Bad news out of Middle Tennessee State today: first-team All-America outfielder Bryce Brentz will miss two to three weeks with a hairline fracture on the inside of his right ankle, Blue Raiders associate head coach Jim McGuire confirmed to Baseball America.
Brentz hurt his ankle in pregame warmups Friday while horsing around with teammates, and MTSU originally hoped it was a sprain. But McGuire said the Raiders are hopeful the injury won't have any lingering effects once Brentz returns.
"They believe once it's healed and he's rested up, he should be 100 percent good to go," McGuire said. "But we're obviously going to take it pretty cautiously in the beginning. He's not going to travel with us to Florida Atlantic this weekend. He'll stay here, do treatments, do what they can to speed the recovery."
McGuire said Brentz's loss is a double blow because he had worked his way back from arm tightness and was scheduled to start getting some work in relief before the injury. Brentz has one of the best arms on the team and would have given the MTSU bullpen a valuable boost.
Let's turn our attention to the mailbag. This week, we're doing something a little bit different. Several readers have attempted to make the case recently that Virginia does not deserve to be No. 1 in our rankings because Arizona State and UCLA are undefeated and have played more challenging schedules. They have cited boydsworld.com, which ranks Virginia's schedule as 42nd-toughest in the nation, while ranking UCLA's ninth and Arizona State's 24th.
I found those strength of schedule rankings flummoxing, considering the Cavaliers have played (and won) three series against Top 25 teams Clemson, Florida State and East Carolina, and the FSU and ECU series were on the road. Meanwhile the Sun Devils and Bruins have played a combined two games against ranked teams, and neither has a series win that comes close to beating Florida State or Clemson.
So I emailed Boyd Nation, who runs Boyd's World, asking for an explanation, and he agreed to participate in a back-and-forth discussion about strength of schedule. Here is the exchange:
Aaron Fitt: Hey Boyd, I was wondering if you could help me understand the SOS numbers; for the life of me, I cannot fathom how the numbers say UCLA and Arizona State have stronger schedules then Virginia. Do you have a quick, nutshell explanation?
Boyd Nation: The nutshell is that the bottom end matters, too.
Here's a quick side-by-side comparison—the rankings are ISR [editor's note: ISR is Boyd's Iterative Strength Ratings, a substitute for the Ratings Percentage Index that attempts to rank teams based on the quality of the opponents they have played and beaten. UCLA is the top-rated team in the ISR, Arizona State is No. 2, and Virginia is No. 3]:
|33||W||Cal State Northridge||14||W||Florida State|
|39||W||Southern California||83||W||Boston College|
|41||W||UC Riverside||83||W||Boston College|
|48||W||Long Beach State||83||W||Boston College|
|60||W||Mississippi State||84||L||East Carolina|
|67||W||UC Santa Barbara||84||W||East Carolina|
|97||W||Oral Roberts||84||W||East Carolina|
|97||W||Oral Roberts||139||W||William and Mary|
|106||W||Bethune-Cookman||139||W||William and Mary|
|107||W||Cal Poly||141||W||James Madison|
|107||W||Cal Poly||149||L||Wright State|
|107||W||Cal Poly||149||W||Wright State|
|174||W||Texas A&M-Corpus Ch.||166||W||Dartmouth|
|13||W||Oregon State||14||L||Florida State|
|25||W||Cal State Fullerton||14||W||Florida State|
|25||W||Cal State Fullerton||14||W||Florida State|
|41||W||UC Riverside||83||W||Boston College|
|66||W||Florida International||139||W||William and Mary|
|107||W||Cal Poly||139||W||William and Mary|
|167||W||Northern Illinois||141||W||James Madison|
|167||W||Northern Illinois||149||L||Wright State|
|167||W||Northern Illinois||149||W||Wright State|
The ASU case is close enough to argue about; basically, you can do it by overrating East Carolina by as much as the national press does at the moment. With UCLA, though, it's pretty much like you take similar schedules and then add in four games (which, at this point, is 20 percent of the season) against Dartmouth and Rhode Island.
AF: Makes sense. Of course, I would argue that the numbers don't reflect how good East Carolina actually is (I think the Pirates are good, though I don't think they're an Omaha team like some others out there), but it makes sense that ECU would have a lower ISR given their three games against N.C. Central and their miserable West Coast swing. Also, Nebraska seems way overrated in the numbers—the Huskers have played a good schedule, sure, but they haven't beaten any of the good teams they've played. They were swept at UCLA, they won one out of four at Fresno, lost to Rice, won one out of three at Texas, won one out of three at Oklahoma. Nebraska won't be a regional team this year—it will probably be near the bottom of the Big 12—but the numbers say that sweeping Nebraska at home is much more impressive than winning two out of three at East Carolina, which won a regional last year and will be in a regional again this year, with a real chance to get back to super regionals. That, to me, is a significant flaw.
BN: East Carolina has four losses worse than Nebraska's worst at this point, so I'd have a hard time accepting them as equal. It's quite possible that ECU will make the postseason while Nebraska won't, but if it happens, that'll most likely just be a reflection of the committee's inability to see past conference standings.
AF: You're right about the bad losses for ECU, but where are the good wins for Nebraska? Eight of its 12 wins have come against Houston Baptist, Northern Colorado, South Dakota State and Nebraska-Kearney. Should they be a regional team just because they have managed to avoid getting swept against Texas and Oklahoma?
I think one difference in our approaches is I put more value on quality series wins. And, yes, I sometimes make qualitative judgments about the caliber of teams based on hard-to-quantify things like talent. For instance, I don't think South Carolina should be higher in the ISR than 29th—the games against Brown and Duquesne and Presbyterian should have an impact, and they do. But I know for a fact that South Carolina is much better than the 29th-best team in the nation, and for East Carolina to win two of three against the Gamecocks is impressive. More impressive than, say, winning one of three against Texas or Oklahoma. Stealing one game in a series is much easier than winning an actual series.
With all that said, I also recognize the value in the SOS numbers as a useful tool, but I think they are less useful this early in the season. And I think rankings like our Top 25 can and should function independently of the SOS and ISR and RPI numbers. I think they complement each other by offering different perspectives and emphasizing different factors.
BN: The problem with the focus on "good" wins is that it fails to recognize that there's value in not losing to bad teams as well; that's one of the things that caused folks to underrate TCU last year, for example. Giving extra value for a series win (more value than just for two wins) ignores just how thin that line between winning and losing a series is. If that extra run in one game gets you extra credit for three games, that distorts the picture.
One nice thing about being me, where the size of my audience doesn't matter to me in any real sense, is that I don't have to do things like guess how good teams should be based on some vague notion of talent. All the ISRs try to do is to tell you how well teams have played so far. That it turns out that that's generally a better predictor of how they're going to do from here on out than any of the polls is just a pleasant side effect.
AF: But college baseball is all about winning weekend series. The postseason is set up for teams that are built to win weekend series; if you go 3-0, you win a regional. If you go 2-1, you win a super regional. If you keep winning two out of three, you'll win the national title (although that does not necessarily apply once teams fall into the loser's bracket). I'm not saying midweek games are meaningless, or that Sunday games don't matter if you've already won the first two games of a weekend series, but I am saying that those games matter less.
As for predictive values, our vague notions of talent are based on conversations with coaches and scouts who make their livings off their ability to recognize and evaluate talent. There's actually nothing vague about it. Certainly it's not scientific, but those people recognized, for instance, that Fresno State was very talented in 2008, when we ranked the Bulldogs No. 18 in the preseason and were roundly mocked for it. And yes, those people recognized that UCLA was very talented when we ranked it No. 1 in the preseason in 2008 and were roundly mocked for it. We've got hits and misses, just like everybody else.
Of course, you and I are also trying to do different things. As you say, the ISRs only try to reflect what teams have already done. Our rankings operate on a sliding scale: in the preseason, they are based 100 percent on our predictions—our judgments of teams' potential. In the postseason they are based 100 percent (at least in theory) on what teams have accomplished. In between, it's a blend of our notions of potential and on-the-field results, and the emphasis steadily shifts away from potential and toward results as the season progresses.
BN: (Re: value of winning series): Of course that's the way the scheduling is set up. Giving extra value to winning series in analysis, though, implies that there's some ability to win series above the ability to win games. I've studied that from about eight different angles, though, and there just isn't. Teams win series with the frequency that you'd expect them to based on their ability to win games, so there's no point in assigning extra value to the series wins.
AF: So if a team has two aces, like Anthony Ranaudo and Louis Coleman last year, or Daniel Bibona and Christian Bergman, it is not more likely to win a series even if it has limited pitching depth, making it more vulnerable on Sundays and Tuesdays?
BN: Not in any measurable way. If you're likely to win two-thirds of your games, of course you're likely to win a series, but that's just because you're likely to win two-thirds of your games.
AF: Well, thank you very much for agreeing to this back-and-forth and sharing your perspective.
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