Stress out west: Why the West Coast is still in college baseball’s dugout

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A look at the relatively brief history of college baseball quickly reveals a power dynamic between two opposing forces in the country. Sprinkling in a few mid-majors and Big 10 teams, the majority of the championships reside in the halls of either the Southern powers of the SEC, Big 12 and ACC conferences — or their West Coast foes.

The Pac-12 Conference has enjoyed the most success out of any of its counterparts, raking in 18 national championships; the SEC has the second-most at 12. The conference boasts both recent achievements and notorious dynasties in the past — remember the Rod Dedeaux USC teams of the 1970s?

So why, year after year, do the SEC, ACC and Big 12 attract more top prospects, have higher attendance and garner more respect in postseason seeding? Why, after all of its success, isn’t the West the golden coast of baseball?

The short answer: the West hasn’t established the same culture of college baseball as the South.

The underlying reasons behind this dynamic are numerous, but most can be traced back to West Coast schools’ seeming lack of commitment to their baseball programs. The Pac-12 and Big West programs are, it appears, just unable and unwilling to compete with the state-of-the-art facilities of the SEC — losing recruits and respect from other conferences.

Part of this stems from fans’ commitment to their schools in the South, where there are few hometown professional teams to root for. Much of it also falls on the West Coast schools themselves, however, which seemingly show a lack of willingness to fully invest in their baseball programs. It appears that to many Western colleges, baseball is expendable — one has to look no further than the Cal baseball program’s uncertainties in 2011.

The unfortunate reality for the Pac-12 Conference is that a large part of its current problems can be traced back to its expansion to 12 teams. The Pac-10 expanded to 12 teams in 2011, when the conference added Colorado and Utah — a move that was an eventual blessing for other sports such as football, but was a curse for Pac-12 baseball.

The “Pac-11” annexed only one team, Utah, as Colorado does not field a baseball team. This was a one-two punch for the conference: not only was it unable to boast a full conference with split divisions, but the Utes entered as an unproven and ill-prepared program.

Not only did this force teams to play an opponent that more often than not lowered their strength of schedule, but it also adds an extra weekend to the conference schedule, limiting either a conference tournament or an extra nonconference weekend series.

All these factors contribute to the Pac-12’s struggles to create a balanced and well-respected conference, even with its current success. These problems reverberate to the rest of the region, as the reduced power of its biggest conference also negatively affects the talented yet underrepresented mid-major conferences. The West is still second-tier to the Southern conferences; this separation between the two regions creates a cycle of Southern superiority.

The most visible and damaging effect of this dynamic is the lack of respect West Coast teams receive in the postseason. Pacific coast schools have multiple factors working against their potential seedings in the NCAA tournament. First, one of the biggest factors in postseason seeding is the Ratings Power Index, better known as RPI. RPI combines a team’s winning percentage with their opponent’s win percentages, as well as their opponents’ opponents winning percentage.

RPI is a helpful tool in developing an unbiased and true ranking system to use for playoff purposes. Its simplicity is its greatest flaw, however: it inherently favors some teams and conferences over others.

The West Coast lacks the number of division one baseball teams that the South and Midwest boast. The lack of diversity in opponents results in an evening of the playing field, as the average RPI is stretched toward the .500 mark. Taking out the math, the effect is still simple: there can only be so many well-respected teams when the same 20-25 schools are only competing against each other.

Geographic location also hurts the Western teams that manage to overcome the RPI discrepancies. More often than not, Western teams are placed in the same regionals, whether to minimize travel or by the committee’s discretion. This minimizes the amount of success that a group of Western teams can have, as they are forced to eliminate one another.

For example, the committee selected Stanford, UCSB, Fresno State and Sacramento State, the latter three of which were conference champions for the 2019 Stanford Regional. Each team had a strong case to be slated as a higher seed, but were instead grouped together in arguably the toughest regional of the tournament. With only nine of the 64 tournament teams hailing from the West Coast, such a grouping hurt the region’s chances of a deep postseason run.

Breaking the paradigm isn’t out of reach for the conferences of the West Coast, however. First, the Pac-12 would highly benefit from adding another team from outside its conventional schools, a practice done in other sports where some Pac-12 teams don’t have programs. This would increase the parity in the league, while also allowing for divisions to be created. The addition of a conference tournament would also greatly help the league, as it would give bubble teams one last opportunity to prove their postseason worth.

On a bigger scale, the conference tournament would generate more interest in the sport and bring together fans of the league. This would help with the larger goals of the conference and the rest of the West: creating a larger fanbase and a positive culture around the sport. With a proper investment into the sport, the Pac-12 can be known as more than just “the conference of champions” — it can be the “conference of American’s pastime.”

Michael Brust is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeB_DC.