Editor’s Note: This is a relatively lengthy and obscure rant that some (okay many) people may not care about, enjoy with caution!
Let me start this article off by saying that I understand that it is difficult to do a conference tournament right in a sport like baseball. The ACC has 14 member schools that play baseball (Syracuse has no team) and ideally the conference would like to have as many teams as possible attend the neutral-site event. In 2016, the conference took 10 of the 14 teams, had the 7th through 10th seeds play a play-in game to qualify for pool play. The eight remaining teams were then divided into two four-team pools, played a round robin, and then the two pool winners were paired in a winner-take-all game for the title.
This format was not particularly popular for any number of reasons but mainly: teams who won the play-in games had a minimum of four games to play over a five game stretch the week before the NCAA regionals; and pool play inherently has a problem where there are going to be matchups between teams who are already eliminated from advancing to the finals, or matchups where the outcome does not matter because the pool winner has already been determined. The latter was a proffered rationale as to why the conference was looking into alternative formatting solutions.
Next there are a couple of easily identifiable issues that are more of an inherent structural “problem” to the sport of baseball. There is high variance in any one game compared to other sports - in other words teams that are worse have a better chance to beat teams that are better than say, basketball, in only one game (one reason why series are an important part of the sport). Similarly, if you want to increase the sample size to produce a more “true” champion, you run the risk of tiring out the pitching, again, the week before the NCAA Tournament starts.
So with these issues in mind, the ACC needs to pick a tournament format to crown their champion that is both exciting and somewhat predictive, while also not hindering the member teams’ ability to compete for a national title. As provided above, there are some creative ways you can attempt to do this. There is the popular pool play option. There is double elimination (exciting for fans, easy to follow, but bad for pitchers’ arms). There is single elimination (very exciting for fans, very easy to follow, very high variance for producing the “best” champion).
Of all these options, I’m of the mind that pool play is the best option. I do agree that it has the potential to put teams through a lot of games, but it allows for a longer week of baseball, increases the sample size of games, and isn’t always as bad as double elimination can be on arms.
The 2017 Version of the ACC Tournament
For the 2017 season, the ACC decided to stick with the pool play option with a twist: instead of just inviting 10 of 14 teams and having the bottom four invited play in to the tournament, they invited 12 of 14 teams and divided the 12 teams into four pods of three. Each team is guaranteed two games and the winner of each pod advances to the semifinals where it becomes single elimination to crown a champion. Three games are played each day from Tuesday to Friday in pool play and the semis start Saturday.
Statistically, there are two ways a pod can finish record-wise: all three teams can finish at 1-1, or one team respectively finishes 2-0, 1-1, 0-2. In the latter case, obviously the 2-0 team advances, but in the case of the former, and in apparent deference to the regular season, the top seed in each pod wins the three way tiebreak at 1-1. That’s good and well and, again, pretty straightforward
Ultimately, the ACC released the pods a few months ago as follows:
Pod A: 1 seed, 8 seed, 12 seed
Pod B: 2 seed, 7 seed, 11 seed
Pod C: 3 seed, 6 seed, 10 seed
Pod D: 4 seed, 5 seed, 9 seed.
Being the college baseball nerd that I am, I’d given some thought about the best way to have these games scheduled and came to the conclusion that with only four days to play twelve pool play games, the ACC would either have to suffer through the potential that there would again be meaningless pool play games - just like the former variants of the tournament had - or a couple teams would be required to play two games in one day. There was simply no way around this given the number of ways you could have each pod complete three total games in four days.
However it was not until relatively recently that the conference “released” (thanks to Les from Scout for putting together a solid tentative schedule) the order of the games and quite frankly, I think the schedule, combined with the format, is awful. First here’s the tentative schedule, again shoutout to Les at Scout for compiling this information. Even if the exact timing of these games are not 100% set in stone, the ACC is going with a 2 v. 3; 1 v. 3; 1 v. 2 order in each pod.
The numbers are the seeds, and the letters are the pods that each seeds are in.
Tuesday: 8 v. 12 (A); 6 v. 10 (C); 5 v. 9 (D)
Wednesday: 7 v. 11 (B); 3 v. 10 (C); 1 v. 12 (A)
Thursday: 2 v. 11 (B); 4 v. 9 (D); 3 v. 6 (C)
Friday: 1 v. 8 (A); 2 v. 7 (B); 4 v. 5 (D)
Before I go on, recall that there are only two ways the teams can finish: everyone at 1-1 (top seed in each pod wins the tiebreak), or 2-0/1-1/0-2 respectively. So the first thing of note is that the only way the second and third ranked teams in a pod can advance to the semifinals is to win both their games. That makes it easy for 8 of the 12 teams: to win the tournament you have to go 2-0 to advance out of pool play, and win two games in the semis and finals. The only team who can lose a game and still advance out of pool play is the top seed in each pod.
Well, this is a pretty big advantage. The top seed in each pod, without even taking into consideration that they are likely to be the best team in their pod, has a 50% chance to advance assuming every game is a coin flip. If they go 2-0 (25% chance), they advance, if they go 0-2 (25% chance), they don’t advance, and if they go 1-1 (50% chance overall), they still advance if their win came against the team that won the lone game of the pod that the top seed didn’t play in (the matchup of the second and third teams in the pod). But that’s fine - you’re rewarding the top four teams and increasing the likelihood of those four making the tournament.
The Scheduling Problem
But where things really get bad is when you take a look at the schedule above. The first four games of the tournament are: 8 seed v. 12 seed; 6 seed v. 10 seed; 5 seed v. 9 seed; and 7 seed v. 11 seed. Remember that if you aren’t a top four seed, you are eliminated if you lose a game. So the first four games of the tournament are just four elimination games. The loser of these four games cannot advance and STILL have to go play another game. The ACC is likely only getting 8 teams into the NCAA tournament this year, so there’s a good chance that a team’s season is entirely over and yet they still have to go play one more game.
However, with the format used this year this was always going to be the case. Whenever you play the game between the bottom two teams in each pod, the loser is eliminated. So wouldn’t it make far more sense to not lead off with these games? By leading off with these four games, you’ve automatically created a situation where a meaningless game will be played later in the week. By playing the elimination game first you’ve also given the top seed a massive advantage in that they know which one of the two teams later in the week that they need to throw their best pitcher against.
Take Pod A for example, to make it more concrete. The first game in Pod A is the 8 seed v. the 12 seed. The second game is the 1 seed v. the 12 seed. The final game is the 1 seed v. the 8 seed. The loser of the first game is eliminated. So let’s say the seedings hold and the 8 seed wins. Well the 1 seed is playing the 12 seed the next day and the game is totally worthless. The 12 seed is already eliminated, and since the 1 seed can lose a game and still advance, they don’t need to beat the 12 seed - they just need to beat the 8 seed. So neither team cares - one is out and the other doesn’t care if it wins or loses for purposes of the ACC Tournament. This follows for each of the four pods.
The way the ACC scheduled the tournament in addition to the three-way tiebreak automatically going to the top seed (instead of using something like run differential to break the tie), there was absolutely no reason to have a third game in each pod. You could just have had the 8 seed play the 12 seed and then have the winner play the 1 seed to determine who advances to the semifinals.
Where the ACC screwed up, once they already had the four-pod format and three-way tiebreak in place, was (as mentioned above) to schedule the bottom two teams in each pod first. By changing the focus on what mattered (requiring two teams to play two games in a day on Tuesday and Wednesday; using run differential as a tiebreak) you could potentially decrease the number of meaningless/worthless games that are guaranteed by the current format.
The Scheduling Solution
My proposal for how the schedule should have been given the format and tiebreak mechanics - with pods in parentheses.
Game One: 1 seed v. 12 seed (A)
Game Two: 2 seed v. 11 seed (B)
Game Three: Loser Game One v. 8 seed (A)
Game Four: 3 seed v. 10 seed (C)
Game Five: 4 seed v. 9 seed (D)
Game Six: Loser Game One v. 6 seed (C)
Loser Game Two v. 7 seed (B)
Loser Game Five v. 5 seed (D)
Winner Game One v. 8 seed (A)
Winner Game Two v. 7 seed (B)
Winner Game Four v. 6 seed (C)
Winner Game Five v. 5 seed (D)
This seems to be relatively complicated, but once you get the basics it isn’t.
Instead of leading with an elimination game in the first four games, thus guaranteeing there is a worthless game included down the road featuring the first four game losers, the only way you end up with a meaningless game in each pod is if the team that loses the first game in each pod wins their next game. But even better - that game is not then totally worthless, because although the team that lost the earlier game is eliminated, the team they’re playing is not. While this creates a potential pitfall for the highest seed in each pod compared to the second, it doesn’t matter because even if the highest seed lost the first game to the lowest seed, they can still advance out of the pod if they beat the second team and the second team beats the lowest seed.
Let’s look at pod A again through this format to give a concrete example. Now, instead of the 8 seed v. 12 seed in the first game (Tuesday morning), the 1 seed plays the 12 seed. If the 1 seed holds serve and beats the 12 seed, then the 12 seed is out (just like they would be if they lost any game). The 12 seed then plays the 8 seed that night. If the 12 seed, without anything to play for, beats the 8 seed, who still has everything to play for, then that’s the only way the final game of the pod: the 1 seed v. the 8 seed, is meaningless. If that occurs the 1 seed automatically advances.
Furthermore, if the 8 seed knocks off the 12 seed as they “should” then there is a winner-take-all game three in the pod between the 1 seed and the 8 seed to see who goes to the semifinals, creating a “quarterfinals” like bracket. The bottom line is that the ACC decided they would rather have a guaranteed winner-take-all game in each pod, while also guaranteeing that there was a worthless game for each pod, instead of a scenario where there may not be a winner-take-all game in each pod, but there is also a decreased chance that there are any worthless games.
Hell you can even flip which two pods have to play two games in a day, so that Tuesday is 1 v. 12 in the morning and Wednesday is 2 v. 11 in the morning, so if better seeds win the only teams having to play twice in a day are the bottom two teams who made the tournament in the first place (and wouldn’t have even qualified before this year anyway). If the top seeds lose in that schedule, they really only have themselves to blame and better get back on that horse to redeem themselves that night and pull hard for the middle team in the pod to beat the bottom team in the pod.
By changing the schedule and keeping everything else the same, the ACC could make the tournament a considerably more entertaining and exciting product. As is pool play consists of twelve total games: four elimination games, four winner-take-all games, and four worthless games. If this was going to be the format and schedule, there was simply no reason at all to require that the third game of each pod be played.
What do you think? Did the ACC get it right and Bart’s making a lot out of nothing, or is the schedule the ACC chose poor and Bart is spot on? Is it somewhere in between?` Let us know in the comments below.