Last summer, I began covering the Cape Cod League because I felt it was a good introduction to the college game for BP readers. Many of the usual complaints about college baseball–aluminum bats, big offenses, frustrating mistakes–are absent in the nationally-renowned Cape Cod League. It was, I hope, an opportunity to see that college baseball still represents good baseball.

If I could, I would assign homework to every reader to try and see a college baseball game this spring, because I’m confident the atmosphere could suck each of you in. My interest in college baseball was only moderate until attending a Regional; since then, I have paid more attention every year. This year, I will be covering the college game on a regular basis for BP, trying to connect the readers with the game’s coaches as well as highlighting the players who will go straight to Kevin Goldstein‘s prospect lists.

For the next six weeks, I’ll be writing a preview series for readers as an entryway for the many of you unfamiliar with college baseball. For those of you who share my love of the college game, you should still find this series an informative overview. I’ll go on to articles about the specific teams, players, and coaches, but you’ll also see general articles about the state and health of the game on campuses across the country.

The current perception is that college baseball is a game only for hitters, because of the dominance provided by the use of aluminum bats. I certainly won’t argue that aluminum bats are a good thing–obviously, it would help college baseball’s credibility to align the game more closely with the standards of professional baseball. However, this difference should not close the door on the legitimacy of the college game; baseball with aluminum bats and talented players is still a lot more like Major League Baseball than wiffle ball.

Because the right data is hard to come by for the entirety of Division I–blame the NCAA or blame individual sports information departments, but it’s true–I think the best way to talk sensibly about the sport’s statistics is to look in the most relevant areas. In 2007, twelve different conferences earned at least one at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, sending two teams. Here’s a look at these conferences and their corresponding schools that played in the field of 64:

ACC: Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia, Wake Forest
Atlantic Sun: Jacksonville, Stetson
Big East: Louisville, Rutgers, St. John’s
Big Ten: Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State
Big 12: Baylor, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M
Big West: Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, UC Irvine, UC Riverside
Conference USA: East Carolina, Memphis, Rice, Southern Mississippi
Missouri Valley: Creighton, Wichita State
Pac-10: Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA
SEC: Arkansas, Mississippi, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt
Sun Belt: Louisiana-Lafayette, New Orleans, Troy
WCC: Pepperdine, San Diego

These are the game’s best–and most competitive–conferences. College baseball should not be defined by the conferences that consistently send only their top team to be quickly eliminated in the NCAA regionals. While focusing on this grouping the 12 best conferences misses out on some pretty good programs–TCU, for instance–this is the best way to narrow it down. Here’s a useful performance comparison for those unfamiliar with the college game: these top 12 conferences, averaged together, set against the league numbers in the more familiar American and National Leagues:

League    AVG    OBP    SLG   BABIP    K%    SB%
NCAA12   .295   .377   .426   .339   18.4   73.0
AL       .271   .343   .423   .305   18.9   73.2
NL       .266   .334   .423   .301   19.5   75.6

Broadly speaking, the 12 major conferences in college baseball last season hit like the 2007 version of Brian Roberts. What’s interesting is that the slugging percentages match up so nicely; the leagues with the wooden bats actually have significantly better Isolated Slugging Percentages. College players have a bit of a lead in walk and contact rate.

The major difference between college baseball and the major leagues is, as you can see, Batting Average on Balls In Play. No conference that fielded two teams in the NCAA Tournament had a BABIP lower than the Missouri Valley Conference’s .330. At the other end of the spectrum, the Big Ten had a conference .350 BABIP, meaning almost five percent more balls in play become hits than in the National League.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, given college baseball’s less advanced (and less talented) players and the wider pool of athletes, the fielding ability of college baseball players is generally not good. Fans of the College World Series annually see a couple games decided by defensive miscues. Also, while the aluminum bats have not helped the players relative to major leaguers in terms of Isolated Slugging Percentage, it’s likely the bats did produce line drives at a more significant rate.

Here’s a look at how the conferences did individually:

League    AVG    OBP    SLG   BABIP    K%    SB%
ACC      .299   .385   .438   .341   17.9   73.0
AtlSun   .285   .362   .397   .334   19.0   72.1
BigEast  .289   .373   .412   .333   18.5   74.6
BigTen   .308   .384   .422   .350   16.2   74.0
Big12    .298   .388   .447   .342   19.3   76.0
BigWest  .288   .367   .409   .334   18.7   65.8
C-USA    .293   .379   .419   .333   17.6   74.5
MVC      .286   .397   .396   .330   17.9   75.1
Pac-10   .302   .385   .444   .348   18.8   71.3
SEC      .297   .383   .447   .339   19.4   75.0
Sun Belt .302   .379   .464   .346   19.5   70.7
WCC      .288   .362   .389   .332   17.3   70.3

Most of the numbers are pretty similar–college baseball players in these conferences tend to have very similar batting averages, batting averages on balls in play, strikeout rates, and even succeed on the bases similarly (other than the Big West). The largest diversity within the numbers comes in on-base percentage and particularly slugging percentage, where there was a 75-point difference between the West Coast Conference and the Sun Belt Conference.

Looking at the OBPs by conference, it’s interesting how the better conferences rise to the top. The list of teams by on-base percentage, if filtered by just those over .380, represents the better conferences in the game: the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 10 all reached base above the .380 mark in 2007, in addition to Big Ten and NCAA-leading mark of the Missouri Valley Conference. The latter two are the best conferences in the north, and to some extent are surviving in a Southern-dominated game with disciplined coaching and plate approaches.

On the other hand, the wide array of slugging percentages cannot merely be attributed to programs and their coaching. The Sun Belt has the best slugging percentage of the group, is hardly a better circuit qualitatively than the Big West, who they outslugged by 55 points. The most obvious reason I could think of was park factors, so I averaged Boyd Nation’s 2004-2007 park factors for each team in the conference. Using Boyd’s work, here are the conference’s collected park factors, in order of Isolated Slugging Percentage:

League     ISO    AvPF
Sun Bel   .162   106.9
SEC       .150    91.4
Big12     .149   116.2
Pac-10    .142    92.8
ACC       .139    98.4
C-USA     .126   102.0
BigEast   .123    96.1
BigWest   .121    94.8
Big10     .114    93.6
AtlSun    .112   102.9
MVC       .110    95.3
WCC       .101    85.4

The Sun Belt certainly takes a hit here, while the West Coast Conference would have a significant jump if we park-adjusted slugging percentages. This table shows just how good the SEC, Pac-10, and ACC are (and in that order): despite below-average park factors, the offenses in these conferences slugged well. A park adjustment would also show Big 12 offenses to largely be products of their environment, which partially explains Oklahoma State’s amazing offense in 2007. For the most part, like on-base percentage, a park adjustment would show that the best conferences host, for the most part, the best offenses.

I tried to take the park effects a step further, and highlight the programs that consistently face tougher conditions than the rest of college baseball. First, here are the teams that, within the confines of the conferences I looked at, face the most challenging schedules for hitters: Washington, Irvine, Tennessee, St. Mary’s, Pepperdine, Oregon State, Long Beach State, Illinois, and Georgia.

Looking at that list, you might want to note the good pitchers that have been drafted of late from these programs–Luke Hochevar from Tennessee, Tim Lincecum of Washington, and Jered Weaver from Long Beach State. Obviously, these schools use their conditions as a recruiting tool (easier environment = better stats = better bonus). However, maybe come draft time, organizations should highlight these schools to find potential sleepers. Just because a Long Beach State player puts up mediocre numbers in Blair Field, it hardly means he’s not a prospect (witness Evan Longoria‘s sophomore season).

On the opposite side of the ledger, we have the schools best known for offense-friendly schedules: Baylor, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Troy, and Tulane

The Big 12 jumps out here, with six of the eight spots in the conference. In simple terms, the Big 12 plays out as evenly with the rest of college baseball as the Mexican League compares with Triple-A. It’s the same level, but it’s very different baseball. Interestingly enough, Missouri is becoming known as a pitching institution with the great arms they have brought in under Tim Jamieson. This information makes the accomplishments of Max Scherzer and Nate Culp and now Aaron Crow and Kyle Gibson look even better. This also suggests that the Cardinals and Pirates made some very informed decisions in recent years with their drafting a pair of Troy two-way players (Josh Dew and Mike Felix, respectively), and then making them full-time pitchers in the minor leagues.

Like any level, college baseball has a wide range of different environments totally different from others; consider Coors Field and Petco Park, in the same division no less. But when you take the cream of college baseball as a whole, and look beyond its shortcomings in the quality of defensive play, and it’s clear that the aluminum game is still baseball.

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