NCAA Baseball, the Super-regional format, and a Question of Convenience

Over the past week or so, conference baseball tournaments have settled up, spat out their winners, and concluded–editor’s note: working backwards from a bracket to determine tournament format is very hard, and I want you to know how hard it was, that’s all. NCAA Baseball has a College World Series selection committee–because of course it does–and they concluded their work today. The result was 16 regional 4-team tournaments which are subsequently paired into a second round of elimination series to whittle the field to 8 teams for Omaha for the actual CWS. This second round of games is called the Superregional round, which has nothing to do with geography. Confused?

Let me explain.

The top sixteen teams get to host their regional tournaments. Three other teams are then seeded at each regional to round out the tournament. Then, all the teams compete in a weekend-long double elimination tournament with the winner emerging on Sunday–Monday in some cases if the team out of the winners’ bracket can’t close.

The tournament winners move on to Super-regional play where they play a 3 game series against another regional winner predetermined by standard seeding rules–e.g.  UF (4) and FSU (13) both host regionals, the winner of those two tournaments will play each other at the higher seed’s home field. After the conclusion of the Super-regional, the remaining 8 teams will head to Omaha to play in a double elimination tournament. More correctly, the eight teams are split into two separate double elimination tournaments with the emerging winners playing each other for the title.

I told you all this to tell you this: the entire setup is screwy. And, this year, the selection committee favored geography and arbitrary placement over meritocracy. As you may grasp from the foregoing, if your team is one of the 16 national seeds, the number of your seed is nowhere near as important as landing in the top 8 national seeds. Why? Well, under the current format, the top 8 teams host their regional and the subsequent Super-regional, which means 0 traveling for the favorite.

Because of how top heavy college baseball is, we pretty much knew who the top 16 would be, just not where the seeds would fall. For that, we had to wait on the committee.

Here’s where we start to wade into the problem. The committee has the tournament blueprint from day one. Additionally, more baseball has been televised than ever before. So, it’s not a leap to suggest the committee gave into the temptation to structure the tournament in a more intriguing fashion. Many of the potential Super-regional matchups (barring any upsets) are far more geographical than in years past.

The SEC has been a power baseball conference for a long time. South Carolina fell off the wagon this year, and as a result, the field of teams cranked out by the conference is not as strong. Still, the SEC is well represented with 7 teams.

The trouble comes when we consider the strength of these 7 teams against a couple dubious teams that made the top eight. Based on metrics–RPI predominantly, the committee left two deserving teams in TAMU and Vanderbilt on the outside of the coveted top 8 national seeds. When pressed for more information in a town hall meeting, the chairman cited “performance” and other vagaries to justify the seedings.

What the committee does not realize is that without hard data, it has opened itself up to accusations of subjectivity and whimsy. Accusations, it turns out, that may be truer than not. If we couple the lack of real data with the inexplicable seeding of two teams that are significantly better than at least two of the top eight, we paint a pretty conclusive, albeit circumstantial, picture that the committee just did what was convenient with the seeding.

However, we will always find ways to blame selection committees for bad seeding, bad inclusion, and bad exclusion. It is a hard job and always seems doomed to criticism. Ask anyone anywhere; committees always manage to get something wrong.

The upshot is of this exploration is: can we devise a better system than the convoluted regional?

I believe so.

Start with the top 8 national seeds. In order to maintain the importance and benefit of these seeds, we should give them all a bye into what we’ve come to know as the Super-Regional round. Then, 16 teams will be paired and seeded into the opening round games–yes these rankings will take a committee, but with this change should come a weekly power poll with more weighting that determines these seeds. If the committee works more overtly throughout the season and adheres predictably to the final poll, the selections will be less controversial on the final Sunday. Naturally, these opening games would not be regional in nature, but instead would be seeded solely on merit.

From here, the opening round games will be played as a best of 3 series, which replaces the double elimination tournaments. This replacement is necessary due to double elimination tournaments not being truly reflexive of the nature of baseball. Teams play 3 and 4 game series all season, then when it matters, they are compelled to play a battery of opponents with different pitching over a weekend. It’s not true to baseball, so it has to go.

Next, the winner of the opening round series will play another 3 game series with whoever of the top 8 seeds awaits them at the home field of the higher seed. From here, the winners will move on to Omaha to participate in the final bracket, with final seeding determined by the original seed of the top 8. For instance, if Fullerton is the 1 seed and is upset in the second round by Illinois, then Illinois will occupy the spot of the 1 seed in Omaha, and play whoever emerges from the 3 game series  involving the 8 seed.

Omaha would be the site of another sweeping change in this world. The improved postseason would undo the split double elimination tournament, and replace it with best of 3 series using regular tournament seeding. No other sport requires teams to play a smattering of other teams to advance. It’s time baseball and softball stopped as well. The final four matchups would be best of 3 series as well and would spit out winners to play a final series, this time to be a best of 5.

This new format creates a more suitable solution for the games of baseball and softball at the collegiate level. It could, however, lead to longer seasons than are currently played. We could start with the elimination or overhaul of the conference tournaments as well, as the committee this year has made it clear that they already pick and choose which tournaments are going to matter to them, and which aren’t.

The best thing to result from the proposal is standardization. The current format allows too much discretion to the selection committees; the specter of convenience and the desire to regionalize the opening rounds are too great to ever produce a truly fair and equitable representation of the postseason talent. These players already play months after their academic years are over, the least we can do is level the playing field.

The notion that we need regional tournaments as a lead in to the national is a notion of convenience and not rooted in reality.

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