What's a great series of entries previewing the baseball team without a pun-based title? Absolutely nothing. With Back in the Swing of Things, I'll be taking a rapid-fire look at the baseball team's returning players and getting you acquainted with some of the new faces as well.
You may have heard that they deadened the bats in the college game last year. Try telling that to the Gamecocks' junior first baseman, who saw his OPS climb 90 points on the strength of improved plate discipline (7.1 BB% in 2010, 11.4% in 2011) and more extra base hits (31.1% XBH in 2010, 33% in 2011). At this point, Walker and his .344/.414/.537 career line are proven commodities, and the worst case scenario for 2012 is that he regresses to his still very good freshman campaign.
But Walker's OPS may need to take another 90 point jump in 2012 if he's going to lead a very talented but very raw Yardcock squad to a third consecutive national championship. Though Walker hit plenty of doubles last year (+9 from 2010), he only hit one more home run in 65 extra plate appearances. A power boost (say, a SLG% somewhere in the low .600s) would also improve his draft stock considerably, since first base is a position where you really have to rake if you want to be considered a serious MLB prospect.
It truly pains me to say this as a stat guy but, with Walker being the only returning member of the 2011 infield, his veteran leadership will be vital early on as newcomers Joey Pankake, L.B. Dantzler, Chase Vergason, and T.J. Costen get acclimated to the speed of division one play.
If you're looking for position battles, look elsewhere. If Walker isn't manning first it's because he's injured or is just getting the day off during a mid-week game against UNC Asheville or something. (Yes, Darrin Horn, some coaches can afford to rest their best players against UNC Asheville.) If Walker needs to come out of a game for any reason, you may see Ray Tanner move hard-hitting catching prospect Grayson Greiner over to first base.
Up Next: Second Base (probably)