WITH THE arrival of the NCAA baseball tournament comes an annual passage of summer: Coaches across the country claiming every No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the field is a legitimate contender to reach the College World Series.
Then the regional tournaments are played out and the top-seeded teams — the best teams in the field and the ones playing on their home fields — advance to the Super Regionals, per usual.
Call it excellent seeding by the NCAA tournament selection committee. Or give credit to the trend toward better home field environments in the college game. Or simply realize that the 16 teams awarded host sites are generally the 16 best teams in the country.
How this year’s regional tournaments played out is not atypical. Since the NCAA went to a 64-team, regional and Super Regional format for the 1999 postseason, 71 percent of the top-seeded teams have won regional tournaments.
I am no mathematician, but that percentage tells me the regional tournaments are pretty darned predictable. What it also tells me is that the “parity” that every coach insists has overtaken the game really does not exist.
Of the 16 top-seeded regional teams this season, 14 advanced to a Super Regional. That is 87.5 percent success for the host clubs. It is quibbling, but the percentage could have been higher.
Many questioned the validity of Virginia Tech receiving a host site and No. 1 seed, but it appears the selection committee occasionally throws a bone to an up-and-coming program that otherwise is not accustomed to hosting.
Virginia Tech, which likely got the host site over fellow ACC member Clemson, lost its opening-round game to fourth-seeded Connecticut, fought through the losers’ bracket and bowed out to second-seeded Oklahoma.
The other top-seeded regional loser was Oregon, which fell to Rice. There appeared to be cracks in the Oregon seeding from the outset. Many critics questioned the validity of making the Ducks the No. 8 national seed.
Digging a little deeper into the regional tournament results reveals how wide the gap is between top seeds and No. 4 seeds.
Top-seeded teams won 47 of 54 games, or 87 percent. Throw out the combined 5-4 record of Virginia Tech and Oregon and No. 1 seeds lost three games. The top-seeded team went unbeaten in 11 regionals.
That is the kind of dominance one would expect from schools that generally put more resources into their programs. The top-tier programs have better facilities than the mid-majors, bigger fan bases, and recruit a higher-level player.
Jim Toman, the former South Carolina assistant coach, now heads a Liberty program that recently constructed a $20 million baseball stadium. Liberty is beginning to emerge as a program that moves beyond the mid-major status because of the school’s financial commitment to baseball.
Meanwhile, during the Columbia Regional, Toman pointed out a major difference between the top programs in the country and the mid-majors. He said when Liberty loses a player or two to injury, the club is susceptible to a slump or losing streak. When a USC loses players to injury, it can build depth by plugging in a couple of highly recruited players off the bench.
The area that probably most separates the top-seeded regional teams from the bottom-seeded teams is pitching. A Liberty might field a couple of solid starters and a thin bullpen. A USC can rely on five stalwart pitchers while developing another four or five arms in mid-week, non-conference games during the regular season.
That pitching difference becomes most apparent during a double-elimination regional tournament. A top-seeded team often can fight its way through a losers’ bracket with pitching depth. A fourth-seeded team has little chance of winning once it reaches the losers’ bracket.
That proved true again this year when fourth-seeded teams won six of 38 regional games, or 16 percent. Throw out Central Arkansas, which went 3-2 in the Mississippi State regional, and the other 15 No. 4 seeds won three games in the tournament.
Once in a long while, a bottom-seeded team escapes the regional and wins a Super Regional to reach the College World Series. Fresno State, a fourth seed in the Long Beach State Regional in 2008, caught fire and eventually won the national championship. A year ago, Stony Brook reached the College World Series as a regional fourth seed, and Kent State did the same as a third-seeded team in the regional.
Those are the exceptions, the flukes. What generally happens is much like what happened this year. Fourteen No. 1 seeds and a pair of No. 2 seeds advanced to Super Regional play.
Remember that next year when top-seeded coaches begin chattering about the strength of the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in their respective regionals. Remind them that it is seldom true.