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March 5, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

Mid-week Mayhem

by Bryan Smith

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We're going to jump straight into the rankings this week, as the process of determining this list has shaped the article:

Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25: March 5, 2009

 1. Louisiana State
 2. Texas
 3. North Carolina
 4. Texas A&M
 5. Cal State Fullerton
 6. Georgia
 7. Baylor
 8. Georgia Tech
 9. UC Irvine
10. San Diego
11. Rice
12. Clemson
13. TCU
14. Arizona State
15. Ole Miss
16. Miami
17. Oklahoma
18. Oklahoma State
19. UCLA
20. Coastal Carolina
21. Florida
22. Stanford
23. Florida State
24. Arkansas
25. South Carolina

The order of the first seven schools came naturally, with the Georgia Bulldogs making a jump up to sixth following their dismantling of Arizona on the road last weekend. While Baylor didn't have the best performance in the Minute Maid Classic, I still cling to the belief that they were the best team; there's just no way that this offense stays down for long, and though they scored just 13 runs in their last four games, they still went 3-1. As for the top five, let me just say this: if Texas sweeps Stanford this weekend, they're going to the top. No school has impressed me more.

After Baylor, the drop-off is significant. Before the season, I sorted the college teams into three talent levels made up of the best 35 (or so). We're now two weeks into the season, and it doesn't look as if any of the teams below the top tier are separating themselves from the pack. That leaves me with the impossibility of rankings teams both by judging a small sample size of early season results, and balancing (and trusting) the pre-season thoughts that I had on each. I want to give mention to South Carolina, our newcomer at the back of the list, who beat Clemson in one game over the weekend. I don't know if we should make too much out of the fact that South Carolina has turned 79 percent of the more than 100 balls that have been put in play into outs, but it's surely an encouraging sign.

---

Earlier this season, I rejoiced in the opportunity to release my top 25 on Thursdays, because it gives me a chance to take the latest mid-week games into account. I'm now wondering if it might not be a detriment. For instance, what do UC Irvine, Rice, Clemson, TCU, Miami, UCLA, and Florida State have in common? They all lost their latest mid-week games, many of them to programs that aren't exactly powerhouses: Furman, Sam Houston State, Rhode Island, and Jacksonville. Refining the rankings on Wednesday night demands an acknowledgement of mid-week losses while also keeping single-game performances in perspective. It also provoked a question from a reader just one week ago:

M.A.: I'm curious, in your mind-though [it was] a mid-week game-how much does it mean for Coastal [Carolina] to have knocked off UNC in the early going?

This question from M.A. concerned the Chanticleers' 7-3 victory over the Tar Heels on February 24. The question could be asked every week, with the names of different programs inserted. This week, I think we might ask what it means for Miami to have lost to Rhode Island 3-0, after having outscored the Florida Gators 26-8 in a weekend series sweep. To try and look at things objectively, I went through the data we have from last season to test my own hypothesis: that from a micro view these games are almost meaningless, and from a macro view they only serve as a last straw when the NCAA Seeding Committee is facing difficult decisions come tournament time.

What if I told you that last year an upstart smaller program from Northern California put together a slew of difficult mid-week games that were designed to test the program for the rigors of the postseason? There are actually two schools that made the tournament last year that fit this description, and both were fourth seeds in their regional: Fresno State and UC Davis. UC Davis had an 8-4 record in these contests to thank for their narrowly landing one of the final at-large berths, and had Fresno State not won the WAC, they would have missed the tournament, in part because they were 4-8 in such games. But in the tournament itself, these games serve little purpose other than exposing programs to good competition; the NCAA Tournament is designed so that mid-week starting pitchers rarely see any post-season action. The Bulldogs' championship performance with their decimated pitching staff proves that.

In total, here are the win-loss records of all eight Omaha teams last year in mid-week games, ranked by the average ISR (Boyd Nation's power ranking statistic) of their opponents, which I'm calling Strength of Schedule:


School      W-L    SOS
FSU        11-3   125.3
Fresno      4-8    34.1
Georgia    11-5   109.8
LSU        14-3   137.7
Miami      12-2   167.4
UNC        16-3   144.6
Rice       11-5    66.1
Stanford    8-8    42.4

The top eight teams in college baseball were only winning mid-week games at a .702 clip, and this against an average of the 103rd-ranked school in the nation. Shouldn't we expect the nation's best eight teams to beat Canisius at a rate of better than seven times out of 10? The funny thing is that there's just no way of assuming that a team is weak because of poor mid-week performance. The 28 at-large teams in the NCAA Tournament that didn't make the College World Series won mid-week games at a combined .745 clip, more than four percent better than the tournament's finalists.

In the table above, there's a near-perfect correlation between win percentage and strength of schedule. The correlation remains strong in the sample of all of the tournament's at-large teams from last year as well. Mid-week performance is a product of scheduling as much as it is of talent. The point can also be made anecdotally: St. John's had one of the nation's best mid-week performances last year with an 11-1 record. Cal State Fullerton was decidedly mediocre for a top-flight program, winning nine of their 14 mid-week games. Those familiar with the 2008 season remember that, any way you slice it, Fullerton was a much better team than St. John's last year-Boyd Nation had them ranked seventh and 68th, respectively.

Their mid-week performance is merely a product of their respective coach's scheduling philosophy. St. John's used mid-week games to build confidence-the Red Storm didn't face a top 150 team between Sunday and Friday at any time during the season. Fullerton used those days to continue challenging themselves, as 49th-ranked Loyola Marymount was the worst team that they faced during the week. This analysis, though based on just one season's results, reaffirms my suspicion that I shouldn't worry at all when North Carolina loses to Coastal Carolina, or UCLA drops a game to Pepperdine. Even Miami's being shut out by Rhode Island can be ignored for now-it won't become a concern unless the Hurricanes begin to show a pattern of losing to lesser-caliber schools. Missouri did this in 2008, going just 6-5 in mid-week play despite never playing a top 50 school, and ultimately, the Tigers proved to be a disappointment.

This week there is only one school whose mid-week performance leaves me with the jitters: Florida State, after losing to both Jacksonville and North Florida. The Seminoles were facing an uphill climb to be taken seriously as Omaha contenders in their first spring post-Buster Posey, but I'm not sure I'll believe it unless they can beat the rest of their lesser mid-week opponents; Mike Martin isn't a coach who presents his team with many real weekday challenges.

---

Weekend Preview: Premier Matchups

Thursday: San Diego State at San Diego, Steven Strasburg vs. Whoever the Torreros Throw. What figured to be a dynamite Torreros rotation has been decimated by injuries in the early going, turning every day's projected starter into a "TBA" until close to game-time. Even if sophomore Sammy Solis makes it back onto the mound, San Diego will be a significant underdog against Strasburg. The power right-hander is in mid-season form already, reportedly touching 102 mph last weekend. We'll have a feature or two on him this spring, I can promise you that, but let there be little doubt that he's 10 starts from being unanimously crowned the Best College Pitcher Ever.

Friday: Oregon State vs. Oklahoma State, Palm Springs Tournament, Tanner Robles vs. Andy Oliver. A nice little tournament begins today in Palm Springs, headlined by these two teams, but also featuring an upstart program in Gonzaga. The top pitching matchup will be this one, featuring the Cowboys' future first-rounder, Andy Oliver. After significant drama over his eligibility during the offseason, Oliver is back, pitching, and has won his first two starts as a junior despite allowing three home runs in 13 innings. The southpaw has big-time velocity, but don't be surprised if he uses his great changeup to go after the right-handers in the Beavers' lineup.

Robles will bring the heat just the same, as he can touch 95 mph just like Oliver. Robles has an odd delivery, and it can sometimes be difficult for batters to read. The Cowboys' offense has been gangbusters this year, but will see its biggest test of the season in Robles' plus curveball.

Saturday: Texas at Stanford, Cole Green vs. Brett Mooneyham. Stanford hasn't been able to find any stability behind Jeffrey Inman in the weekend rotation, as Max Fearnow has struggled on Sundays, and Danny Sandbrink looks like a different pitcher in the early going. This set up freshman Brett Mooneyham's first start last Saturday against Cal State Fullerton-and he did his best to answer the call, battling through command problems (six walks) to allow three runs in five innings. Most programs would have lost the 6-foot-4 southpaw to the draft out of high school, but Stanford is the best in the business at turning commitments into freshman. He'll be in the low 90s with a plus slider, and if Nick Maronde is already getting it done in Gainesville, there's little reason to think Mooneyham can't do the same.

The Longhorns, meanwhile, have been a beacon of stability, with just 15 runs allowed in 10 games. Brandon Workman's no-hitter last week solidifies his place as the nation's best Sunday starter, but with Chance Ruffin and Green in front of him, he's more likely to be pitching for sweeps than series wins most weeks. Green has the weakest stuff of the bunch (and that's including mid-week starter Taylor Jungmann), but he's a sinker/slider pitcher with excellent command. This is Stanford's best chance to avoid being swept at home, which I promise will lead to an exit from the top 25.

Sunday: Clemson at North Carolina, Chris Dwyer vs. Matt Harvey. Rain has put the Tigers' weekend rotation out of whack a bit, but here's a guess that Jack Leggett pitches Graham Stoneburner on Saturday, and brings freshman Chris Dwyer back on Sunday. Dwyer pitched five hitless innings in Clemson's Tuesday loss to Furman. In total, the lefty has allowed just two hits, a walk, and a hit batsman in 11 2/3 innings, using a good curveball to rack up 12 strikeouts. Dwyer is draft-eligible as a freshman, and, given his early success, is likely to be a one-and-done contributor to the Clemson program. Matt Harvey will be waiting another year for his draft, but it promises to be worth the wait; he's the odds-on favorite to be drafted first in 2010. Harvey effortlessly tosses into the mid-90s with a fantastic curveball, and has dominated since arriving in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels might need a big Sunday from him in order to win their first conference weekend series-I don't expect him to blink.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

6 comments have been left for this article.

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