Diving into the RPI: Questions Based on Still-Too-Early Data

It’s still worth giving the usual disclaimer that it’s probably too early to take the RPI as absolute gospel, but it’s certainly not too early to look at the rankings and ask some questions about how things will play out from here.

Photo Credit: GoShockers.com

NOTE: RPI data pulled from WarrenNolan.com. Needs report data pulled from BoydsWorld.com.

Can Wichita State do enough to host?

As recently as ten years ago, this wouldn’t have been a particularly compelling question. While they were no longer the national power they were in the 1980s and 1990s, the Shockers were still an annual regional team and more often than not, were in the mix to host. But in 2018, it’s an interesting question for a couple of reasons. For one, WSU hasn’t played at that level in quite some time, but their geographic location and their previous membership in the most recent iteration of the Missouri Valley Conference also made them unlikely candidates to put together the type of season needed to host.

The quick answer is that it looks like they can host if things break right. As of Friday afternoon, even after a home loss to Tulane, they were sitting at number six in the RPI. If the season ended today, with that RPI, a 20-7 overall record, and a 10-5 record against the RPI top 100, they would probably be playing home games come regional weekend.

Of course, the season doesn’t end today (and thank goodness, because it would be nice to cover a baseball game in higher than freezing temperatures this season), and while they’ll start from the catbird seat where they are now, they’ve got some work to do to stay in contention to host.

The likes of Tulane (RPI 151), which they have two more games against this weekend, and Houston (RPI 175) aren’t providing the types of RPI boosts that they have in years past, and Cincinnati (RPI 204) and Memphis (RPI 205) give the league a couple of RPI tripwires to avoid. Their biggest chance for a statement series win also just passed them by, as they lost two of three to East Carolina on the road last weekend.

That leaves just Connecticut (RPI 24), UCF (RPI 58), and USF (RPI 54) as RPI-positive series in front of them. There is still plenty of time for things to change, and there’s plenty of reason to expect, for example, that Houston will improve upon their current RPI and one or both of the Florida schools will slip into the top 50 by the time May rolls around. At the same time, it’s not as if the Shockers can waltz through their remaining schedule and expect the numbers to do the work for them.

Simply put, they’re just going to have to continue winning at a similar clip as they have to this point of the season. The needs report says that they would have to win 25 or 26 of their remaining 29 games to stay in the top eight. That is incredibly unlikely. To stay in the top 16, they still need to win somewhere between 21 and 23 games the rest of the way, depending on the home/road split of those wins. Those numbers, of course, don’t take into account Friday’s loss to Tulane yet, so now they have fewer games to hit those types of numbers. The top 16 is clearly more doable, but would still be an incredible feat. Having that type of run over the second half would also probably mean the Shockers finished at or near the top of the American standings, and that might all but guarantee their place as a host, when combined with the RPI.

Let’s answer this one in the affirmative, but also say that it’s more likely the Shockers hit the road as a two seed in a regional. And for a program that hasn’t been to a regional since 2013 (and hasn’t made a regional appearance the NCAA acknowledges since 2009), that’s still a fantastic outcome.

Will Creighton hold on to be an at-large team?

The Bluejays stick out a little bit in the current RPI, sitting at 14. They have a good record, 17-6, but if you didn’t have their opposition’s RPI numbers handy, it wouldn’t strike you as a top-15 RPI resume. Their best result is a road series win over Minnesota, with their other series wins coming against UC-Davis, Illinois State, and Evansville.

With the RPI numbers available, though, you can see why they are where they are. They lost a season-opening neutral-site series against Northeastern (more on them in a minute), which might normally hurt them, but the Huskies currently sit 13th in the RPI. Illinois State also has a better-than-expected RPI of 64, making that road series win a feather in their cap. They also split two games with Wichita State earlier this season in what was supposed to be a three-game series, but was shortened to two games due to weather.

As much as anything else, they’ve also benefitted from playing, and winning, a boatload of road games. The Bluejays didn’t play at home until those two games against the Shockers on March 17 and 18, and they’ve only played five all season. They were scheduled to play three more at home this weekend against Butler, but that entire series has been scratched due to yet another round of bad weather across the Midwest, and honestly, as much as the players and coaches would undoubtedly prefer to be playing this weekend, that might be better for their chances to get an at-large spot.

The schedule in front of them is mostly devoid of chances to collect RPI-positive wins. Winning any series left on the schedule (although they will clearly have to do that more often than not) is not nearly as important as those teams they’ve already played staying high in the RPI and avoiding bad losses. Losses to Butler, with their current RPI of 104, wouldn’t be bad losses as it stands today, but it seems more likely that the Bulldogs end the season outside the top 150 than inside the top 100 as they take on more losses in conference play and play teams left on their schedule with RPIs in the 200s.

With that being the case, it seems like Creighton’s margin for error is razor-thin, and the needs report data backs that up. Just to stay in the top 45, often thought of as the magic number for being a serious at-large candidate, the Bluejays are projected to have to win between 18 and 21 of their final 29 games. That feels like the top end of what we can expect from them down the stretch. There’s still a long way to go, but if Creighton doesn’t secure the Big East’s automatic big by winning the conference tournament, their resume is already shaping up to be one that keeps them sweating through Selection Monday.

How long will Northeastern continue to buoy other teams’ resumes?

As we alluded to earlier, Northeastern has been an early RPI darling. They sit at 13, and they have three factors to thank for that. For one, playing only two home games has helped, given that the RPI formula provides a bonus for road victories.

They’ve also played as tough a schedule so far as anyone not named Long Beach State, with series against Creighton, Missouri (RPI 22), Auburn (RPI 12), and Texas Tech (RPI 2), and by far their best stretch of the season was winning four out of seven combined games to begin the season against Creighton and Missouri down in Ft. Myers, Florida.¬†Finally, and just as importantly, they’ve avoided the bad losses. They’ve played six games against teams with RPIs of 200 or worse and they’ve won every last one of them.

In addition to serving their own purposes, their high RPI is also doing heavy lifting on the resumes of some of these teams they’ve played. They account for half of Texas Tech’s eight wins against teams in the RPI top 50, their series against Auburn is the Tigers’ best result from an RPI standpoint, they make up two of Missouri’s five wins against top 50 RPI teams, and they are one of just two wins Creighton has against the top 50.

You can’t help but figure, then, that the bottom may fall out for these teams to some degree, as it seems unlikely that the Huskies stay anywhere near this range in the RPI all year. A road series against College of Charleston (RPI 43) and a midweek game against UConn provide a couple of chances for RPI-boosting wins, but series against William & Mary (RPI 178), Towson (RPI 285), Hofstra (RPI 227), and Delaware (RPI 245) just present too many chances to hurt their own numbers to have much confidence that they’ll remain a marquee RPI result for the teams on their schedule.

However, it’s not as dire as you might think. The needs report says that all the Huskies would need to do is win 14 or 15 of their remaining 25 games to stay in the top 45. They’ve already proven their ability to beat much more talented teams than most of what is in front of them, so that seems manageable. If they win 16 or 17 of their last 25, they estimate to be inside the top 32, and even with what would probably be a relatively thin overall resume, that would have to put them at least in the discussion to get an at-large bid.

Like most things in life, the answer is probably going to lie somewhere in the middle. Northeastern probably won’t continue to be a linchpin of multiple teams’ postseason resumes, but they’re also not going to turn into an RPI anchor by season’s end, and they just may end up in at-large contention when it’s all said and done.

How many teams will the Big Ten get in?

The Big Ten has put five teams into the field of 64 in two of the past three postseasons.

Five teams is always going to be a big ask, but based on early RPI returns, it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable task for the league in 2018. Right now, they have four teams in legitimate at-large range. Indiana sits at 18, Iowa is 40, Illinois is 45, and Minnesota is 52. Ohio State is also within striking distance, at 59. And while those teams are all propped up to a certain degree by playing a preponderance of road games, they’ve also got plenty of meat on the proverbial bone when it comes to building a postseason case.

Expect that pecking order to move around throughout the season, but don’t expect the bottom to fall out. One of the marks of the modern Big Ten is that there just aren’t that many RPI negatives. Nine of the league’s 13 teams are inside the top 100, and at 117, Rutgers is within shouting distance of that mark as well. Only Northwestern (208), Penn State (219), and Michigan State (242) are currently the type of teams it would be imperative to avoid from an RPI standpoint. With the unbalanced scheduling in the league, some postseason contenders will also be able to avoid one of more of those three.

If RPIs around the Big Ten look about like they do now, there will be some teams sweating it out, and five teams will be a reach goal once again, but it seems pretty safe to assume, with almost every series in league play serving as an RPI-positive series win for someone, that three or four will be the expectation and five is very much in play.

Is there a path to the postseason for West Virginia?

In the preseason, the Mountaineers were a team expected to be back in postseason contention by season’s end, but things haven’t gone their way so far. They’re 12-15 overall and just 1-5 in Big 12 play. Their best series win thus far is a series win over Canisius, and they’re just 3-9 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI.

But it’s not crazy to think that there’s still a path for them to get into the postseason. For starters, their RPI has held up. They’re sitting at 25 after splitting the first two games of their series against UNLV, and the needs report suggests that just playing above average baseball over the second half will give them a puncher’s chance, but of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Winning about 17 of their final 27 games is estimated to keep them inside the top 45, which would be step one. Step two, however, is a little bit tougher, and that’s rounding the rest of the resume into shape. The Big 12 is a high-RPI conference to this point because the entire league is ranked inside the top 90, but they’re not a league, as of right now, that provides a ton of RPI game-changers. In fact, WVU is second in the league in terms of RPI right now, behind only Texas Tech.

That means that they’re going to have to work pretty hard to pile up enough quality wins to bring their overall resume to at-large shape. Right now, there are only three other teams inside the top 50 in Texas (35), Oklahoma (41), and Oklahoma State (49), and even allowing for some movement there, with the natural attrition that comes from a season of league play, it seems unlikely that any more than one or two more additional teams will get back inside that top 50 mark.

The Mountaineers seem like one of those classic bubble cases, when the committee is forced to decide behind a power conference team with some subpar metrics and a mid-major team with less of a sample size against top-flight competition, but better winning percentages against those teams. If that comes to pass and they get enough wins in league play to get into the conversation, WVU will have to hope that the committee goes with the former.

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About the Author

Joseph Healy
Growing up in Houston, Joe Healy was introduced to college baseball at a young age, and it was love at first sight. Like most good love stories, that love has only grown throughout the years. When he's not at the ballpark, he enjoys tacos, college football during the fall, and the spectacle that is American politics. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Sam Houston State University and a Master's in Public Administration from Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville.