In only 25 games this season, Arizona State has shown such an ability to come from behind and win that it truly separates the Sun Devils from the rest of the competition in college baseball.
In most circumstances—and this is true for any sport or intercollegiate competition where you want to focus your debate—the difference between championship teams and the rest is the ability to overcome negative obstacles and consistently achieve success on the road to the championship.
Obviously, this is easier said than done, for character is born in the height of the storm, not when things are rosy and comfortable on the home front, as the Arizona Wildcats found out this week after being swept by California on the road in Berkeley.
It was their first road venture of the year, and the youthful Cats, with 17 freshmen listed on the roster, handled it poorly.
College baseball, along the “Road to Rosenblatt,” will reward the teams that can handle adversity with consistency over the journey of the season, both at home and on the road, in all types of contests, in any type of weather.
The Sun Devils are not the No. 1 team in America just because they have shown a propensity for winning games when trailing late (14 of the 25 victories this season have involved this statistic alone); they are the No. 1 team because they can win in all types of weather, at home, on the road, or even without their premier star, Josh Spence.
The Sun Devils have such a deep and talented pitching staff that you hardly notice that the best ace of all is watching from the dugout, yet to even set foot on the field this season.
But coming back to win is only one piece of the championship puzzle, although it is a very critical benchmark in the grand scope of defining what a championship team should look like within the national polls.
There was a nice friendly debate earlier this week between Aaron Fitt of Baseball America and Boyd Nation, who runs Boyd's World dot com, that discussed this very issue.
The topic centered on Boyd’s “Iterative Strength Ratings,” a substitute for the Ratings Percentage Index that attempts to rank the college baseball world based on the quality of the opponents they have played and beaten.
Many people refer to this as the Strength of Schedule, or “SOS.”
The debate between Boyd’s World and Aaron Fitt centers around the weekly “faux pas" national poll ranking process, which I have been an outspoken critic of on many fronts.
Their argument, like all others in the college setting, centers on who should be ranked atop the polls, but the basis for that decision is the crux of the argument.
Like all collegiate "faux pas" polling measurements, we will likely never achieve consensus among the constituents, but at least Boydsworld.com and Baseball America have gone on the record to defend their decisions and entered into a healthy debate, which all of college baseball can potentially benefit from in the process.
Before we begin, let’s recognize right away that comparing the “Boydsworld ISR” and “RPI Ratings Index” with all the other collegiate baseball polls is an apples—to—oranges argument, for we could debate until the cows come home and never agree on the rating criteria alone, much less who the best teams actually are.
However, at least college baseball allows all of its 302 constituents at the Division I level a fair opportunity to compete for the highest prize “the greatest show on dirt” has to offer.
There is nothing fowl at all about the postseason in college baseball.
In college football, the rankings are determined by a computer formula that measures the key statistical benchmarks for each team, which is further tied to a network of national pollsters from various media outlets around the country who supposedly vote for who they think is the best, when many times they haven’t even seen a particular team play, nor do they even know the records associated with the teams they are voting into position.
Then we throw in the actual coaches, who vote with a consciousness that defies logic...whatever benefits their own team in particular, and their own conference in general, seems to be the running goal.
The whole system is akin to asking the bank robbers to vote on the manner in which they are going to rob the bank, which provides the avenue of least resistance and the greatest amount of safety to pull off the heist.
When taking your research to yet another level, to say that the participants (the media, coaches, or computer formulas) are voting with integrity is rather complicated when you research who owns and controls the media conglomerates, and how the educational foundations and bowl committees are tied into the whole process, or how the computer algorithms are written as well.
The word convoluted best describes the whole process to a “T,” but then again, that’s the whole point.
Further exasperating is the fact that coaches and pollsters do not have to account for their actual votes, and if they do, it is at a point in the season where we can do nothing about the outcomes, even when we recognize the fox is in the hen-house guarding its prized possessions.
But that’s another story altogether that would take an article the size of an encyclopedia to sort through the convoluted connections.
So let’s give some credit to Aaron Fitt and Baseball America for attempting to validate their voting process in a public debate at such an early point in the season, when we still have time to make adjustments.
I am sure they feel a certain damned if we do, damned if we don’t connotation; as with any poll, you will never satisfy everyone, but at least they are trying to validate their actions via debate with another polling mechanism.
In comparison, on the football side of this argument, whenever the nation receives a BCS matchup they disapprove of, it is always blamed on the computer formula because the formula is convoluted.
The average Joe on the street has no chance of comprehending the internal mechanisms that spit out the rankings in the first place, let alone even coming close to challenging the system when crying afoul.
They have about as much chance of understanding the complicated math algorithms of the BCS as they do understanding the fraudulent futures and real estate derivative formulas that led to the bailout on Wall Street.
It is beyond comprehension...once again by design, for if you don’t understand it, how can you tell if it is truth or fraud?
Even more critical to the process, there is no governing body that regulates college football, as the NCAA was stripped of its collective control in 1984 with the pivotal Board of Regents of Oklahoma and Georgia versus the NCAA in antitrust court.
So there is no one for the public to answer to, unless you want to take a group of computers to court and have a jury decide the outcome of that argument, but then again, what are the odds of finding 12 jurors who understand complicated math formulas?
The whole mess is a perfect smokescreen to hide the obvious: The books are being cooked in college football, and the whole point of this article is to show that this is beginning to take place in college baseball.
The computer algorithms are the perfect escape clause for the entire system; with no one in control (at least not overtly defined as in control), who do you blame, who do you hold accountable, and where does the litigation begin?
In this regard, the invisible hands that control both ends of the spectrum can lead the argument and direct a matchup of their choice through the media. After all, whatever the media spins at us during the six o’clock news must be the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.
This convoluted process is better known in political circles as the Hegelian Dialect, where two arguments are funded and presented to the masses in order to lead the process to the desired outcome.
The whole bureaucratic process could be defined with the military tag of “Operation Sideshow,” whose main purpose is to create so much confusion (chaos) that order emerges from the process.
While this mob—like tactic describes college football, college baseball offers less control to this invisible power structure, because the rankings mean diddly-squat once a team gets into the postseason, whereas in college football the BCS rankings are the only thing that matters.
Although a number of SEC and ACC schools are always rewarded as regional and super-regional hosts, due largely to the East Coast bias in the national poll system, you still have to win a four-team double-elimination tournament and a three-game super-regional to earn the sacred ride to Omaha.
Once arriving on the sacred Nebraska soil, the process repeats itself, with the national final participants having to win a four—team double—elimination division before competing in a three-game series for the national title.
The champion in college baseball is truly a national champion, because you simply can’t be given a free ride to the national title game like in college football.
It is what makes college baseball such a splendid ride, for when you finally get to the end of the road, not a single soul can claim that you didn’t deserve it, no matter how many “BCS Royalty” excuses the radio talk show hosts throw in your direction.
You simply cannot get hot for a two-week time period, like in college basketball, where a team only needs to win five in a row over the course of two weeks to earn a national title, and every team is eliminated by one single loss.
Would Butler earn the “Road to the Final Four in Indianapolis” if they had to beat the top three teams in each division twice like you have to do in college baseball?
So although the national rankings still do not mean much in terms of determining a national champion in college baseball, the RPI and SOS rankings do play a large part in determining whether you will receive an invite to the ultimate show (postseason) in the first place.
However, what often goes unnoticed is the fact that a team's RPI Index (similar to Boyd’s ISR) is the major tool used by the NCAA Selection Committee as the NCAA field of 64 is announced in June.
So in a convoluted manner, the SOS and RPI Rankings Index, which are what Boyd’s ISR Index is really trying to objectively evaluate, are still vitally important and worth keeping track of in order to hold the sport accountable, because just like in college football, operation sideshow can hijack the whole system and lead it askew.
For this reason, I wanted to take some time today to address the key components of this argument and explain it in further detail, for the argument between Aaron Fitt and Boyd’s Nation only presented part of the overall picture that should be taken into account.
The center of the argument is what defines superiority.
Is it strength of schedule, winning a series, or simply the overall record no matter who you play?
What are the standards, and are they faux pas to each individual voter?
To be fair and answer this correctly, you need to understand the inner mechanisms of the sport.
How it is coached?
What are the weekly benchmark objectives?
How are these objectives measured by the coaches themselves?
In other words, coaches must use additional criteria other than simple wins and losses to measure success, for there is simply too much failure and negativity in the game to keep your team grounded and off the roller-coaster ride of a season to narrow it to wins and losses.
There are mini battles and games within the game that have to be addressed before the whole picture of success unfolds, and if coaches must do this, why can’t the pollsters do the same?
College baseball is built around the three-game series, for when coaches develop their programs in the fall, overcoming adversity is a constant theme.
Adversity is at its greatest point in the sport of baseball on Sunday, for this is what is known as “The Day of Separation” or “Benchmark Sunday.”
From week to week in college baseball, all coaches use Sunday as the benchmark day, for they want the players to recognize improvement within the program from week to week across the journey of the season.
The goal in college baseball is sweep and don’t get swept, because if you sweep as few as two or three weekends within your conference race and avoid getting swept in the process, whether you win or lose the overall series, you will be in a regional come June.
Throughout the course of the conference season, you are either trying to sweep or avoiding the sweep, although you will certainly take a series win as a consolation prize.
The problem with focusing only on series wins is the simple fact if you win one series one week without getting an overall sweep and lose the next series the following week, you are still at 3—3 record-wise.
You haven’t gained ground with this process of thinking.
Conversely, if you sweep one week and lose a series without being swept the following week, your record now stands at 4—2.
For me, as an ex-coach, those games on Sunday, when you have already lost the first two on Friday or Saturday, are just as important as the Sunday tilts when each team has won one game and “Benchmark Sunday,” stands as the difference, such as was the case this weekend in Eugene.
Most of the better teams can survive getting swept once by a conference opponent, although very few can overcome getting swept twice, and not one in the history of the game has overcome being swept three times during a conference season.
Nothing more than basic math here, folks.
So, to be fair to both Aaron and Boyd, it's the sweep that should be looked at as the pendulum that determines the balance of power, not simply a series win.
A sweep is a whole other animal in the eyes of coaches for it represents excellence over time.
Obviously, when you are 24—0, like Arizona State’s record indicates, you have swept everyone thus far, even your mid—week games.
Aaron Fitt also illuminated the argument that the mid-week games for a lot of coaches don’t matter as much with so little practice time available due to NCAA rules restrictions.
There are many programs around the country that consider mid—week games nothing more than weekly practice scrimmages.
I disagree with this assessment, as I see it as more of an excuse when a team doesn’t have quality pitching depth, but I am amazed at how many of the national pollsters buy into this excuse.
Although I agree with the limited practice time, I disagree with the importance of mid-week games, because when you use this argument you can use it to your advantage when it works in your favor one week (the expected outcome), and you can use it as an excuse when a team like Virginia gets beat in a mid—week tilt versus Wright State or Lipscomb the following.
Furthermore, as a coach, we are always stressing excellence in the moment in an effort to keep our players off the roller coaster. Excellence in the moment leads to consistent performance over time.
I would find it hard to believe that coaches around the country in Division I baseball don’t take mid—week games seriously. They want their players to play with excellence all the time because you can’t turn it on and off like a light switch.
The excellence bulb is either on all the time or you are struggling with consistent and quality performance.
For a coach, every game is important, for even one minor sublime connotation that is conveyed to your team in regards to your opponent being inferior can have dire consequences and lead to the wild roller-coaster ride of inconsistency in performance.
The last thing a coach ever wants is a player who does not respect an opponent, for it shows a lack of respect for the game in general.
As a coach we can handle failure in getting beat if our players are playing with consistency and excellence, but if you don’t play with consistency all the time, how do you expect excellence to play out in a championship situation, such as those that occur within your weekend conference series showdowns?
Every game is critical and important within its own right whether, it occurs on the weekend or Tuesday and Wednesday.
We want our players to stay in the moment and worry about the things that they can control, which is the next critical theme that Aaron Fitt and Boyd's Nation did not touch on in their rankings debate.
The most difficult opponent on your schedule oftentimes is your own team.
Bobo Brayton, a great coach at Washington State who coached MLB stars John Olerud, Aaron Sele, and Scott Hatteberg, to name a few, used to harp constantly on the fact that more games are kicked away and given away than ever won outright.
The greatest opponent is your ability to play the game, so you don’t compete as much against an opponent as you do in competing against the standard of excellence that the game demands.
In this regard, stats are vitally important, for they illuminate your ability to play the game consistently with excellence over time, no matter the opponent.
The Oregon—ASU Series was a perfect example of this.
It wasn’t the difficult plays that doomed Oregon; it was a series of routine plays over the course of three games that ultimately became the difference maker.
ASU stayed in the moment (off the roller coaster), and although they made their share of errors, they had a calmness and confidence about them that minimized mistakes after mistakes had been made.
It isn’t necessarily that a mistake is made. It is whether you can stay in the moment and minimize further mistakes after the first one has been made. How do you counter or react to this mistake?
How often do you see the opposite in baseball?
One bad throw, or play, often leads to another, and a mental breakdown occurs throughout a team.
Case in point was Eddie Rodriguez on Friday night (or early Saturday morning, as the game ended at 12:45 a.m.) when he failed to catch a routine strike three, which happened to be the third out of the inning (with runners on first and third and leading 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth, no less).
The first mistake was a rather routine pitch, in a critical moment, not being blocked and then the throw at third going into left field (where the left fielder J.J. Altobelli further exasperated the situation by booting the ball as well), which allowed the lead run to score.
Instead of squeezing the pitch, or blocking it in a worst-case scenario and throwing to first base to end the ball game, a circus of mistakes unfolds, and three errors were made when a routine play could have prevented the whole scenario in the first place.
Furthermore, this scenario continued throughout the series, as Rodriguez continued to throw balls into center field, even when guessing right on pitchouts when the runner could have been dead meat sliding into second base.
Similar mistakes were made by SS K.C. Serna, whose series of throwing miscues created a big inning in the late stages of game three, as ASU made its move of separation on Benchmark Sunday (in this case Saturday due to Easter Weekend).
Although I agree with both Aaron Fitt and Boyd’s Nation on the importance of win-loss records and strength of schedule, I also think it is important to look at the key stat indicators that measure a team's ability to play the game of baseball at that standard of excellence level that championship baseball demands.
Where in the RPI and ISR Rankings Index does it measure an ability to answer a team every single time they put runs on the board?
Arizona State did this constantly throughout the series with Oregon. Good teams answer the bell...immediately!
This is where a key stat analysis can come into play to help mediate the difference between a UCLA (22—1), Arizona State (25—1), Georgia Tech (25—3), Virginia (23—6), or LSU (23—4) in the weekly polls—not just the ability to come back from a deficit, but also the ability to not flinch when an opponent tries to deliver a knockout punch.
The third area often not represented within the statistical win-loss categories is the ability to minimize the number of baserunning situations that can stress a defense throughout the course of a series.
You cannot hide from the game of baseball. It will always over time, of course, find your weakness and exploit it, so you can’t prevent everything. However, there are stat indicators that measure overall defensive strength.
To play consistent baseball, a pitching staff must limit the total number of pitches in an inning to a ratio of 9—to—18 pitches.
We call this the 9-18 Rule in coaching.
For example, nine pitches or fewer in an inning will allow a pitcher to dictate the tempo and dominate the overall flow of the game, because if you can get three outs within nine pitches, you are obviously limiting baserunning situations.
Limiting baserunners will keep a team out of the big inning, as the general rule in advanced baseball is the winning team will more often than not score more runs in one inning than the losing team has scored the entire game.
When you limit baserunners, you limit all the offensive strategies that the opponent can use to put pressure on your defense.
These include the short game (drags, push, squeeze, slap, bunt and run), double steals, hit and run, run and hit, and the first and third circus show that programs like Cal State-Fullerton or Cal-Irvine execute so well.
The best defense against that whole circus show is eliminating baserunners in the first place, which can be accomplished when your pitching staff understands and pitches to the 9—18 concept.
If you throw 9—18 pitches per inning, you may still give up a run or two, but not in bunches, like when you throw between 18—25 pitches.
That is why you will often see pitching coaches come out to make a change when a pitcher has thrown 20—25 pitches in an inning and there isn’t a high probability of getting out of the inning on one pitch (the double—play ball).
The key stat indicators representative of the teams who pitch within the 9—18 concept are Team ERA, Opponents Batting Average, Strikeout-to-Base-on-Ball-Ratio (which also measures total number of strikeouts and total number of bases on balls), and Fielding Percentage.
To pitch effectively within the 9—18 concept, pitchers must throw first-pitch strikes at a minimum of 70 percent or greater throughout a game and get immediately ahead with strike two—the only thing better than a first-pitch strike, if you get my meaning.
Drew Gagnier, the Oregon closer, has really struggled with this throughout his career in Eugene, especially against the better competition like Arizona State has to offer.
In Friday’s circus show ninth-inning affair, Gagnier precipitated the whole mess of events because he couldn’t get ahead with first-pitch strikes and nibbled too much, bringing every count to a 3—2 full-count situation.
Ultimately, this creates stress and anxiety from a team defensive standpoint, because you can’t defend the walk in the first place, and all the baserunning situations I talked about earlier come into play when you start loading the bases without the chance of getting an out.
So as you can see, after looking at the overall records and the strength of schedule, the true separators in determining a pecking order within the national polls should be focused on the key stats which measure how well a team plays the game versus themselves, which is often the greatest opponent on the schedule because it is the one opponent you see over and over each and every night of the season.
The Key Stat Indicators, what I will now term the KSI Ratings Index, for measuring the ability of a team to stay in the moment and compete against the longtime standard of the game, is an important set of benchmarks that are not even being mentioned in the Fitt—Boyd debate, nor are they considered in any other collegiate baseball poll.
I will list these again as they represent a team's ability to play against the standard of the game, not up or down to the level of the opponent or the day of the week, which are the two arguments presented by Fitt and Boyd.
“KSI Ratings Index” (Key Stat Indicators)
1. Winning Percentage
We are ranking teams with a winning percentage at .650 and above. This is the first step in the process and most likely one of the feature categories for the majority of the polls.
2. Team ERA
This demonstrates the ability to limit baserunners and scoring opportunities via the 9-18 Rule and the First-Pitch Strike concepts.
3. Team Batting Average
Measures the strength of an overall batting lineup. The higher the team batting average, the more stress is placed on an opponent's pitching staff and the overall team defense. Another way of looking at this is the greater the team batting average, the lower the opportunity for easy outs within the batting order itself.
4. Opponents Batting Average vs. Pitching Staff
Like team ERA, this further demonstrates how well a pitcher executes the 9—18, First-Pitch Strike rule, and how good their secondary pitches are in relation to action and control.
5. Total Hits
Measures more than just batting average, as walks, hit batters, and on-base percentage do not come into play.
6. Run Differential
There are actually three scores here that we evaluate: runs scored versus runs allowed and a breakdown of the ratio that Team A is outscoring Team B.
7. Total Bases (Offensively)
While most casual baseball experts look immediately to the Home Run category, total bases provides a more accurate picture because the best teams that perform well are not necessarily the home run-hitting teams, as they fall into a cycle of go big or go home.
The best overall hitting teams are actually doubles-hitting teams, because they are not focused on home runs, but that line drive gap—to—gap doubles approach, and the home runs that come in addition are bonuses.
8. Stolen Bases
Measures how well a team can manufacture runs, for every team will go through hitting slumps throughout the course of a season. Stealing bases is one way a team can stay off the roller coaster and continue to win even when they are not hitting on all cylinders. It's a very critical stat that is often underappreciated and often the difference maker for programs getting to Omaha.
9. Fielding Percentage
What you will often find is pitching staffs that limit baserunners with the 9-18 concept and First-Pitch Strike often have the best fielding percentages because there is virtually no pressure on the defense versus programs that have a high degree of walks and pitch counts that run 20-30 per inning. The best team defenses stay out of the circus sideshow created by walks, errors, and not keeping the double play in order.
Like Run Differential, there are actually three scores here that we evaluate: Total Ks, Total BBs, and Ratio of Strikes to Balls. Likewise, it should be pretty easy to defend a strikeout, and with an equally proficient low base on ball ratio, there's no pressure for the team defense to endure. This is where ASU, Arizona, and UCLA had such a decided advantage in last week's polls.
11. Win Streak
The highest number of games a team has won in a row, which demonstrates consistency over time. Baseball rewards longevity...excellence over time, and this measures the ability to stay in the moment and play at a high level against the standard of the game, not the level of the opponent.
This in an arbitrary factor in case the statistical evaluation ends in a tie, where I am essentially comparing losses and the overall strength of each team that defeated the team we are evaluating.
For example, LSU and Oklahoma have the same record at 20—3.
LSU has lost to Kansas twice and Arkansas, while Oklahoma has lost to Jacksonville State, UCLA, and Nebraska.
Both Nebraska and Jacksonville State, statistically speaking, are inferior to Arkansas and Kansas.
Result? Advantage LSU.
In conclusion, although Aaron Fitt and Boyd’s Nation presented a very good argument, they only addressed half the scenario. They didn’t take into account the key benchmark goals and objectives related to the “Sweep and Don’t Get Swept Concept” that coaches focus on, nor that the game demands over the test of time.
Regardless of the opponents on your schedule, the teams that can manage the toughest opponent—themselves—represent the ultimate measure of success in college baseball.
For ASU, Virginia, LSU, Georgia Tech, and UCLA, the toughest opponent on their schedule will oftentimes be their own team.
The Road2Rosenblatt.com’s KSI Ratings Index measures this most important stat, which is another aspect to consider for a legitimate polling process.
The debate continues...