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2021 College World Series, Bracket One: Why they can win, why they can't

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

A closer look at Arizona, North Carolina State, Stanford and Vanderbilt for the 2021 College World Series.

Carter Young, Jayson Gonzalez photos courtesy of Vanderbilt athletics.

Here's a look at the four teams in Bracket One of the 2021 College World Series, with reasons each team can, and can't, win the event. 

Arizona (see our preview of the Wildcats here)

Why they can win it: That lineup. Yes, Arizona's Hi Corbett field inflates offensive numbers, and so that contributed to the Wildcats' 526 runs scored in 61 games. And yes, no park deflates run scoring like Omaha's TD Ameritrade. Still, when your "weak link" (That's shortstop Nik McClaughry) hit .305/.417/.390, and when six of your nine hitters walk at a rate of 10% or better, that's a lot of pressure one-to-nine to put on opposing teams. Arizona scored seven runs or more 37 times this season and only once did they go more than two straight games without scoring at least five runs, so the Wildcats have the offensive consistency to go a long way.

Why they can't win itThat pitching. Outside Gil Luna and Preston Price (strikeout rates of 36% and 40%, respectively), I'm not sure how many pitchers on this staff put fear into the heart of opposing hitters, and we still don't know if Luna (who was suspended for last week's super regional) will be in Omaha. Perhaps the Wildcats can get through on sheer mixing and matching until they find a hot hand or two--a dozen Arizona pitcher threw at least 20 innings this year, and the team win 45 games--but compared to some of the other pitching staffs in this field, it's hard to imagine this team being the last one standing.

North Carolina State (see our preview of the Wolfpack here)

Why they can win it: Because the team we saw from March on proved it belonged with the rest in Omaha. State was 4-9 following an 8-3 loss to Louisville on March 21. From that point on, the Wolfpack went 31-9, with 18 of those games coming against teams that played in the NCAA Tournament. And if that's not enough, remember, the Wolfpack went to Arkansas and eliminated the nation's No. 1 seed last week, that coming after an undefeated run in the Ruston Regional. And while the Wolfpack are known more for their offense and fielding, State's got three relatively durable starers in Sam Highfill, Reid Johnston and Matt Willadsen, as well as two high-volume relievers in Evan Justice and Chris Villaman. That, combined with the built-in rest in Omaha, means the Wolfpack may have enough arms to get through this also. 

Why they can't win it: Because State doesn't pitch at an elite level. Those are good arms, but are they great arms? Highfill and Johnston, the team's two best starters, don't walk a lot of guys (both had free pass rates of 9%) but they don't consistently dominate, either (strikeout rates of 22% and 24%). It's not that the Wolfpack are weak, but Omaha matches strengths on strengths with pitching and North Carolina State's staff will be charged with out-pitching some elite staffs if it wants to hoist the trophy at the end.

Stanford (see our preview of the Cardinal here)

Why they can win it: Brendan Beck (2.96 ERA) and Alex Williams (3.03). Because of the rest between games in Omaha, Stanford--if it can get in the winner's bracket--may be able to get by with mostly using two starting pitchers. And while ERAs can sometimes be deceptive, there are underlying numbers--Beck allowed 0.97 runners per inning and had an "expected" ERA of 1.86, while Williams was 1.04 and 2.16 in that regard. Sure, Willams threw just 50 innings this year, but don't forget, he also threw a complete-game two-hitter in the Lubbock Super Regional last week.

Why they can't win itOverall pitching depth. After those two, Stanford's arms were just okay. Closer Zach Grech had 13 saves and a 3.17 ERA, but he also struck out just 1.4 batters to everyone he either hit or walked. Of Stanford's other arms outside of Beck and Williams, only Jacob Palisch was over 2 in that regard, and that's not good. 

Vanderbilt (see our preview of the Commodores here

Why they can win it: Those elite arms. We know about Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, and the numbers the two put up--212 innings, 311 strikeouts, just 100 hits allowed--are just insane. Each goes deep into games and can go the distance on occasion, but if not, Vanderbilt has relievers Nick Maldonado and Luke Murphy, who in 73 1/3 innings struck out 95 men and allowed 45 hits while saving eight games each. The Commodores have other quality arms behind them, but it's also conceivable they could get to the title round without having to use more than those four and that's a sobering thought for any team in Vandy's path. 

Why they can't win itThe bats are young and not consistent enough. No Commodore regular started a game in the 2019 postseason and furthermore, Vanderbilt tinkered with lineup combinations all the way through regional and super regional play to the point that players like Javier Vaz and Troy LaNeve--who don't have much experience--are now regulars. And while the offense is plenty good--428 runs scored--Vandy wasn't great late in the season, scoring four runs or less in eight of its last 16 games.