June 26, 2007
Wait 'Til Next Year
College baseball has taken its fair share of hits in the NCAA's long-standing quest to make the aluminum version of America's pastime the nation's accepted spring sport. Problems involving safety and the run-scoring environment brought forth by the bats, and overall disparity across different regions color public discussion about the college game. Only Omaha provides a boost for its public relations image, and even that was damaged lately by a ban of live blogging during games.
But beyond drawing the ire of bloggers, the month of June was as good as could be expected for Division I baseball. The upswing began when ESPN announced it was broadcasting the 2007 Major League Baseball amateur draft, an event that would see a dozen Division I players taken in the first round. Such an event, especially shown before the postseason takes full form and exposure, allows the NCAA to use recognizable players to increase its brand.
Then, following the announcement of the draft's initial broadcast, the 64-team postseason tournament saw drama that could only be surpassed by March Madness for college-level excitement. The College World Series in Omaha is usually an event reserved for established programs south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but it became open to teams simply playing good baseball in June. Mississippi State returned to glory despite a pitching staff allowing 10.6 H/9 on the season. UC Irvine had good pitching and small ball (148 sacrifices and 140 stolen bases in 65 games) to get them to Nebraska little almost a decade after the baseball program's establishment. Louisville isn't a powerhouse in the relatively weak Big East, but became a cinderella story with a lovable team of college veterans.
Best of all, Omaha saw a now-familiar face in Pat Casey and his Oregon State Beavers, making the College World Series trip for the third straight season. The Beavers then capped the week by repeating as national champions, dominating North Carolina in their return visit to the championship series . This is all the more impressive because neither their 10-14 record in Pac 10 play, or their team OPS of 802 suggested it was possible. Oregon State now faces a difficult test, as the 2007 club now faces the scrutiny of being fit in with past champions. Upon first glance, the Beavers don't hold up well. The team was the first champion with a below .500 conference record, and their .415 slugging percentage is ghastly compared with past champions. What's especially interesting about the Beavers is the lack of an ace. Glancing at the five previous national champions, an overused ace seemed to be becoming Omaha's defining trend:
I've looked extensively at each of these teams, and they seem to have nothing besides a dominant ace in common. A good closer? In most for sure, but not a must, as the 2004 Titans only had six team saves, three from members of their weekend rotation; that team also hit .326/.400/.461, but such good offense wasn't necessary. The 2006 Beavers slugged just .432, while the 2002 Longhorns only had a .378 OBP. Rice and Oregon State only had a combined 87 home runs in their two championship seasons, the 2002 Longhorns had 68 by themselves. In all, comparisons are difficult to find, except for the presence of an ace.
That's what makes the 2007 Beavers so baffling. This is a team that started Mike Stutes on Fridays, and the pitcher ended up with a 4.07 ERA; he wasn't one of the best 10 pitchers in Omaha. Consider Oregon State's weekend rotation in each of their last three seasons, each ending up in Omaha:
Weekend IP H K BB ERA 2005 334.2 268 301 122 2.74 2006 346.1 289 304 135 2.91 2007 343.2 313 278 104 3.67
For 2007, I used Mike Stutes, Joe Paterson, and Jorge Reyes. While Daniel Turpen probably deserves entry, I couldn't exclude Reyes after his importance in June, while Paterson pitched 130 innings this season. This Beavers team struck out fewer hitters and was far more hittable, leading to a very high ERA by comparison. The team's saving grace was its control, a number that really improves if you add Turpen (25 walks in 96.2 innings) back into the equation.
What's more interesting about the above table is that the 2005 rotation is the best of the bunch, without question. This is the season when Dallas Buck looked like a sure-fire bet in the 2006 draft's top ten, and Nickerson pitched as well as he would the next season. Buck and Nickerson (and closer Kevin Gunderson) brought the team to Omaha, but there they struggled, exposing the team's lack of depth. In 2005, only Gunderson and Nate Fogle pitched more than 20 innings in relief. The team leaned heavily on their weekend starters and Gunderson, and in Omaha, Casey was short-handed with just five dependable options.
The Beavers had enhanced depth in 2006, as Casey had options in Eddie Kunz, Anton Maxwell, Joe Paterson, and Daniel Turpen in his bullpen. Maxwell struggled, and Paterson hadn't found his identity, but the team could play match-ups much more easily. However, the Beavers' best bullpen was the one from this past season. Kunz' 2007 is just behind Gunderson's 2005 in effectiveness, but unlike Gunderson, Kunz was supported by other viable options. The two prominent pieces were Mark Grbavac and Anton Maxwell, pitching well in his final season with the Beavers. The team also had Blake Keitzman striking out hitters pretty often, as well as 30 combined relief outings from Reyes, Turpen, and Paterson. Pat Casey went to Omaha with eight arms in his pitching staff that he could trust, so in that regard, this year's club was the best.
However, I can't even say the 2007 Beavers were the deepest pitching staff in Omaha. Entering the College World Series the nation's hottest team was Rice, and the Owls defining trait all season was the team's pitching depth. The return of closer Cole St. Clair reinforced that strength, as Wayne Graham could turn to St. Clair, Bobby Bramhall, or Ryne Tacker with the game on the line. Graham had also found reliability in Scott Longergan, who allowed just seven walks in 31.1 innings on the season. Rice also juggled between four starting pitchers, led by ace Ryan Berry. The freshman had thrown 122.2 innings on the season, striking out 125 and ending with a 3.01 ERA. Behind him was first-round pick Joe Savery, who bested him in ERA and raw stuff, despite subpar peripheral numbers. Graham could also choose between Chris Kelley (3-3, 3.43) and Matt Langwell (8-2, 2.35) as a third starting pitcher. Rice had eight arms too, and their pitching staff performed better than Oregon State's.
So what happened? The Beavers got hot. Jorge Reyes became a better freshman ace than Ryan Berry. Oregon State's offense became better than Arizona State's (the juggernaut that hit .345/.432/.531 on the season). And in the final, the club did everything right, especially getting offense from every source that had struggled on the season, like junior Darwin Barney.
Statistically, I've given up trying to explain why Oregon State won the 2007 national championship. They have the worst offense in recent College World Series memory, and certainly the worst ace from the previous six seasons. The team's closer pales to closers of yesteryear, and their biggest strength fell short of their biggest challenger. Oregon State was not the best team in the 2007 season, just as the Florida Marlins weren't baseball's best team in 2003, or George Mason wasn't one of college basketball's five best a year ago. We should stop pretending a postseason can gauge who the game's best team is, and instead embrace its unpredictability. Rather than give college baseball another problem, let's just hope the wackiness of 2007 leads to more viewers in 2008.