Conference Tournament Structure
Conference tournament week in college baseball offers plenty of excitement. Leagues have different formats (some conferences, such as the Pac-12, don’t have a tournament at all), but the general concept remains the same. A group of teams in each league–often excluding a few at the bottom of the standings–play one another in rapid succession over the course of the week. The winner of the conference tournament receives the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The conference’s automatic regionals bid going to the tournament winner suggests conferences see that team as the league’s most deserving representative on a national stage. That’s fine for the top conferences; the team who wins the ACC or SEC tournament would almost certainly have gotten into the field as an at-large team regardless. It also works perfectly for conferences where the regular season champion also wins the tournament. There’s likely not much debate in those instances about which team is most deserving of a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.
The Format’s Biggest Flaw
But the tournament structure leads to some unfair results in smaller leagues which traditionally only receive one entrant in the field of 64. Teams can, and often do, outplay the rest of their conference over the course of a three-month regular season, only to have their hope of making it to regionals dashed by two losses in a format that’s full of small samples by nature.
This year, Fairfield and Jackson State failed to earn the automatic bids from the MAAC and the SWAC, respectively, because they didn’t win their conference tournaments. It’s difficult to make the case they weren’t the top teams in those leagues, though. Fairfield finished the season 33-1 in league play, nine games clear of the field. Jackson State went 24-0 during the regular season, winning the league by 8.5 games. They were the story of those respective conferences all year, but neither will get an automatic bid. (Fairfield still has a chance of receiving at an large-bid, projecting as a 3-seed in D1 Baseball’s latest Field of 64 forecast; Jackson State is not seen as particularly likely to get into the NCAA tournament).
There’s a relatively straightforward fix to this dilemma: a one-game playoff between the team with the best regular season record and the conference tournament champion, with the winner receiving the league’s automatic bid. The excitement (and revenue) generated by conference tournaments are unaffected. Teams who finished third or fourth in the regular season still have an opportunity to play their way into regionals by winning the automatic bid. But this also rewards mid-major teams who dominated the competition throughout the regular season, giving them an extra chance to salvage an impressive year. All of a sudden, winning the regular season title in smaller conferences matters a whole lot more.
Adding the extra game would have a trickle-down benefit to the national tournament by enabling mid-major conferences to send their best teams to regionals more often. Given their dominating regular season bodies of work, Fairfield and Jackson State seem more likely to hold their own in a regional than do the conference tournament winners in each league (Rider and Southern, respectively). Putting the best teams into the national tournament should lead to more competitive opening rounds and a more entertaining product.
Obviously, the bonus game would have biggest ramifications for one-bid leagues by potentially changing the Field of 64 to include more regular season champions. Still, there’d be real entertainment value in the nation’s top conferences as well. A potential final game between, for instance, the SEC regular season winner and the tournament winner for the title of “true” conference champion? In all likelihood, that’d sell plenty of tickets in Hoover and bring in strong TV revenue.
The extra championship game seems like it could be effective in basketball as well, but it’s particularly well-suited to baseball. For one, baseball’s more subject to randomness in small samples- especially through batted ball and clustering luck- making baseball’s conference tournaments a less reliable indicator of the best teams than basketball’s.
There’d also be some interesting strategic elements to consider, as a friend who works for an MLB team pointed out when I first suggested this idea a few years ago. How would a regular season winner manage their pitching staff? Under the current format, conventional wisdom is to deploy your top pitchers relatively early in the conference tournament, knowing that an early loss can deal a significant blow to your chances. Would that still be the case if the regular season winner had the bonus game as a fallback? Consider the case of the 2019 Elon Phoenix, who won the CAA regular season title. Their rotation was anchored by George Kirby, a future first-round pick who’s now one of baseball’s top pitching prospects. The Phoenix pitched Kirby on three days’ rest in the first game of the double-elimination tournament, lost that opener, and wound up eliminated by eventual champion UNC-Wilmington that weekend. If they had the safety net of an extra title game, do they still use Kirby early or save him for the potential must-win contest at the end of the weekend?
Adding an extra game could lead to some difficult decisions for coaches trying to manage a pitching staff through a jam-packed week. That seems to be the biggest potential downside to the bonus game concept, although it’s not necessarily a fatal flaw. Leagues particularly concerned about pitcher workloads and/or scheduling issues could compensate–if they’d like–by cutting a game earlier in the week. Reducing the number of teams that qualify for the tournament or requiring some of the lower seeds to play their way into the main tournament through a single-elimination qualifying round could alleviate those concerns. Adding the potential bonus game might require some creativity in scheduling, but it doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable challenge.
Overall, the bonus game seems to check a lot of boxes. It’s a relatively simple, straightforward modification (one that wouldn’t even come into play all the time, since some regular season winners would also win the conference tournament and earn the automatic bid without requiring the extra game). Adding the championship game addresses the biggest flaw of the current structure- that conference tournaments devalue regular season accomplishments, particularly in one-bid leagues. Yet it’d preserve and enhance the entertainment value that comes with jamming plenty of rivalry contests into one exciting week.