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Does Starting Earlier Help?

Publication Date: January 9, 2001

The Fun Begins

Hey! Baseball starts next week!

Sorry, had to get that out of my system. As far as I know, the first Division I baseball game of 2001 is being played next Thursday, January 18, as Arizona plays at Hawaii-Hilo. I've seen no word yet on whether the game will be broadcast over the Internet, but even knowing that there is baseball going on somewhere will warm my heart a bit.

With that early start in mind, I wanted to take a look at a question that I've studied a bit before in other venues, but have never settled on an answer to. Does it help a team to start playing games earlier, all other things being equal? Please understand that I'm not asking about whether it's an advantage to be able to practice outside in good weather sooner; that's kind of a given and is one of the pillars that my External Factors Index (EFI) is based on. However, given the same weather, will a team that starts playing earlier do better than one that waits until later?

In a vacuum, I think it would probably be a good thing to start earlier. If nothing else, playing more games always seems to help (there's probably an upper limit on that, but no NCAA team gets close to it). Starting earlier also gives you the advantage of playing teams with no game experience with a team that has a half-dozen games under its belt. On the other hand, this is not a vacuum; most notably, there's the NCAA rules limiting the legal number of games to deal with. Many teams that start early find themselves having to ration games late in the season. It's not unusual for a team to play no non-conference games in the last two or three weeks of the season, and three games a week may not be enough to keep sharp heading into the postseason.

Looking at the Numbers

I said last week that I like well-defined questions. Perhaps in retribution for that statement, I was reminded this week that even those don't always have clear-cut answers. Sometimes the evidence is just too fuzzy to make a call, and this could be one of those times. Those of you who pay close attention may have noticed that the columns with non-conclusive items are the ones that tend to come out on Friday; I tend to get caught up in the analysis and be late with the writing.

Understanding what I did to study this requires a little knowledge of the EFI's, so I'll give you a short explanation of them. Essentially, there's a large correlation between a bunch of factors that have nothing to do with the team's performance and their success levels -- things like weather patterns, academic standards, and success by other major sports teams like football and men's basketball. The EFI is basically a number which throws all those things, appropriately weighted, into one measure, which is scaled to have the same range as the ISR's, my rating system. You can then compare the EFI to the actual ISR to see how well a team is living up to its potential.

What I did was to look at a specific set of pairs of schools. To make up a pair for a given year, the schools had to start play more than a certain number of days apart, be located closest to the same major weather city, and have EFI's that were no more than a certain amount apart. In other words, they had to be similar size programs playing under the same weather conditions.

Unfortunately, the results change depend on how I set the size of those parameters:

Days Apart    Allowed EFI Gap      Minimum EFI     Earlier    Later

     7               5                  0            280       252
     7               5                100             28        48
     7              10                  0            434       432
     7              10                100             52        86
    14               5                  0            104       118
    14               5                100              2        18
    14              10                  0            150       174
    14              10                100              4        24

The columns labeled "Earlier" and "Later" are the times that the team that started earlier or later finished the season with a higher ISR.

There are three things that I tried different values for -- whether they started at least one week apart or two weeks, how close they had to be in EFI to be considered similar, and whether I considered all schools or just larger programs with an EFI higher than 100.

After staring at the numbers for a while, there are some patterns that come out, although the variations in the results do make we distrust them just a bit. Note that all four of the "large-program" lines (those with a minimum EFI of 100) show a distinct preference for starting later. One theory that I have for that is that teams which start later peak later, so they're more likely to improve their ISR during the postseason. Since high EFI programs are more likely to be in the postseason in the first place, the effect shows up more there.

If I were an AD setting up a baseball schedule, would I treat this as gospel? No, probably not. I would, however, look with definite suspicion at the continuing trend toward starting earlier, since the NCAA is showing no signs of allowing any more games.

This subject will bear watching a bit next year, 2002, since the entire season, from the allowed starting date for practice to the end of the CWS, is moving back by a week. We'll see if that makes any difference in the results.

Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> Does Starting Earlier Help? About the author, Boyd Nation