The Cal State Fullerton Titans have been tabbed the team to beat in 2016 as they begin their quest to defend the Big West Conference title, according to the nine conference coaches that voted on the 2016 Big West baseball preseason poll. The Titans earned four first-place votes en route to a total of 71 points while UC Irvine, who received one first-place vote, holds the second spot with 65 points. Long Beach State secured the third slot after earning three first-place votes for a total of 62 points and the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara picked up the final first-place vote and tallied 60 points to finish fourth.
Coming off a trip to the College World Series and led by 18 returning lettermen, Cal State Fullerton is already being recognized as a top contender for the 2015 conference title by multiple media outlets. The Titans are the lone team in the Big West ranked among the top 25 in the 2016 preseason polls, the highest ranking of 12th coming from Collegiate Baseball. Last season the Titans, who captured their 20th conference title with a 19-5 mark, posted their 41st consecutive winning season and advanced to its 24th consecutive NCAA Tournament and 37th overall in 41 years of existence.
Despite losing a few key players from last year, the Titans welcome back their offensive spark plugs, All-Big West First Team members Josh Vargas and Jerrod Bravo. In 2015, Vargas led the team in hitting, posting a .332 batting average in 199 at-bats. His .437 on-base percentage and 42 runs ranked second on the team. Bravo hit .318, finishing third on the Titan squad, played in 48 games in 2015 and posted a team-best .451 on-base percentage. He pounded out 47 hits during his junior season, finishing with nine doubles and 28 runs scored.
Fans will also see an All-Big West First Teamer on the mound in Miles Chambers. Chambers was called on out of the Titans bullpen plenty in 2015, appearing in 23 games and posting a 5-3 overall record. The Elverta, Calif., native tallied a 2.17 earned run average and struck out 50 in 62.1 innings of work as a starter, reliever and closer during the season. Also look for All-Big West Honorable Mention pitcher John Gavin to secure a spot in the starting rotation. Gavin shined in his first collegiate season for the Titans, posting a 7-3 record in 17 starts while striking out 67 in 86.0 innings of work.
Along with its veteran staff, the Titans welcome the 24th-best recruiting class, according to Collegiate Baseball. Highlights of the 2015 incoming class include Erik Cha, Brett Conine, Colton Eastman, Josh Rios, Gavin Velasquez and Blake Workman, who traveled with the Titans to the 2015 World University Games in Gwangju, Korea, where Fullerton finished in fourth place.
Like Cal State Fullerton, second place UC Irvine welcomes back a pair of All-Big West First Team recipients in Keston Hiura and Mikey Duarte. Hiura, the 2015 Big West Freshman Player of the Year, is already receiving 2016 preseason All-America nods by multiple publications. The Valencia, Calif., native concluded his freshman campaign ranked seventh in the Big West in batting at .330 and fifth with a .520 slugging percentage. He tied for second with 75 hits and ninth with 40 runs scored. Hiura boasted seven home runs, setting a UCI freshman record.
Duarte was the conference’s leader in hits with 77 and ended the regular season fifth in the Big West with a .341 batting average. He also logged a .412 on-base percentage to rank 10th and tied for second in the conference with 43 runs scored. A Big West Player of the Week, Duarte was stellar defensively, committing just six errors for a .978 fielding percentage at shortstop.
Looking to grab their first conference title since 2008, the Dirtbags are led by 2016 Preseason All-Americans short stop Garrett Hampson and pitcher Chris Mathewson. The junior from Reno, Nev., was the Big West Freshman Field Player of the Year in 2014 and is a two-time all-conference selection. He led the Dirtbags with 64 hits in 2015 and was the only player to start all 54 games. He also led the team with 38 runs scored, 18 stolen bases and three triples.
The righthander from Fontana, Calif., led the starting rotation with a 1.94 ERA over 13 starts, becoming the first Dirtbag to win Big West Freshman Pitcher of the Year. He was later named to a handful of freshman All-American teams, including a first-team nod from Baseball America. The highlight of his rookie campaign came early on against Wichita State, when Mathewson’s second career start turned into a combined no-hitter with teammate Darren McCaughan—the first no-hitter in program history.
Grabbing the fourth spot, the Gauchos are coming off a historic 2015 season in which they set a program record for wins against Division I opponents (40) while hosting an NCAA Regional for the first time in UCSB history. Head Coach Andrew Checketts welcomes back a healthy crop of promising returners for his 2016 squad, highlighted by outfielder Andrew Calica and pitchers Shane Bieber and Kyle Nelson. Calica, a 2015 All-Big West Honorable Mention member, won the batting title in the prestigious Cape Cod after hitting .425 for the Wareham Gatemen, the highest average the league has seen since 1980. He is a career .321 hitter at the Division I level.
Bieber earned a All-Big West Second Team nod after a breakout sophomore campaign in which he went 8-4 with a 2.24 ERA, co-leading the Big West in wins and ranking among the nation’s elite in control stats (1.04 walks per nine innings, eighth in nation, 7.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 10th in the NCAA). In his rookie season, Nelson went 3-1 with a 0.75 ERA out of the bullpen to earn Freshman All-America honors. He closed out the season by allowing no earned runs in his final 27.0 innings pitched, a Checketts-era UCSB record.
With 44 total points, CSUN clinched the fifth spot and Cal Poly, who captured its first-ever title in 2014, landed sixth with 43 points. Hawai’i ranked seventh with 27 points and was followed by UC Riverside (17) and UC Davis (16).