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Fast Starts

Publication Date: March 2, 2004

Out of the Gates

I released the first set of RPI and ISR results for this year this week. The start date is a compromise of sorts between those who would like full listings for every team before they actually begin play and those like me who would prefer to wait a couple more weeks until they actually mean something. In the absence of actual meaning there, I wanted to take a look at something to see if I could find out how much early season results might mean. Now, I've studied this a couple of different ways before, but what I want to look at is the best starts in recent history and see how the teams ended up the year to see how much it's worth to get out of the gate really fast.

One of the problems with the game is the lack of a sense of history and accompanying lack of data to analyze, but we at least have the last seven years to work with now, so I thought I'd see what the five best ten-game starts were since 1997. Now, just looking at who looks the best after everyone plays ten games isn't all that informative (it's the equivalent of complaining about the RPI's in early March, for all those Albany disparagers out there), so what I did was take the end-of-season ISR's and measure the first ten games of each team's season. Here are the five best:

#5. Clemson, 2002. This was, overall, a very good team, and they started with a serious push, sweeping three over Auburn and two over South Carolina along with a couple against College of Charleston and a three-game set against Purdue. They never really slowed down, although they did fall behind Florida State in the ACC, finishing #4 in the ISR's for the year and making a serious post-season run to finish 3rd in Omaha.

#4. Stanford, 1998. This team was so far ahead of the pack early in the season that when I first starting playing with the ISR's in mid-April of 1998 I was afraid that they were flawed because nobody could be that much better than the field -- by the ten-game mark they had already taken out Fullerton and Texas. Unfortunately, a bad weekend at home (against absurdly good competition -- if you think the four-game Western regionals are tough, try to remember what they were like expanded to six teams) ended their season at the regional level. They still ended the season at #2 in the ISR's.

#3. Rice, 2002. A year before their title run, Rice played what's probably the toughest first ten game opening on this list and went 9-1. Their schedule was notable for mostly consisting of three big tournaments; against a loss to Texas A&M were stacked wins over Baylor, Texas Tech, Houston, Wake Forest, Nebraska, New Mexico, Lamar, Louisiana-Lafayette, and South Florida. The team finished #5 in the ISR's and were one wild play at third base away from making serious noise in Omaha.

#2. Cal State Fullerton, 2003. The Titans started last year with a bang that lasted considerably longer than the first ten; at that point, they had swept Stanford and Fresno State, taken two of three from a fairly good UNLV team and won their first against Nevada. They went on to end up at #3 but were indistinguishable in quality from the two teams that finished ahead of them in the ISR's and in Omaha.

So far, all these teams have at least two things in common: They didn't win it all in Omaha, and they could have without much in the way of breaks or luck. That brings us to ...

#1. North Carolina, 2000. North Carolina started the season 21-0 in 2000, and the first ten games included wins over UCF, Rice, Miami, and ECU and a sweep over UCLA. Then they were swept by Georgia Tech and became a fairly average team for the rest of the season, ending up losing two to Penn State in a truly weak regional field. The first third of the season kept them up at #13 in the ISR's for the year, but they weren't a CWS contender after about mid-April.

Longer Starts

I won't go into as much depth on these, but here are the lists for fifteen and twenty games for comparison:

Best 15-game Starts

1. 2003 Cal State Fullerton
2. 2000 North Carolina
3. 1998 Stanford
4. 2003 Rice
5. 1999 Pepperdine

Best 20-game Starts

1. 2003 Rice
2. 2003 Cal State Fullerton
3. 1999 Pepperdine
4. 2000 North Carolina
5. 1998 Stanford

Pitch Count Watch

Rather than keep returning to the subject of pitch counts and pitcher usage in general too often for my main theme, I'm just going to run a standard feature down here where I point out potential problems; feel free to stop reading above this if the subject doesn't interest you. This will just be a quick listing of questionable starts that have caught my eye -- the general threshold for listing is 120 actual pitches or 130 estimated, although short rest will also get a pitcher listed if I catch it. Don't blame me; I'm just the messenger.

Date   Team   Pitcher   Opponent   IP   H   R   ER   BB   SO   AB   BF   Pitches
Feb 27 North Carolina-Asheville Steven Cook Florida State 9.0 4 1 0 5 7 32 37 148(*)
Feb 27 Centenary Kevin Cassidy Iowa 8.1 11 9 7 3 6 33 40 139(*)
Feb 27 Arizona Koley Kolberg Baylor 7.0 3 1 0 6 8 23 33 132
Feb 28 Rhode Island Zuercher New Mexico State 6.2 4 6 6 8 7 21 31 132
Feb 28 Cal State Fullerton Ricky Romero Georgia Tech 9.0 4 1 1 2 12 28 33 124
Feb 28 Texas Christian Clayton Jerome Texas Tech 6.2 3 4 2 5 8 23 30 125
Feb 28 Rice Wade Townsend Nebraska 8.0 4 2 0 3 10 28 32 125
Feb 28 South Alabama P. J. Walters Mississippi 7.0 4 3 0 5 8 26 33 143
Feb 29 College of Charleston Reid Price North Carolina State 7.1 5 6 5 2 6 24 28 127
Feb 29 Xavier Dan Graham Cincinnati 7.0 5 1 1 7 5 26 33 130
Mar 2 Louisiana State Clay Dirks Tulane 9.0 4 0 0 1 7 29 30 128
Mar 4 Detroit Mercy Bob Lothian Temple 8.0 12 4 4 5 9 34 39 151(*)

(*) Pitch count is estimated.

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