I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that college baseball is an offense-oriented game: the ping of the ball off of the bat testifies to that. There have been great strides made in reducing the number of games ending in football scores-only five times did a team score in double digits in Omaha-but as I watched the 19-10 slug-fest in Game Two of the College World Series championship, it was a frustrating reminder of how easily aluminum can shrink a ballpark.
Fresno State’s national championship, however-and Oregon State’s before that-says something about recent college baseball victors. It certainly helps you get to Omaha if you can swing the bat like Miami or Florida State did in 2008, but big offenses have not been what has defined the champions in recent history. Anyone who watched Tommy Mendonca and Justin Wilson last June knows the kind of effect that good pitching and defense can have in a college contest.
It’s that latter notion, the defense, that I concerned myself with this offseason. Statistical transparency has thankfully gotten better in college baseball in the past few years, and, with some digging, there is now access to a far wider range of metrics than ever before. It’s easy to identify the top pitching staffs; hell, just find a copy of North Carolina’s 2008 numbers. To identify the top fielding teams, though… that’s not so easy, at least not if you know enough to discredit the idea that fielding percentage is the end-all indicator of a team’s defensive abilities. The NCAA lays that out in a nice, accessible table:
Rk School FPct 1. Duke .978 2. South Carolina .977 3. Creighton .976 4. Western Kentucky .976 5. Troy .976 6. Texas Christian .976 7. Pepperdine .976 8. Maryland .975 9. Stanford .975 10. Hawaii .975
That’s all well and good, I suppose, but there’s a lot of noise in those numbers-one coach told me last year that at certain ballparks there are scorekeepers who refuse to call errors on their home squad-and, to be honest, I can’t put much stock in a statistic where eight-thousandths of a percent separate the first-ranked team (Duke) from the 49th (Auburn). Fans of Bill James know that there is a better way; one of his simplest, yet most substantial contributions to sabermetrics is the concept of Defensive Efficiency. It looks complicated written out as a formula, but it’s actually as simple as this: what percentage of balls in play are converted into outs? It’s the true test of a defense, and this summer I discovered that the numbers necessary to compute DER for college baseball were available for 283 of the 286 Division I teams.
The results in this survey were overwhelming: defense matters a great deal at the college level, and DER is a good tool for measuring defense. Every team in the College World Series in 2008 finished above the Division I average of .617. Seven of the eight CWS teams, including both finalists Fresno State and Georgia, finished in the top 50. Trust me, there are not a lot of statistics out there that can lay that kind of claim, and while only Stanford of all the CWS teams finished in the top ten in fielding percentage, Georgia was close at 12th, and most of the other teams weren’t far behind.
How’s this for a test? Make an internal list of the top five conferences in college baseball last season. Now take a look at how close they come to the top of the list:
Conference TBF K% BB% DER Pac-10 21,116 .188 .097 .6407 Big 12 23,642 .186 .088 .6363 SEC 29,660 .195 .090 .6351 ACC 28,760 .194 .094 .6343 C-USA 22,270 .185 .101 .6323 B. East 26,924 .172 .093 .6311 WCC 13,603 .179 .094 .6272 CAA 24,199 .165 .097 .6245 MVC 20,112 .166 .094 .6229 WAC 21,754 .150 .095 .6220 B. South 18,834 .161 .086 .6211 B. West 20,737 .171 .075 .6211 Patriot 11,946 .157 .088 .6207 MAC 26,659 .148 .096 .6189 Southland 27,748 .153 .096 .6149 A. 10 31,005 .154 .096 .6142 Big 10 21,706 .145 .101 .6140 A. East 14,155 .156 .094 .6139 Sun Belt 25,921 .171 .095 .6139 OVC 21,540 .160 .100 .6114 Horizon 15,685 .131 .088 .6100 MAAC 18,137 .142 .103 .6099 SoCon 24,209 .167 .102 .6098 A-Sun 28,104 .157 .092 .6098 MWC 16,645 .153 .088 .6075 NEC 16,160 .152 .096 .6059 Ivy 13,244 .154 .091 .6016 MEAC 15,213 .150 .133 .5741 SWAC 18,205 .139 .122 .5707
(Please note that my calculation of Defensive Efficiency is the same that BP uses in the MLB Defensive Report, though with one exception: I had to use raw errors rather than ROE. This likely escalated the numbers a bit, but not significantly, and any differences should be spread out evenly across the board.)
I surely would have had the Pac-10 at the top of my list, and that notion is validated here. In 2008, it was the deepest conference in college baseball, and every one of its teams had an argument to make for the post-season group of 64. League Defensive Efficiency leader Washington had a strong resumé, as did league trailer USC. What’s most reaffirming about the legitimacy of using Defensive Efficiency for college baseball is that the indisputable top five conferences from last season end up as the top five in this regard as well.
Here is a list of the top 25 teams at converting balls in play into outs in college baseball last season, along with their accompanying 2008 win-loss record.
Rk School DER W-L 1. Duke .6725 37-18 2. Tulane .6711 39-22 3. Washington .6702 33-22 4. Creighton .6639 37-21 5. W. Michigan .6632 29-23 6. TCU .6630 44-19 7. Canisius .6620 41-13 8. South Carolina .6616 40-23 9. NC State .6585 42-22 10. Coastal Carolina .6575 50-14 11. Pepperdine .6570 38-21 12. Georgia .6565 45-25 13. UCLA .6557 33-27 14. Texas .6556 39-22 15. Oklahoma State .6555 44-18 16. Georgia State .6548 33-23 17. Seton Hall .6543 31-25 18. Stanford .6531 41-24 19. St. John's .6526 42-16 20. Lafayette .6520 25-23 21. Oregon State .6520 28-24 22. Michigan .6519 46-14 23. Cal-Santa Barbara .6509 35-21 24. East Carolina .6507 42-21 25. Lamar .6499 35-23
The top 25 defensive teams in ’08 averaged 38 wins versus only 21 losses. Clearly, defense is something that can elevate a team at every level of college play, pushing schools from Canisius to TCU to Michigan ahead of the other members of their respective conferences. It’s also a statistic that turns squads that would be decidedly mediocre based only on evaluating their hitting and pitching-Duke and Lafayette, I’m looking at you-and turns them into above-.500 teams.
To speak specifically about the teams on this list, I can personally attest to Georgia’s defensive dominance. Gordon Beckham made huge strides in his junior season, and the team opted to forego offense at second base in favor of defense. Add in a third baseman at first base in Rich Poythress, and a trio of rangy outfielders, and their defense pushes them to the next level. South Carolina is another interesting team, as three of their infielders from last year were high draft picks. It’s no news that Justin Smoak is a defensive ace, but South Carolina’s high ranking also speaks to Reese Havens’ and James Darnell’s ability to turn grounders to the left side into outs. And remember that with Beckham and the three Gamecock infielders all having since moved on to the pros, there’s a lot more than offense that these schools need to worry about replacing.
There are some other notables further down the list:
Rk School DER W-L 27. Louisiana State .6484 49-19 29. UNC-Wilmington .6476 44-17 31. Florida State .6471 54-14 32. North Carolina .6460 54-14 33. Miami .6455 53-11 48. Fresno State .6405 47-31 50. Cal St Fullerton .6400 41-22 131. Rice .6207 47-15 147. Kent State .6180 36-21 160. Southern Cal .6147 28-28 165. Missouri .6137 39-21 199. New Orleans .6055 43-21 213. Mississippi St. .6016 23-33 216. Coll. Charleston .6007 39-20
The rest of the College World Series crew quickly flies off the board, with five more placing between 27th and 33rd, and Fresno State just making the top 50, leaving only one laggard (Rice). I just wonder how much better Rice might have done had they not been the worst team in Omaha (and seventh in the C-USA) at catching the baseball. This is a team that struck out 23 percent of batters faced in 2008. Who knows what moving their Defensive Efficiency from 62 to 65 percent might have done for that pitching staff, not to mention Cole St. Clair’s draft stock.
This was perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this research, being faced with cases of what could have been. Missouri could have been a CWS contender with a better defense, but they ranked last in the Big 12 at Defensive Efficiency. I also included USC and Mississippi State on this list, because they were at the bottom of their conferences in Defensive Efficiency, finishing with a combined 51-61 record. And whether it’s College of Charleston, New Orleans, or Kent State, there are a host of teams that were a good defense away from that last step up.
The most frustrating team in the nation may have been the New Orleans Privateers. What a run they had in the Sun Belt Conference last year, hitting .321/.409/.528 as a team with six players clubbing at least 10 home runs. Ultimately, the season ended at the hands of Southern Miss in a series that the Privateers should have made more competitive, and on the surface, it looks as if they were dragged down by a pitching staff with a 5.45 ERA, and by players like Justin Garcia, one of the weekend starters (5.77 ERA).
It was Garcia, however, that was the one being victimized. He has a good arm; good enough to earn a spot in professional baseball, and even though the Royals sent him to the hitter-friendly Pioneer League in his first summer in pro ball, he responded with a 3.00 ERA, emerging as a closer with 42 innings of fantastic work. That, mind you, was with an Idaho Falls team that turned balls into outs at a 61.6 percent clip (according to Sean Forman), a percentage point higher than Garcia’s college team.
These are just some of the less obvious factors that are worth considering before we dig into the 2009 college landscape. As I move towards previewing the 2009 teams, I need to think about how Georgia will replace Gordon Beckham and Ryan Peisel on their left side, or whether Kent State will defend well enough to take the next step forward. As the tournament nears, I’ll need to think about which defenses might step up in the way that Fresno State’s did last June. And as the draft nears, we should begin to use this statistic to analyze which pitchers are being undervalued by their surroundings, like Justin Garcia was a year ago.
The 2009 baseball season is just two weeks away, and I’m not talking about pitchers and catchers. We’ll preview the NCAA in each of those weeks, never losing sight that there’s a new analytical tool at our disposal.