Updated: Nov 17, 2020
With the growing likelihood of reduced, or even no, non-conference games for the 2021 college baseball season, talk of an expanded college baseball playoff is increasing. The logic goes that without non-conference games, it will be impossible to tease out which teams deserve an at-large bid. Therefore, open the field up to even more teams as insurance.
Without non-conference games, the already questioned metric of the RPI will be useless, so how do you decide which teams deserve to make it in? University of Houston head coach Todd Whitting suggests automatically awarding bids based on an average of bids from recent years. So let's explore this.
First off, we took a look at the number of postseason bids per conference over the last ten years. Not surprisingly, the SEC and ACC consistently have sent the most teams to Regionals. Our next takeaway is that ten years is way too long a time period to consider. The ever-changing landscape of conference alignment makes a conference's bid number from 2010 completely moot (see 2010 Big Ten). Major conference shuffling in the mid-2010s also plays a large factor in bid distribution. The American's emergence in 2014 changed the landscape of college baseball.
So if ten years is too long of a period to consider, what is the right window? We next considered all conferences who have earned an at-large bid in the past five years. In total, 16 conferences have notched this distinction, while 12 conferences have done it more than once.
We then took averages for these conferences over the past two, three, four, and five years.
Now the tough part: where do you draw the line when determining how to dole out automatic bids? Two years does not make a trend, and the results from the two-year average are unsatisfying. I am skeptical that the Ohio Valley or Atlantic Sun would be more deserving than the Big West, for example, of an extra bid in 2021.
The easiest answer is to use the five-year average. Five is a nice round number and the results look fairly reasonable. The five-year average would award 41 automatic bids amongst teams in ten conferences. An additional 21 conferences would each have an automatic bid, leaving 62 spots accounted for. In combination with an expanded field to 72 teams, ten additional at-large spots would allow for some more flexibility in the selection process.
As expected, the SEC and ACC would have the most bids (eight), followed by the Pac-12 and Big 12 (five) and Big Ten (four). Other conferences with more than one bid would be the American and Conference USA (three) and the Missouri Valley, Big West, and Colonial (two).
Personally, I am fan of the four-year average. This division of bids would give 44 bids to teams in 12 different conference with 19 additional conferences having an automatic bid. In total, nine additional at-large bids would be available. In this paradigm, the SEC would gain one bid (nine), and the Pac-12 would lose one (four). More importantly, the Sun Belt and Southland would each join the ranks of guaranteed two-bid leagues. The results over the past few years (including a host of bubble teams) confirms in my mind that both of these conferences deserve two bids.
Regardless how the field is selected in 2021, it is likely that RPI won't be a useful metric. The tricky part is that both of the suggested plans leave some number of at-large bids for teams that will have to pass the "eye test." Selection of those additional teams will be a difficult task that will almost certainly leave some unsatisfied. However, selection is just one part; how would you make a 72-team bracket?
One solution is to leave eight Regionals alone and add a play-in game in the eight Regionals of the highest eight seeds. The NCAA Basketball Tournament split these play-in games between automatic and at-large qualifiers. However, due to the nature of the double-elimination Regional format, it seems unfair to eliminate an automatic qualifier after a single loss. I suggest a play-in game between at-large, three-seeds in a Regional with the winner moving on to traditional Regional play.
While there are sure to be hiccups in this system, it is hard to imagine a completely fair path forward in 2021. If there is any year to try out creative postseason strategies, 2021 is it.
Let us know what you think the best plan for the 2021 season is!