The Falcons will begin their quest to repeat as Mountain West champions in less than a month. Practice started on January 27th, with the first game coming on February 17th against Army. They’ll have the tall task of trying to replace the production of likely the most talented baseball player the Falcons have seen, Paul Skenes.
Skenes has departed the Academy and will be playing for the LSU Tigers this season before entering the MLB draft this August. He is projected to be a top-five draft pick in the draft, meaning he should get a bonus of about $7 million dollars just for signing. He probably made a good choice, but he will be missed. With Skenes as the #1 pitcher last year, the Falcons won 9 out of 10 opening games in conference play and the first game of the conference tournament.
The good news is that the Falcons have a strong core of returning starters to build on, led by preseason All-American first baseman Sam Kulasingam. Kulasingam finished second in the nation in batting average (.411) last year and earned an invitation to play summer ball in the prestigious New England Summer Baseball League.
Also, despite the loss of Paul Skenes, the starting pitching staff is more settled to start the year than it was last year. Junior Doyle Gehring and sophomore Dylan Rogers will headline the rotation after breakout performances at the end of last season that propelled the Falcons into the conference tournament and on to the NCAA tournament. Junior Seungmin Shim will return to the starting rotation after being limited last year by his recovery from arm surgery his freshman year. His arm was feeling strong in fall practice (.125 Batting average against and 9 Ks per 9 innings), and he should be ready for a more prominent role this year.
Let’s take a look at each position group entering this year:
After Gehring, Rogers, and Shim, mid-week starters/long relievers will likely be Swayer Hawks, Ryan Stohr, lefty Kyle Moats, and freshman Ben Weber. In the late innings, Chase Spencer and Duke Benge will be the setup men for closer Zach Peters. Peters had a fantastic fall session pitching and hitting and will likely see playing time in both roles. Freshman Joey Collier is a lefty who will initially be used as a spot reliever against left-hand hitters.
Another freshman pitcher to watch for is Jack Bello. Pitching coach Ryan Forrest thinks he has a lot of potential but hurt his elbow in fall practice and will take some time in the spring to get back to full speed. He finished behind only Shim and Peters this fall in batting average against with a .167.
Standout catcher Braydon Altorfer has graduated and a trio of young Falcons will be contending for playing time. Sophomore Aaron Reyes saw only limited playing time last year. He’ll compete against two freshmen, Walker Zapp and Landon Boyd. Boyd played last year at the junior college level and Zapp is a highly-rated recruit out of Auburn, Alabama.
There is a lot of good news with this group. All four starters return from last year. At the corners, !B Kulasingam and 3B Jay Thomason are both 1st Team All-Mountain West performers and top ten hitters in the conference. Thomason was second in the conference in homers last year.
The Falcons are blessed with excellent fielders up the middle with SS Aerik Joe and 2B Trayden Tamiya. Tamiya’s bat was on fire at the end of last year as the Falcons made the run at the conference title and in the NCAA tournament. From the final regular season series to the end of the playoffs, he had 22 hits in 51 at-bats for an average of .431 with 8 doubles and 3 triples.
Keep an eye out for freshman 1B Charlie Jones. Perfect Game Baseball rated him as a potential top ten round major league pick in high school. He had some of the hardest hit balls in fall practice, jumping off the bat at 112 mph. With Kulasingam at 1B, getting on the field will be difficult, but we should see him at DH and pinch-hitting regularly.
The third big hole in the lineup that the Falcons need to fill is left field, where Gabe Garcia was one of the biggest bats in the lineup last year with a .353 average and 15 home runs. Competing for his spot in the lineup will be sophomores Zach Peters and Chase Spencer along with junior Chris Stallings.
Blake Covin will return for his senior year, along with his highlight reel catches in center field and speed on the basepaths.
Jake Greiving is another big bat returning in right field. He batted .315 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs last year. He was also very good in late inning pressure situations. One of the advanced stats that coaches use to evaluate players is ISO, or isolated power. It measures a player’s ability to generate extra base hits (technically the statistic is slugging percentage minus batting average). Greiving led NCAA D1 baseball in ISO in late inning pressure situations last year with a .938 ISO.
First a disclaimer. I pull together what information I can find on Mountain West baseball and try to make inferences from that. College baseball is not nearly as over analyzed as college football. I can find plenty of free information on college football, but for baseball I have to look at a lot of sources and put it together myself. There are some services that try to broadly cover the various conferences, but nothing like football. I’m reasonably knowledgeable on Falcon baseball, but not so on the other teams in the conference. Trying to figure where the Falcons will finish the season is challenging. I took a look at which of the top players with each team has departed to get a handle on what holes might remain, and will use that as a guide on where the Falcons might finish the season.
UNLV finished at the top of the conference standings last year. They had one of the best hitting teams in the league and a decent pitching staff by MW standards. They lose both their top pitcher and top hitter from last year. Josh Ibarra was second team all Mountain West as a pitcher with a 5.73 ERA and 6 wins. Hank Zeisler was a first team all MW infielder with a .396 average and 14 homers. Outfielders Rylan Charles and Austin Kryszczuk were both first teamers and will return for this season along with second team infielder Edarian Williams. The Rebels will likely remain as one of the top teams in the conference.
Nevada finished second in 2022. They appear to have had the biggest losses of any of the teams in the conference. The top four hitters have departed the team, led by first team All-MW infielder Josh Zamora (.362 average and 16 homers) and second team infielder Ryan Jackson. Zamora signed with the Miami Marlin organization. A slight step back might be in store for the Wolf Pack this year.
The San Jose State Spartan finished in third, right above the Falcons. They appear to be in the best shape with returning stars. Their top four hitters and top four pitchers are all returning for this season. Their top player is infielder Charles McAdoo. McAdoo was a second team All American last year and first team All MW. The top pitcher is Darren Jansen, who had a 4.67 ERA and 9 wins last year, and was also 1st team All MW. I think the Spartans will be competing for the top spot in the standings this year.
Right behind the Falcons in the standings last year were the Bulldogs of Fresno State. The Bulldogs lose their top three hitters from last year. Catcher Zach Morgan was the top hitter at .381 and was drafted by the Giants in the seventh round. The good news for the Bulldogs is that they get their three top pitchers back. Lefty Ixan Henderson is the headliner with 7 wins and 98 strikeouts in 78 2⁄3 innings.
San Diego State finished sixth in the standings. They were the worst hitting team in the conference by quite a bit, but had the best pitching. They lose their standout pitcher, Troy Melton, who was Co-Pitcher of the Year along with Skenes and was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the fourth round. They return their top two hitters, Cole Carrig and Pancho Ruiz, along with their #2 pitcher, TJ Fondtain.
New Mexico was a decent hitting team last year, but their pitching was atrocious with an ERA of 9.06. Their leading hitter, Lenny Junior Ashby is back (.342 and conference-leading 17 HRs), along with their best pitcher Riley Egloff. They have a lot of work to do to make the conference playoffs this year.
My rough estimate for the Falcons is that the will make the conference tournament again, but will have a tough time finishing at the top. They’ll have to make up for the loss of power from the departures of Gabe Garcia, Paul Skenes, and Braydon Altorfer, and the loss of Skenes at the top of the pitching staff. Based on the pitching of Gehring and Dylan Rogers at the end of last year and the return of Shim to full time duty, there is some upside potential for the staff to be more effective overall.
The season starts on February 17th with a three game series against Army. The schedule includes games against 2022 Field of 64 teams Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana Tech, Army, and Texas Tech.