7 biggest surprises of SEC baseball season
SEC baseball is moving into its stretch run, and while most of the league’s powerhouses are just about where we started, the season has had plenty of surprises. Here’s 7 particularly intriguing issues from the SEC season that we’ve seen so far — don’t count on these being the last surprises, either!
1. The dominance of Arkansas
Nobody was exactly sleeping on the Razorbacks, but in a league where the top spots have been switched around almost weekly, Arkansas has been by far the most consistent team in the league. Or America. On March 1, the Razorbacks took over the top spot in the Baseball America poll, and they haven’t given it back. Meanwhile, while the other polls have had a little more rise and fall, Arkansas hasn’t been out of the top 5 in any poll since February. They’ve been No. 1 across the board for a month. Pretty good for a team that the SEC coaches had ranked 3rd in their division before the season.
2. Razorback homers
A big part of Arkansas’s success has been the long ball. As Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux reminded us years ago, chicks dig the long ball. So apparently do Arkansas fans. The Hogs enter the weekend with 76 homers, leading the field by a full 11 over 2nd-place LSU. The Arkansas team record is 98, but with 10 regular-season games remaining, as well as potentially lengthy postseason run, this will likely be the most powerful Arkansas team ever. Funny enough, no Arkansas player is near the top of the league leaderboard: Matt Goodheart and Robert Moore are in a 4-way tie for 9th in the SEC with 11 homers.
3. UT stepping up
Not unlike Arkansas, expectations weren’t exactly low at UT. But the Vols were also picked 3rd in their division by SEC coaches before the season. Lo and behold, UT entered its weekend series against Missouri tied for 1st in the East. How have the Vols thrived? Clutch pitching has been key.
Consider this: UT has allowed opponents to hit .243 this year. That’s not bad, but it’s 8th in the SEC. Meanwhile, UT is 3rd in the SEC in ERA. The Vols are great at two things that coaches everywhere will love: their hitters walk (246, 2nd most in the SEC behind Arkansas) and their pitchers don’t (117 walks allowed, tops in the SEC by a dozen). It may seem like a small detail, but it might keep the Vols walking all the way to the East division title and to hosting a CWS regional.
4. The rise — but subsequent fall — of Jack Leiter
Sure, the rise of Vandy hurler Jack Leiter was not a bit surprising. He’s an absolute ace, a lock as a top 5 MLB Draft pick. That said, a no-hitter of South Carolina in his first SEC start raised the bar even for the highly-regarded Leiter. The second-year standout doesn’t throw quite as hard as teammate Kumar Rocker, but his combination of stuff and poise was overpowering. He followed the no-hitter with 7 more hitless innings against Missouri. Would he ever give up a hit?
Well, yes. Vandy has lost each of his past 3 starts. And he’s allowed 8 home runs in 15 1/3 innings. Not runs. Home runs. So the guy is human. The culprit? Location, location, location. Leiter’s pitches are still superb, but when he makes a mistake, he’s gotten into a bad habit of leaving it out over the plate, and hitters have jumped on it. The smart money is that he corrects his relatively minor problems and is nasty again very soon, perhaps as soon as Saturday against Alabama.
Vandy is in an odd slump overall, too. The Commodores have lost 3 consecutive games, their longest skid early 2018.
5. Jud Fabian’s 3-true-outcomes improvement
Florida has been something of an enigma. The Gators have been up and down throughout the season … but outfielder Jud Fabian is a good example of how dangerous the Gators remain. Fabian is a star of 3-true-outcomes baseball.
He walks a lot, he strikes out a lot, and he hits a fair amount of home runs.
But like his squad, he’d struggled. On April 13 against Florida State, a hitless day dropped him to .228 on the season. Meanwhile, he’d struck out 49 times in 127 times over the season. Fanning in 39% of at-bats isn’t a good look for any hitter.
But since then, in the last 11 games, Fabian has gone 15-for-40 (.375 average) with 5 homers. More impressive, he’s walked 10 times and struck out 9. Trimming the K rate from 38% to 23% — well, it’s raised his season batting average by 35 points in just 3 weeks. Meanwhile, he’s 2nd in the SEC with 16 homers. Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but a veteran Gator is making better contact, and the change could jump-start Florida down the SEC stretch.
6. The loss of Jaden Hill, and the struggles of LSU
LSU was expected to be a factor in the SEC race (while they were 4th in the coaches’ preseason rankings, they did get 2 votes to win the West) and Jaden Hill was expected to be one of the stars of the league. Alas, Hill blew out his elbow, meaning that in three seasons in Baton Rouge, between 2 years lost to injury and 1 to a global pandemic, he’s pitched a total of 51 1/3 innings. Hill wasn’t particularly sharp before the injury, logging a 6.67 ERA for the season. And LSU has slipped from no lower than 13th in any of the preseason polls to decided unranked and a long shot for lengthy post-season play. The Tigers haven’t won an SEC series at home this year and are 12th in the league in ERA.
7. How hopeless the rest of the country remains
Look, there’s no need to sugarcoat it. Look at the top 10 or top 15 in any national polls. It’s half the SEC and then a few others. But the head-to-head matchups show just how dominant the SEC has been. Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State each took turns hammering Texas Christian, Texas Tech and Texas to open the season (combined 8-1 SEC mark) and those 3 are all in the top 10 of Baseball America’s poll.
Even if we discount that season-opening matchup, Texas A&M (tied for last in the West) beat Texas head-to-head at the end of March. And Kentucky (tied for 5th in the East) won at current No. 12 Louisville last month. (Although, give the Cardinals credit for beating Vanderbilt this week.)
If the SEC doesn’t inflict too much damage on itself, it’s hard to imagine any other league outlasting the SEC. It’s not at all difficult to imagine a scenario where the majority of the teams left in Omaha are from the SEC. In fact, it’d be difficult to NOT imagine it.