The idea had been bouncing around in Greg Van Zant’s head for a few years before he finally got a chance to present it in front of a group of 164 Division I coaches at a meeting in November. It seemed to be well received, but Van Zant realized on the way home from Indianapolis to Morgantown, W.Va., that his proposal wouldn’t go anywhere unless he put it in writing.
So he got home and started writing at 6 p.m. After going through two or three drafts and editing the final version just the way he wanted it, Van Zant finished at 3 a.m.
The end result was a detailed proposal to tweak the Ratings Percentage Index to provide some relief for cold-weather schools, who have an inherent disadvantage in the RPI (the primary tool used to determine which teams make the NCAA tournament and where they are seeded) because they play most of their early-season schedules on the road in warm locales. Van Zant, who has coached West Virginia of the cold-weather Big East Conference since 1995, sent his proposal to every member of the Division I baseball committee, NCAA managing director of baseball and football Dennis Poppe, NCAA statistics director Jim Wright, and other coaches who had asked to see it.
Wright and his staff got to work studying RPI data and planned to present their analysis to coaches at the American Baseball Coaches Convention in San Diego, which begins Friday. The next step to alter the RPI formula would be taking the proposal to the Division I baseball committee at its meeting this summer.
The crux of Van Zant’s argument is that the RPI favors teams that can play more games at home. Van Zant pointed out—and Wright confirmed—that the home team historically wins 60 percent of the time in Division I baseball (the figure was 61 percent in 2008). So, hypothetically, if two identical teams played 20 games at a neutral site, each team would win 10 games. But if the two identical teams played all 20 games on one team’s home field, the home team would win 12, and the visitors would win eight.
Since weather requires Northern teams to spend the first three weeks of the season or more on the road against Southern teams, the Northern teams start out with a statistical disadvantage beyond their lack of outdoor practice time and any talent gap they might face.
“It’s not debatable that there are advantages to playing at home,” Van Zant said. “It’s not like we’re all choosing to play on the road—you have to play away from home. It doesn’t matter how good your program is or how much guarantee money you have (to pay visiting opponents), you’re not going to play home games at Northern sites the first few weeks of the season.”
The RPI has three components: a team’s winning percentage counts for 25 percent; the combined winning percentage of its opponents counts for 50 percent; and the combined winning percentage of its opponents’ opponents counts for the remaining 25 percent. So there is a compounding effect.
“Here’s the kicker: the teams in the North, if they played the identical team down South, if they start off 8-12 or whatever, when they go back home, the rest of their schedule will be against other teams that went 8-12 down South,” Van Zant said.
His solution is to replace winning percentage in the RPI with “adjusted winning percentage.” Simply put, a win on a neutral field would still count as 1.0 win, but road wins would count as 1.25 wins, and home wins would count as 0.833 wins. That way, if two equally matched teams played 20 games at one team’s home site, and the home team won 12 of the games while the visitor won eight, both teams would wind up with identical adjusted winning percentages.
There is some precedent for this proposal. Men’s basketball uses a similar adjusted winning percentage in its RPI, counting a road win as 1.4 wins and a home win as 0.6 wins.
“I don’t think we’d want to go quite to that extreme in baseball,” Wright said, “because so many baseball events are series. So if you took two out of three at home, the net result of your win-loss record would be 1.2 wins and 1.4 losses.”
Wright and his staff are currently looking at how teams would be affected in the RPI using different weights; for instance, how would a given team’s RPI change if a home win counted as 0.8 or 0.7 instead of 1.0?
“I have not yet seen those numbers, but my suspicion based on what I’ve seen before is I don’t think there’s going to be quite the dramatic change that Greg and some others think there will be,” Wright said. “Because if you’re a good team, you’re still winning the majority of those games anyway.”
Wright said he prefers a system like the one that is already in place, where bonus points are awarded for beating a top-75 RPI team on the road, and penalty points are assessed for losing to a bottom-75 team at home.
“I have always thought whether you win or lose is kind of a sacred number,” Wright said. “You can mess with all the other numbers, but a win should always be a win.”
It will be up to the committee to decide what adjustments, if any, should be made to the RPI, but Van Zant has at least succeeded in generating a significant discussion about the issue.
Coaches Meet With Top Scouts
For the second consecutive year, a group of prominent college coaches met with scouting directors at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings. The scouts and 10 college coaches met to discuss areas of cooperation to smooth relations between pro ball and college ball. The college coaches on hand included Pat Casey (Oregon State), Rich Hill (San Diego), Jim Schlossnagle (TCU), David Perno (Georgia), Mike Gillespie (UC Irvine), John Savage (UCLA) and Kevin O’Sullivan (Florida), among others. The scouting directors’ concerns include such mundane items as having college players wear numbers on their jerseys during batting practice and infield drills. Scouting directors brought this issue up in last year’s meeting with coaches, but many teams still do not do it, and some coaches say they have no intention of doing it because they don’t want to give their opponents an edge in game preparation. But American Baseball Coaches Association president Dave Keilitz doesn’t buy that argument.
“Let’s look at it in terms of sportsmanship,” Keilitz said. “If both teams did it, what’s the difference? I’ve never pretended I was so much smarter than the other coach that if I could do it and he couldn’t, I would have a huge advantage. If both teams do it, I don’t see any disadvantage to anybody there. It’s a give to the pro people that they want, and at the same time they’re trying to provide a service to us, too. I think in time we can get most of our teams to do that.”
College coaches, meanwhile, emphasized their desire to limit the amount of phone calls that players get from scouts during the season. Coaches want to make players available in the fall so scouts can get as much information as possible before the season starts. Then, coaches say, they will set aside one day per week (Monday works best for most teams) for scouts to meet with players. The other six days per week, the players would be left alone.