College Baseball Postseason: RPI, Eye-ball Tests and the Rest

TD-Ameritrade Park. Photo courtesy Architecture Lab

College baseball is a few weeks into conference play and the conversation is already starting about who’s in and who’s out of the NCAA Regionals picture at this point. For starters, it is honestly just a tad bit too early to say for certain who belongs and who doesn’t, even though some things are coming into a sharper focus. Too much uncertainty and too many games remain to be able to say anything with surety.

I happened to stumble upon just one such conversation at the College Baseball Central water cooler this morning. I think it would be good to share what I eavesdropped so that maybe we can all gain some perspective on the concepts of RPI and the NCAA Regionals picture.

First, allow me to introduce you to the participants and then let you have an inside look at how these experts came up with our first group of Omaha-bound squads for the season.

Literal Larry

Larry is quite an interesting and eccentric fellow. Beneath his comb-over and behind his black-rimmed spectacles is a brain that thinks, devours and processes numbers in a way that would leave most minds in throbbing spasms of pain.

Do you know what stands out the most about Larry?

He LOVES RPI!

Now, I’m not talking about the casual affection most of us give to RPI as we try to discern how good our favorite team is and just how close they are to the bubble. No sir, not Larry!

Larry eats and sleeps RPI and has developed a few formulas of his own to calculate RPI across a series of spreadsheets and apps so that he always has the latest data at his fingertips.

Larry, in his zeal for numerical data and statistical analysis believes with the entirety of his being that everything of postseason importance absolutely must be driven by the data. Put more simply, the RPI is the only real basis to determine who’s in, who’s out and how those that are in should be seeded.

Minimalist Mark

Not to be confused for the namesake penning this column, this Mark is the old-fashioned baseball guy. Loves to watch games live and see the players in person. His concept for determining which team is good or bad isn’t driven by team batting average or composite ERA.

No, he has to SEE with his own two eyes the potential and prowess of the squads about which he’s making judgments. He’s not concerned with the number of home runs but with how the guys looked who swung the bats as the balls left the playing field.

Do you know what stands out the most about Mark?

He HATES RPI!

He sees RPI as an inadequate measure of talent until the last day of the season. After all the games are in the books, yes, once that final conference-tournament-deciding out is logged THEN it is time to take a look at the RPIs.

Then and only then!

Otherwise they are irrelevant and the only thing that matters up until that point is the eye-ball test.

All Mark cares about is how good the team on the field looks.

Realist Ray

The final player in this conversation on postseason credibility is Ray. He comes to the table as the arbitrator, recognizing the importance that data and appearance both figure into the postseason equation.

Ray understands the validity that comes with the use of RPI in analyzing the performance of teams in postseason consideration. The numbers don’t lie but are an adequate representation of how successful a squad has been and how successful the squads they’ve played are performing.

He’s not real interested in the minute details of how the RPI formula works but instead his concern is THAT it works.

However, Ray is also an absorber.

You’ll find him scouring college baseball websites and periodicals perusing and consuming all the info that he can about the sport he loves. He DVRs and watches games on TV, replays games on the internet and partakes of all the game-watching he can to get what he calls his “feel” for the teams.

Ray relies on reality.

He knows that in reality, folks started looking at RPI numbers after opening night!

He also knows that in reality, the only method for evaluating the worthiness of a team is to watch them play the game. So, he uses a hybrid approach that pulls in as many relevant data points as possible before making a call on a team.

He is the perfect mix between Larry and Mark. However, getting the teams right requires the input that all three bring to the table, or the water cooler.

The Conversation

Larry: “If we’re going to pick the top eight teams we need to just take the top eight in the RPI and that be our Omaha Eight. So, we should go with, in RPI order: Dallas Baptist, Florida State, Bradley, TCU, Miami, Arizona State, UCLA, and Texas A&M.”

Ray: “That is hilarious!”

Mark: “Now come on, we’re talking Omaha here. You can’t honestly tell me that you think Dallas Baptist should be the top overall seed and will be going to Omaha.”

Larry: “I didn’t say that I think Dallas Baptist is going to be the top seed or even go to Omaha for that matter, I said they have the top RPI in the nation and as such deserve today to be the top seed.”

Mark: “That’s just ridiculous. I’ve seen them play. And I’ve seen Bradley play. As a matter of fact I would say that maybe only five of those eight should even be in consideration for CBC’s Omaha Eight. How do you not have LSU, Florida or Vanderbilt in the national seeds when they are in the Top 5 in College Baseball Central’s Top 25?”

Larry: “The RPI is what it is. I’m sure it will be different by then. But we need to give our readers an accurate picture of the current postseason picture and the only way to do it fairly is by the numbers.”

Ray: “Hold on guys. Let’s slow down just a tad bit. Now Larry, I know you like the numbers but you have to admit the numbers this early in the season are still way too incomplete to base this sort of a judgment on. Last week Harvard was a Top 10 team in the RPI.”

Mark: “That’s right Larry, listen to Ray. We need to throw the RPI out completely and go by what we’ve seen from these teams. From what I’ve seen, LSU is the top seed, not Dallas Ba…”

Ray: (waving hands in the air) “Now Mark, the RPI does help us at least get a glimpse of how these teams have challenged themselves in the out of conference, early season, lead up to the opening of the conference slate. As these teams start playing conference games, the RPIs will level out. We can’t completely throw them out.”

Mark: “Fine. But we need to strongly consider how the teams look on the field. How are they swinging the bat, throwing and fielding the ball? That matters. The better teams just have the look and that can help us gauge who is better.”

Ray: “Yes, that definitely has a place. I believe our Top 25 poll does both to an extent. However, we need to look ahead as we do this and try to flesh out which teams we believe are the best in their respective conferences. That will help us as we think through where we see these teams going as the season wears on.”

Mark: “Fine. But I’m not putting Dallas Baptist and Bradley in the Omaha Eight. They’ve not shown enough yet to prove they belong on that list.”

Ray: “Larry, are you ok with that?”

Larry: “I guess I can concede on those because my analysis shows their RPI will drop significantly if they lose a few games in the Missouri Valley Conference.”

Ray: “Good! Now that we’re getting on the same page, let’s make some picks…”

Finishing Thought

Now that I’ve opened Pandora’s box and given you a glimpse of how things work on the inside with decision making at CBC. Hopefully you hang on to this as the background and backdrop upon which we will project postseason brackets as the season winds on.

You’ll be reading comments from Larry, Mark and Ray as our weekly college postseason bracket projections are made to show our analysis and explain why we’re making the choices we’re making.

Be looking for our first Omaha Eight out early next week, just in time for Easter weekend.

About the Author

Mark West
Mark West grew up playing and loving baseball. In college, he found an interest in writing and reporting on sports. He graduated from Arkansas State University in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science in Radio and Television Broadcasting with a News emphasis and a minor in Political Science. Mark can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MarkWestCBC Mark began writing a few years ago informally about politics and sports on various blogs, but has focused primarily on baseball writing for the last two years. He loves Arkansas State Red Wolves baseball and writes about the games and the players for the Red Wolves and the Sun Belt Conference. Mark is a member of the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, giving him official votes in the Dick Howser Trophy, Regional Players of the Year, and NCBWA All-America voting. Follow on Twitter @MarkWestCBC