The Great College Home Run Chase

Cyndi Chambers-USA TODAY NETWORK

On Saturday afternoon, Charlie Condon hit a home run off Texas A&M starter Tanner Jones. Condon, who’d already reached on a fielder’s choice and scored earlier in the inning, put Georgia up 9-0 on the Aggies in the top of the first inning. Even on the road against the no. 1 team in the country, a nine-run first-inning lead seems like a good omen.

Unfortunately for Condon, Jace LaViolette homered in the bottom of the first, and Braden Montgomery added a dinger in the bottom of the third. After one inning, the Aggies had cut the lead to 9-8; by the seventh, they’d scored 19 unanswered runs, enough to invoke the SEC’s mercy rule and end the game. (This was the first game of a doubleheader, by the way, and there were 17 runs in the first inning.)

Condon, LaViolette, and Montgomery are engaged in a historic five-player home run chase. As recently as 2015, Andrew Benintendi of Arkansas wowed the country by leading Division I with 20 home runs. In 2024, 13 players ended April with at least 20 home runs.

The top five home run hitters in Division I are, perhaps not so coincidentally, also the top five players in home runs per game.

Division I’s Top Home Run Hitters
Player School HR G HR/G
Charlie Condon Georgia 30 44 0.68
Jac Caglianone Florida 26 44 0.59
Lyle Miller-Green Austin Peay 26 44 0.59
Jace Laviolette Texas A&M 23 45 0.51
Braden Montgomery Texas A&M 23 45 0.51
SOURCE: NCAA.org

Condon leads of the bunch; he just became Georgia’s all-time career home run leader a little more than halfway through his sophomore season. But by virtue of having redshirted in 2022, he is eligible for the draft, and has played his way — along with Caglianone and a few others — into the conversation for the top overall pick.

My longstanding dislike for spending high picks on first basemen being what it is, these guys could be the exception that proves the rule. For starters, Condon has played more outfield than first this year, and Caglianone — in addition to having plus-plus power — is also one of the top left-handed pitchers in the draft. (I have fielded several questions about the Gators’ two-way star from a visibly sweaty Ben Lindbergh, noted Shohei Ohtani superfan and college baseball ignoramus.)

And they’re on a different level of physicality from the likes of Spencer Torkelson and Andrew Vaughn. Condon is 6-foot-6, 216 pounds. Caglianone, at 6-foot-5, 245, is in that proud tradition (after Pete Alonso and Mike Zunino) of Gators sluggers who spend all offseason in the squat rack. LaViolette (6-foot-5, 228) is a big fella as well, though he’s not draft-eligible this year.

We’re in the midst of an offensive explosion in college baseball. After swinging too far into the offense-suppressing realm a decade ago, equipment rules have come back to favor hitters. The shortening of the draft and loosening of NIL rules has brought players into the college game who probably would’ve gone pro out of high school five to 10 years ago.

But it’s worth remembering that the same advances in training and technique that caused the home run explosion in pro baseball a few years ago are at play in college. (Condon and Caglianone both play for coaches — Wes Johnson and Kevin O’Sullivan, respectively — who have been on the progressive end of the player development curve. These are not the bunt-obsessed West Coast curmudgeons who ruled the sport a generation ago.) And as players like Condon and Caglianone unlock those advances the way Alonso, Aaron Judge, and others have, remember that these enormous undergraduates are not facing professional pitchers, but kids who top out at 92 mph or have trouble locating their fastballs.

Condon has 14 dingers in 21 conference games and 16 in 23 non-conference games, so it’s not like he’s padding his numbers against Alabama Directional Teachers’ College (Go Bunny Rabbits!). But Condon is a future big leaguer, and many of his opponents will go pro in something other than sports.

In Division I history, only 22 players have hit 31 or more home runs in a season; some of the more memorable names on the list include Mark McGwire, J.D. Drew, Kris Bryant, Troy Glaus, and Lance Berkman. BYU’s Mike Wiles did it twice. But as in every other aspect of baseball, if not humanity at large, the might of human accomplishment is tempered by the influence of technology.

In 1998, the NCAA changed the rules governing aluminum bats, narrowing the maximum barrel size and increasing the minimum weight-to-length ratio. Of those 23 top individual home run-hitting seasons, 14 came before the end of the Gorilla Ball era; six of those 14 seasons came in the very last Gorilla Ball season, 1997. In 2011, the NCAA changed the bat specs again, mandating a reduced coefficient of restitution (physics jargon for springiness) in composite bat construction. These BBCOR bats have been in use for more than a decade, and at least initially batted balls stayed in the yard.

Bryant set the BBCOR-era single-season home run record in 2013, when he hit 31 dingers in 62 games. That record stood for nine years, until Ivan Melendez of Texas hit 32 in 65 games in 2022. The very next year, Caglianone hit 33 in 71 games.

I would be astonished if Condon didn’t smash that record, possibly as early as this weekend. The single-season post-Gorilla Ball record is sure to come down as well; that’s 34 dingers in 70 games, by Daylan Holt of Texas A&M in 1999. Caglianone is a pretty good bet to become the second player ever with multiple 30-homer seasons in Division I; last year, he was helped by Florida making deep runs in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. But even if the Gators don’t play 71 games this season, Caglianone’s HR/G ratio is up 28% from last year.

So now we’re in the territory of dispensing with qualifiers; these are some of the biggest home run-hitting seasons in college baseball history, full stop. Here are Condon and Caglianone, along with the four 40-homer seasons in Division I history, and the other records this pair (or LaViolette and Montgomery) can still chase down.

Record-Setting Division I HR Seasons
PLAYER TEAM HR YEAR G HR/G
Pete Incaviglia Oklahoma State 48 1985 75 0.64
Jeff Ledbetter Florida State 42 1982 74 0.57
Lance Berkman Rice 41 1997 63 0.65
Brandon Larson LSU 40 1997 69 0.58
Daylan Holt* Texas A&M 34 1999 70 0.49
Jac Caglianone** Florida 33 2023 71 0.46
Charlie Condon Georgia 30 2024 44 0.68
Jac Caglianone Florida 26 2024 44 0.59
SOURCE: NCAA.org
*Post-Gorilla Ball-era Record (1998-present)
**BBCOR-era Record (2011-present)

That’s right, Condon is hitting more home runs per game than Pete Incaviglia, who came out of the womb as a 34-year-old and was hitting golf balls with a rocket launcher. The mid-to-late 1980s were quite a time to be an Oklahoma State Cowboy, by the way. Incaviglia broke the home run record in 1985; in 1987, Robin Ventura had a record-setting 58-game hitting streak; in 1988, Barry Sanders broke the single-season records for touchdowns and rushing yards. All three remain Division I records.

The question now is how far can Condon and Caglianone advance up the list? That depends on how well their teams do.

Incaviglia, Holt, and Caglianone last year all made it to the College World Series and ended up playing at least 70 games. (Ledbetter’s 1982 Seminoles somehow managed to play 74 games without making it out of a regional; that would not happen these days.)

How many games do Caglianone and Condon have left? Well, somewhere between about 10 and about 30.

Both teams have three remaining weekend conference series; Georgia’s nonconference schedule is done, while Florida has a midweek game against USF to play. Let’s assume none of those games get rained out or canceled.

After that it gets tricky, because postseason games count toward NCAA single-season stats, and we have no clue how many postseason games either team is going to play. And it’s all the more complicated because both the conference and NCAA tournaments change format multiple times while in progress.

The SEC Tournament features the two division winners and the teams with the next 10 best conference records. The top four seeds get a bye, while the other eight teams play single-elimination games to get to the double-elimination round of eight. Once the field is winnowed to four teams, single-elimination play resumes. In short, depending on seeding, a team could win the SEC Tournament in as few as four games or lose it in as many as six. Texas A&M actually did the latter last year, coming through the play-in round and the losers’ bracket to reach the final, where the Aggies lost to Vanderbilt.

Then there’s the NCAA Tournament, which is a four-team, double-elimination regional, followed by a best-of-three Super Regional, followed by the College World Series, which is a four-team double-elimination round followed by another best-of-three final. A winning NCAA Tournament run could take as few as 10 games or as many as 16.

What makes things a little more complicated is that both Georgia and Florida are just OK this year. I know, Florida is coming off a national runner-up season, but losing four top-100 picks to the draft, including Wyatt Langford, will set any team back.

I’m confident of the following things: Both Georgia and Florida will make the conference tournament but neither will get a bye. Right now, Georgia is the no. 8 seed, five games behind the closest first-round bye with nine conference games to play. Florida is tied with Alabama for the no. 9/10 spot, and has a three-game lead on 13th-place Missouri.

The most recent bracket projections at both D1Baseball and Baseball America have Georgia as a no. 2 regional seed and Florida as a no. 3 regional seed. (Both publications have Florida in the Stillwater Regional, which means Oklahoma State will have a chance to protect Inky’s record by taking Caglianone off the board early.) Barring something like a 1-9 finish, Georgia is probably safe, but Florida is on the bubble.

Georgia and Florida’s Remaining Schedules
Remaining SEC Tournament NCAA Tournament Total
Team Played Regular Season Minimum Maximum Minimum Maximum Minimum Maximum
Georgia 44 9 1 6 2 16 56 75
Florida 44 10 1 6 0 16 55 76

So if we assume that both players’ home run rates stay constant, how many dingers will they hit? Well, based on this wide spread of potential games played, I laid out four scenarios. First, both teams play the minimum reasonable potential number of games, losing every postseason game they play. In the second scenario (HSW below), both teams make the conference and NCAA tournaments, but once there the higher-seeded team wins every game. In scenario no. 3, each team plays a total of 10 postseason games, which implies either a deep conference tournament run or advancing to the Super Regionals. And finally, I projected a home run total if Georgia or Florida makes a run to the final of both the SEC Tournament and the College World Series, and uses up every possible game in the losers’ bracket on the way.

Condon and Caglianone’s Projected HR Totals
Player Team HR/G Current Minimum GP HSW 10 PSG Maximum
Charlie Condon Georgia 0.68 30 38 41 43 51
Jac Caglianone Florida 0.59 26 33 34 38 45

All told, it looks likely that Caglianone will match his home run total from last year, while Condon has a great chance of posting the first 40-homer season Division I has seen since the Gorilla Bat era.

That’s pretty incredible stuff, as any college baseball fan already knows. But every time I write about college baseball there’s an irascible minority of commenters who pipe up to say that nobody cares. Leaving aside the powerful evidence around the Southeast every weekend that many hundreds of thousands of people care deeply about SEC baseball, I do feel some obligation to tie this story back to these two players’ professional potential.

Unfortunately, the historical record has provided a powerful object lesson in why it’d be foolish to try. Because the last two 40-homer seasons in Division I came in the same year, 1997, courtesy of Lance Berkman and Brandon Larson.

These two beefy sluggers were hard to separate in 1997. They played fairly close together geographically — Berkman at Rice, Larson at LSU — for teams that met in the College World Series and played a game decided by one run. When the draft came around, Larson was drafted just two spots ahead of Berkman in the first round.

Surely you remember Berkman’s career: six All-Star appearances, four top-five MVP finishes, a World Series with the Cardinals in 2011. Basically your definitional Hall of Very Good career. If you offered that career to either Condon or Caglianone now, they’d grab it with both hands without asking what the catch is. (The catch, obviously, is that your first-born child is mine unless you can guess my name.)

But perhaps you’re scratching your head trying to remember Larson. That’s because, despite having similar power hitting records in college players, Berkman and Larson could not have been more different in the pros.

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood
Name G PA HR AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Lance Berkman 1879 7814 366 .293 .406 .537 .400 144 55.9
Brandon Larson 109 332 8 .179 .271 .299 .258 49 -1.3

What should we make of this McGwire-and-Sosa of the modern SEC? Well, we should sit back and enjoy it while it lasts. And hope whichever team drafts them ends up with more Berkman and less Larson.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Scoreboardmember
22 days ago

PETE INCAVIGLIA REFERENCE!!!