The State of Sabermetrics in the College Game

Wednesday was Media Day at Stanford University. Some of the most successful coaches in the college game were gathered in Palo Alto to introduce their teams and take questions about the upcoming season. While there were little snippets of saber-awareness throughout, the overall feeling was perhaps more old-school than the professional game.

Up first was Mark Marquess, Stanford coach since 1977. Proud of his team, recently named the pre-season number two in the nation, he probably the most sabrermetrically-friendly of the group. First, he reacted to the new ball. After giving the caveat that the new bat was “here to stay,” he pointed out that decreasing offense was risky in terms of attendance and popularity of the game. He then added something that FanGraphs readers might applaud.

Third and fourth hitters in the pros are not bunting. They are in college. Maybe another year of adjustment will change things, but that’s how people reacted to the bat last year and it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. — Mark Marquess

Marquess’ team averaged a bunt every two games last year. Compared to the MLB average of .34 bunts per team per game, it does put him behind the times a tad, but we have to remember that the run environment in college was lower. The average Major League team scored 4.3 runs a game last year, and his Stanford squad played in a Division I environment that saw only 5.58 runs per game. For him to average about as many bunts per game as the Washington Nationals while playing in a league that scores almost half as many runs means he’s ahead of the average college coach in this regard.

Or he just has better position players than the average college team. One scout said that this year’s Stanford squad could boast top-five-round talent at every position. At least he’s not having his studs lay em down.

Marquess also repeated the adage that ‘pitching wins championships’ with respect to how the Stanford squad would do this year. While that may not be completely true — professional teams to win championships with hitting that is better than their pitching — it does seem that it’s virtually impossible to win championships with a below-average pitching staff.

Either way, it’s a good thing they have top prospect Mark Appel and his 96 MPH fastball atop the rotation, and that big lefty Brett Mooneyham’s in-jeopardy career has been resuscitated. Marquess seemed confident that the team would find a closer among their good secondary pitchers, which also seems saber-aware. Afterwards the coach agreed to a sit down some time to explore this concept further, so we’ll see. Early returns are favorable.

California coach David Esquer piqued saber cats’ ears when he affirmed that his star player, Tony Renda, would bat at the top of the lineup — first or second. The reasoning? “If anyone’s going to get five at-bats in a game, we think it should be him.” Bravo, coach.

Afterwards, though, the coach muddied the waters somewhat. The thinking was the team’s second-best hitter, Chad Krist, would probably hit fourth. But if Renda wasn’t “getting enough pitches to hit” because he wasn’t getting “coverage behind him,” he’d move Krist up to bat second, and move his traditional #1/#2 hitters to the #8/#9 slot. This is not by the book or by The Book, considering his best on-base guys are now at the bottom of the lineup, and also the fact that he’s referenced lineup protection, which has been historically hard to prove.

And bunting? Cal will do it some, he says, as part of a “mixed” approach — he just doesn’t have the boppers of a Stanford lineup, and offense is “tough to come by” in the early-season, misty college games. Esquer put a saber wrinkle into the conversation, though. Responding to my assertion that research has shown that bunts — at least on the Major League level — are usually bad ideas, Esquer pointed out that it’s “about how you use the bunt.” His team will work on hybrid drag-sacrifice and push-sacrifice in order to increasing the chances of a hit.

“The win for us is if the third baseman plays the ball on the run. The chances of him throwing that ball away or wide is a big deal.” — David Esquer

That does change things. In a tight run environment, with worse defenders and an increased likelihood of achieving a hit, the needle moves a little more in the bunt’s favor.

None of these statements, however, were as saber-unfriendly as the main announcement made by Coach Sam Piraro of San Jose State University. The coach, in his 25th season at San Jose State, affirmed that his star infielder/pitcher Zack Jones would close and probably pinch-hit or play some at designated hitter.

“If we have a chance to win three games in a week, I’ll take that,” — Sam Piraro

He admitted that the scouts wanted him to let Jones start, and play in the field, so they could see what he could do. The player probably would agree, too. But Coach Piraro feels that what the team is asking him to do is already “a bear,” so they are going to stick him in the bullpen first and figure the rest out later.

This is a pre-season Western Athletic Conference pitcher of the year, and a preseason all-WAC pitcher/hitter, and his coach is going to make him a closer and part-time DH. That doesn’t seem like the best use of his resources. Fresno State has won five of the last six WAC titles, and this decision probably won’t make it any harder for them to repeat this year.

It was a mixed Media Day for the sabermetrically aware college baseball fan. Perhaps it’s not surprising — gathering statistics for over 280 Division I college baseball teams is not easy, even if the NCAA does attempt to help.

On the other hand, the top five college baseball programs averaged over 250,000 total attendees in 2010, and even Stanford University (which averaged about two thousand per game in 2010) gets a large (monetary, if not direct) benefit from a winning baseball program. The game is basically the same at any level, and there’s money to be made by figuring out the best practices and discovering college baseball’s “extra 2%.”

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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12 years ago

An important note: Carolna (that is, UNC) uses a really nice pitch/fx camera and computer setup at their games (that they man with players who aren’t playing- usually yesterday’s starter). I wonder what other teams are doing.