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Why Not Get It Right? Part I

Publication Date: July 10, 2001

Another Chance

The big news for the last week or so in college baseball is that ESPN has purchased the entire contract for broadcasting the College World Series, taking over the third and final games from CBS in addition to continuing to air the rest of the series as they have been doing. From a quality perspective, this is neutral news -- ESPN's coverage has been no more bad than CBS's and could actually be good if they would hire announcers that actually like college baseball. The financial details of the deal are buried by the fact that it's part of an eleven-sport package, so I have no idea about whether there will be any benefit to the sport from this move.

The exciting part of the announcement, though, is that the NCAA is considering whether this move will allow them to tinker with the CWS format. In a tacit acknowledgement that the current format is not the most fair one available, NCAA officials announced that they would study the matter of whether to stick with the current format, return to the true double elimination format used before 1989, or stay with the divided bracket system but change to a best-of-three series for the final.

On the one hand, this would be only a small improvement, but it would certainly be an improvement. I've published a chart before that shows that the odds of the better team winning go up by 5-10%, depending on the quality gap between the teams, even by moving from a single game to a best-of-three series, so I would welcome that move. I haven't run the numbers for the double elim format, but suspect that the improvements would be similar.

On the other hand, since they're admitting that improvement is possible, why not go all the way and try to produce a completely fair format? I've presented before my plan for a 16-team tournament, but realize we're not going to go that far. In reality, I'll be quite pleased if they do make the small changes they're considering. However, I do want to present another alternative this week for consideration, because I want to give you some idea of the sort of things they should be thinking about rather than just tweaking the edges a bit.

Pool Play

The basic problem with tournament play in general is that you only get to face a small number of teams, and you don't get enough games to show what you can really do in most cases. One solution that addresses that is to build in a series of round-robin pools and select teams that advance from them. The idea is used widely in international play and seems to work fairly well.

In an attempt to get a little closer to the actual realities that would have to be dealt with in a real implementation of this, I've placed a couple of limitations on myself. We have to stay with a 64-team field (for my simulation, I've just used this year's actual field; fixing the selection process is a separate problem). In addition, no team can play more than four games in any five-day period. The latter constraint means that a team can survive with a four-man rotation (and, in most cases, just needs three and a spot starter, which matches current postseason needs).

My proposal is that the field be divided into eight eight-team regionals, where each team will play a complete seven-game round-robin schedule. The eight winners go to the CWS, where they divide into two four-team pools. The winners of those pools play a best-of-three for the title.


I'm assuming that the tournament has to fit into the current schedule, more or less, so here's what it would probably look like. The regionals are spread over the first two weekends, with four games apiece around the first weekend and three the second. Depending on how the travel arrangements turn out to be most efficient, the first weekend could run from Friday to Monday, taking advantage of Memorial Day, or from Thursday to Sunday, giving three days rest or travel time before picking back up to finish from Thursday to Saturday. The following Sunday through Wednesday would be reserved for tiebreaker games -- more on that later.

The CWS, which would only want to have three games a day at most, would run pool play from Friday until Monday, with everyone playing three games during that time. Ties would be broken on Tuesday and possibly Wednesday, and the championship series would be held on Friday night, Saturday afternoon, and, if necessary, Sunday afternoon.

Drawbacks -- Tiebreakers and Travel Costs

There are two potential drawbacks I see with this plan, both of which are manageable but need to be acknowledged. The first is that pool play leads to the possibility of a tie for first at the end of the round robin. After running through a ton of simulations, it looks like these would tend to happen with the following frequency in the regionals: Two-team ties would occur about 10-12% of the time; in other words, one or two a year. Three-team ties would happen about 5-7% of the time, in other words, about one every two years or so. Four-team ties would happen about once a decade. It is possible for there to be ties with more than four teams, but those seem to happen about once every hundred years -- even allowing for Murphy's Law, that's a reasonable chance.

There are multiple ways to break ties, but obviously it needs to be done on the field if at all possible. For almost all of these cases, it's not difficult to do so. For a two-team tie, the two teams just play an extra deciding game on Sunday (I'm discussing the regional case here, but the idea for the CWS is similar, taking place on Tuesday and possibly Wednesday). For the three-team or four-team tie, the teams play another round-robin on Monday through Wednesday.

The astute among you are noticing that there could be another tie then. That would be rare, but would have to be broken by another tiebreaker; run differential would be the most likely. That's not a terrible thing, in the fairness sense; by this point, you have to conclude that the teams are close enough that trying to choose is pointless, so you might as well get it done. You don't want a case where teams can advance by running up the score on Butler or someone like that, but in the tiebreaker round that's not really an issue.

The second issue to deal with is travel costs, but this is already getting monstrously long, so I'm going to close up for this week and finish up next week with a look at the travel issues and with a look at a simulated version of this year's tournament, so you can see what the idea looks like in practice.

Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> Why Not Get It Right? Part I About the author, Boyd Nation