This 2010 season, which starts in 11 days, will mark the fifth season in which I've provided coverage of the UCLA baseball team on BN. Each year, I've increased the amount of coverage of the team, going a bit more in-depth each season, but when asking for suggestions about how to improve my coverage this season, DexterFishmore had a great idea.
For all the words I've spent on the team, I've yet to take the time to explain some of the basics of college baseball so those new to the sport or following from afar can have a better idea as to what is going on. These are the basics of it all, but I very well may not have touched upon things that confuse you or you're unsure about. If that's the case, please ask the question and I'll do my best to answer it.
So, to kick off my 2010 season preview coverage, here is College Baseball 101, everything you need to know to get the basics of the college game.
The NCAA has a 56 game limit on the number of games a team can play. Most teams will play all the way up to the 56-game maximum, but some choose to play fewer (mostly those in cold weather regions). Unless a game very late in the season in rained out, UCLA will play 56 games every year.
Three years ago, the NCAA instituted a nationwide starting date that has created a true opening day around the country. This year, that day is February 19th and the schedule allows for 15 weeks of the regular season. While most conferences play a conference tournament in the final week, the Pac-10 does not.
For the most part, the schedule consists of a weekend series and a midweek game each week. Weekday games are played on Tuesdays or Wednesdays and almost always feature the Bruins versus a local team like Long Beach St., UC Riverside, Pepperdine, etc.
Weekend series' are played Friday, Saturday and Sunday, although that is sometimes altered if something, like Easter, conflicts with the Sunday game. In that case, the series will be played Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The Pac-10 plays a round robin schedule with each team in the conference playing each other team in a three game weekend series for a total of 27 games. Conference play begins at the beginning of April. Prior to that, weekend series are non-conference affairs usually against a single team for three games, although once or twice a year, teams will participate in a tournament where they will play a different team on each day of the weekend. Weekday non-conference games are played through the season, conference or non-conference play on the weekend.
Unlike basketball or football, baseball doesn't go by the six BCS conferences. There are four conferences that are considered the big four: Pac-10, SEC, ACC and Big 12. That said, there are true national powers coming out of other conferences like Rice and East Carolina in Conference USA, Cal St. Fullerton, Long Beach St. and UC Irvine in the Big West, Pepperdine and San Diego in the WCC, TCU in the Mountain West, Louisville in the Big East and Coastal Carolina in the Big South. There are top-notch teams in a dozen conferences, not just six. After the big four, Conference USA and the Big West are considered the next two best, with other conferences being among the top five in some years and C-USA and the Big West cracking the top three upon occasion.
Probably more so than football or basketball, college baseball is a very regional sport. Because the weather limits practice time, northern schools have yet to find the same level of success as their southern counterparts, although there are obviously some exceptions. Nebraska and Notre Dame have qualified for the College World Series before and Oregon St. won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
The style of play is also very different from region to region. The south is known for big hitters with tons of power. There isn't a lot of base stealing and scores can get very high. Out west, games are predicated on pitching and defense. You'll see a lot of stolen bases, hit and runs and sacrifice bunts. There is also a tendency to micromanage out west, resulting in very long games sometimes. While these are not absolute rules of style from region to region, they hold true the majority of the time.
Unfortunately, just like basketball, baseball uses the RPI as part of their selection process (if this is a just world, the RPI will die a painful death). The RPI notoriously favors the southeast and does the west little good. In addition to the RPI, the selection committee takes overall record, conference finish, quality wins (specifically quality series wins) and a few other things into account. For a team like UCLA, which always has a top five strength of schedule, somewhere between 32 and 35 wins (depending on the strength of the bubble in that year) is usually good for regional qualification.
The NCAA tournament format is as follows:
Selection Monday: On Memorial Day each year, the Selection Committee releases the brackets for the NCAA Baseball Tournament.
Regionals: The first round of the postseason is Regionals. There are 16 Regionals spread around the country, with four teams per Regional giving us 64 teams total. The Regionals are hosted by what are theoretically the 16 best teams in the country, but whether or not a team has the facility to host and guaranteeing that the Regionals are spread throughout the country sometimes gets in the way of that. Each Regional is a double elimination tournament with the last team of the four standing at the end of the weekend advancing to the next weekend.
Super Regionals: The second weekend of the postseason is the Super Regionals, which is made up of the 16 Regional winners. On Selection Monday, eight national seeds are named. If a national seed wins its Regional, it is guaranteed to host a Super Regional. If there is no national seed in a Super Regional, the NCAA designates a host based on which team is most deserving or which team can turn the biggest profit based on fan support and stadium size. The Super Regional is a two-team, best-of-three series with the winner advancing.
College World Series: Eight teams advance to the College World Series and the eight are split into two separate brackets. Each bracket plays a double elimination tournament. The winners of each bracket then plays a best-of-three Championship Series for the national title. The College World Series is played in Omaha, Nebraska each year and 2010 will mark the final year that it is played at Rosenblatt Stadium (no relation). Rosenblatt Stadium has hosted the College World Series since 1950, but in 2011, it will move to brand new TD Ameritrade Park.
Because there isn't a game every day like in MLB, there is no five-man rotation. The team's best starter is usually the Friday starter and he starts every Friday game to begin the series. A team's next best starter usually will start on Saturday and is the Saturday starter, while the third best starter is the Sunday starter. In addition, there is a midweek starter, who starts the Tuesday or Wednesday game and is also available out of the bullpen on weekends. Of course, Friday, Saturday or Sunday starters are not hard and fast. Sometimes, a starter will be moved to another day for match-up or other reasons, but for the most part, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and midweek starters hold true to title.
Following a 21-14 Championship Game score line in 1998, the NCAA realized that the bats used needed to have some limits put on them. As a result, bats are now limited to 2 5/8 inches in diameter and the weight in ounces cannot be more than three away from the bat's length in inches. For example, a 34 inch bat must be at least 31 ounces. This is to prevent obscene amounts of bat speed. That rule has significantly lowered hitting, which had gotten out of control.
Even with the rule changes, scoring is still higher than in MLB. On average, teams score about seven runs per game and hit about .300. Scoring goes way up as you get farther away from Friday night though. On Friday nights, when teams usually throw their ace, 3-2 or 5-3 scores are the norm. Those go up a bit on Saturday and by Sunday, when the #3 pitcher is on the mound and both bullpens are tired, it's not uncommon to see both teams with double-digit runs. Midweek games usually have scores similar to Sunday games.
Growth of the Sport
In recent years, college baseball has grown by leaps and bounds. Ratings for the College World Series have gone up in each of the past four years and the 2009 College World Series was the highest rated on ever. Every single College World Series game is televised live in HD on ESPN or ESPN2 now and every Super Regional is televised live by one of the ESPN networks, while a few Regionals are also televised. There are also regular season games on ESPN2, ESPNU, FSN and CBS College Sports throughout the year (although few are Pac-10 games because the conference excels at TV deals).
Attendance nationwide has been on the uptick and there has been a stadium boom in recent years. LSU's Alex Box Stadium, South Carolina's Carolina Stadium and North Carolina's Boshamer Stadium all opened last season. Meanwhile, Michigan State opened McLane Stadium, Louisville opened Patterson Stadium, Michigan opened Ray Fisher Stadium and East Carolina opened Clark-LeClair Stadium in recent years. In the Pac-10, Oregon St. has made massive renovations to Goss Stadium, while Oregon is opening the conference's finest facility, PK Park, this season. All of these multi-million dollar stadiums pale in comparison to the $128 million stadium Omaha is building essentially for the sole reason of hosting the College World Series.
The biggest indication of the sports' growth came from the NCAA though, which called baseball a "revenue sport" in the most recent Academic Progress Report. Baseball joins men's basketball and football as the only sports to have received that designation from the NCAA.
Season Preview Schedule
With all the basics (and some things that go beyond the basics) done, we are no officially in the midst of the 2010 college baseball preview. The rest of the preseason coverage will be as follows:
Tomorrow: UCLA All-Time Starting Nine (plus a DH and relief pitcher)
Wednesday: Bruin Baseball Preview Part 1: General
Thursday: Bruin Baseball Preview Part 2: Pitching
February 15: Bruin Baseball Preview Part 3: Position Players
February 16: Bruin Baseball Preview Part 4: The Pac-10
February 17: Bruin Baseball Preview Part 5: The Nation
February 18: Opening Weekend Series Preview
February 19: Opening Day! UCLA vs. Southern, 6:00 pm PST- Jackie Robinson Stadium