(Photo via Harvard University’s Baseball Athletics page, seen here)
Harvard University has a large presence in Major League Baseball, although much of that is in the way of executives. With analytics abounding league-wide, the Ivy League has taken a significant hold in MLB front offices, and the Ivy League’s most famous member is no exception. Five leaders of MLB baseball operations departments are former Crimson, a list that does not include A’s General Manager David Forst, a Harvard alum who ranks second in the baseball hierarchy in Oakland. Less attention is devoted to Harvard players and understandably so. Only one alum saw MLB playing time in 2017 (Brewers left-hander Brent Suter, who turned in a surprisingly strong 81 2/3 innings last year). The program has hit a rough patch in recent years, having failed to finish above .500 since 2006. However, the program appears to be headed for a bit of a resurgence, having finished at 9-11 in conference play last season, their best conference record since 2010. With three of their most productive position players from last season returning to campus and with a recruiting class that featured a couple of Massachusetts’ better prospects, the Crimson have reason for optimism about 2018.
The middle of Harvard’s order should feature a formidable duo, as outfielder Patrick Robinson and first baseman Patrick McColl return, coming off a season in which they ranked first and second, respectively, in conference in slugging percentage. Robinson was dominant, with a slugging percentage .113 points higher than second place McColl. The gap between Robinson and McColl was the same as the gap between McColl and Cornell’s Pierre Le Dorze, who finished in eighth, demonstrating the extent to which Robinson lapped the rest of the field. Unsurprisingly, Robinson’s counting stats were nearly as impressive, as he ranked third in the conference in total bases and tied for second in home runs.
Despite Robinson’s power dominance, McColl may have been the more productive hitter overall, thanks to a .462 on-base percentage which placed him second in the conference. McColl’s strong spring was rewarded with a trip to the New England Collegiate Baseball League. While he did not perform well, striking out in 24 of his 77 plate appearances with the Plymouth Pilgrims, the experience against more advanced pitching should only benefit him as he returns to school this spring.
As Hunter Golden, General Manager of the NECBL’s Valley Blue Sox noted, college programs often reap the benefits of their players’ experiences in summer league play. Golden opined this fact is even more beneficial for players from outside of the top conferences, who are not exposed to high-end competition as regularly as their Power Five counterparts are. McColl has already made significant improvements offensively since arriving on campus, improving his walk rate by a wide margin over his freshman year and hitting his first six collegiate home runs last season. If Golden’s theory about the benefits of summer league experience prove true, McColl should only build off his second-team all-conference selection and profiles as one of the league’s best offensive players in 2018.
Robinson and McColl are not the only key pieces from last year’s team returning this season. In fact, of the thirteen players who took at least 50 plate appearances last season, ten are returning, the most noteworthy of whom is a sophomore infielder who led the team in plate appearances last year. Quinn Hoffman, whose father Trevor was one of the best relief pitchers in MLB history, was a 36th round draft choice by, of course, the Padres, in 2016, and he returns as Harvard’s starting shortstop. While the Hoffman family has had its share of highlights in recent weeks, Quinn figures to offer some of his own this spring as an athletic infielder who slashed a solid .288/.323/.392 as a freshman. His 40:4 strikeout to walk ratio is a concern, but his overall line was quite impressive for a first-year player. Consider that Robinson and McColl, two of the conference’s best hitters in their sophomore seasons, were not nearly as productive in their first years on campus. Robinson only drew 39 plate appearances in his freshman year, while McColl’s .644 OPS in 2016 was dwarfed by Hoffman’s .715 mark from last season. If Hoffman takes a similar offensive jump with a year of experience under his belt, he could certainly jump onto the national radar for reasons other than his last name, particularly as summer leagues kick off.
Also cause for optimism, albeit more for the long-term future, in Cambridge is the incoming recruiting class, led by right-hander Chris McGrory and outfielder Tommy Seidl, both of whom rated as among the top 500 high schoolers at their position in the nation according to Perfect Game. Seidl, whom PG lauded in a 2014 report for his athleticism and promising bat speed, placed third among high school outfielders from Massachusetts after starring in three sports in high school. Seidl’s athleticism should only boost an already aggressive team that ranked at the top of the conference in total stolen bases last season. While Seidl may not be in position for immediate playing time on a team that returns its top four outfielders from last season, he at least offers some long-term upside as a potential everyday center fielder in the future.
McGrory, on the other hand, may have a more immediate path to playing time, given the unsettled nature of the team’s pitching staff. The Crimson ranked fifth in the eight-team league with a 5.47 ERA, with the same placement in strikeout to walk ratio. Like the position-player side, much of what had been a young pitching staff returns, including three-fourths of the team’s starting rotation. The most notable of the returners is likely Simon Rosenblum-Larson, who led the team in both ERA and strikeout rate as a sophomore before continuing that success in the summer with the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League.
Those returnees will need to help pick up the workload carried last season by right-hander Ian Miller, whom head coach Bill Decker confirmed will not play this season due to an undisclosed injury. Decker stressed that he expects that Miller will return to the team at full health for 2019. In the interim, perhaps that leads to more innings for sophomore right-hander Grant Stone, who started three of his 11 appearances as a freshman and suppressed walks and home runs in his limited sample, albeit with pedestrian strikeout totals. Some innings may also go to the 6-foot-6 McGrory, a Second Team All-Northeast performer in his senior season of high school whom Perfect Game named as the seventh-best right-handed pitcher from Massachusetts last fall. While it seems that McGrory may be destined for the bullpen in deference to his more experienced teammates, it is worth noting that Harvard freshmen combined to start four games last season, so it would not be surprising to see him accrue some significant playing time immediately. With the offense the strong suit of the team, it will be interesting to see how Harvard’s still-young pitching staff develops this season as they try to push closer to the top of the conference.
Harvard has seen its share of struggles in recent years, but a promising young core seems to be coming into its own this season. With an exciting trio of position players, all of whom have realistic chances to be among the top players in the conference, the Crimson have the building blocks for one of the more competitive teams Cambridge has fielded in nearly a decade. Returning the nucleus of a team that ranked third in the conference in runs, Harvard should sport one of the more formidable offenses in the league. The pitching staff is less settled, although players like Rosenblum-Larson and Stone offer some upside on that side of the ball as well. Given the combination of talent and experience on the roster, it seems possible, if not likely, that Harvard’s 11-year run of losing seasons will be coming to its end.