(Photo via the Morehead State Baseball site, seen here)
Collegiate Baseball recently released its Preseason All-American teams for the 2018 college baseball season, with many of the game’s top college prospects – Brady Singer, Nick Madrigal, and Griffin Conine, among others – projected to be among the best players in the country. Singer and Madrigal are among three Florida and Oregon State players, respectively, to crack those teams, tied for the most among any program in the country. That is hardly a surprise, considering that the Gators and Beavers both ranked among the top three in the final polls of the 2017 season. A third program, however, joins those two national powerhouses in featuring three Preseason All-Americans of their own. The Morehead State Eagles (MSU), led by first-team All-American Niko Hulsizer, should be in prime position for an exciting year in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) as they seek their first conference title in three years. (In the opening game of their Regional, Tennessee Tech, the OVC’s lone representative, went on to upset Florida State before losing to Auburn and being eliminated by the Seminoles in a rematch, demonstrating that the OVC’s top talent was capable of hanging with some of the more recognizable programs in the country).
Hulsizer and senior second baseman Braxton Morris, two of the three Eagles’ All-Americans, will look to build off of a summer championship of their own. In August, Hulsizer and Morris helped to lead the Valley Blue Sox to their first New England Collegiate Baseball League title in franchise history, with Morris and Hulsizer both recording multi-hit games in the championship.
Blue Sox general manager Hunter Golden saw firsthand what a lineup featuring that duo is capable of, and he opined that both players, as well as the program itself, have flown under the radar. For Hulsizer in particular, Golden is “baffled” that that remains the case, given his immense raw tools. “Niko was the first guy we jumped on,” he told CBBSN. “He has as much raw power as anyone I’ve ever seen in our league.” This is no faint praise; the NECBL has produced dozens of big-leaguers, including Reds outfielder Adam Duvall, who has hit a combined 64 home runs over the past two seasons. Golden was particularly struck by one home run of Hulsizer’s that “…just kept rising even after it cleared the left-center field fence.” As CBBSN’s Peter Sitaras noted recently, Hulsizer has a swing with natural loft geared for tapping into that raw power in games, a sentiment supported by his leading the OVC as a sophomore in both home runs and slugging percentage.
While that has garnered Hulsizer a bit of attention among college baseball fans, it has not translated much to his draft stock, as he did not rank within Baseball America’s recent rankings of the top 100 college prospects. He was featured in their rankings of the top prospects in the NECBL, although BA expressed some reservations about his plate discipline. Golden once shared those concerns about Hulsizer’s hit tool; after watching him fight through a slow start in his time with the Blue Sox, though, he is convinced of his upside as a professional, particularly impressed in his ability to adopt a more mature approach in response to advanced pitching. “He takes a lot of ownership over being the go-to guy, but he had to come to terms with the fact that ‘hey, not every pitch that I’m going to get I can drive over the fence.’ There was a lot of going the other way [in the second half], becoming a more complete hitter. He’s a very driven, determined kid…. He’s got a really bright future.”
Hulsizer’s postseason experience against pitchers more advanced than the competition that he faced in the OVC with regards to pitch sequencing, as well as his adjustment to Valley’s pitcher’s park, only aid Hulsizer as he transitions back to the hitter-friendly confines of Allen Field this spring.
While Hulsizer sports the obvious tools, retaining Morris, who had played for Valley in 2016 as well, was also a key objective for Golden. “We really wanted to bring Braxton back,” he said. “He’s one of those guys where you really appreciate his talent when you get to see him every day. He makes all the routine plays…. He’s an outstanding defensive second baseman, he ranges well, he’s an on-field leader. He’s also really fast, and he’s a very good base stealer.” Golden also praised Morris’ “special personality,” noting that the Blue Sox targeted him as a clubhouse presence.
That said, he was quick to note that Morris offered more tangible value to the club than his .619 OPS would indicate. “He was hitting bullets right at people. He deserved better than his .238 average, but it just never evened out for him.” While Morris’ .403 BABIP in his junior season at Morehead obviously played some role in his offensive breakout for the Eagles last season, he also combined for 23 extra-base hits that year compared to the 22 that he had hit in his first two seasons combined, supporting Golden’s assertion that Morris offers some “sneaky pop, particularly gap power.” When combined with his favorable defensive profile, Morris profiles as a key asset for the Eagles next season, even if he offers less than Hulsizer does in terms of upside.
For Golden, non-power five schools remain a relatively untapped resource for many summer leagues. Citing a goal to identify undervalued talent reminiscent of a small-market MLB General Manager, Golden noted that Valley has increasingly favored smaller-school talent in recent years, contrary to many summer baseball executives focused on pulling talent from more recognizable schools.
“From Power Five schools, you’re getting teams’ sixth, seventh, eighth best players…. We’d rather target some of these smaller schools and get their best guys.” While some of this talent is identified through teams’ proprietary analytical information, much of the talent acquisition is simply a product of forming strong relationships with the coaching staffs and athletic directors at such smaller schools. The benefits of such an arrangement are mutual; in exchange for their college coaching staff’s honest evaluations of the summer league team’s targets, the schools are granted opportunities for their best players to improve by facing stronger competition.
For Valley, acquiring Hulsizer and Morris helped them to win their first championship. For Morehead State, players’ experiences could pay off as they seek to claim a conference championship of their own this spring. Along with junior shortstop Reid Leonard, who slashed an improved .328/.424/.435 last season en route to an All-American selection of his own, those players make up an imposing position-player core for the Eagles. Given the success Tennessee Tech had last season, an Ohio Valley Championship will not be easy to come by for Morehead State, but they certainly have an experienced and talented roster that should make them exciting to watch next year.