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.


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.


Talkin’ Baseball with Illinois Baseball Report

April 8, 2009

As an alternative to the in depth preview of Illinois, I participated in a little bit of Q&A with Illinois’s baseball blogger Tom Nelshoppen, formerly with Baseball Zealot. The new site is Illinois Baseball Report, and it does some great justice to the college baseball program in Champaign. Tom works in the IT department for UI and is an avid baseball fan. The guy covers baseball as I could only dream from this distance.

To see my half of the Q&A, visit the IBR. I’m growing less positive, but I swear I’m trying to leave some hope. As I said, this will be the alternative to the in depth preview as it covers a lot of what I do already. I’ll still have a short post up for the weekend on Friday morning for final notes, media, and probable pitchers. On to the questions:

Question 1:

I see last year’s closer Ben Reeser has made the jump to starter most impressively this season, but despite his shiny 2.01 ERA and 12:37 walk-to-strikeout ration, he’s only accumulated 3 wins in 6 starts. Is it the bullpen or the lack of offense that is keeping his win total down?

Arggh! You just made me flash back to last Saturday’s loss against Indiana when Reeser was just one strike away from a 1-0 shutout. So in that case, yes, it was a case of lack of offense. I’m sure that was a tough one for Ben.

Reeser’s pitched great all year and has just been the recipient of some tough luck no-decisions. Fortunately, many have been wins for the Illini.

Question 2:

Speaking of pitching, I can’t help but notice these ERA and opponent batting average numbers for Illinois starters. I’ve heard all sorts of positives from the LSU series, but just how good is this starting pitching staff?

http://www.fightingillini.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/ill-m-basebl-CumulativeStats.html

More specifically, which three starters do we see and who is the weakest link, if one exists?

No doubt we have good pitching but it’s the depth in Illinois’ rotation that has really helped them. Pitchers like Will Strack, Bryan Roberts and Lee Zerrusen have really stepped in when we needed them. Strack surprised some with his shutout against Michigan State two weekends ago. And every time I look at Roberts’ ERA and do a double take because he’s only allowed three runs in past three starts over 21 innings.

This weekend, my guess is that you will see Phil Haig (who had a rough last couple starts but I think he’s coming around), Reeser, and Roberts.

If the Orange and Blue can avoid the big inning by Michigan, they’ll do okay.

Question 3:

Looking over the offense, the Illini have some impressive batting averages (team: .313, starters: .327) and some decent but not great extra base hit totals – 7th in slugging percentage in the Big10. It appears Brandon Wickoff is still an absolute monster (.402 BA, 25 R, .529 slugging, only 4 K in 102 ABs). Is he still batting third and is there a way to pitch around him? Are the batters behind him that much of a threat?

Wikoff is indeed a catalyst on our team. Last night against Bradley, he continued his torrid pace by hitting for the cycle (first Illini to do so since 1990) raising his average to .421. It goes without saying that Wik is an essential part of our offense.

That said, our offensive threat continues all the way down the lineup. If Michigan pitchers want to pitch around Wikoff, be my guest. Cleanup hitter Dom Altobelli is an obvious threat at the plate (.333, 26 rbis) and #5 guy Aaron Johnson simply loves to hit with runners on base (.366, 4 hr, 28 rbi).

Question 4:

On defense, third basemen Altobelli’s fielding percentage at third base. Is he having trouble with run of the mill ground balls, throwing the ball across the diamond, slow rolling bunts, or a little bit of everything? Or, is he just the recipient of some bad luck? I can’t see his bat leaving the lineup, so do you think Michigan will test him at the hot corner?

It’s true, defense has been an issue for Altobelli, especially during the early part of the year. But rumor has it, he’s been working on it. Those who watched the Indiana series last weekend saw the difference. He made the plays he should have and maybe some others wouldn’t have.

I’m expecting the improvement to continue.

Question 5:

Speaking of defense, Illinois appears to be collecting quite a few double plays this season. They rank 9th in the nation in double plays per game by the last NCAA statistics release (3/29/09). Michigan has been all about crippling double plays at times this season (see: Arizona currently leading the nation in double plays per game). Are we going to see a lot of sinking fastballs and splitters this weekend? If so, who from?

Wow, I hadn’t seen that. Since our pitchers don’t strike out a whole lot of batters (Reeser excepted), placement of the pitch is so important. Fortunately, they do it well, keeping the ball down.

Our keystone combination of Brandon Wikoff and Josh Parr are above par (sorry, I couldn’t resist) so I give them a lot of credit for those numbers.

By the way, I just noticed that Indiana surpassed Illinois in DP numbers this week.

Question 6:

Speaking of Michigan crippling itself, Illinois doesn’t appear to be dominating in the strikeout column. I don’t even have a question for you. I just wanted to point out that I think the Illini Ks-per-9-innings is going up this weekend. Call it a hunch.

Hehe, that may be. Your point is well taken about Illinois’ strikeout rate. Reeser has 37 Ks in 40+ innings but no other starter approaches that (though Roberts’ is decent at 25 Ks in 30 2/3). Phil Haig doesn’t strike out a ton of batters but his walk rate is good.

Question 7:

How is starting second baseman Josh Parr doing? I noticed he left a game this last weekend against Indiana. Nothing serious I hope? Would Bonadonna take over second base if he is out? And speaking of Bonadonna, what happened with him? I see he’s still stealing bases like a mad man, but the average has plummeted from last year.

Thanks for asking. The word is that Parr will be back for this coming weekend’s series against Michigan. He made an appearance last night against Bradley as a pinch hitter. I’m glad to hear it since Parr has been an invaluable part of this team from the very start (4 for 4 in his college debut).

As for Joe Bonadonna, Coach Hartleb had confidence in him in the early part of the season when his batting average was quite low. It was a good call because I think it’s starting to pay off. Bonadonna had a key role in a couple games that really paid off for the team. He’s starting to turn it around offensively.

Besides that, Bonadonna brings so much more to the game. You already alluded to the baserunning aspect. His defense in centerfield is superb as we found out last weekend against Indiana. Finally, Joe is starting to develop as a leader within the clubhouse and the dugout. I’m keeping an eye on him.

So that concludes this part of the Q&A, remember to check in with IBR for my answers to Tom’s questions. Thanks so much to Tom for making this happen.

Now, on to more pressing matters, like brushing my teeth… I just opened the CMU box score and threw up a bit in my mouth. [formerlyanonymous shutters then walks away slowly. /scene]


Questions for Illinois Baseball Report

April 7, 2009

I’m doing a little bit of Q&A with the IllinoisBaseballReport, so I thought I’d post questions here, and if any of you who keep up with this thing had anything else to add, feel free to leave it in the comments.

Question 1:

I see last year’s closer Ben Reeser has made the jump to starter most impressively this season, but despite his shiny 2.01 ERA and 12:37 walk-to-strikeout ration, he’s only accumulated 3 wins in 6 starts.  Is it the bullpen or the lack of offense that is keeping his win total down?

Question 2:

Speaking of pitching, I can’t help but notice these ERA and opponent batting average numbers for Illinois starters.  I’ve heard all sorts of positives from the LSU series, but just how good is this starting pitching staff?

http://www.fightingillini.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/ill-m-basebl-CumulativeStats.html

More specifically, which three starters do we see and who is the weakest link, if one exists?

Question 3:

Looking over the offense, the Illini have some impressive batting averages (team: .313, starters: .327) and some decent but not great extra base hit totals – 7th in slugging percentage in the Big10.  It appears Brandon Wickoff is still an absolute monster (.402 BA, 25 R, .529 slugging, only 4 K in 102 ABs).  Is he still batting third and is there a way to pitch around him?  Are the batters behind him that much of a threat?

Question 4:

On defense, third basemen Altobelli’s fielding percentage at third base.  Is he having trouble with run of the mill ground balls, throwing the ball across the diamond,  slow rolling bunts, or a little bit of everything?  Or, is he just the recipient of some bad luck?  I can’t see his bat leaving the lineup, so do you think Michigan will test him at the hot corner?

Question 5:

Speaking of defense, Illinois appears to be collecting quite a few double plays this season.  They rank 9th in the nation in double plays per game by the last NCAA statistics release (3/29/09).  Michigan has been all about crippling double plays at times this season (see: Arizona currently leading the nation in double plays per game).  Are we going to see a lot of sinking fastballs and splitters this weekend?  If so, who from?

Question 6:

Speaking of Michigan crippling itself, Illinois doesn’t appear to be dominating in the strikeout column.  I don’t even have a question for you.  I just wanted to point out that I think the Illini Ks-per-9-innings is going up this weekend.  Call it a hunch.

Question 7:

How is starting second baseman Josh Parr doing?  I noticed he left a game this last weekend against Indiana.  Nothing serious I hope?  Would Bonadonna take over second base if he is out?  And speaking of Bonadonna, what happened with him?  I see he’s still stealing bases like a mad man, but the average has plummeted from last year.


Random Find: Subtle Butts

March 29, 2009

Game is expected to start at either 3pm or 4pm as Iowa is trying to get the field ready.  For now, enjoy this.. or not, the choice is yours. -FA

I was forwarded an article in the Chicago Sun Times yesterday about a recent sponsor of several minor league ballparks.  And while my friend was more interested in the all you can eat greasy food, the actual subject matter of the article left him tickled.

The sponsor is Subtle Butt, makers of an odor absorbant pad that can be attached directly to your underwear to cut down on flatulence odors.  Its a great idea, and it apparently found the perfect market.  Check out the CST post.  The commerical above was just too funny not to share.  Enjoy.


Formerly on Varsity Blue: Preview North Florida

February 23, 2009
Image from netitor.com

@North Florida
7pm – February 25, 2009
Harmon Stadium
Jacksonville, FL
Media: Yet to be released (see relevant links)
Probable Pitchers: Yet to be released
Michigan Record vs Opponent: 0-0, no previous games

Overview

Image from UNF Website

Michigan meets up with the North Florida Ospreys of the Atlantic Sun (A-Sun) conference in its first midweek game of the year. This will also be the first true road game (albeit trivial) for the Wolverines. North Florida finished last year 111th in RPI, one spot ahead of the Big10’s second place team (Purdue). This year, North Florida looks to make a fairly dramatic step backwards. The preseason coaches poll has them projected to finish 5th in the A-Sun (pdf). There has been speculation that with the conference expansion and the inability to make the NCAA tournament, there had been some motivation issues last year. North Florida made the jump from D2 to D1 last year, along with 4 other teams in the A-Sun, and they are noneligible for post season play. Its a stupid rule, but a rule nonetheless.

So Far This Season

The Osprey have started off the season the BankFirst Challenge hosted by Mississippi State. They faced both Northern Illinois and Mississippi State twice during the weekend. Against Northern Illinois, North Florida too both games by a score of 6-3 and 9-3. North Florida’s recaps of games are insanely confusing. Case in point:

Junior Preston Hale held his own well in the three-hole, going 2-for-3 and going 3-for-3 when leading off the inning.

UNF (1-0) had its vaunted First Coast Offense kicking on all cylinders, moving runners to the extra base on almost every chance, going 14-for-27 in advancement opportunities.

Against Mississippi State, UNF lost both games by scores of 7-1 and 9-7. Mississippi State is a lower tier SEC school, finishing 127th in RPI last year. The Osprey ended up batting .257 on the weekend against the week pitching lead primarily by centerfielder Brian Wilson (.444), left fielder Michael Smith (.400) and first basemen Ryan Puskar (.357). One the mound, the team wasn’t very pretty, the exception being starter John Atteo who threw a complete game (3 ERs).

Stars Offensive Starters

The Osprey return four starting players from last year’s starting lineup. They are lead by thrid baseman/left fielder Andrew Hannon and corner outfielder Preston Hale. Hannon was second on the team (highest returning) in batting average at .359 and RBIs at 44. Hannon was a non-factor this past weekend, only playing in one game, going 1/4 with a run and an RBI. Preston Hale batted .350 with 4 homeruns and 34 RBIs. He also lead the team with 16 doubles. Hale was also quiet this weekend, batting on .285 with 3 runs and an RBI.

Second basemen T.J. Thompson hit .317 last year, with 11 doubles, 3 triples, and a home run, but .317 isn’t that intimidating in college. The other returning starter, catcher Michael Gropper hit .317 on the year as well, but that was in limited starting time. Behind the plate, Gropper has a fairly good arm, but he still gave up about 70% of stolen base attempts. David Eldredge has started three of the games so far, but has been meh batting. He did get 4 RBIs in the first outing against Northern Illinois, but he followed that up with two games going 0/3.

Puskar has to be the big highlight so far for the Osprey. The first basemen already has two homeruns, scoring 5 runs and having 9 RBIs (all in the last two games). He and the two other outfielders, Wilson and Smith, have torn the cover off the ball. They’re both batting over .400 and have scored a combined 7 runs in 4 games.

Pitching Starters

I’m not sure who to expect to start this game. The Ospreys have five pitchers coming out of rehab for various surgeries. Any one of them could start against us. I wouldn’t expect any of the starters from the weekend. That limits it to 4 guys I know nothing about. Live with it.

Semi-Relevant Links

There may be some sort of video available from UNF’s website. It says “Watch” and it links you to the A-Sun’s IPTV. While I hope it’s on, I’ll be unavoidably detained by work. Hopefully it has on-demand video for replays. It looks like it might, I just haven’t had time to play with it.

I’ll link up to the MGoBlue audio and game tracker when those come available. The starting pitchers will probably be announced tomorrow as well, I just wanted to get this out before I head out for the day.


Weekend Recap

February 22, 2009

Full post (with St. John’s update) is up here.