Big Ten Baseball: A Scheduling Conundrum

August 1, 2010

While this isn’t a pressing issue at all, there is an upcoming problem facing the Big Ten’s baseball scheduler. Unlike most other sports teams in the Big Ten over the last few years, baseball has been blessed with an even 10 teams. With Wisconsin not fielding a team since the early 90s, and the addition of Penn State shortly thereafter, the conference has been able to avoid bye weeks.

Starting next year with Nebraska’s move to the conference, the baseball standings will stretch to an 11th team, complicating scheduling that’s already hampered by weather. A bye week is now mandatory as only 10 teams can play each other while the 11th sits dormant.

That bye situation is tougher to deal with than it might seem. This means that you must have an odd number of byes every week if you have more than one team with a bye (11 teams with 2 byes means 9 teams for 5 games, someone still not playing someone). This necessity for at least one bye per week makes the 8 week schedule impossible. At least one week will require an even number of byes.

Adding a Week to the Conference Season

With that, the primary option would be to change the length of the conference regular season*. There’s two ways to do that, adding the week to the front of the regular season or dropping the conference tournament. Both of those have their pros and cons.

In moving the start to the conference season up a week, the conference tournament and it’s RPI boost/potential extra bid to the NCAA tournament is preserved. That’s arguably a good thing. The downside to starting the conference season a week earlier is the plight that is northern baseball. That weekend is usually teams’ first attempts at baseball outside, and the weather that weekend has a history of snow and rain outs. This past year, teams were lucky. Hedging that bet might not be best for teams.

The second option is to drop the conference tournament and add a ninth week of games where the conference tournament once stood. This idea seems reasonable as the conference tournament hasn’t really been a force in getting extra teams into the NCAA that win. Indiana is the only recent team to get a huge RPI boost in winning the auto-bid, but they were two-and-out of the NCAAs. The tournament also isn’t a money-maker for the conference, especially when you put the predetermined spot on a campus that’s not participating.

But despite some of those slight positives, would-be tournament teams do lose the opportunity to boost their RPI, and teams lose that chance to play their way into the NCAAs. Both of those are tough losses for some programs.

I think the option of changing the season length like this would be the most logical option, but let’s look at other ideas.

*I’ll point out that if the expansion of the season (post Uniform Start Date) added a week to the beginning of the season instead of the end of the season, as argued by many of the northern baseball schools. Had the rules committee, the city of Omaha/CWS, and ESPN been able to broker the deal to have it added to the end of the season, all this would be moot

Six Conference Series

A second option that would be viable is to drop the conference regular season to just 7 weeks, and have teams play only 6 conference series before the tournament. This gives teams the opportunity to try and schedule another pair of non-conference series, one during what used to be the first weekend of conference play and another during their bye.

This gets a bit tricky as many of the northern teams have enough trouble trying to schedule opponents for home series (see the tomato cans like IPFW and Oakland that Michigan has scheduled recently). Finding a quality opponent willing to travel north that late in the season is going to be near impossible. That leaves RPI vacuums from the Horizon League, Missouri Valley, Summit League, or Ohio Valley Conferences as likely culprits to drain teams’ RPIs.

To alleviate this problem, the conference could go back to 4-game weekends and just leave the bye as an actual bye week. This would put the conference season back to 24 games, where it was before expansion. This seems like a capable scenario, but it’ll be interesting to see how coaches view this. The reason 4-game series were dropped was to reduce RPI loss against the lower teams in the Big Ten and to save their pitching depth, as 4 games tended to drain everything they had.

Divisions Fail

As far as divisional structure, things get no better here. With 11 teams, one division is going to have an odd number of teams. This just complicates all of the previous scheduling to the point of not working at all.

For example, if the 6-team division plays each of it’s five division rivals, it has played 5 series. The 5-team division will have played 4 series. How do they make up that lost series? Do they get a bye weekend and the 6-team division not? Is that fair? I would say definitely not. And it’s not like they could play an extra week of divisional games (like playing a divisional opponent a second time). One team would have a bye and still not play an extra series.

This just can’t work.

Conclusions

The only way I see the conference schedule working out is by adjusting the season length. I don’t think coaches would really go for the 4 game weekends, and I’m not sure I see the coaches wanting to drop the conference tournament. This means that adding a week to the beginning of the conference season is the only logical approach.

It sounds like baseball fans need to invest in a better set of blankets. That weekend in early March isn’t the home opener against a tomato can that you can just skip guilt free.

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Big Ten Thoughts

March 8, 2010

While I cover Michigan over at mgoblog, I’m going to try and move some of my Big Ten thoughts over to here for the time being. They don’t quite fit the mgoblog scene, but with BigTenHardball gone and BigTenBaseball virtually gone, I think I’ll at least throw some conference wide thoughts out somewhere.

So for now, this will be a place to occasionally – we’ll see if this lasts – discuss some Big Ten baseball for me.

Power Poll

With three weeks of the season in the books, I thought I’d take a look at the Big Ten baseball conference and give my thoughts on where every one stands. I’m breaking this down into two different sub-polls, one on one game only and the other on series. This is who I think would win either of those scenarios, not how well of a season they’re having. This is to be thought of as "if they played today."

Big Ten Power Poll

# One Game   Series
1 Ohio State   Ohio State
2 Michigan   Michigan
3 Minnesota   Michigan State
4 Michigan State   Indiana
5 Indiana   Minnesota
6 Iowa   Iowa
7 Penn State   Penn State
8 Illinois   Illinois
9 Northwestern   Northwestern
10 Purdue   Purdue

Ohio State gets anointed to the front of both lines reluctantly. They’re offense is so strong that they’d be hard for any Big Ten team to beat consistently. Unfortunately, they are the flag bearers for the Big Ten nationally this year. They play no one of import until they have a pair with Louisville late in the season. But that has the pollsters apparently not paying attention to their loss against Saint Louis, allowing OSU to hold on to a #23 rank by the writers.

I had to go with Michigan’s pitching staff second in both sub-polls. They’re the class of the conference, but I don’t think the Wolverines have quite the offense capable of holding off the Buckeyes, especially in a one game series.

From here the sub-polls diverge. Minnesota is the strongest overall team, but their pitching hasn’t held up. If they can focus everything on one game, I take them over any one else. If they have to play a couple games, the Gophers just find new ways to struggle.

Michigan State has the second best pair of starters in the league, and in a one game series, you better believe it will be a low scoring pitchers’ duel. The bull pen isn’t great though, and it’s already caused Coach Boss to over extend Bucciferro for a supposed 150+ pitch start.

Indiana is either pretty good or really lucky this season. And while I say really lucky, you could say that their late inning losses may actually be a bit unlucky. Coach Smith is making something out of nearly nothing this season. This weekend, he threw a couple of guys against Vanderbilt that hadn’t pitched since high school. They managed to take Vandy to 11 innings, while still collecting 2 quality wins on the weekend.

Iowa has the best win in the conference with a win over then ranked #25 Kansas. Between Jared Hippen and Phil Schreiber, Iowa has to decent options at starter, one lefty and one righty respectively.

The Nittany Lions of Penn State are leading the conference in RPI after their second week of games. They went 2-1 in the Challenge, and they split again this weekend in Lamar, where they beat McNeese State and Dallas Baptist, both pretty good baseball schools. The Lions did lose two to Lamar, but Lamar isn’t some slouch team either, as they beat Rice earlier in the week.

Illinois has just one win on the season, coming over Notre Dame in their opener of the Challenge. They’ve had their chances, leading in several different ball games, but they can’t close out their opponents. They still have the talent that they should be able to beat out NU or Purdue.

Northwestern fell a bit this weekend after their good showing in the Challenge. This week featured a loss to Oklahoma State and Minnesota. The Wildcats don’t have much on offense, and their pitching is experienced but not very talented.

Purdue is a black hole. The Boilermakers were swept in the Challenge and just lost two of three at Southern Illinois. As T-Mill at Hammer and Rails told me, their 285 RPI might be rather generous, despite the ranking only being out of 295. This could be a long season in West Lafayette.

I’ll probably do another one of these in two weeks or so, just so we can check in before conference season starts.

Bid Hunting

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the Big Ten is shaping up to be a one bid league. No team is tearing it up and dominating like Big Ten leaders have in years past. Minnesota is one hell of a funk. Michigan lost it’s star and their offense has been sulking over it since. Ohio State has a good offense, but their pitching is thin. Their offense has off days as well, complicating issues. I can’t see any way that multiple teams will make the tournament at this rate.

The only hope is that one of the teams that can keep raising it’s RPI can take a big win or two over the next two weeks. That team, and one of the other high RPI teams need to run away with the conference, and the team that didn’t get that big win before the conference season starts must win the tournament.

The best opportunity for that will be Michigan beating Coastal Carolina and Ohio State to take a mid-week game from Louisville in May. If those two can get those signature wins and run away with the conference, and that is quite possible, I think both can get in.


Buckeye State Baseball Links

November 30, 2009

Helping out with Buckeye State Baseball’s link page. Not much to see here other than a long list of links.

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Transitioning Baseball Updates

July 25, 2009

With the transfer to mgoblog in progress, I’m not really sure of the posting etiquette for the next few weeks, if not months.  I’m not sure what is expected and will post things here for the time being.  And since it’s been a few weeks since my last update, this will be a bit long.  Bare with me.  Here’s the last update’s link as of July 4th weekend.  I’m planning on one of these recaps once every two weeks until the season ends, which means one or two more before I can shut it down for the real off season and the football season.

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I’ve Been Bought Out

July 24, 2009

News finally broke today that VarsityBlue, my home to Michigan baseball coverage the last 5 months, has been absorbed by MGoBlog – the leader in University of Michigan sports coverage not related to the actual school.  For those of you not familiar with the sports blogging world, Brian, the creator of MGoBlog, is widely heralded for being an innovator when it comes to the medium (college sporting blogs related to a specific school, and to an extent, college sports in general).  His site, created as a writing outlet for a fan, has grown into one of the largest individual sites dedicated to college football.  He became so successful that he was able to give up his job as an software engineer and do the blog full time – and for good money.

Now, after experimenting with a recruiting correspondent for a few months, Brian is looking to absorb VarsityBlue with Tim as a lead reporter, Paul as an Ann Arbor based correspondent (Tim’s not always in Ann Arbor), and me doing baseball.   This is a great chance for me to increase exposure of not only Michigan baseball, but my own writing.  I’m not opposed to either of those, obviously.  Really, that goals post was written the day before I found out there were plans for the absorbtion.  At least I have a plan to put towards Brian now at least?

So while details on my role have been sparse, I’m hoping to start getting things kicking in the next few weeks.  I’ve got to discuss with Brian his thoughts on other minor sports, particularly ones that happen during football season.  I’ve got some ideas about limited volleyball coverage, but I need to run it by him.  The goal of the merger appears to be making MGoBlog into the media center for Michigan sports coverage, which means any new coverage would be warranted.  Brian’s already discussing the problem of providing too much content, which is a very valid concern.  If there’s too much, people will just be overwhelmed by the content.  I’ll play it by ear.

Also, with the transition to MGoBlog, I’m contemplating my current use of anonymity.  With VarsityBlue, as well as commenting on MGoBlog for the last two years, I’ve stuck with the tag name of formerlyanonymous.  I’m contemplating going to my real name for posting there not only for exposure, but more importantly for validity.  By putting my name to my work, I’m taking a larger responsibility in what I say and think.  I can’t hide behind the faceless entity of “formerlyanonymous.”  I would put my work to my name, which will help with my credibility as a writer.  Plus, I mean it makes me even more “formerly anonymous.”  And who doesn’t like clever tags like that?

I’ll be updating some links, tags, and categories on here in the meantime.  Once I know how the new MGoBlog will work, I’ll provide an update along with creating an RSS feed of posts on the new big site.

Excitement.


Players Past: George Sisler

July 2, 2009

sislerumProbably the most successful professional player ever to hail from Michigan, George Sisler was a do it all kind of player.  The hard throwing lefty pitched plenty for the Wolverines, but also kept up a batting average around .445.  Sisler chose Michigan almost on a whim; his parents had demanded he put off his big league aspirations for a while and get a college education.  Bypassing the two primary teams recruiting him (Western Reserve and Penn), George came to Michigan following his high school catcher Russ Baer.

While at Michigan, Sisler played for the first-year engineering school team as a freshman in the intramural league.  At the time, freshmen couldn’t play for the varsity squad.  His MVP performance over the juniors of the law school in the championship was enough to catch the eye of Professional & College Hall of Fame coach Branch Rickey.  Sisler became an immediate starter in his sophomore season of 1913.  The 1913 season was a big break through for the Wolverines who posted a 21-4-1 record, their first 20 win season in history.  Sisler was a big part of that, both pitching and playing the field.  While overall stats aren’t easily available, the one game that stood out in Sisler’s career at Michigan was the 1915 start against the Michigan Agricultural College Aggies (now MSU Spartans).  Sisler threw a complete game 2 hitter.  He struck out 10 batters that day, but also went 4 for 5 with a pair of triples, 2 steals, 3 runs, and 5 fielding assists (one started a double play).  How’s that for domination?  Sisler would finish the year with a .445 batting average and win All-American honors for his pitching and outfield play.

from Library of Congress

from Library of Congress

In 1914, Sisler battled some arm trouble but still managed a batting average around .500.  After seeing a doctor about the arm in the off season, Sisler returned for the 1915 season and was an All-American again.  By this time, he had earned his degree and was ready for the big leagues.  After some battles in court over an illegal contract he signed as a minor, former Michigan coach Branch Rickey helped Sisler put the lawsuit to rest and sign Sisler as a free agent.  Rickey was then with the St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals) baseball club of the American League.  Sisler left Ann Arbor and was pitching for St. Louis that summer, throwing 6 complete games in 8 starts.  Sisler also started playing first base and the outfield during his days off from pitching, hitting a modest .285 for the season, a career low for a full season.

As the years went by, Sisler pitched less and less due to his value at the plate.  He became the full time first baseman for the Browns in 1916 and became know as “the next Ty Cobb.”  He didn’t disappoint either.  In 1920, he won the batting title with a .407 average with a record setting 257 hits in a season.  That record stood until 2004 when Ichiro finally broke it (they only played 154 games in Sisler’s time, but Ichiro had 162 games to break the record).  Sisler also had a career high 122 RBIs that season.  Sisler won the first ever AL MVP award for his 1922 season, batting .420 with 105 RBIs. His hitting streak of 41 games was a record (not broken until Joe DiMaggio overtook him in 1941), and his 51 stolen bases were a career high.

Sisler would miss the 1923 season in its entirety due to a massive sinus infection that plagued him with severe headaches and double vision.  Upon his return in 1924, Sisler never had that same edge he had before the infection.  Before, he could place a hit anywhere he wanted.  Afterward, he still hit for a good average (.290-.340), but never at the near .400 levels he was accustomed to.  Sisler also took over managerial duties for the Browns.  That job didn’t last too long, ending in 1926.  Sisler admitted he never felt that he was ready to take over as a manager.

Sisler was traded to the Washington Senators (who would become the Minnesota Twins) in 1928, but would only be there a few weeks before being traded to the Boston Braves (to become the Milwaukee then Atlanta Braves).  Sisler did well with his first year with the Braves, but tailed off the following two seasons before being demoted to the minors.  He played a season with Rochester in the International League and one with Shreveport-Tyler in the Texas League.  He would retire from the game in 1932.

After retiring, Sisler opened a sporting good store and started the American Softball Association (the biggest name in softball today).  Sisler engineered the first lighted softball field, leading to an explosion in the sport in the 1930s. In 1939, George was also inducted into the first ever class to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1942, he was reunited with Branch Rickey and offered a position in the Cardinals’ organization as a scout.  He would later work for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a scout and player developer.  Sisler was one of Jackie Robinson’s coaches, teaching how to play first base to ease his transition into the major leagues.  Sisler would follow Rickey one more time to Pittsburgh where he continued as a scout and player developer where he coached Roberto Clemente on hitting.  He would stick with the Pirates for the remainder of his career as a hitting coach at various levels.

George Sisler died on March 26, 1973.

George Sisler, The Baseball Biography Project


Players Past: Bill Freehan

July 2, 2009
freehan

Bill Freehan is arguably the greatest catcher Michigan has ever had.  Freehan came to Michigan in 1959, choosing the Maize and Blue over then baseball power Western Michigan because UM also offered him a football scholarship.  Freehan had actually wanted to go to Notre Dame, but they too wouldn’t allow him to be a two sport athlete.

It worked out well for Freehan and Michigan.  His sophomore season saw Michigan win the College World Series over Santa Barbara University.  In his junior campaign (’61), Freehan hit for a .585 average, which is still the BigTen record for a season.  It’s such a ridiculous record that the closest anyone has ever gotten was Randy Wolfe (UM ’85) at .514.  Three other players have finished with .500 averages (including Scott Weaver, UM ’95 and Scott Erdmann, UM ’85).

I think its safe to assume Freehan’s record will probably stay intact for a long, long time.  Bill lead the league that year with 18 RBIs as well, winning him All-BigTen honors.  That season is the origin of the University of Michigan Bill Freehan Award, given to the team’s top hitter each season.  One of his mother’s favorite facts about Bill was he once caught a triple header against rivals Michigan State.  He caught the morning, afternoon, and evening game, but still had the energy to go dancing that night.

That season brought all the teams calling to Bill’s father’s front door.  This being the pre-draft era, teams lined up at the front door and offered signing bonuses of unreal magnitude in the 60s.  Bill claimed offers up to $150,000 dollars just to sign with a team.  To put that in prospective, minor leaguers only made about $6,000 a year salary.  Bill ended up signing with the Tigers, but he did managed to earn his degree from UM by taking classes in the fall.  Bill’s father made sure the education was the first thing on his son’s mind (from a Baseball Digest Interview):

“The deal with my father was I would never see a dime of my bonus money until I got my college degree. That forced me to live in the YMCA with the rest of the guys and live off the meal money they paid all of us. That was motivational.”

Now if that was only the case for today’s athletes?  Freehan went on to play with the Tigers, getting called up almost immediately.  He spent the pennant stretch of September that year getting a chance to pinch run or hit here or there.  The Tigers were in a battle with the Yankees (this was the season of 61 homers for Maris and 54 for Mantle) for the AL East championship and the management was in no rush to throw a kid out into the fire too soon.  Freehan was sent back down to start the ’62 season, but was named the Tigers starter in ’63.  Did he ever start the season hot.  During one stretch of fifteen plate appearances, he went 9/9 with 3 homers,a triple, 3 doubles, 2 singles, and a 3 set of walks.  While that pace certainly didn’t last, but he did solidify his place in Detroit’s lineup.

Do yourself a favor and skip to 30 seconds in.

Bill would spend the next 13 seasons as the Tigers’ backstop.  He made 11 all start teams and won the World Series of 1968.  The pitching staff in his early career were all young guys, but all raved about how Freehan gave the them confidence.  He called a great game.  He was the team leader and the team – the city – knew it.  Freehan would go on to play with the Tigers through the 1976 season, posting a career .261 batting average and 200 home runs.

While still playing, Bill would release a book, Behind the mask: An inside baseball diary, offering an in depth look at baseball players lives.  Fans didn’t like to think about the players in the way he wrote about them and booed Freehan for a few months, but Bill silenced them by having a great 1971.

freehancoach

Image from Michigan Daily

He would then start working at his own manufacturer’s representative agency, acting as a salesman.  He took on a new job in 1990, the head coach of the University of Michigan baseball team.  He returned to Ann Arbor just as the program was entering probation for NCAA violations under coach Bud Middaugh.  The school had banned all scholarships for 2 years, post season play for 3 years, and off campus recruiting for the next school year.  The program was crippled.

When I took this job, I was advised to expect the worst, andc this is the worst. I was looking to get in heaven or hell, and I am in hell. At least I’m not in limbo.” -Bill Freehan, via Spokane Chronicle February 20, 1990.

Bo chose Freehan for his phenomenal character and hard work to replace Middaugh, and Freehan did fairly well in his first few years given the restrictions.  He stayed on at Michigan through the ’95 season when the team fell far short of expectations.  Despite being picked to finish as high as 2nd in the BigTen, the team finished dead last.  Freehan retired with a record of 166-167-1, the first ever Michigan coach to leave with a losing record.  Along with this last place finish came the suspicion of more NCAA infractions.  Freehan was accused of giving players free pizza as a reward and offering use of his sports car for exceptional performances.  Freehan denied the rumor about the sports car (that it was just a joke), but did admit there might have been minor infractions here or there – nothing serious – and that pizza was occasionally provided for the team.

Since then, Bill has also worked with the Tigers organization as a catching instructor from 2002-2005.  He now is retired and living in the southern suburbs of Detroit.

Bill Freehan at The Baseball Biography Project