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2018 College World Series: Picking horses for the course

By Lou Finocchiaro  () 

It’s mandatory to understand the bracket set- up for the College World Series. The double- elimination bracketed format greatly benefits any team that wins its first two games. Experience is also important as teams with recent CWS experience often thrive in their return trip into Omaha. As important as those factors are, gaining an understanding of each team’s strengths and weaknesses (based on recent play and season statistics) and how those attributes apply to the ballpark in Omaha are critical.  

An important factor in uncovering value for CWS participants is gaining an understanding of how each team plays the game. TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha is a cavernous stadium with a huge, deep outfield. The stadium sits low (right next to the Missouri river) and the wind (almost always gusting) blows right into the teeth of the hitter. Teams that earn their way to Omaha by playing home run derby “monster-ball” often struggle as the TD Ameritrade park is larger than the ones these teams have played in during their regular season.

The premium for success in Omaha is not based on the home run or slugging percentages. Rather, teams that prove most effective here are rich in pitching, fielding, sacrificing runners over and hitting for percentage. Small ball is the theme for the College World Series, simply put. Teams that competed in Omaha the previous year almost always gain advantage (Florida and OSU) in their return.

Along with experience, team ERA, on-base percentages, fielding percentages, doubles hit and whether they are senior-laden squads (especially on the pitching staff) must be handicapped for these are premiums when competing in the CWS.  This is a tournament that will test a team’s completeness in all aspects of the game as opposed to being  a home run derby as this event once was considered back in the days of old Rosenblatt stadium.  The most talented team may not always win the championship in Omaha rather the team that is playing its best hardball at this time of the year can often rise up (see Central Carolina Chanticleer’s 2016) to win the tourney. The history of this tournament is laden with chalky, front- running teams, ace hurlers and top draft-pick hitters coming to Omaha and flailing, so I place a premium on team play rather than individual talent.

BRACKET I

Florida (3-1 at Westgate)

Arkansas (9-2)

Texas Tech (10-1)

Texas (8-1)

I have prioritized each team based on my handicapping of each squad. I regard this side of the bracket to be dangerously competitive as each team is ranked in the top 25 (D1baseball. com top25, 5-21-18).

Florida (ranked #1) has been to Omaha the last four years straight, seven of the last nine seasons and the team arrives this year as the defending champion. The Gators are experienced, complete in every category I track and are a worthy favorite to defend their championship. The SEC has proven to be a baseball powerhouse, so each of the three SEC teams in this year’s competition must be respected. Florida, because of its depth and experience, has been installed as the favorite in this side of the bracket.

Fifth-ranked Arkansas is a powerful, balanced baseball club that in previous CWS appearances struggled to score runs. Coached by ex-Nebraska coach Dave Van Horn, these Razorbacks arrive with a dynamic offense, a deep pitching staff and are poised to make noise. It also must be mentioned that the Omaha fans will be quick and voracious in their support of the ex-Husker hardball coach, so look for the Hogs to be fan favorites. Arkansas went 1-2 vs. Florida in the regular season, then defeated them in the SEC tourney 8-2. It beat Texas Tech in its only contest this year and was 2-0 vs. Texas. Arkansas has the lowest team ERA in the bracket, is on par with Florida in WHIP and can field effectively. The Razorbacks can hit for average and power and they arrive in Omaha as offensively explosive as any team in the field. Arkansas is a true threat to move into the final series, even though it lacks recent experience in Omaha.

Texas Tech returns for its third trip to Omaha in the last five years. It owns a 1-4 record so the Red Raiders will arrive hungry and anxious to overcome past futility as no team wants to be tagged with the “two and BBQ” moniker, which means two games, two losses and a return trip home. Tech is a team I have diagnosed as a monster club. The Red Raiders are explosive offensively and can bash the ball. Their offensive numbers stand out, yet they own the highest team ERA, WHIP and walks allowed and have the lowest fielding percentage of the four teams. Tech will have to play its best ball to ear n its way into the later stages of this tourney. I have reservations about Tech’s potential in this side of the bracket.

Twelfth-ranked Texas is playing its best ball at the end of the season and peaking at just the correct time. That said, the Longhorns trail in almost every statistical category I regard as important. Texas has gained inspiration in that they’re playing in tribute of ex-coach Augie Garrido, (a personal friend of mine from past CWS appearances) who decades ago took Texas from a languishing baseball club and delivered them back into the national prominence it had enjoyed for decades in college baseball. Texas faces a dominant Arkansas team in its first contest, which is a tough draw for certain. In my judgment, the Longhorns will be overmatched in this bracket.

BRACKET II

Oregon State (7-2)

North Carolina (6-1)

Mississippi State (8-1)

Washington (12-1)

Washington, unranked in the top 25, is making its first appearance in the College World Series. The Huskies overcame a talented and experienced Cal State-Fullerton bunch in extra innings in the Super Regionals to gain entrance to Omaha. The Huskies’ statistics place them competitively within the bracket, but the emotional high from gaining entrance to the tourney along with a draw against a dangerous SEC club provide me enough reservation to feel that Washington did all it could just to get here. I do not regard the Huskies as a threat on this side of the bracket.

Mississippi State, unranked in the top 25 could be a sleeper in this bracket. Though only 15-15 in conference play, the Bulldogs are peaking at the correct time and their competition level in the SEC forces me to regard this team as capable of besting the Huskies in an all-important game one. If the Dawgs can best the Huskies, they’ll find themselves in position to win one game against a ranked North Carolina or OSU squad to earn dominant advantage in this bracket. Statistically speaking, they fall well below the Beavers and Heels in most categories I feel are important. The experienced they’ve gained however from the stringent level of SEC competition make the Bulldogs a true flyer. MSU is a team that will offer value in the futures market.

Fifth-ranked North Carolina has had previous CWS success, but not in the last couple years. The Tar Heels arrive in Omaha with a team ERA of 3.60, though they do walk batters (4.07 per nine innings), which is a concern. Carolina scores 6.9 runs per game, it steals bases better than any in the bracket and it can slug. But the Tar Heels struggle to hit for average (a premium in Omaha) and they don’t hit doubles nor do they effectively sacrifice bunt/hit. The Heels will have their hands full in Game 1 against OSU’s ace hurler Luke Heimlich. For this reason, I’ll overlook them in the futures market.

Third-ranked Oregon State arrives to Omaha this year under different circumstances. Last year, under circumstances the Beavers were unable to control, their CWS team arrived in Omaha prepared to dominate. But instead, the team had to play without star pitcher Luke Heimlich, whose past (Heimlich pleaded guilty in 2012 to molesting a 6-year-old family member) was raised just before the tournament. The Beavers played solid baseball, but the distraction of those headlines and loss of their ace was simply too much.

This year’s team has had a single-minded focus to return to Omaha and complete the task of earning the team’s third CWS championship.  Oregon State is fortunate enough to have two top pitching prospects in Heimlich (2.49 ERA) and Fehmel (2.81 ERA). The Beavers’ ERA and WHIP are the lowest in the tourney, they rarely walk batters, and their fielding percentage, on-base percentage and doubles lead all eight teams in the field. The Beavers have stolen the most bases of any team in the tourney, they lead in sacrifice bunts and own a second-best on- base percentage of .413. This team is complete, experienced and poised to represent a bracket that is substantially less able than is Bracket I. Oregon State along with Florida then Arkansas are the chalk for this tournament. Based on those prices, Oregon State is my release to make it to the final series and complete what they began but failed to accomplish last year.

While the Beavers are chalky, the price on the MSU Bulldogs is quite attractive. So I suggest a small position on Mississippi State.

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