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May 30, 2003

College World Series

A Guide to College Baseball

by Boyd Nation

I'm Boyd Nation, the chief cook and bottle-washer over at Boyd's World, a site devoted to rankings, analysis, and the occasional opinion about college baseball. I've been asked by the Baseball Prospectus editors to write a series of pieces on the college game in time for this year's College World Series. For the most part, I'm going to be trying to pull together analysis of the college game with, hopefully, some pointers on lessons that can be learned about the game in general. This week, though, I'm going to start off with an introduction to the college game, go to an admission of the two most common objections major league fans tend to have to the college game, and finish with an explanation of why there are reasons to love the college game both as a pastime in itself and as part of a broader context of baseball appreciation.

The Skinny

College baseball is the fourth-most popular NCAA sport, after football, men's basketball, and women's basketball. However, by most measures, it's far behind the big two and a reasonable distance behind women's basketball; for example, there's a good bit of regional TV coverage of regular-season games, but no national coverage until well into the postseason. The top two teams in attendance, Louisiana State and Mississippi State, average more than 7,000 fans a game, which would be quite competitive in the Double-A level of the minors. But the bulk of those crowds comes from alumni season ticket sales; the 10th-place team would average around 3,000 a game, and 90% of the NCAA programs average under 1,000 a game.

This year, 287 teams participated in Division I baseball, with another 200 or so in lower divisions. Teams play a 56-game (more or less) regular season schedule; with postseason play, the best teams will play around 70-75 games. There is no official opening day for the season, which causes the beginning of the season to seem a bit odd at times. But the regular season generally runs from late January or early February until late May, with the postseason running from then until mid-June. The season's timing has caused something of a geographic imbalance within the game, as almost all of the top programs are located in warm weather states. Although a few moderately Northern teams like Wichita State, Nebraska, and Notre Dame have had some success in recent years on the national stage, there's been constant pressure in recent years to move the schedule back into the summer. This would obviously have an effect on the short-season minor leagues, but will probably happen gradually over the next decade.

Most teams participate in a conference ranging from six to 12 teams, sometimes split into divisions; Miami (Florida) is the only significant independent. The conference season is usually a round-robin once-through of three-game series, although there are variations. This covers 20-30 games of the season; the rest are filled with non-conference games. All but three of the 30 conferences have postseason tournaments, although only a few invite all the members. The power conferences are the SEC, ACC, Pac 10, Big 12, and Big West; all but a few of the contenders for the title are from those leagues.

This is followed by a postseason that's much different from the MLB playoffs, which provides some interesting opportunities for study. Sixty-four teams are chosen by a committee (each conference gets one automatic bid; the rest are chosen at large) and divided into 16 four-team regionals. The teams are split into bands and seeded 1 through 4 before being placed into regionals. In theory, this should provide for a fair tournament. In practice, the process is flawed because of bad criteria and an unintentionally poor rating process, which leads to some problems, especially for the Western schools. My discussion of this year's field is out this week, if you want a feel for how the process tends to work. Despite the flaws, there's a good bit of drama inherent in the process, as coaches balance the needs of the current game with the demands of getting through a long weekend of games in a double-elimination setting.

The winners of those regionals are paired up for a best-of-three series, with the winners of those super-regionals going to Omaha for the College World Series, one of college sports' great events. The CWS consists of two four-team, double-elimination brackets with the winners facing off in a best-of-three championship series.

The Problems

The biggest problem that people who aren't used to the game complain about is, these days, purely aesthetic. The colleges use aluminum bats, and aluminum bats go "ping" instead of "crack." Performance-wise, there's not much difference these days; spurred on by a 21-14 national championship game in 1998 and covered by a veneer of concern over pitcher safety, the NCAA has been modifying the rules on bat construction to the point where scoring levels are now at their lowest point in 30 years. Pitching inside, which used to be a problem for college pitchers, is no harder these days than for the pros contending with battle armor. Still, you do have to get used to the "ping."

The second problem is that it is necessary to allow for age and development, since most college players are between 18 and 21. For BP readers, many of whom already follow the low minors, though, this adjustment shouldn't be that hard to make.

Why You Should Care

Balancing these two problems, though, are at least three major reasons that the game is worth following as part of an overall fandom. The first is that college baseball doesn't just exist as part of the huge mosaic of baseball, it also exists as part of the huge mosaic of college sports. For a roughly comparable level of play, you can watch Kannapolis play Greensboro, or you can watch South Carolina play Clemson. Roughly an equal number of players on each of the four teams will be future major leaguers, but with the South Carolina-Clemson game you get the built-in push of the 100-plus-year-old rivalry between the schools. Given a choice between caring about the Midwest League title and caring about the SEC title, where the same players have been battling it out all year, it's a fairly easy choice.

Second, serious prospect-watching is hard to do if you're ignoring the college ranks, where at least a handful of guys are playing this year who will be in the majors by 2005. The odds are very good that I knew about Mark Prior before you did. Learning to adjust for level of competition within the college game, which varies hugely across the game, will let you tell who's using those draft choices wisely and who's spending them on a tools guy who hit .480 against no competition at all.

Finally, from an analytical standpoint, the huge number of teams provides some excellent range for study of questions that can be hard to get a handle on in the relatively homogenous confines of the majors. As wide as the gap between the A's and the Brewers seems, the range between Florida State and Florida A&M is much wider. That means that we have things like New Mexico with a park factor over 200, which leads to some interesting effects in non-linearity at the extremes. It means we have a team or two each year that wins 80% of their games and a couple that lose all but one or two. It means that there's a chance that someone out there will hit over .500 in a given season. In short, it's a whole other world, with over 7,000 games a year, and a wealth of data to look at.

This weekend, a couple of the regionals will be televised, so if your dish or cable system gets CSTV or CSS, try out a game this weekend and see what you think. Baseball's a hard sport to dabble in at any level, as you know, but it's a good time to start.

Boyd Nation is the sole author and Webmaster of Boyd's World, a Web site devoted to college baseball rankings, analysis, and opinions. In real life, he's an information security analyst with an energy company. He can be reached at boyd.nation@mindspring.com.

Related Content:  The Who,  The Process,  College

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