlin Granberg, Garrett Wolforth, and Tim Millard will give them plenty of firepower.
So who are the challengers?
Last year, it looked like Southern Illinois might be the team to make a move to the top of the standings. They returned a veteran team that had finished fourth the previous year, but they never really got on track and ended up finishing fourth again. With some holdovers from last year’s core still in place heading into 2018, there is some hope that SIU can surprise and make a run, but there are concerns as well.
For instance, they lost Chad Whitmer and Joey Marciano from the weekend rotation, and the two best hitters in their lineup, Greg Lambert and Ryan Smith, are gone as well. One key for a bounce back in 2018 will be Logan Blackfan, who was the preseason all-conference first baseman in 2017, but ended up hitting just .215 with 64 strikeouts in 209 at-bats.
Todd Hefferman, who covers SIU for The Southern Illinoisan, perhaps put it best when he was a guest on the College Baseball Central Podcast this past summer.
“There are some pieces, but with them having so many unproven players (for 2018), last year was really was the year we thought they were going to make a run at it,” Hefferman said.
Evansville is the last team other than MSU or DBU to win the league title, capturing the crown in 2014, but they’ve struggled in league play since then, going 8-13, 9-12, and 8-12. The Aces return some key pieces in the lineup, but the losses of ninth-round pick Connor Strain and his rotation mate Patrick Schnieders are huge. They’d need a number of players to step up into bigger roles if they’re going to make a move to the top of the standings in 2018.
Indiana State has long been a top-half finisher in the MVC. They won the conference regular season title back in 2012, and after falling back into the pack in 2013, finished second in 2014 (and got into a regional as an at-large team), and after another dip in 2015, have finished second and third, respectively, in the last two seasons.
Their pattern has been to take a step back to rebuild every few seasons, and perhaps 2018 is that season.
“They lost a significant amount of their outfield. Tony Rosselli and Kyle Moore played a lot this year, and their elibility ran out. They lost some pitching, of course, as you typically do to the draft. They have some pieces left in the infield, but nobody who stands out,” said Indiana State beat writer Todd Aaron Golden of the Tribune Star when he was a guest on our podcast this summer. “They don’t have a stud, so to speak, that’s going to carry the team, or at least not on paper.”
So they may not have the goods to challenge at the very top of the league, but we should probably expect them to hang around in the top half once again, just based on the way head coach Mitch Hannahs has his team play.
“They’ve developed as a team that plays very good fundamental baseball, they’re always going to play defense, they’re typically going to play pretty fundamental offense, too,” said Golden. “He (Hannahs) has developed (the program) to the point where you have to trust that they’re going to finish in the top half of the Valley.”
Bradley has had some success in the recent past. In 2015, buoyed by the MVC’s banner year in the RPI, they not only got into a regional as an at-large team, but they also were slotted as a two-seed. In 2016, they finished third in the league at 11-9, to go along with a 29-21 overall mark.
Last season was tough, and they slipped down the standings, but that sets them up to have some upward mobility in 2018. They return their top five hitters from last year in terms of batting average, and their top two power bats in Luke Bangert (14 HR) and Jean-Francois Garon (10 HR), which will keep them in games, but they simply have to pitch better. Last season, they sported a 6.82 team ERA. Top starting pitcher Cole Cook (8-6, 4.77 ERA) is back, which will help, but it will be on often-used guys like Allan Beer (5.79 ERA, 42 IP), Ben Olson (6.57 ERA, 37 IP), and Alex Gray (7.28 ERA, 47 IP) to improve and help shore up this area for the Braves. Even if the pitching staff is improved across the board, however, it doesn’t seem altogether likely that Bradley is that challenger to the MVC powers.
Illinois State is in the same boat. After going 2-18 in MVC play last season, the Redbirds are just likely to have far too far to climb to get near the top of the standings, and new MVC member Valparaiso, while a solid program in the Horizon League in much of the recent past, will have to take a step up to finish among the leaders in the league.
One key mistake sports observers often make is looking at the way things currently are and then erroneously assuming that they will remain largely static, but with that being said, it’s tough to see the league title going to anyone other than one of the established powers, Missouri State or Dallas Baptist. Both teams have questions marks, most notably MSU with all of the holes they have to fill on offense, but both look far more complete than the rest of the league.
Interestingly, had they not moved to the American Athletic Conference, Wichita State might have been the team to watch in this regard in 2018. Greyson Jenista and Alec Bohm both shot up prospect lists with huge summers on the Cape following quality 2017 seasons for both, and the pitching staff, which knocked more than a run off of its ERA in 2017, seems to be coming together under pitching coach Mike Steele.
Indiana State has perhaps the highest floor of any of the remaining teams in the league, but they’re turning over large swaths of their roster in key places, most notably on the pitching staff. SIU seems to have missed their best shot last year. Evansville might be due for a run, but jumping to the top of the standings is probably asking a bit much. And everyone else just doesn’t seem to have the pieces to get it done, at least on paper.
Eventually, a team will push past those two to win a league title, but it’s just difficult to see 2018 being that year.