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Which Elite Eight school produced the best MLB player?

After I witnessed three of my Final Four picks get eliminated in the Sweet 16, there is not much to look forward to in this year’s Elite Eight. Since the baseball season is now getting into full swing, I decided to make my own bracket with the teams left in the NCAA Tournament. However, teams will not advance based on whether they win on the basketball court. Instead, the winner will be determined based on which school produced the better MLB player, either past or present.

Elite Eight

No. 1 Duke (Dick Groat) vs. No. 2 Michigan State (Robin Roberts)

Considered to be one of the greatest athletes in Duke’s history, Groat was one of the best shortstops in the MLB during his 14-year career. Although he hit just 39 career home runs, he was a lifetime .286 hitter and won a batting title with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Groat also made five all-star teams, was named the National League MVP in 1960 and won two World Series rings.

After two seasons of playing for Michigan State’s baseball team as a walk-on pitcher, Roberts became one of the greatest pitchers in Philadelphia Phillies history. He ended his career with a 286-245 record, a 3.41 ERA, 2,357 strikeouts and five top-seven MVP finishes. The right-hander was a workhorse on the mound as well as he tossed 305 complete games and 45 career shutouts. This led to Roberts’ induction into the Hall of Fame in 1976.

Roberts recorded at least 20 wins each season from 1950-1955. (photo courtesy: Michigan State University Athletics)

Oftentimes, it is hard to justify picking a non-Hall of Fame player over one who was inducted. This decision is no different as Roberts and Michigan State move on to the Final Four.

No. 1 Gonzaga (Jason Bay) vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (Josh Tomlin)

Known by many fans as a basketball school, Gonzaga’s baseball team was headlined by Jason Bay during the 1999 and 2000 seasons. Over the span of his 11-year career, he became the first Canadian to win the Rookie of the Year award and made three all-star appearances. Bay also collected 1,200 hits including 222 home runs which are the most of any Gonzaga alum.

Bay’s 222 MLB home runs are the most of any Gonzaga alum. (photo courtesy: Gonzaga University Athletics)

Out of all the Elite Eight teams, Texas Tech was the team that I struggled with the most. While they play in a power conference (Big 12), they have been unable to produce players that stick long-term in the major leagues. Their most notable player has been Tomlin who has a record of 61-53 with a 4.77 ERA over parts of eight seasons.

With Tomlin being league-average at best throughout his entire career, it makes the decision for Bay to advance into the next round that much easier.

No. 1 Virginia (Eppa Rixey) vs. No. 3 Purdue (Moose Skowron)

During his career with the Phillies and Reds, Rixey was a tale of two pitchers. As a member of the Phillies, he was inconsistent and alternated between respectable and disastrous seasons. After being traded to the Reds in 1921, Rixey showed dominance on the mound as he won 100 games in his first five seasons there. He proved to be a consistent winner as well which led him to 266 career wins, tied for 37th most in MLB history.

A trade sending Rixey to the Reds in 1921 changed the trajectory of his career. (photo courtesy: Cincinnati Reds (Twitter))

Skowron spent two years at Purdue as a three sport athlete before he was signed by the Yankees in 1950. As a first baseman, he had a career batting average of .282 with 211 home runs and 888 RBI. Skowron’s most notable home run came in Game 7 of the 1958 World Series as he led New York to a championship. He won five out of the eight World Series he played in.

Although Skowron led his team to greater achievements, Rixey’s Hall of Fame career provides him with a slight edge. In the closest call out of the Elite Eight matchups, Rixey and Virginia move on.

No. 2 Kentucky (Brandon Webb) vs. No. 5 Auburn (Frank Thomas)

After becoming one of the top pitchers to ever wear a University of Kentucky baseball uniform, Webb was drafted in the eighth round by the Diamondbacks in 2000. There, he had a dominant six seasons as the team’s ace, ranking second in wins above replacement behind Johan Santana. Webb also threw the third highest amount of innings and was third in ERA+. In 2006, he was given the National League Cy Young Award, making him the first pitcher in Kentucky’s history to earn the honors.

Known as the “Big Hurt”, Thomas was known for his ability to punish opposing pitchers with his hitting. In the first seven full seasons of his career, Thomas had a streak consisting of at least a .300 batting average, 20 home runs, 100 RBI and 100 walks. During that span, he won two MVP awards and had five finishes in the top eight. Only Babe Ruth (12) and Lou Gehrig (9) had more of those types of seasons.

Thomas holds top-20 marks in home runs, on-base percentage and walks. (photo courtesy: Chicago Sun-Times)

If Webb’s dominance on the mound had not been so brief, this could have had the potential to become a tougher decision. However, Thomas’s numbers during his prime make him a shoo-in for the Final Four.

Final Four

No. 1 Gonzaga (Jason Bay) vs. No. 2 Michigan State (Robin Roberts)

Aside from his years as a New York Met in which he produced forgettable numbers, Bay had a respectable career. From 2004 to 2009, the outfielder averaged 30 home runs and 99 RBI for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox.

Similar to Bay, Roberts experienced his greatest successes over a six year period. From 1950 to 1955, the right-hander recorded at least 20 wins while leading the league in wins four times. Roberts’ best season statistically came in 1952 when he went 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA and 30 shutouts in 330 innings pitched.

While both players have had notable stretches of success, Roberts performed at a level that is no longer seen or even thought of in today’s MLB. Michigan State keeps on dancing.   

No. 1 Virginia (Eppa Rixey) vs. No. 5 Auburn (Frank Thomas)

As a finesse pitcher, Rixey was known for his ability to work deep into counts. Although he did not strike out many, he walked fewer batters. However, due to spending most of his career on bad teams, Rixey has one of the worst win-loss records among Hall of Famers. His 251 losses are the most ever by a left-hander and the 9th most of all pitchers.

After retiring in 2008 following a 19-year career, Thomas holds top-20 marks in home runs (521), on-base percentage (.419) and walks (1,667). His other major statistics include a .301 batting average and 1,704 RBI. These offensive numbers led to Thomas earning four Silver Slugger Awards, five all-star selections and nine top-ten finishes in the American League MVP voting.

Although not all of Rixey’s losses were his fault, it is difficult to advance a player who is in the top ten for most losses in MLB history. That combined with the power of the “Big Hurt’s” bat moves Thomas into the final round.

National Championship

No. 2 Michigan State (Robin Roberts) vs. No. 5 Auburn (Frank Thomas)

Out of all the matchups thus far, this was the most difficult one to decide a winner for. It is hard enough to have to decide between two Hall of Fame players. This is especially true when one is a pitcher and the other is a position player. Since there are not many common statistics that I could use to compare the two, wins above replacement (WAR) was the best option. With Roberts having a WAR of 86.0 compared to Thomas’ WAR of 75.9, Michigan State will be cutting down the nets and experiencing the sweet taste of victory.

Champion: No. 2 Michigan State (Robin Roberts)

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