Two primary misfires can plunge a well-intentioned fan on tracking a college baseball program. One is, not actually liking baseball at lower levels. It can happen, and the possibility will scare away many before an attempt is made. Sad, but so it goes. My dad, for instance, likes watching the Chicago Bulls. A game between the Celtics and Trail Blazers wouldn’t much appeal to him, regardless of team records or time constraints. I understand that, even for baseball. However, here, the threshold for being interested is a bit looser. Here’s a look at the 2019 Bradley and Illinois State baseball squads.
The second reason for losing interest early in a college program is... well... the team being terrible. If your side is approaching 10 wins after three weeks, and has a Hitter and Pitcher Of The Week already, it easy to be glib. However, there’s nothing like a 2-11 start to dump cold water on a 56-game campaign. As much as I emphasize the art of tracking college games as a proxy for learning purposes. you want the side you’re following to win on occasion.
As I go through these, I’m trying to make it a bit possible to “tea leaves read” which teams are likely to be worth following from a wins-losses perspective. College baseball, though, produces turbulence. With all but a few teams, losing a couple top hitters for a month or more can drastically alter win expectation totals. Which leaves aside the fickleness of pitching health and effectiveness.
Bradley (Peoria) and Illinois State (Bloomington) are separated by well less than an hour, depending on where you’re starting from and stopping. Quite a few of you are along the stretch of I-74 between the schools, and could, theoretically, be either Braves or Redbirds followers. While I already have a Braves follower on my timelines, another would be welcomed. The same would apply regarding the ISU Redbirds.
They are rivals in the Missouri Valley Conference, which is a two or three bid league, many seasons. With the recent addition of Ben Zobrist’s Dallas Baptist to the loop, that is usually one of them. Missouri State has been kicking out early round choices recently in Jeremy Eierman (2nd round in 2018), Jake Burger (1st round in 2017), and Jon Harris (1st Round in 2015), and have been getting routine invites to the Field of 64. Someone else from the other six (to include in state Southern Illinois) has a valid chance with a good season,
Bradley and Illinois State have recently been more “torso” than “head or feet” recently. If your selection process demands a 30-win side most season, the Redbirds and Braves won’t necessarily deliver every season, or even most.
Last year, Bradley was the better of the two. Three 2018 Braves played pro ball in the calendar year, with two being draft choices. Brothers Luke and Andy Shadid lead a foursome of .300 hitters that return to the lineup for 2019. Brendan Dougherty and Keaton Rice are the others. Off of a lineup with a .294 average and .838 OPS, the Braves could outscore their opposition, yet again, in 2019. (It was 350-276 last season.) Their weekend rotation returns as well. The Braves could be a nice stealth pick in the MVC this season, and should have draft-worthy names as the season continues.
As for Illinois State, they lost their top player, Owen Miller, to the draft (Padres, third round) last June. Outfielder John Rave returns, and not only led the team in homers with eight, but had a .973 OPS. He’ll likely get drafted. Only one other returning regular hit over .250, in John Aeilts (.268/.691). The 22-30 Redbirds also return their weekend rotation of Brady Huffman, Brent Headrick, and Matt Walker. All had ERAs north of 5.00 in 2018.
It wouldn’t take a hard push for me to project Bradley as the likely better foe in 2019, as opposed to the Redbirds. However, if your preference is to stay local on the Bloomington-to-Peoria corridor, Illinois State would be an outside contender for a regional spot.
Whether it’s an in-state, in-region, regular quality foe, or other, hopefully you choose to invest 30 minutes per week researching a college team this season. If you need assistance, let me help find a fit. Bradley hosts the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in May. Illinois State’s and Bradley’s season schedules are a click away. College talent from across the country will be Cubs prospects by next August.