Welcome back to Omaha, Nebraska, fans of the 2021 College World Series.
There was no CWS event in 2020, so I’ll regard the teams that were in Omaha two years ago (Vanderbilt and Mississippi State) as holding an advantage coming into this tournament just as if they had been in Omaha last year. Recent experience in Omaha contributes greatly to success for teams that understand how to address the climate, the nuance of the ballpark and especially the many periphery distractions that have to be managed.
The ballpark his huge, cavernous and sets up for teams that hit for average, hit doubles, triples, play small ball, have strong pitching staffs and defend. A reliance on home runs is a detriment for teams in this tourney, not an advantage.
Last week, I released Vanderbilt 6-1, Texas 6-1, Virginia 22-1 and Texas Tech 13-1. Texas Tech got smashed by a strong Stanford team so while I hold advantage with the three teams involved with the tourney, I do start off with a negative 1-unit balance.
There are two brackets, so the winner in each competes in a best-of-three series to crown a champion. It’s advantageous to understand the brackets, then the schools within them in order to determine which team(s) have the best chance to win their way to the final series.
The key to this tourney is simple: Win the first two games then your team is catapulted into Friday baseball where your pitchers’ arms are fresh and your team is itching to get back onto the diamond. For teams that do not win the first two games, the path to the final series is laden with depth issues for pitchers, bullpens and team mentality are worn thin just to arrive to the final three game series.
Here’s how I view each team and its chances in this outstanding baseball tournament, along with a couple value bets.
NC State 14-1
The Wolfpack got here by upsetting the Arkansas Razorbacks, a team that had experienced a record-setting regular season and was primed after a 21-2 victory in Game 1 to arrive in Omaha to accept their coronation. The problem was that the Wolfpack, a team playing with great second-half momentum never quit, took the next two games from Arkansas and now lands in Omaha.
While they have momentum, I wonder if getting to Omaha was the emotional goal of this ball club. They’ll say they’re here to win and I don’t doubt them, but I believe their draw (Game 1 is against Stanford) and bracket make it unlikely the Wolfpack are a deep threat in 2021. The Wolfpack lead the tourney in fielding but they sport the highest ERA in the tourney at 5.12, so look for runs in their games.
Stanford’s message is not to be found in statistical analysis, as the Cardinal aren’t a top-five team in any of the categories I track for the CWS outside of fielding (which is significant). What they do bring to this tournament is the momentum gained from going into Lubbock, Texas and dominating an eighth-ranked Texas Tech team that had been to Omaha in 2019 and was poised to get there again.
Stanford coach Dave Esquer played for the 1987 Stanford national championship team under coach Marquess, so while they have no recent CWS experience, Esquer will be able to channel his group of overachievers into delivering their best effort on the diamond. They face NC State in their first game and are -140 favorites with ace Brendan Beck on the hill.
Stanford is worth considering.
Arizona won this tourney in 2012 and was the runner-up in 2016. The Wildcats lead the nation in slugging, batting average, on base percentage, doubles and triples. Arizona plays on a field that prepares it well for the type of baseball played in the CWS, which is why they perform so well in Omaha when they attend. It’s my judgement that Arizona’s odds are out of whack, as I handicap this team to be more like a 6-1 contender. Affecting the odds is the fact that they draw tourney favorite Vanderbilt in Game 1 with ace Kumar Rocker hurling against them.
The premium in this tourney is winning the first game then the second and no one knows this better than the Vanderbilt Commodores. Arizona’s odds in Game 1 lead me to believe that the Wildcats are going to be up to challenging the defending champions.
Currently, Arizona is a slight + 120 underdog to Vandy. I’ll use Arizona to win Game 1 as a release but wait until game time as their odds will increase.
I feel Arizona is a mispriced team in this tourney as evidenced by the fact that they finished ahead of Stanford in the conference and the key categories I track, yet they’re higher priced in the futures market than the Cardinal! Should the Wildcats get by 2019 champion Vanderbilt Saturday, watch out.
Value bet: Arizona 10-1
Vanderbilt + 265
Vandy’s first draw in this tourney, Arizona, is the offensive juggernaut of the event. Vandy arrives as an elite pitching/defensive team. Led by future professional pitchers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, the Commodores have Omaha experience, have two professional pitchers and depth of pitching. They are a complete ballclub. Vanderbilt knows how to manage this tourney and should be the outright favorite to win.
However, the CWS has a history of humbling ace pitchers and that did not happen to Rocker two years ago as a freshman, as he dominated this tourney. What was an easy tournament experience as a frosh may not be so easy to replicate as a junior. This will be a fantastic first ballgame against Arizona.
Virginia is team that got hot late and earned its way to Omaha by defeating Dallas Baptist. The Cavaliers had a relatively efficient path to Omaha this year and had to get past DBU with a late grand slam in their rubber game to accomplish it. The Cavaliers’ biggest advantage will be that Coach Brian O’Connor played ball at Creighton University in Omaha and was on their CWS team back in the day. Virginia will have a solid ace hurler, a team that plays excellent defense and can execute small-ball tactics. To top it off, because O’Connor is from Omaha and his parents still live here, the Cavaliers will absolutely have the crowd behind them. I’m not sure the local fans will be enough to propel Virginia into the final series, but with a 22-1 ticket on them I’ll watch and see. One ace hurler, strong team defense and average offensive capability earn Virginia longshot status.
The Vols arrive in Omaha with a stacked team. Though they have not been to this event in years, the team is in the top half of the field in team ERA, WHIP, fielding and on-base percentage. While the Vols’ draw on paper looks manageable, it must be understood that every one of the fans in that stadium shy of the handful of Vol faithful in attendance will be pulling for Virginia. I believe that Tennessee may be ripe in Game 1, but it is a solid group.
Mississippi State 8-1
This Bulldogs bunch has been in Omaha for the past three events. While it has been under varying coaches, the point is that this SEC powerhouse comes prepared and understands how to play in this stadium as well how to act during the event. MSU’s probably the most well-rounded team here and I believe they’re poised to make a deep run. In their season opener, MSU defeated their Sunday opponent (the Texas Longhorns) 8-3 in Arlington. MSU, a team that is 41-1 when leading after eight innings, will be an underdog in that game and if they can best the Longhorns in that game, they’ll be a real threat.
Value bet: Mississippi State 8-1
This Texas bunch looks much like the perennial championship teams that Gustafson and Garrido brought to Omaha. The Longhorns have earned six championships in Omaha and have not attended this event since 2018. Texas will not be a fan favorite by any stretch based on its success over the Nebraska Cornhuskers and since the fans dislike teams coming in and dominating play like Texas has done on so many occasions in this CWS.
Texas has three ace hurlers; they lead (or are second) in all the statistical categories I track. If they can squeeze by MSU in Game 1, they’re poised to have fresh, deep pitching arms late into this tournament … which will give them every opportunity to lift the championship trophy.
In summary, here are the tourney wagers I recommend:
Mississippi State to win CWS at 8-1
Arizona to win CWS at 10-1
Arizona + 120 (or better) vs. Vanderbilt in Game 1 on Saturday