College World Series Finals Too Often Fail To Showcase Premium Starting Pitching

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The College World Series finals features some of the best starting pitching in the sport. Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker this season were both first-team All-Americans. Mississippi State’s Will Bednar is a projected first-round pick and Christian Macleod will likely also be selected in the top five rounds.

But on Tuesday in what could be the decisive game of the CWS finals and the last college baseball game of the year, fans won’t see any of them on the mound to start the game. Leiter and MacLeod threw Monday. Rocker threw Friday and Bednar threw Saturday and the finals could end before they’re ready to pitch again. In what could be the biggest game of the year, the biggest pitching stars of the series will play ancillary roles.

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Now, just because neither team will start either of its top two starting pitchers, doesn’t mean there won’t be talented pitchers on the mound. Vanderbilt will likely turn to freshman righthander Christian Little, a 17-year-old who projects as a first-round pick in 2023. Mississippi State will likely look for an extended outing from relief ace Landon Sims, a first-team All-American. Vanderbilt closer Luke Murphy has been nails in Omaha and both teams have no shortage of hard-throwing pitchers to turn to.

And yet, it still doesn’t feel like college baseball is putting its best foot forward. A championship game or series should always strive to have its biggest stars in starring roles. If this year’s College Football Playoff had included Clemson but not Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, or Alabama but not Crimson Tide receiver DeVonta Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner, it would have been incomplete. Similarly, a Final Four with Gonzaga but not guard Jalen Suggs, a projected top-five pick, or Baylor but not guard Davion Mitchell, a projected top-10 pick, wouldn’t feel right.

Baseball is unique in its need to rest star players from game to game. Football and basketball—at least in the biggest games of the year—don’t work like that. But there’s no denying that having Rocker and Bednar ready to pitch on normal rest would make for a more marketable game.

This is not a 2021 problem, either. This is a regular occurrence at the CWS. In 2017, Florida won the national title in a game in which then-freshman righthander Tyler Dyson made just his second start of the year. That game came a day after Louisiana State had to resort to asking righthander Russell Reynolds to make his first start of the season in game 1 of the finals. Ultimately, neither Florida righthander Alex Faedo, the CWS Most Outstanding Player, nor LSU righthander Alex Lange—both first-round picks—pitched in the finals.

In 2018, Oregon State was able to use righthander Kevin Abel on four days rest in the finals only because a rainout pushed the series back a day. In 2019, Michigan righthander Isaiah Paige made just his fifth start of the year in Game 2 of the finals.

The culprit for these alterations to a normal rotation is the CWS format and schedule. The double-elimination format the CWS brackets use require teams to win three or four games in the first week of the tournament. If a team sweeps through and has a full three-man rotation, it will enter the finals with its pitching aligned for the finals. But any deviation from that—a loss that drops a team into the loser’s bracket, requiring a fourth win or using just two starters, which a team that sweeps can do—and now the rotation is out of sync for the best-of-three finals.

While that format does reward teams with more depth and a balanced rotation, it also too often deprives the biggest stars an opportunity to pitch on the biggest stage. In a sport that is trying to make the leap from its niche and historical geographic stronghold that’s a missed opportunity.

It’s also about to get worse. The CWS will next season revert to the format it used from 2003-07, starting the tournament on a Friday and beginning the finals eight days later on a Saturday. The format currently in place begins the tournament on a Saturday and opens the finals nine days later on a Monday. The new/old format eliminates a rest day and will make it even harder for a starting pitcher who pitches in the bracket final to come back and appear in the finals.

Condensing the tournament may end up being better for fans and allow more people to travel to Omaha for the finals—which currently requires taking at least half the week off from work—but it will also mean more pitching staffs have to scramble in the finals.

There’s no elegant solution to the problem. The days of Steve Arlin throwing 20.2 innings and appearing in five of Ohio State’s six games in the 1966 CWS are gone as baseball has gained a greater understanding of how to keep pitchers healthy. The CWS in its current format already lasts 12 days and teams that play in the finals are in Omaha for a full two weeks—going all the way to the end of June. Adding additional rest days or altering the format to three-game series instead of double-elimination—I in 2018 crafted a potential format to do so—only serves to lengthen what is already a quite lengthy event.

But I also want to see the teams play the finals at their best. I want to see Vanderbilt roll out Rocker and Leiter in succession, as it has all year long—until this week. I want to see Bednar in the finals on full rest, not the three-days rest he would be on if he appears in game 3.

I want to see the sport as it is for four months—the modern version, the one crafted around three-game conference weekends—not the way it is at the end of a convoluted double-elimination tournament that has largely remained the same for more than 70 years, even as baseball has changed around it.

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