A significant problem facing USA Baseball is finding adequate competition to face the nation’s collegiate all-star summer team. The team’s hyper-inflated hitting statistics (nearly every player’s OPS eclipses .750) and stingy pitching numbers (all but one pitcher who has started more than one game has an ERA under 1.00) highlight the point that the team’s talent will face far greater challenges during conference play during the college season than on the international stage.
The U.S. collegiate national team finished second last weekend at the FISU World University Baseball Championships in Tokyo, losing in 10 innings to Cuba after rain pushed Friday’s finale into Saturday. While the competition—with the exception of Cuba and Japan—wasn’t up to the quality of the ACC, SEC, or Pac-10, a number of players stood out, teeing off against pitchers from Sri Lanka, Canada, and China, while also dropping eight runs on Hong Kong and defeating Japan 4-2.
While nearly all U.S. pitchers have performed as well as can be expected, three—Sonny Gray (Vanderbilt), Gerritt Cole (UCLA), and Kyle Winkler (TCU)—are particularly intriguing as candidates to shake up next year’s NCAA tournament.
The U.S. embarrassed Sri Lanka 15-0 before the mercy rule was instituted in the fifth inning. Gray struck out 14 of Sri Lanka’s 17 batters, allowing only one hit and surrendering no walks. In his second start, Gray shut down Japan’s national team, scattering two runs (one earned), three hits and two walks over seven innings.
This is characteristic of Gray, who ties for the team lead with three wins, leads the team with 37 strikeouts, 0.50 WHIP and an ERA of 0.38. Even by comparison to his nearly equally dominant teammates (10 of the 11 pitchers have earned run averages under 2.70, and over half allow less than a run per nine innings) Gray has been the team ace.
Cole dominated Hong Kong, allowing one earned run through six innings. He also blanked Cuba in the finale, though that performance was characteristic of his time with Team USA—in seven innings, Cole allowed 10 hits and one walk. In 25 innings total, Cole has allowed 24 hits while only walking four and striking out 23), yet only two runners have made it across the plate for an ERA of 0.72. His 6/1 K/BB ratio certainly bodes well for UCLA heading into next season.
If Winkler can repeat his strong performances with Team USA (2.13 ERA through 12 2/3 innings) when taking the mound for TCU, the Horned Frogs will not only likely make a repeat trip to the College World Series but could be the favorites to win the whole shebang. Winkler only saw two innings in Japan, with the team turning to Noe Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton) as the first reliever and starting Gray, Cole, Tyler Anderson (Oregon), and Matt Barnes (Connecticut). By complementing Matt Purke—the nation’s top freshman pitcher whose arm TCU nearly rode to the finals at the College World Series—Winkler can give the Horned Frogs the most potent 1-2 punch in the nation. They should have no problem repeating their run through the Mountain West Conference, and hosting a regional.
This season, two standouts who haven’t been regular starters—Brad Miller of Clemson and Peter O’Brien of Bethune-Cookman—are absolutely crushing opposing pitching, putting their respective conferences on notice. Before traveling to Tokyo, Miller was slugging .647 while posting a .525 OBP, good for a 1.172 OPS. O’Brien had 11 starts and appeared in 13 games, leading the team with four home runs and a .694 slugging percentage. Miller, however, only had two walks for an OBP of .361—nothing to sneeze at, but his swing-first-ask-questions-later method certainly needs work.
In Japan, George Springer provided the single biggest firework, launching a first-inning grand slam against Japan that gave the U.S. its only runs. Springer and Barnes represent UConn, the single team north of the Mason-Dixon to host an NCAA regional last season (though it did so as the No. 2 seed, and was quickly dismissed by Florida State).
USA Baseball certainly built a temple to the game in Cary, North Carolina, an unbelievable facility that rivals any major-league club’s spring training home. I’m sure there are some advantages to sending the team abroad, yet facing such limited competition offers little insight into how good this team actually is. Moreover, while the team draws well at home in North Carolina, attendance in Japan averaged between 100-500. Amateur teams to rival the nation’s all-star team are non-existent (outside, of course, of the Cape Cod League where many of the nation’s top collegiate players—including Purke—are spending their summer), while players drafted in the first round—as most of these stars will be—often go directly into low or high-A, competition that simply can’t be found in Sri Lanka.