More Changes For College Baseball

Committee tweaks RPI, votes to implement instant replay at CWS

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The Division I Baseball Committee voted to implement a pair of significant changes during its annual meeting this week in Indianapolis. The NCAA will experiment with instant replay during the 2012 College World Series, and the Ratings Percentage Index formula will be tweaked in 2013 to place more weight on road wins than on home wins. Both changes must still be approved by other NCAA panels, but approval is expected.

The committee has been considering the use of instant replay for several years, and it announced the formation of a three-member subcommittee to study the issue at the American Baseball Coaches Association meeting in January. To start with, replay will only be in use at the CWS, not at super regionals and regionals, where the camera setups and other logistical factors could vary. Just three plays will be reviewable: deciding if an apparent home run is fair or foul; deciding whether a batted ball left the playing field for a home run or a ground-rule double; and determining whether a spectator interfered with a potential home run ball.

"We have 17 camera locations available to us," Weiser said in a release. "If we are really driven by getting the call right, and we have a working model that Major League Baseball uses, it was an easy decision to take advantage of the technology."

The instant replay process will operate under the assumption that the ruling on the field is correct, and it can only be reversed if there is indisputable video evidence that the ruling was incorrect. There will be no formal "coach's challenge," and the umpire crew chief will determine whether or not to use instant replay.

In the 2011 CWS, Florida's Preston Tucker hit an apparent home run against Texas that was ruled a double after bouncing off the guard rail behind the fence and back onto the field of play. Under the new replay rules, that play would have been reviewable, and the call likely would have been reversed (although it wound up not having any bearing on the outcome of the game, which Florida won).

"If we can use it without complicating things and slowing the game down to a snail's pace, it's a good tool to have in some cases," said Minnesota coach John Anderson, an outgoing member of the D-I Baseball Committee. "There's a lot of calls you can conference on as umpires, but you can't use instant replay for all of them, that's for sure. You've got to look at it, go slow, make changes as you go along. The game still has humans and umpires, there's going to be some human error—I don't think you can ever come up with a system to take that element out of it. It's part of the game."

The instant replay rule must be approved by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which meets via conference call on Aug. 11.

RPI Overhaul

For years, Northern coaches have griped that the RPI is inherently biased against them, because the cold weather early in the season forces them to play a preponderance of their nonconference games on the road, but the RPI formula weighs road games and home games equally. Long-term NCAA data shows that home teams win about 62 percent of the time, so the committee decided to compensate for that home-field advantage by modifying the RPI formula.

"You've got some teams that play virtually all their nonconference games at home, and others that play virtually none at home," said long-time NCAA statistics director Jim Wright, baseball's RPI guru. "If you play 80 percent of your games at home, that's a pretty big advantage over a team that plays 20 percent of its games at home."

The RPI is a major tool used by the committee to fill out the NCAA tournament field. A team's RPI is made up of three components: its winning percentage (which comprises 25 percent of its RPI), its opponents' winning percentage (50 percent), and its opponents' opponents' winning percentage (25 percent). Under the new formula, that first 25 percent—a team's winning percentage—will be calculated differently. Road wins will now be worth 1.3 victories, while neutral-site wins will be worth 1.0 victories, and home wins will be worth 0.7 victories. Conversely, home losses will count as 1.3 losses, and road losses will count as 0.7.

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. But baseball is different because of its three-game series format.

So in the past, a team that won two out of three games—at home or on the road—would have a .667 winning percentage. Using the new formula, a team that wins two of three at home would have a .519 adjusted winning percentage, while a team that wins two of three on the road would have a .788 adjusted winning percentage.

"Some teams are playing 37 home games and some are playing 17, so how do you measure those two teams when you've got that big of a disparity?" said Anderson, the lone coach on the committee and an eloquent spokesman for Northern baseball. "There wasn't anything in the RPI that helps sort that out. The problem is, because of weather, we'll never have everybody be able to play the same number of home and away games. But I think at some point, you've got to try to bring some hope and sanity to the process, so at least teams in the North feel like people are noticing that they're playing 34 road games. This helps bring some competitive equity to it."

Teams will no longer get bonus points for beating top 75 teams on the road in nonconference games, or be penalized for losing to bottom 75 teams at home.

"This is such a significant change that if you continued to use the penalty/bonus formula, you're sort of double-dipping," Wright said.

West Virginia coach Greg Van Zant has been a vocal advocate of RPI reform, and in November of 2008 he introduced a proposal in front of 164 D-I coaches that would have counted road wins as 1.25, and home wins as 0.833. Naturally, he was encouraged by the committee's decision to adopt a similar formula this week.

"That's awesome," he said. "That's not quite what I proposed, but it's very close. Basically the concept that I proposed was to try to take out the advantage of playing at home, from an RPI standpoint. If you're using a mathematical formula to try to evaluate anything, then you've got to make the formula as fair as possible to reflect what's going on. I'd almost given up—I'd thought that it wasn't going to happen. This is a great step in the right direction."

Van Zant said he would like to see the committee go even further. The committee's new RPI formula does not change the fact that 75 percent of a team's RPI is effectively determined by its strength of schedule—and that 75 percent does not use the adjusted winning percentage. So there will still be a compounding effect—teams in strong conferences will help each other in the RPI, while teams in weaker conferences will face an uphill battle.

"You have to take into account strength of schedule, of course—that's common sense," Van Zant said. "But not to the point that 75 percent of the formula is strength of schedule—that's ridiculous. I think at least 50 percent should be based on your win-loss record. If both of them are important, why not weight them both equally?"

Of course, it's important to remember that the RPI is just one tool used by the committee to fill out its field of 64. In 2011, for instance, Louisiana State was snubbed for an at-large spot despite an RPI ranking in the 20s, while St. John's earned an at-large bid with an RPI in the 50s. LSU draws better than any team in college baseball, and it makes a lot of money by playing as many home games as it can. That doesn't figure to change, even if LSU takes a small hit in the RPI as a result of its home-heavy schedule.

"It appeared to me that they didn't place a lot of stock in the RPI, at least into our decision," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "That's the frustrating thing is how much weight does the RPI really carry? If they want to justify a decision, they use the RPI as a reason. If the RPI is good, then they say the RPI is just a tool. It seems to me the degree they use the RPI in the decision-making process is inconsistent."

But committee members and Wright do not expect the teams near the top of the RPI rankings to be affected much by the new formula, anyway.

"You still have to win games, and there are still going to be conferences that are still going to be the top conferences," Anderson said. "The RPI will really not change anything for those top teams. I think it will help trying to sort out the last 10 to 12 teams (in the field of 64), when you're looking at the bottom teams in the top conferences and the top two or three teams in historically lower-ranked RPI conferences. I think it's going to help give you a better view of the field."

Cold-weather teams are obvious beneficiaries of this change, but they are not the only programs that have something to gain.

"I figure most people will say this is to advantage teams in the North, but look at a Big South, a Colonial—how easy is it for them to get those nonconference home games, especially against power teams?" Wright said. "So if they want to boost their profile, they also might be forced to go on the road most of the time, at least against some of the stronger teams. What this adjustment does is say, 'OK, if you've got to go to South Carolina, losing two out of three to South Carolina is not going to be quite as painful as it was before, and if you win a couple games, it will be a bigger boost to you.' On the surface it would benefit mainly Northern teams, but I think would benefit a lot smaller leagues that continually struggled to get home games against quality opponents."

There are some lingering details that still must be ironed out, most notably regarding neutral sites. Currently, a team that plays a game on its home field as the road team (in a conference tournament, for instance) would be considered the home team for RPI purposes. But is that fair? And how should games at nearby sites be evaluated?

"If the home team wins 62 percent of the time, is that because of the facility or because you're on the bottom of the scoreboard and have the last at-bat?" Anderson said. "If UCLA and somebody else go play at Dodger Stadium, is that a home game or a neutral-site game? Right now there's a lot of discrepancy there, and that has to be cleaned up before the (Division I Championships/Sports Management Cabinet) approves it. We have a working document that we'll send out to coaches to get feedback.

"The RPI is really a tool that we use to get the right teams in the tournament. We're just trying to improve the tool. If you can make the tool better, why not do it?"

One other piece of news: Big South Conference commissioner Kyle Kallander was elected chairman of the committee for 2011-12, replacing outgoing chair Tim Weiser. Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell was elected vice chair and will take over as chair in 2012-13.