College baseball is one of the most electric and underappreciated iterations of America’s National Pastime. In honor of the start of the 2019 college season, I’ve decided to compile a (mostly) definitive list of the best players from each college conference throughout history. Problem is, nobody wants to sit and read about 31 players in one article. So, this list will come in the form of a three-part series, with ten players in each of the first two installments, and eleven in the final, organized alphabetically based on the conference they represent.
Before we get into any players, though, I must include a few important disclaimers about the selection and classification process for this series.
- The schools and conferences on this list are based on alignment for the 2018 NCAA Division I Baseball season. This means that any discontinued programs (Southern Methodist, Boise State) will not be represented. Additionally, schools may not be in the same conference or classification as when the player actually played there.
- This list is based solely upon a player’s MAJOR LEAGUE career, not college or minor league performance. Thus, some schools had only one, and sometimes zero, candidates to be the best from their conference.
- Players were judged mostly on their MLB bWAR (Wins Above Replacement as calculated by BaseballReference), but sometimes judgement calls were made if I thought a player had a better career despite a lower WAR compared to the other players from their conference (Ex: Missouri Valley Conference in Part 2).
- It got really annoying to keep writing “Hall of Famer” for every Hall of Famer on this list, so those players are indicated with a “^” after their name.
- All player stats from BaseballReference or BR Bullpen unless otherwise noted
- Finally, I tried to take into consideration only players who played for, not just attended, the school that they are listed for. This ensures that a conference doesn’t get credit for a player that only attended a school, and never actually played.
Now, let’s get into the selections, starting with the America East Conference.
America East Conference
Best Player: Jeff Bagwell^, 1B, University of Hartford, 79.9 bWAR
Jeff Bagwell was an integral part of the Astros’ “Killer B’s” of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Drafted out of Hartford in the 4th round in 1989, Bagwell would play his entire career in Houston, amassing numerous accolades, including 4 NL All-Star selections, 1991 NL Rookie of the Year, and 1994 NL Most Valuable Player. Based on these awards, plus his career 79.9 bWAR and career slash line of .297/.408/.540, “Baggy” was the obvious choice for the America East.
American Athletic Conference
Best Player: Sandy Koufax^, LHP, University of Cincinnati, 49.0 bWAR
One of the most electric pitchers of his time, Sandy Koufax easily earns the nod to be the best player from an AAC team. He pitched the Dodgers, with whom he spent his entire career, to 4 World Series titles during his time with the team, being named Most Valuable Player twice. Like most players on this list, Koufax’s laundry list of accomplishments continues, including 4 no-hitters (one was a perfect game), and the modern NL record for strikeouts in a season (382)
Atlantic Sun Conference
Best Player: Chris Sale, LHP, Florida Gulf Coast University, 43.1 bWAR
The first of a small handful of active MLB players to make this list, Chris Sale has been nothing short of dominant since his debut in 2010. Since he became a full-time starter in 2012 for the Chicago White Sox, Sale, now with the Boston Red Sox, has been an All-Star AND finished in the top-6 for Cy Young voting every year. Additionally, he carries a career Earned Run Average (ERA) of 2.89, and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, a mark that is currently an all-time career record. To put it in layman’s terms, he’s really, really good at throwing baseballs in a way that other people struggle finding a way to hit. For these reasons, Sale was my pick for the best player to come out of an Atlantic Sun school.
Atlantic 10 Conference
Best Player: Frankie Frisch^, 2B, Fordham University, 70.4 bWAR
Frankie Frisch is likely one of the lesser known players on this list, but I think everybody should know at least a little bit about him. He was an infielder for the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals from 1919-1937, the 1931 NL MVP, and a participant in the first 3 All-Star Games. Toss in 419 stolen bases and .316/.369/.432 slash line, and you’ve got yourself the best big leaguer to play at an Atlantic 10 university.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Best Player: Carl Yastrzemski^, OF, University of Notre Dame, 96.4 bWAR
“Yaz” was another easy pick for the best player from his conference. Over his 23 years with the Boston Red Sox, Yastrzemski made 18 All-Star Games, led the league in bWAR 3 times, and recorded the AL Triple Crown and MVP award in 1967, one of the greatest seasons by a hitter in the modern era. The ACC should be proud to have Yaz as its representative on this list.
Big 12 Conference
Best Player: Roger Clemens, RHP, University of Texas, 139.6 bWAR
Roger Clemens had a bit of a controversial big league career, but I felt he was still fit to represent the Big 12 Conference on this list. Rocket was one of the greatest pitchers of his time, spending 24 years with 4 teams, most notably the Red Sox and Yankees. During that time he won a whopping 7 Cy Young Awards, 7 ERA Titles, 2 Pitching Triple Crowns, and was an 11 time All-Star. He also finished with 4.672 strikeouts, good for 3rd all-time, as well as a pitching bWAR that also puts him at 3rd. Regardless of your personal feelings about his alleged steroid use, it’s hard to deny Clemens’ career numbers.
Big East Conference
Best Player: Frank Robinson^, OF, Xavier University, 107.3 bWAR
This was a more difficult choice than the last few conferences, and there’s no way that the Big East could be represented by an undeserving player. Frank Robinson had a legendary career that included 2 MVP awards, a Triple Crown, a Batting Title, and 14 All-Star Game selections. Frank Robinson also ranks 10th all-time in home runs (583) and 13th in total bases (5,373).
Big South Conference
Best Player: Gaylord Perry^, RHP, Campbell University, 90.4 bWAR
The Big South is one of those conferences where I didn’t have much of a choice. It wasn’t even close, hence the absence of a single honorable mention. Luckily for the Big South, however, Gaylord Perry decided to play his college ball in Buies Creek, NC. Over the course of a 22 year major league career spent with 8 teams, most notably the San Francisco Giants, Perry racked up 5 All-Star Game selections and 2 Cy Young Awards to go with 314 wins and a Top-10 career mark of 3,534 strikeouts.
Big Ten Conference
Best Player: Robin Roberts^, RHP, Michigan State University, 86.0 bWAR
The Big 10 was another extremely difficult conference to make a decision on. Eventually, however I think I came to the right one. Another less-known player on this list is Robin Roberts, a pitcher who played from 1948-1966, primarily for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a 7 time All-Star and was a true workhorse, leading the NL in Games Started 6 times, Complete Games 5 times, and Innings Pitched 5 times.
Big West Conference
Best Player: Ozzie Smith^, SS, California Polytechnic State University, 76.9 bWAR
Ozzie Smith, aka “The Wizard,” is not only the best player to come out of the Big West Conference, but also one of the best defensive players in the history of baseball at any position. Ozzie made 15 All-Star games and won 13 Gold Gloves, and is also the all-time leader in Defensive bWAR (44.2), and second in Assists (8,375).
That’s all for this part; come back next week for the next set of selections!
Featured Image via Shelby L. Bell on flickr