One Tweak Would Make CWS Even Better

The NCAA Tournament has undergone incredible change in its 71-year history, even in recent years. The College World Series moved from Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park, super regionals were introduced, the field was expanded to 64 teams and blanket TV coverage has made the games more popular.

Through it all, however, the CWS, at its most basic level, today looks a lot like it did in 1950 when it moved to Omaha. Eight teams arrive in the Gateway to the West for a double-elimination tournament to determine college baseball’s national champion.

The CWS has not undergone a change to its format since 2003, when a best-of-three finals series was introduced to determine the winner, replacing a championship game. That was the most significant alteration to the CWS since the tournament adopted the eight-team, double-elimination format in its first year in Omaha.

Now the time has come to explore a change to the CWS format. 

In last year’s finals, neither Florida’s Alex Faedo nor Louisiana State’s Alex Lange, both first-round picks in June, were available the first two games of the series. As a result, both the Gators and Tigers were compelled because of the schedule to start pitchers who were well outside their normal starting rotations. This year, both teams were able to use their regular rotations but it was something of an anomaly. There was an extra day off due to rain and Oregon State’s top starters both were coming off short outings.

Teams routinely must make difficult choices about bringing pitchers back on short rest, leading to player-safety concerns. The double-elimination format itself is a clear departure from the rhythm of the regular season, when coaches build their teams around three-game weekend series. Because double-elimination tournaments are unlike anything major sports provide, it makes the CWS more inaccessible to casual fans.

Therefore, Baseball America has devised a format that should address those concerns without deviating too much from the established Omaha schedule.

Currently, the super regionals feed into two pools in Omaha. The groups are determined by the overall seed when the Field of 64 is announced, regardless of which teams advance to Omaha. Those pools play straight double-elimination games with the winners advancing to a three-game final series. Pool play lasts seven days (eight if necessary) followed by one or two off days before the finals begin on a Monday.

In our proposed format, the selection committee would reconvene to reseed the remaining eight teams in the field after super regionals. Many would have liked to see this change made already because the brackets in Omaha can have significantly disparate strengths, as happened this year when both unseeded teams wound up in the same bracket – the one opposite the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

The teams would then be placed in a tournament bracket for what in effect would be the national quarterfinals round with the No. 1 seed and No. 8 seed matched up and so on. Teams would play best-of-three series in the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.

The timing of the tournament is tricky. We know the CWS can already feel like it drags on, and this proposal would add a few days to the event. But we think the change is worth it.

This year’s CWS began on Saturday, June 16. Working off that calendar, No. 1 would have played No. 8 and No. 4 would have played No. 5 on that opening day. They would have had Sunday off while No. 2 took on No. 7 and No. 3 played No. 6. They would have again alternated game days and off days on Monday and Tuesday. Then, all the if-necessary Game 3s would have been played Wednesday. That raises the potential of four games in one day at TD Ameritrade Park, which is not optimal for TV and is easy to get off schedule if there are any weather delays. But it is a common scenario at conference tournaments. And it should also be possible to move two of the games to Werner Park, the home of Triple-A Omaha, if it were determined that having four games in one day at one location was too risky. Most years, it is unlikely all four series would go to three games anyway.

An off day would follow the conclusion of the quarterfinals and the semifinals would be played over the weekend, beginning Friday. Three off days would follow, and the finals would begin Thursday. While that is a lot of time for everyone to sit idle in Omaha, especially if the semifinals last just two games, it should enable teams to enter the finals with fully rested pitching staffs. No longer would players need to make spot starts with a championship on the line or a reliever need to be asked to pitch in high-leverage situations four out of five days. That three-day break between the semifinals and finals accounts for the entire difference in the tournament’s length between the current system and the proposed model. It also may allow for fans to come to take a long weekend to come Omaha specifically for the finals, which is now a difficult proposition with the finals starting on a Monday.

The added expense of keeping two teams in Omaha for three extra days would not be negligible. But the baseball tournament is the NCAA’s second-most profitable event, trailing only the men’s basketball tournament. Surely, the prospect of better player safety and an improved on-field product would be worth the expense.

The format would change the complexion of the CWS and traditionalists may object to the new look. But it seems unlikely that if, in 2018, the NCAA were starting a baseball tournament from scratch that it would opt for a double-elimination tournament over best-of-three series. Over the last seven decades, the sport’s calendar has changed considerably. Every major conference did away with scheduled doubleheaders and four-game weekends years ago. Nearly every conference plays eight to 10 conference weekends comprised of three-game series. Because of this, nearly every team’s pitching staff is built around a three-man rotation. It is only during the postseason that coaches must consider how to manage a schedule that deviates from that formula.

Furthermore, baseball fans understand and appreciate the narrative features of best-of series. They understand the stakes of a decisive Game 3. The stakes of double-elimination are cumbersome to explain and make filling out an Omaha bracket unnecessarily complicated, a consideration that may take on greater importance in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision this year to clear the way for legalized sports gambling.

Our plan is not perfect. Trying to fit an eight-team baseball tournament into a single venue over a fortnight is inherently difficult. But after nearly 75 years, we believe it is time to give the College World Series a makeover and bring it more into line with the modern college baseball game.

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