College Baseball 101: Quality of play and Conferences

Moved from the diaries, thanks for the writeups JQ... Third in a series of stories about College baseball and the KU Jayhawks.  Earlier entries:

KU Baseball Preview
College Baseball 101: The Season and the Tournaments

The level of play in College baseball varies enormously.  I understand that pro scouts consider the level in the top handful of conferences (ACC, SEC, Pac-10 & Big-12) to be roughly on par with that of high-A minor league ball.  That leaves the other 85% of the teams playing at either low-A or rookie level.  Once the Jayhawks get into conference play the game speeds up, the fielding gets sharper, the opposing pitching staffs deeper, and the hitters more patient.  The jump in talent shows up on the score board.  During the Rich Price era (2003 - present) KU has a record of 101-44 in non-conference play (.697 winning %), and of 44-68 vs. Big-12 teams (.393 winning %.)

College baseball's elite conferences are not necessarily the same conferences that dominate in other sports.  According to last year's conference RPI ratings the top 10 were:

  1. ACC
  2. SEC
  3. Big-12
  4. Pac-10
  5. C-USA
  6. Big West
  7. Sun Belt
  8. Southern
  9. WCC
  10. WAC
Some big names are buried deep in the rankings.  Big East comes in at #14, Big-10 at #16, MAC at #18 and A-10 at #21.  How in the world does the Big West conference consistently field vastly superior baseball teams than does the Big-10?  Why are Rice, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, and Wichita State the big dogs while Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan State and Illinois are buried so low in the rankings that they are not considered realistic competitors for post season play?  The answer is geography.

Since NCAA baseball must be played between February and May any school located in the colder zones of the country operate at a disadvantage.  In Michigan, players often cannot practice outside until March, by which time many sun belt teams have already racked up a dozen wins.  It's hard for the cold weather teams to attract the best athletes, to get their teams to gel, and to fit in 60+ games.  Last year North Dakota State did not play their first home game until April 14th, at which point their record stood at 2-25.  Of the 53 games they were able to play that year only six could be scheduled at home.

North Dakota State is an extreme example, but reflective of the problems all cold weather schools have when competing in college baseball.  Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Nebraska are all considered in this "cold" zone.  Colorado and Iowa State do not even have baseball teams.

For years Lawrence's location was seen as an insurmountable problem for ever developing a decent baseball program; however, over the last decade the success of other northern schools, Nebraska in particular, have caused this thinking to change.  One way northern schools overcome their natural disadvantage is by scheduling most of their early games on the road in warmer areas of the country.  Every year KU spends its first week in Hawaii and the weeks soon thereafter trolling around Southern California and the South East picking up games vs. Stanford, Vanderbilt, Clemson and other high ranked schools.  While this must be hard on the team members, a lot of traveling and missed classes, it does allow KU to play a maximum number of games and compete against the best the nation has to offer.

KU has scheduled home games this year much earlier than they normally risk.  The Jayhawks will be playing as early as February 9th at Hoglund.  Last year their first home game was March 3rd.  We'll all have our fingers crossed that the day is clear and the temperature above 50 degrees.  Otherwise it'll be kinda hellish in the stands after a few innings.

The biggest difference in higher and lower quality college teams in my eyes is fielding and pitching depth.  Almost all teams have at least a few players who can handle a bat, but once you drop out of the top group few teams have pitching staffs that can go more than two or three arms deep.  There are probably only a few dozen teams with enough pitching that they can afford the luxury of designating effective pitchers to the bullpen.  Big-12 teams tend to be very well coached compared to most schools, and the effect this has on fielding is clearly visible.  Shortstops who can range for balls, Third basemen who can knock down line drives, outfielders who can identify and hit a cut-off man, these are aspects of the game we just take for granted after watching major leaguers for years.  They are far from the norm when it comes to 2nd and 3rd rate college teams.

Breaking down the KU schedule this year into categories.
15 - Games vs. elite competition (teams which finished last year with RPI's over 590.)
Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Texas, Oklahoma & Nebraska.

16 - Games vs. good competition (teams with RPI's between 550 and 589.)
Stanford, Oral Roberts, Wichita State, Missouri State, Missouri & Baylor.

10 - Games vs. fair competition (teams with RPI's between 510 and 549.)
Texas A&M, Kansas State, & Texas Tech

1 - Games vs. marginal competition (teams with RPI's between 480 and 509.)
Penn State

19 - Games vs. non-competitive programs (teams with RPI's below 480.)
Hawaii-Hilo, South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Northern Colorado, Western Illinois & Chicago State.

After February KU will settle into its normal scheduling rhythm.  The Jayhawks will play a three game series on the weekend either against a Big-12 team or another competitive program.  When the days become warmer and longer KU will also play games most weeks on Tuesday and/or Wednesday, often against regional or lower rated opponents.   In March Penn State, Wichita State, Northern Colorado and Missouri State will visit for these weekday games.  

The Jayhawks and their opponents will reserve their best starting pitchers for the weekend series, and send underclassmen or swingmen to the mound for the weekday games.  At times over the last few years KU's lack of pitching depth has reduced coach Price to referring to some of their weekday pitching plans as "staff days," meaning that no available pitcher was expected to go more than three innings.  While these weekday games have a less intense feel winning them is still key in building a post-season resume and giving less often used pitchers growth opportunities.  The exceptions to this "less intense" generalization are those days in which Wichita State visits Lawrence.  For decades Wichita State has dominated Kansas college baseball, and now that the Jayhawks are challenging this position the KU-Wichita State rivalry is enormous.  Last year Hoglund sold out for this game, setting an attendance record of 2,324.  

Normally weekday games attract about 800 or 900, and weekend matches bring in about 1,000 to 1,500.  Missouri, Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas also bring in big crowds of around 2.000.  The following Texas baseball has is just amazing.  A few years ago when the Longhorns visited KU for a series at least four or five hundred Texas fans followed the club for the weekend, filling up much of the left field bleacher with burnt orange  gear.  Before the game the fans and the players would sing back and forth to each other some apparently beloved Texas hymn while waving their hands in the shape of Longhorns.  Hate Texas like I do, I had to give it up to the fans.  They really support that team.  Must make the players feel good to see a rooting section like that on the road.  UT will visit Kansas this year April 5-7 so if you want to catch one of those games and see the Longhorn traditions best to arrive early.

If KU can just split its games versus fair to elite competition they should rack up close to 40 wins going into the Big-12 tournament.  That will put them roughly in the same position they were in last year, giving them a good chance to extend their season into June.  Coach Price has articulated his philosophy in the past regarding scheduling.  Win your home weekend series, don't get swept on the road, and win the weekday games.  This formula should add up to enough wins to put the team in position to play in the post season.

I'll write up a few more postings about when college players can be drafted into the pros and some differences between college and pro play, and then I'll start to focus more on the 2007 roster and preview the team we'll all be watching in action shortly.