As the Cougs begin the Road to Omaha as a No. 3 seed in the Norman Regional tomorrow, there's a lot of optimism that WSU could possibly in for a deep run -- after all, the College World Series has been won by a No. 4 regional seed (Fresno State) and a No. 3 regional seed (Oregon State) the last two years, so why not the Cougs?
Applying such logic is at least partially flawed, though, because of your likely frame of reference probably comes from watching the NCAA basketball tournament, in which teams are seeded a reasonably true 1-16 in four different quadrants. While teams might get moved up or down a line to satisfy seeding rules, a 13 seed is generally a 13 seed.
This just isn't so in baseball, which regionalizes it's opening round -- hence the name "regional" -- much more so than in basketball, where only the top 16 teams are intentionally kept close to home. In baseball, the committee will really fudge with seedings to make its regionalization work, and although some teams do get moved pretty far (for example, Virginia is traveling to Irvine, Calif.), there doesn't seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to how they determine who is seeded where outside of the No. 1 seeds as there isn't near the transparency as basketball in terms of how the teams are selected and seeded. In fact, there's no transparency at all.
To be fair to the committee, trying to figure out relative strength of teams is much harder in baseball than in basketball, where poor seeding has become much less of an issue in recent years, given the saturation of television coverage and prevalence of high-profile intersectional matchups. Baseball has no such national television coverage, which creates a double whammy of sorts -- less exposure to the selection committee and fewer high profile intersectional matchups, because those matchups are driven in large part by television dollars. It makes it harder to evaluate teams from different parts of the country.
As a result, not all 2, 3 and 4 seeds are created equal (as described here and here), and because of that, it's really not a great idea to use the regional seeds of the past two national champs to determine the Cougars' chances. Yes, it does show that anything can happen, but that's about it in terms of what we actually can learn. Just because the Cougs have the same regional seed the Beavers did two years ago doesn't mean their path is comparable.
However, there is one guy out there who has taken up Ken Pomeroy's torch in the college baseball world in an attempt to rate teams: Boyd Nation, author of boydsworld.com. He's come up with what he calls his Iterative Strength Ratings, explained here. Like Pomeroy, his ratings are designed to be predictive, and he runs ISR-based probabilities (similar to Basketball Prospectus' log5 predictions) for each regional.
Granted, it's hardly a perfect measure -- after all, luck is a huge factor in baseball, and anything can happen in a one-game scenario where so much is dependent on one pitcher. His probabilities would be a whole lot more accurate if all of the teams played at least a 3-game series throughout the tournament. But since the NCAA doesn't do that, it can at least maybe give us a better idea of the relative strength of this regional, since that seems to vary so wildly.
Here are his probabilities for each team of winning the Norman Regional, winning the super regional, making it to the final series and winning the championship:
One thing you notice right away is that one of these is not like the other. That 11-point difference in ISR between Wichita State and WSU is pretty significant, and here's why: There's actually a pretty strong predictive value to the number of ISR points between two teams. That's how you get the probabilities listed above. How big of a deal is that 11.3 difference between WSU and Wichita State? According to Boyd Nation, it gives the Cougs a 76 percent chance of beating the Shockers, should they face each other. By contrast, the 1.6 points separating WSU and Arkansas makes it essentially a toss-up between those two teams tomorrow.
So when comparing the relative strength of the regionals, it's probably best to compare the difference between first and third seeds in ISR. You might think the Cougs are in one of the tougher regionals, given the 4.7-point difference between the Oklahoma and WSU.
You'd be sort of right. What you see when looking at this spreadsheet is that the Cougs are in a tough regional because the top three are so closely bunched, points wise, but they at least avoided one of the major league heavyweights in Texas, CS-Fullerton, UC-Irvine and Arizona State. Yeah, the draw could've been better -- the Florida, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, East Carolina, Clemson, Louisville and Mississippi regionals come to mind -- but it could've been worse. (Hello, TCU!)
In the end, the Cougs didn't get a raw deal, and they face a very beatable team in the first round, especially with Matt Way on the hill. They don't have to face a 900-pound gorilla in the regional. And really, that's all you can ask for. An 11 percent chance good enough chance for me.
After all, the ISR probabilities said Fresno State only had a 7 percent chance to get out of the regional last year ...