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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.