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Pros and Cons of pushing back the College Baseball Season

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Baseball fields aren't supposed to be covered in snow.  Photo via twitter

Baseball fields aren’t supposed to be covered in snow. Photo via twitter

So far, 2015 has been one massive cold spell for much of the nation.  Boston got 7 feet of snow.  Places deep into the south felt freezing temperatures.  DC just experienced its second coldest February since 1950, with an average temperature for the month below freezing.

And the College Baseball season kicked off in the middle of all this!   Division 1 college baseball programs kicked off the 2/13/15 weekend with many cold-weather teams traveling and many traditionally warmer-weather schools being forced to move home dates to warmer locations.  For example, UVA had to move a bunch of lucrative home dates to South Carolina and played one game on a HS field in Charleston.  The #1 team in the country (Vanderbilt) had to move a home series to Florida.  UNC had to move a marquee early-season match up against fellow top-10 team UCLA all the way to Orlando.

Long time collegiate baseball coach (currently at West Virginia) Randy Mazey has been pushing a recommendation to radically alter the college baseball schedule for years and has latched onto this year’s uncommonly cold winter to spread the word and gain support.  The Washington Post picked up his story in mid-February and he’s made some appearances on baseball-themed broadcasts to spread the word, and details on the email that Mazey has been sending to fellow college coaches is on d1baseball.com’s site.  I listened to a long-form interview with Mazey on d1baseball.com’s podcast (hosted by d1baseball authors Kendall Rodgers and Aaron Fitt) and gleaned the following details:

Mazey’s proposal goes like this:

  • Pitchers & Catchers would not start working out until mid-late February, similarly to the way that MLB spring training works.
  • College Baseball seasons would start April 1 (currently starts mid February, or 2/13/15 this year).  This leads to basically a 6-week cascading slip for all College Baseball events.
  • Continue to play 56-game schedule
  • Finish regular season over July 4th weekend with a “rivalry” week (current schedules end mid-May)
  • Put in a week’s delay before starting conference tournaments, to be scheduled 2nd week of July.  Current conference tourneys generally run through the 3rd week and weekends of May.
  • This puts the Regionals in the 3rd week of July, the super-regionals in the 4th week of July.  Currently Regionals are held the last weekend of May, and the super-regionals are held the first weekend of June.
  • The CWS would start the first week of August and would be coordinated with ESPN so as to fall “after” the Little League World Series.  Currently the CWS runs from mid June through the end of June.

Arguments for this proposal:

  • Levels the playing field between “northern” and “southern” baseball programs.
  • Pushes back the start of the season, avoiding obvious weather issues with more northern schools.
  • Lowers travel burdens for northern programs, who often play the first 15 games of their season on the road thanks to cold temperatures in their home towns.
  • Safer travel for teams that depend on bus travel on icy/snow-covered roads in February.
  • Attempts to increase fan interest in college baseball by avoiding conflicts with basketball season/March Madness.
  • Improves the post-season scheduling to avoid the conference-tournament crunch that occurs on college pitching staffs.
  • Reduces harm to players (pitchers especially) having to compete in very low temperatures (a stance supported by Dr. James Andrews).  More than a few marquee/1st round projected picks  have already been pulled from starts this year due to warming up for games to be played in 30-35 degree temperatures (Mike Matuella and Andrew Suarez both have already missed starts this year).
  • I suppose its a “pro” to force kids to be in school all summer so they can do summer school classes to augment their (presumably) smaller class-loads while playing during the spring session.
  • Pushing schedules into summer lessens the burden on students missing a ton of class during spring semesters (Mazey’s players missed 31 days of class one recent spring semester).  This theoretically will help kids actually graduate college, a rarity among baseball players, who generally leave school after their junior year and rarely return (tangent: Scott Boras did a study a few years back, finding that of the 824 players in the majors that year just *six* (6) had 4-year college degrees; that doesn’t say much about the job that college baseball is doing graduating kids).

Arguments against this proposal:

  • With this proposal, you’d essentially be telling college baseball players that they’re “on the clock” from mid February all the way to Mid-August, an incredibly long season.  They’d lose their entire summer vacation, have limited to no summer league baseball opportunities, no jobs to make money.  They’d essentially have 2 weeks “off” at the end of their baseball seasons (if they made the CWS) before the fall semester picked back up (at best; see further with the LLWS analysis).  This sounds like one heck of a burden for college student-athletes.  Its tough enough with spring semesters generally ending the first week of May and kids are forced to continue playing deep into June.
  • If CWS needs to work around the LLWS … well I’m not sure how you do that.  In 2014, the LLWS schedule in Williamsport, PA ran from August 14th through the championship game on August 24th (a sunday).  If CWS waits to play its final until after the LLWS does … well when exactly does it play its final 3-game set?  You presumably want to play those games on a weekend to get fan interest and attendance, but waiting until the weekend after the LLWS puts you into Labor Day weekend, which is a football kickoff.  Not to mention, the beginning of the fall semester for most students.  So now you’re telling CWS college baseball players that they potentially get NO summer break.  You can’t jam the entire CWS into one week before the LLWS happens.  So I’m not sure how CWS fits in with LLWS with the current broadcast partner ESPN.
  • The current Rule-4/amateur draft is set for early June; when would you draft players if they’re playing deep into August?  MLB is already talking about pushing back the draft slightly to avoid the current draft date-CWS completion conflict … but a couple weeks is different from a couple months.  Mazey doesn’t think the draft would need to change, making the argument that kids playing in the CWS have been drafted and are still playing.  Well, there’s a difference with a limited number of players playing a few playoff games and playing half a season.  If i’m a pro team and I draft a college pitcher in the first round, I don’t want to watch some back-woods college coach abuse my pitcher for weeks and weeks trying to get a slightly higher seed in his conference tournament when I’m committing potentially seven figures to him.  I think what would really happen is this: MLB would draft a kid and basically tell him to quit college right then and there.  Imagine what that would do to the college season if all the drafted kids are suddenly removed from the competition prior to even the conference tournaments?
  • Similarly; the short-season pro leagues are set to start just after the draft in mid June specifically so that newly drafted kids can start playing.  Who would stock these teams if most of the college draftees weren’t going to join up for months?  What would these teams do if their draftees are still competing in college seasons?   Mazey didn’t have an answer other than to say that it would take “creative scheduling.”  There are some places where the short-season team shares the same facility as a college team (Penn State and Oregon being two examples); clearly you couldn’t have both of these teams playing schedules concurrently.
  • This proposal would effectively kill summer leagues as we know them.  And there are a *lot* of summer leagues out there, and they serve a very vital role in the player scouting process for pro teams.  The major leagues out there (Cape Cod, Northwoods, Valley, Coastal Plains) would be put out of business if most Div 1 players couldn’t join them until regionals were ending near the end of July.  Mazey tries to make the argument that summer league teams would rely on JuCo, Div2 and Div3 players not affected by Div-1’s schedule … but if Division 1 is changing its schedule to account for weather, wouldn’t Division 2 and 3 teams be thinking the same?  Mazey also thinks that prep players who have signed with Div-1 programs could be targets for teams in the Cape, thinking that fans just want to root for a player affiliated with a big-name program.  I think he’s incredibly wrong here; the Cape and the Northwoods teams draw because they’re watching the *best* college players in the country, guys who are going to be first round draftees the subsequent year.  And, how many parents are going to finance their 17yr old to go play in the Cape Cod league before he’s even stepped foot in college?
  • Would college baseball game attendance be adversely affected if the crunch-time games played by the schools were held in the dead of summer, when student populations at these schools is at is lowest?  Mazey for some reason thinks this switch will help college teams draw like minor league teams do, but to me his logic doesn’t add up.  To me, the issue of god-awful college baseball attendance is a whole separate issue unrelated to anything mentioned here related to scheduling.
  • Keeping kids on campus extends the scholarship costs to schools; more classes, more room & board and potentially more travel.  Mazey’s argument is that assumed rising attendance figures would somehow finance these additional costs.
  • If its too cold in the north in February … well wouldn’t it be too hot in the south in July/August?  Yes it would.  The average temperature during the day in July in Arizona is between 105-107.   Yes there’s a MLB team in Arizona and guess what; they have a frigging dome for this reason.  Same thing with the Houston team and the Miami team; all three play in domed stadiums because its really, really hot down there in the summer.  Would there be issues with marquee teams in Arizona and Texas (of which there are many) playing home dates in 105 degree temperatures?

What do I think College Baseball should do?

Well, if you couldn’t tell from reading my point-by-point argument against logic, I think this is a dumb proposal that would be done in the best interests of a small population (the coaches and players of northern baseball schools) at the expense of many others (coaches and players from all other schools, pro teams, summer league teams).  I think the baseball coaches behind this need to admit to themselves that baseball is inherently a warm weather sport and thus warm weather schools are going to have advantages.  Prior to Oregon State winning the CWS a few years back, a “cold weather” state hadn’t won the CWS since Ohio State in the mid 60s (and Oregon is “barely” a cold-weather state for this discussion; Corvallis averages just 3.1″ of snow a year .. about as much on average as Atlanta, Georgia). Consider the reverse: are cold-weather sports being forced to change their schedules to accommodate warm-weather schools who want to participate?  I don’t think so; and that is why you don’t have (say) ice hockey programs at schools in Texas and Arizona clamoring for changes to the NCAA hockey tournament.

However, there a couple of things that Mazey is right about.  Why are colleges playing baseball in mid February?  Why do colleges play fifty six (!) games a season?  The logical thing to consider is to force back the start of the season a month, and lower the playing burden.  Or, if you wanted to keep 56-game schedules, then play some mid-week series during spring break and in May once semesters are over.  Or just accept the fact that some colleges can play in February and others cannot; same thing happens with high schools all over the country.

Take a look at UVA’s schedule.  The first 13 games on their schedule are non-conference.  Then, starting on 3/6/15, they play a 3-game weekend series every weekend for 10 straight weekends (save one weekend in early May presumably blocked off for finals).  In between each of those 10 weekends they play at least one mid-week game against an in-state rival for another 13 games.  13+30+13=56.  Ask yourself; do they need the first 13 games at all?   Do they need to play ten in-conference series?  The ACC is split into two 7-team divisions; play all your division rivals and then lower the cross-division games and you can cut weeks out of the schedule.

Anyway; food for thought.  Personally, I don’t think there’s anything “broken” with college baseball as it stands; its CWS event is great, it dovetails nicely into a vast industry of summer leagues and pro short seasons, and it doesn’t drag all summer.

 

Written by Todd Boss

March 4th, 2015 at 1:58 pm

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