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Climbing the Mountain

Publication Date: June 24, 2003

Not Gloating

I won a bet of sorts this week. Let's start with a couple of links to the original discussion so you can catch up. These threads are interesting reading, so take a few minutes to go through them.

The executive summary (and having just taken the Edward Tufte course I talked about, I have a whole new respect for that phrase) is that in 2000 I got into a discussion with former Cal State Fullerton assistant and Cal State Northridge head coach Bill Kernen over the notion of competitive balance, although we didn't call it that. Now, Bill's probably worth around 1000 words himself (the short version there is knowledgeable and abrasive, but not always in that order), but sticking to the topic, he said that there were only a dozen teams that had a chance to win the national title in the next five years, I told him to take twenty instead, and he put up his list. Rice wasn't on it, so I win.

As it turns out, though, especially since the nice thing about five year bets is that it's almost impossible to stay really worked up about anything for five years, I was wrong about roughly as much as he was, and for reasons that were as emotional as his were. The other good thing about long-term challenges like this is that they provide great teaching points once you see how they turn out, so let's take a look at what we were both wrong about and see what we can learn from this short history.

The first thing that Bill was wrong about is that a dozen teams is not nearly a long enough list, or even the twenty that I spotted him. If you take a look at his list, everyone who's on it needed to be, in the sense that none of them, with the possible exception of North Carolina, would have been a huge surprise to win, say, the 2001 title. In addition to Rice, though -- who would have been a fairly reasonable choice at that time, having already made two CWS appearances by that point -- he doesn't have any of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Houston, Texas Tech, Texas A&M (he basically undersold that whole area of the country), Pepperdine, Georgia, Mississippi State, California, or Arkansas on the list, and, personnel issues aside, no one would be that surprised to see any of those win next year's title. Stretching out to a five-year horizon from what we knew in 2000 would probably have stretched the list on out to 40-50 teams.

Secondly, there's the notion that the fact that things don't change much year-to-year implies that they don't change ever; Rice works as well as anyone to prove otherwise. The Owls were dreadful from approximately the Stone Age until roughly the early '90's, and now have four CWS appearances and a title. Even more relevant than Rice, whose climb to the top took about ten years, is Nebraska. In 1998, Nebraska played only 40 Division I games and came in at #61 in the ISR's. This was not new territory for them; they had been perennial cellar dwellers in the Big 8 and had finished next-to-last the first year of Big 12 play. At that point, no one in the nation would have put Nebraska on any list of teams, no matter how long the list was, who had a chance of ever winning a national championship. In 1999, they began to turn the corner, but it wasn't immediately identifiable as such; they finished fifth in the Big 12 (just ahead of Texas, who was hurting about as badly in their own way) and rose to #27 in the ISR's. The next year they took off in earnest, finishing at #13 and losing a close super-regional at Stanford. They have been, since then, a legitimate contender for the title every year; the 2001 team was in the range where it wouldn't have taken much of an upset for them to win. And no one would have put them on that list.

On the other hand, I was wrong, too. My contention was that there was no systemic barrier to competitive balance, and that's just nonsense; I had proven myself with the EFI's, which I think were already out at that point, that there were. The reason for my error was quite emotional. One of the great annoyances to me in sport is the constant bleating by Major League owners that small-market teams have no chance, mostly fueled by the desire for their city to build and give them a new stadium, and I let the obvious falsity of that claim sway me from the evidence that there are barriers of resources and scheduling that make it easier for the currently powerful to stay powerful than for the underachieving to join them. It's not impossible, but it does require a fairly spectacular effort to succeed.

So, the truth lies somewhere in between our positions -- the list of contenders is not fixed, but joining it requires some considerable effort. How does a team do that, then? How do they go from no hope of a title (and bear in mind that national championships are not everything, and there are programs that consider themselves quite rightly successful by considering their conference as the context of their existence) to being on the list of possibles? Totally unencumbered by actual knowledge, I'll point out a couple of things that seem to have worked for other programs in the past:

Spend some money. Less succintly, commit some resources to the baseball program. Most schools treat baseball as a bottomless pit -- or, more accurately, as a bottomless pothole, since they don't put that much into the hole -- so they try to minimize spending. It looks, though, like the smarter strategy may involve a little bit more investment. Baseball doesn't make money at very many places, but the places where it breaks even tend to be those that have spent some money on facilities, coaches' salaries, and marketing. Nebraska's a great example of this; the program really took off after they put some money into the program. At a smaller budget level, I'm sure this year's CWS run will fund Southwest Missouri State's baseball program for a few years to come.

Understand the off-field factors, and use them or mitigate them. Every team in America has some things going for them and some things going against them. Understanding those factors can be a huge advantage. Wichita State built a national powerhouse by being the only team in their weather band that was really trying to win; they're suffering a bit and will have to find a new edge now that Nebraska and a couple of Missouri teams are putting the same effort in. If it's great weather that you have at a small school, take advantage of the extra practice time in recruiting. If you have bad weather but a powerhouse athletic program, hitch that wagon up to the football team and go. If all the biggies but one are going against you, like, for example, a certain small, private, highly academic school in Houston, commit some extra resources and use the weather, and it'll work. Find your niche and exploit it.

Visionary coaches are worth the trouble. I'm not a big believer in the Cult of the Coach; I think most of the time, they get far too much blame, and some times, I think they get too much credit. This is one area where I'm a true believer, though. If you're trying to move a program from one level to another, you're going to have to have some one person with the vision to do it, and the way college programs are structured, that person's almost going to have to be the coach. I'm not suggested a massive firing sweep of coaches of mediocre teams, because I think it's just as possible for an existing coach to develop the plan as for someone knew to be lucky enough to have one, but you're going to have to have a coach with a vision of the top and a plan to get there.

These ideas are probably worth developing in more depth than this, so if you've got some ideas (or if you're Bill Kernen and want to check in, since I'm wondering where he is right now), drop me a line.

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
June 21 Stanford Ryan McCally Rice 9.1 8 4 3 3 3 33 38 135
June 22 Stanford John Hudgins Rice 7.0 10 3 3 3 5 31 34 131

As great as this last weekend was, you have to worry about how many young potential college players Mark Marquess cost us this past weekend with these shenanigans.

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