Forget about whether or not it’s “fair” to schools in different regions of the country. People in the West think the Ratings Percentage Index is inherently biased against the West, and people in the North think it is biased against the North. Everyone outside the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences seems to think the RPI is naturally configured to give those two leagues an advantage.
Ultimately, the RPI is just a formula. It doesn’t think, it doesn’t scheme—it just reflects winning percentages (25 percent of the formula), and opponents’ winning percentages (50 percent), and opponents’ opponents winning percentages (25 percent). In recent years, the NCAA tweaked the formula to weigh road wins more than home wins, in order to mitigate the very real disadvantage that Northern teams face by having to spend the first six weeks of the season on the road.
That change made the RPI more “fair” for the North. But fairness aside, the RPI is still a very flawed way to evaluate the quality of a college baseball team’s season.
Ten weeks into the season, the RPI says Arkansas (No. 51) is on the bubble, even though the Hogs have won series against SEC powers Alabama, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, and faced Florida, Mississippi State and LSU on the road without getting swept. Arkansas is 8-7 against the top 25 in the RPI, giving it the third-most top 25 wins of any team (behind only Florida and Kentucky). The Hogs are 10-10 against the top 50.
And the RPI says Indiana State (No. 21) is an NCAA tournament lock with a chance to host a regional, even though the Sycamores are just 1-2 against the top 25 and 2-4 against the top 50. High Point (No. 41) ranks 10 spots higher than Arkansas despite an 0-3 mark against the top 25 and a 1-7 record against the top 50. High Point is 23-16 overall; Arkansas is 25-16. But whose resume is more impressive?
The problem with the RPI isn’t that it is biased. The problem is its lack of bias. The RPI looks only at the numbers, and the numbers say High Point has played a tougher schedule than Arkansas because High Point’s opponents have an aggregate winning percentage of .545, and Arkansas’ opponents have a .541 aggregate winning percentage.
Unlike most SEC and ACC powers, Arkansas even made a trip to the West Coast, where it faced San Francisco, California and Tulane. The Hogs played quality two-game midweek sets against UNLV and Nebraska. They played a three-game series against a South Alabama team that was a No. 2 seed in a regional last year. It’s not like the Hogs tried to load up with a soft nonconference schedule.
But because opponents’ winning percentage comprises 50 percent of the RPI formula, playing a few games against a team with a horrific winning percentage has a disproportionate impact on RPI. So Arkansas pays a huge price for playing five games against No. 295 Mississippi Valley State (3-29) and No. 300 Grambling State (12-26). As a result, Arkansas ranks 46th in strength of schedule. Remove the three games against MVSU, and its SOS jumps to sixth. Take away the two games against Grambling, and it jumps to No. 1.
Eight of the 10 teams from the historically black Southwestern Athletic Conference rank among the bottom 30 out of the 302 Division I teams in RPI. Because of the Division I Baseball Committee’s reliance on the RPI, teams from power conferences would be better off getting rained out than playing those HBCU teams. That’s the wrong message to send.
For Arkansas, scheduling midweek games is particularly challenging because an inane school policy prohibits the Razorbacks from playing other in-state opponents like Central Arkansas and Arkansas State, and Northwest Arkansas is an expensive place to fly into.
“It’s hard for me to schedule midweek games,” Hogs coach Dave Van Horn said. “Nobody calls us to play us—nobody. Grambling says they’ll come in Tuesday-Wednesday, well that’s the Tuesday-Wednesday I can’t get anybody to play me. So I’ll get some freshmen some innings—what are you going to do? You’re killing your RPI.
“People say, ‘The bottom line is win games,’ but if you win them they don’t help you a lick.”
A WIN IS A WIN
SEC West leader Alabama would be near the top of the RPI instead of on the hosting bubble at No. 17 if not for its three games against Mississippi Valley State and two against No. 297 Alcorn State (6-34). Alabama-Birmingham’s at-large hopes have faded as its RPI has plummeted to No. 89, partly a product of its three games against No. 293 Tennessee-Martin (4-33). No. 299 Northern Colorado played a particularly ambitious schedule but has struggled mightily, going 4-32. As a result, it has dragged down the at-large chances for one bubble team after another: Sam Houston State, New Mexico, Nebraska and Kansas State.
A good team ought to beat a 13-23 opponent just as it should beat a 3-33 opponent. When I’m evaluating schedules, I tend to view wins against all those 150-300 teams similarly, and place more emphasis on top 100, top 50 and top 25 competition. Put another way, the difference between 30-10 South Carolina and 20-20 Nicholls State is much more meaningful to me than the difference between 4-32 Northern Colorado and 14-22 Arkansas-Pine Bluff. But the RPI doesn’t make a distinction; so playing a series against South Carolina and a series against Northern Colorado counts the same as playing a series against Nicholls State and a series against UAPB. And it is much more difficult to go 6-0 in back-to-back weeks against South Carolina and Northern Colorado than it is to go 6-0 against Nicholls State and UAPB.
The RPI can still be a useful tool even as it currently works, but it should be applied judiciously. The committee should place more value on quality series wins against regional-caliber competition, and use the RPI only as a rough guideline for what constitutes regional-caliber competition. The RPI works well enough to tell us that teams outside the top 100 are not regional-caliber, and that teams inside the top 25 are generally pretty good.
In the long term, I’d like to see the RPI formula tweaked again, perhaps so that a team’s three games against opponents with the worst winning percentages don’t get factored into its strength of schedule. That way, every team has one weekend of wiggle room.
I’m not advocating for more NCAA tournament teams out of the SEC and ACC, which are already represented well enough. It isn’t enough just to play elite teams—N.C. State should not be rewarded for going 0-9 against the top 25 in the RPI. But teams that play elite opponents and beat them, as Arkansas has, should be rewarded for it—even if their schedules also happen to contain a few games against bad teams.