Tweaking baseball's postseason
April is young, which means more than a month still separates us from postseason baseball, more than two months from Omaha.
But playoff cases are being built around the country, so I've been thinking back to earlier this spring and a conversation I had with Stanford coach Mark Marquess.
He began ranting about the postseason tournament and how it could be improved.
"Teams should not host regionals at home," Marquess said. "They should all be neutral sites. Can you imagine if Duke hosted the first round of the basketball playoffs? That would never happen."
It's not a perfect comparison. The reason Duke shuttles off to Dayton, Ohio, or Lexington, Ky., or wherever each March is because college basketball has become a billion-dollar stallion that long ago fled the barn. The obscene earning potential of the men's basketball tournament grabs the decision-makers by their collars and drags them down the road to the Final Four.
For better and worse, college baseball doesn't live by those standards. The sport's television presence has grown, but it still resides in a land flush with freedom and potential. College baseball hasn't yet reached the place where every tangible item is monetized. Someday, maybe the dugouts will be coated with cash, but we're not there yet. The sport can afford to take some risks.
I don't love Marquess' suggestion that teams shouldn't host regionals -- one reason: If there's a regional in Nashville, but Vanderbilt is playing in Florida, how will the Nashville Regional be supported and received? -- but he had another idea I fully support.
"Ideally, we'd have 64 teams and play three weekends of head-to-head, best-of-three series," Marquess says. "We'd get down to eight teams, and those eight would go to Omaha."
I'm with Marquess on the best-of-three format rather than the four-team, double-elimination regional format we currently have. The entire postseason should be constructed on three-game series -- they're still susceptible to random outcomes, but it would likely produce a better estimation of the best teams in college baseball.
To free up three weekends before Omaha (rather than the current two), Marquess said he's in favor of eliminating conference tournaments. Those matter to players and programs, but not as much as regional berths, of course, and I'm fine eliminating the automatic bids that go to conference tournament winners.
How else can we spice up college baseball's postseason? I'd like to adopt Marquess' best-of-three idea throughout the postseason and add these four ideas of my own:
1. Consolidate locations for Round of 64 and Round of 32
Instead of naming eight national seeds, as we currently do, we're going to increase that to 16 national seeds and rank them No. 1-16.
I still like the idea of an Oregon State playing at home as a reward for an exceptional season, so these 16 national seeds will make up the host sites in the Round of 64, with two head-to-head series taking place at each site.
The Round of 32 would cut down to eight host sites, with the hosts determined by the national seeds still alive, and each site would again host two head-to-head series. This would give us the best-of-three format that we desire, while also packing campuses with four quality teams each weekend.
To continue with our Oregon State example, in Corvallis you may have the Beavers playing San Diego in one series and UC Irvine playing Rice in a separate series. Fans get to see their home program plus two interesting clubs that don't normally come through town.
2. National seeds pick their head-to-head opponents in first two rounds
Let's make this clear: Most, if not all, coaches would despise this idea.
It's another decision they'd rather not make, and they certainly wouldn't want the drama that could come with saying, essentially, "We think we have the best chance to beat Team A, so we pick them in the Round of 64."
But I like it for two reasons.
First, it would add a thick layer of intrigue for fans and build on the emotional tension between fan bases and players. It'd be great fun and -- most importantly -- be one vehicle for creating national buzz around college baseball, something the sport sometimes struggles with compared to more popular college sports.
Second, the strategy in picking your opponent would make for fascinating discussions among writers, scouts, fans and all baseball junkies. Maybe one team hits left-handed pitchers much better than right-handers, so that national seed might pick a team with a stronger overall profile but whose staff is loaded with southpaws. Or maybe there is a certain bullpen you don't want to face, or a certain collection of hitters, and therefore you avoid that team as long as possible. The strategies are limitless, and the teams that scout well could find competitive advantages.
How it'd work: The No. 1 national seed would get the first pick in the Round of 64, the No. 2 national seed would get the second pick, and so on. After the national seeds choose their opponents, the selection committee would pair up the final 32 teams. In the Round of 32, we'd go through the process again, beginning with the highest national seed and working down. This is all about creating national buzz and momentum earlier in the tournament.
3. MLB sponsors Round of 16
Let's say you live in Baltimore. On a warm and sunny Friday in early June, how would you like to cut out of work for the weekend at lunchtime and head to Camden Yards?
At 1 p.m., you watch South Carolina play Virginia. Afterward, you grab a bite and a couple beers with some buddies. At 7 p.m., you watch the Yankees play your Orioles as the nightcap of the "MLB/NCAA Pro-Am." Sounds like a blast, right?
In the Round of 16, I'm proposing that eight professional teams "sponsor" one series apiece and host it at their ballpark as the appetizer to a big league series. It's in the best interest of Major League Baseball to support the college game, which MLB already does in numerous ways, including invitational tournaments at big league ballparks (the Dodgers and Astros currently do this). Plus, the exposure and promotion would be critical to the health and growth of college baseball.
For the college players, it's an opportunity to play on a big stage and be rewarded with a unique experience. For the fans of pro teams in those cities, it's a live look at top prospects your team could draft and a chance to see high-quality baseball in another form. And remember, the winners of these eight series would be the eight teams going to Omaha, so the atmosphere and energy for those games should be outstanding.
The marketing departments of the college programs and MLB teams could collaborate on ways to drive interest around the event. Maybe the Orioles have a ticket promotion: If you attend South Carolina-Virginia, you get a ticket for the Yankees-Orioles game that night at a reduced price. Or if you attend the entire three-game college series, you get a free ticket to a future Orioles game. Or you get a coupon for the team store. Or you get a signed piece of memorabilia. If you attend two college games and two pro games that weekend, maybe you get a tour through the ballpark and get to meet your favorite player.
Whatever -- there are endless ways to sell this thing. The only goal is to put college baseball on a bigger stage and create an event that also serves the fans of the hosting MLB teams.
If you're a baseball fan, you're telling me you wouldn't attend the Los Angeles Pro-Am (UCLA-Florida State, Dodgers-Giants) or the Cincinnati Pro-Am (Kentucky-Cal State Fullerton, Reds-Cardinals) or the Seattle Pro-Am (Oregon-LSU, Mariners-Rangers)? Of course you would.
4. Reseed the Omaha field
The final idea is a simple one: After we have our eight Omaha teams, the committee reseeds them No. 1 to No. 8 and pairs them up in best-of-three series, and then we play it out until two teams meet in the championship series, as we have now.
So the entire postseason would be best-of-three series. It's still baseball and still a small sample of games, so sure, a Stony Brook could beat an LSU twice and win the series, but we can live with that. On the whole, I think the better overall teams would win the majority of the three-game series, and we'd have a better judgment at the end of the season of who the best team in college baseball is. And with these other ideas, we'd have a lot of fun along the way.
For readers: If you could add one wrinkle to college baseball's postseason format, what would it be?
And now some quick thoughts on this weekend's top series:
Virginia rolls into Atlanta
The best series in the ACC this weekend is No. 5 Virginia at No. 17 Georgia Tech. We know what the Cavaliers can do -- they are one of the deepest and most dangerous teams in the country.
Who are the Yellow Jackets? I don't think we really know yet. We know Georgia Tech can get on base and hit for power, and that may be good enough for a run to Omaha.
But there are legitimate questions about Georgia Tech's pitching depth. Cole Pitts (3.43 ERA) and Dusty Isaacs (3.57) have been good in the weekend rotation, and Buck Farmer (1.47) has been exceptional. Can the Yellow Jackets develop some consistency in the bullpen? Maybe that starts this weekend in a series that could be a turning point for GT. It has won ACC series against Virginia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest, and has lost series to Florida State and Duke. The league slate will get more challenging for the Jackets, beginning with the Hoos.
Road trip to Fayetteville, Ark., please
If UVA-GT is the ACC's best series this weekend, the SEC's is just as clear: No. 2 LSU at No. 10 Arkansas.
No team is as hot at the Tigers right now. LSU has won 14 straight games and 27 of its last 28, including a sweep of Kentucky last weekend at Alex Box. Paul Mainieri's club has again positioned itself for a national seed in the postseason tournament, although SEC series against Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Ole Miss are still ahead.
After struggling earlier this season -- including losses to Gonzaga and Pacific in the Coca-Cola Classic -- Arkansas has carried on nicely, with SEC series wins against Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina (sweep).
Arkansas' home stretch, once it gets past LSU, is among the most manageable in the conference: vs. Texas A&M, at Georgia, at Kentucky, vs. Tennessee, at Auburn. It's a solid blend of opportunity -- for good league wins and for padding the national-seed profile. A series win against LSU would launch the Razorbacks into the middle of that conversation.
Bloomington isn't just for basketball
OK, sure, Indiana baseball will never compare to the hardwood sport in its own state, but we should still highlight the Hoosiers for their play.
Indiana, ranked No. 15 in the USA Today coaches' poll, is 26-4 (8-1 Big Ten) and has won 19 of its last 20 games. When the Hoosiers won two of three in Gainesville, Fla., earlier this season, perhaps it was a real sign of a quality team, rather than a couple lucky wins against the bruised Gators.
Indiana has beaten up on teams this season and has a .402 team on-base percentage. Kyle Schwarber leads the team in batting average (.420), home runs (7) and slugging (.688) among players with at least 20 at-bats, and the Hoosiers have four pitchers -- two starters and two relievers -- with ERAs less than 2.00.
Indiana goes to Michigan State this weekend and, in a few weeks, could be lined up to host a regional.
South Carolina visits Florida
Even if the Gators haven't been exactly what we thought they'd be coming into the season, this is still one of college baseball's best series of any weekend. With Florida beating Florida State earlier this week, a series win against South Carolina could propel the Gators into the final five weeks of their schedule.
Florida took two of three from the Gamecocks in Columbia, S.C., last season, but South Carolina beat the Gators in Omaha. We've said for a few weeks now that if Jonathon Crawford pitches as he's capable, the Gators are still talented enough to beat anybody.
Crawford will be featured Thursday evening, facing South Carolina's Nolan Belcher, in the SEC Game of the Week on ESPNU (7:30 p.m. ET). The third game of the series, on Saturday, will be on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. ET.
Prospect Watch: Colin Moran, 3B, North Carolina
It's a light draft year for college bats, but Moran has been among the elite group in his class since his freshman season at UNC, and he's an interesting player because he doesn't fit a clean profile.
Some scouts wonder whether the junior will be able to handle third base defensively at the professional level. While the UNC staff has seen Moran grow this season in his ability to move laterally, a move to first base is likely if a pro team doesn't believe his glove plays at third, in which case some will begin to wonder whether Moran can hit for enough power to justify occupying first base.
Those are legitimate questions, but there's also this: Moran is a 6-foot-3, left-handed hitter with a .509 on-base percentage, .628 slugging percentage and 31 walks to only eight strikeouts. He has command of the strike zone at the plate and will hit as a pro. Even if the ceiling is limited, Moran's floor is high, and that may be appealing to clubs in a draft that's limited on high-upside picks.
Today in Omaha: High of 40 degrees, scattered snow showers in the morning, 65 days until CWS Game 1 (as of April 11).