Best 2023 Freshmen Classes: Highlighting the Most Impactful Groups

Which programs got the largest contributions from their freshmen classes?

Photo via TCU Athletics

While all the buzz around college baseball in the offseason may be around big-name transfer pickups, recruiting and developing players remains crucial. A transfer addition can plug a gap in a team’s lineup for a year, but developing future key pieces is important.

Of course, as any coach will tell you, development is not linear. Making the jump from high school baseball to facing experienced upperclassmen is a difficult one — even in your second year of college ball. You can find countless examples of players that built towards a breakout junior campaign.

Pro Baseball Radar recently highlighted just how difficult it can be for freshman to break through right away. The data showed that over the last three years, there’s an average of roughly one starting freshman position player per team.

That’s not to say there aren’t teams that are the exceptions to the rule, though. And teams that find quite a bit of success with a core group of freshman are set up well for the future.

With that in mind, here’s a look at last year’s most youthful teams, measured by the percentage of innings pitched and at bats by freshman.

Freshman Contributions

You’ll note that a fifth of teams gave less than 10 percent of each to true freshman, including teams like Oral Roberts, Campbell, and Indiana State — veteran-laden programs that enjoyed strong seasons. The outliers, by and large, struggled. Finding an impact freshman on either side of the ball can be difficult, and having a team that leans too heavily on them can result in a tough year.

With that in mind, let’s pivot to look more closely at the programs that got the most out of their freshman classes. While the likes of Cornell, Alcorn, Pacific, and Siena may have played a lot of first-year players, they ultimately took their lumps and won a combined 45 games.

Here’s a look at that same chart, but filtered down to the 64-team field of last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Whether it was out of necessity due to injuries or just strong recruiting classes, these programs were able to lean on freshman and find plenty of success.

Let’s dive into a few of those standouts (* indicates transferred after freshman season, if applicable).

TCU (44-24, College World Series)

Notable freshman: Kole Klecker, RHP (96.2 IP, 3.72 ERA); Ben Abeldt, LHP (55 IP, 3.60 ERA); Louis Rodriguez, RHP (47.2 IP, 4.53 ERA); Anthony Silva, SS (.330/.416/.471); Karson Bowen, C (.350/.420/.502)

A run to the College World Series was aided by large contributions on both side of the ball from freshman. Two of the team’s top four hitters by wRC+ in the regular season were Silva (129) and Bowen (121) and they didn’t stop hitting in the postseason — both were impressive in the Big 12 Championship run as well as in the NCAA Tournament. On the mound, the team’s top starter was Klecker — he went 10-4 while holding opponents to a .216 batting average — while the bullpen was fortified with Rodriguez and Abeldt. Abeldt was the best of the group — he led the team with 32 appearances, logged two saves, and pitched excellently in Omaha.

Duke (39-24, Super Regional)

Notable freshman: Andrew Healy, LHP (42.2 IP, 2.32 ERA); James Tallon, LHP (33.0 IP, 1.64 ERA); Owen Proksch, LHP (42.0 IP, 4.50 ERA); Aidan Weaver, RHP (33.1 IP, 4.86 ERA); Andrew Fischer*, 3B (.289/.404/.595); Tyler Albright, OF (.312/.408/.416)

How do you handle losing Luke Fox in the fall and Jonathan Santucci after a few starts? Switch to an opener strategy and lean heavily on a group of relievers — with a good chunk of them true freshman — and ride them all the way to a super regional appearance. Healy, Tallon, Proksch, and Weaver combined for 99 appearances and racked up accolades. Healy and Tallon were NCBWA Freshman All-American selections, the latter an All-ACC Second Team selection after breaking Duke’s single-season saves record with 12. Then, in the lineup, designated hitter Andrew Fischer (now headed to Ole Miss) led the team in wRC+ (147) and hit 11 home runs despite missing a month of the season. Left fielder Tyler Albright hit .312 and was a Conway All-Regional Team selection.

Indiana (43-20, Regionals)

Devin Taylor was the 2023 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Indiana Athletics Photo

Notable freshman: Brayden Risedorph, RHP (52.1 IP, 4.47 ERA); Connor Foley, RHP (29.0 IP, 3.72 ERA); Ethan Philllips, RHP (32.1 IP, 5.01 ERA); Devin Taylor, RF (.315/.430/.650); Tyler Cerny, 2B (.276/.348/.489)

Indiana slotted a pair of true freshman into their starting lineup and found plenty of success with Taylor and Cerny. Taylor — the Big Ten Freshman of the Year — led the team with a 152 wRC+, clubbing a team-high 16 home runs en route to an Indiana freshman record 59 RBIs. Cerny provided similar pop from the middle infield, hitting 10 home runs and logging a 104 wRC+. On the mound — where the Hoosiers searched for a third starter throughout the year — a trio of freshman threw 29-plus innings. Foley struck out over a third of the batters he faced, Risedorph led the team in appearances and logged six saves, and Phillips earned a Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honor.

Oregon (41-22, Super Regionals)

Notable freshman: Grayson Grinsell, LHP (48.1 IP, 4.47 ERA); Turner Spoljaric, RHP (55.0 IP, 6.55 ERA), Matt Grabmann, RHP (47.0 IP, 4.60 ERA); Drew Smith, DH/3B (.365/.430/.552)

Contributions were heavy on the pitching staff for the Ducks in 2024 — and out of necessity, like Duke above. Isaac Ayon and RJ Gordon, both slotted in the starting rotation, redshirted due to injury and Jace Stoffal — an All-Pac 12 First Team selection — made just 10 starts and didn’t pitch past April. As a result, the likes of Grinsell, Spoljaric, Grabmann, and Jackson Pace — among others — stepped up. Grinsell threw four scoreless with seven strikeouts in the regional final win over Xavier while Spoljaric had thrown six innings and earned a win against Vanderbilt the day prior. Smith, meanwhile, moved into the starting lineup in late April and had hits in his first 20 games — ultimately finishing with 10 extra base hits and 18 RBIs in 28 games. He had five hits in the super regional series loss to Oral Roberts.

Virginia (50-15, College World Series)

Notable freshman: Jack O’Connor, RHP (65.1 IP, 3.86 ERA); Bradley Hodges, LHP (33.1 IP, 4.32 ERA); Evan Blanco, LHP (23.2 IP, 3.04 ERA); Kevin Jaxel, RHP (24.0 IP, 3.75 ERA); Henry Godbout, 2B (.286/.376/.413); Harrison Didawick, LF (.252/.366/.428)

The Cavaliers got quite a bit of pitching from first-year arms. O’Connor, the No. 1 righthanded pitcher out of the state of Virginia, turned in 19 appearances and 11 starts with a sub-4.00 ERA. Hodges and Blanco were two key lefty relievers while Jaxel impressed from the other side. Blanco was tied for second on the team in appearances, while Hodges (10.8 K/9) and Jaxel (11.3 K/9) both turned in 19-plus appearances. Offensively, Godbout made 51 starts — including the final 17 games at second base — and hit .286 with 17 extra base hits. Didawick made 49 starts in the outfield and roped five triples and swiped 10 bases in a strong debut season.

Coastal Carolina (42-21, Regionals)

Caden Bodine
Caden Bodine was the 2023 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year. Coastal Carolina Photo

Notable freshman: Caden Bodine, C (.367/.456/.609); Blake Barthol, 3B (.308/.424/.572); Liam Doyle*, LHP (56.1 IP, 4.15 ERA); Jacob Morrison, RHP (57.2 IP, 6.55 ERA)

A prolific offense for the Chanticleers had plenty of stars, two of which were a pair of first-year players in Bodine and Barthol. Bodine posted a 142 wRC+ with nine home runs, earning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors, while Barthol chipped in seven home runs and a 139 wRC+. Not too shabby. Two of the team’s top three in innings pitched were true freshman as well in Morrison and Doyle. Morrison was limited to 13 starts due to injury but still went 6-1 in his debut season, while Doyle (who transferred to Ole Miss) finished with 23 appearances and seven starts.

Florida (54-17, College World Series)

Notable freshman: Cade Kurland, 2B (.297/.404/.555); Cade Fisher, LHP (49.1 IP, 3.10 ERA); Luke Heyman, C (.314/.366/.555)

Florida’s run to the College World Series finals saw them lean on several key first-year players. In the opening game of the Championship Series against LSU, the Gators’ had Kurland leading off, Heyman hitting sixth, and Fisher was the first arm out of the bullpen after Brandon Sproat. Fisher, notably, appeared in five of six games at the CWS. Kurland was an All-SEC First Team selection after clubbing 17 home runs, while Fisher and Heyman were both All-SEC Freshman Team selections.

Those six weren’t the only programs that got notable contributions from freshman, obviously — here’s a few more that stood out.

Oklahoma State had a dynamic duo of Nolan Schubart (.338/.451/.667) and Carson Benge (.345/.468/.538 & 35 IP, 6.69 ERA), the latter a promising two-way player. Texas A&M‘s Jace Laviolette (.287/.414/.632) was a steady contributor while Justin Lampkin (59.1 IP, 5.92 ERA) and Shane Sdao (43.1 IP, 4.78 ERA) had big roles on the pitching staff.

In the SEC, Mississippi State ultimately missed the conference tournament for a second year in a row but have the foundation built for a much better 2024 year. Dakota Jordan (.307/.397/.575), Bryce Chance (.330/.444/.430), and Ross Highfill (.231/.312/.521) all played big roles as a true freshman.

Stetson, likewise, leaned heavily on freshman position players. The trio of Landon Moran (.317/.468/.443), Jayden Hylton (.272/.358/.462), and Lorenzo Meola (.283/.372/.422) impressed mightily.

Featured Image via TCU Athletics