Depending where you look, Arkansas baseball either got a favorable draw or an incredibly difficult one in the Fayetteville Regional.
The Razorbacks will have to survive a double-elimination tournament with TCU, Arizona and Santa Clara to advance to their fifth straight super regional and keep their quest for a 12th College World Series appearance alive.
That’s reflected in college baseball’s primary metric. Checking in at No. 33 in the RPI, TCU is the 13th-highest ranked 2 seed in the field. Arizona, at No. 45, is 11th among the 3 seeds.
It’s worth noting, though, that — at least on paper — Santa Clara appears to be one of the tougher 4 seeds Arkansas could have drawn.
While No. 1 Wake Forest, No. 2 Florida and No. 5 LSU were paired with the three automatic qualifiers outside of the top 150 in the RPI, the Broncos are No. 81 — the third-best among 4 seeds — and own a 5-5 record against the Pac-12.
However, even the chairman of the selection committee, Auburn athletics director John Cohen, admitted college baseball’s RPI — a metric based on wins, losses and strength of schedule — needs to be reformed.
“There needs to be some statistical experts to come in and help us recreate this thing,” Cohen said on ESPN2’s selection show. “I think basketball has done a great job of changing their RPI to the NET and moving it in a different direction.
“The thing about baseball is it’s a geographical sport so there’s advantages to warmer weather, we know that in the South, Southeast and out West. I would love to see it changed.”
One such statistical expert is Parker Fleming, an economist and data scientist who dabbles in sports analytics.
According to his model, which he described as a “simple opponent-adjusted pitching and hitting model, with recency weighting,” the Fayetteville Regional is the toughest for the 16 hosts, based on the average rating of the other three schools.
Toughest Regional— parker, made it up because I hate your team (@statsowar) May 29, 2023
TERRE HAUTE +4.1
BATON ROUGH +3.93
CORAL GABLES +3.01
The Razorbacks are still the favorite to advance, but have just a 36.8% chance to do so, which is the second-lowest among hosts, according to Fleming’s model. They’re followed by TCU at 25.6% and Arizona at 24.8%. Even Santa Clara has a 12.8% chance to win the regional — the highest chance of any 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Fayetteville Regional is paired with the Terre Haute Regional, which is also relatively evenly matched outside of the 4 seed, with North Carolina (35.8%), Iowa (35.4%) and host Indiana State (27.3%) each having a solid shot to advance.
With seven schools having at least a 24.8% chance to reaching the super regional, it’s a bit easier to understand the other stat that might have caught Arkansas baseball fans somewhat by surprise:
Probability of Making the CWS, 10000 Sims— parker, made it up because I hate your team (@statsowar) May 29, 2023
Wake Forest 44.7%
South Carolina 29.5%
Fleming’s model gives Arkansas just a 22.2% chance to make it back to Omaha for the fourth time in five tries. Those are the 15th-best odds in the field and eighth-best among schools from the SEC — the conference in which it shared the regular-season title with Florida, which has a 35.6% chance to reaching the College World Series.
At first glance, that could be seen as a slight toward the Razorbacks, but that’s not the case. Rather, it is a product of them getting a tough draw against teams that are better than their record and RPI indicate.
One reason for that with TCU specifically could be its performance in close games. In games decided by two or fewer runs (or in extra innings), the Horned Frogs were just 9-11 — including a 3-7 mark in Big 12 play.
Had it won those games at the same clip as Arkansas, which went 11-7 in such games, TCU would have an extra three wins. That’d make it 40-19 overall with a 16-8 conference record, which would have had it firmly in the conversation to host instead of being a 2 seed.
Looming Pitching Decision
The biggest question facing Dave Van Horn ahead of the Fayetteville Regional revolves around his starting pitching for the weekend.
Arkansas will presumably start one of its two talented left-handers, Hagen Smith or Hunter Hollan, as one of them has started Game 1 of every series this season. Even though Hollan got the nod in Game 3 of the Vanderbilt series to end the regular season, both pitchers would be available Friday against Santa Clara because of how Van Horn handled them at the SEC Tournament.
Smith started the Thursday game against LSU and, for the first time all year, Hollan came out of the bullpen. They threw 76 and 86 pitches, respectively, plus have an extra day off, so they should be fresh for whenever they pitch again.
When asked about the looming decision Monday, Van Horn also mentioned right-hander Brady Tygart as a possibility. He threw 64 pitches on Saturday. However, it’s unlikely an announcement of Arkansas’ starter will come until Thursday.
“We’ll go look at all that and then just attack it with whoever,” Van Horn said. “They’re both outstanding pitchers. Again, it’s not like a righty or lefty situation. They’re both left. We could go Tygart if we felt like it. We’ll figure that out here in the next day or two.”
Something Van Horn will consider is the fact that Santa Clara isn’t a pushover. As mentioned above, the Broncos are one of the better 4 seeds in the field, plus they are slashing .300/.403/.491 and have hit 72 home runs as a team, so they’re also a good offensive team.
According to official NCAA stats, Santa Clara actually hits better against left-handers (.309) than right-handers (.294). That might make Van Horn seriously consider Tygart, but it’s unlikely he’d want his first start without a pitch count to be with one less day of rest.
It should also be pointed out that Santa Clara’s .309 batting average against lefties is on just 398 at bats, compared to 1,460 at bats against right-handers, so it’s a small sample size.
There’s a good chance that the Broncos haven’t faced a left-hander the caliber of Smith or Hollan. Because of the importance of winning the first game and getting into the winner’s bracket, Van Horn will probably stick with one of those two pitchers despite Santa Clara’s splits.
Early Time Slot for Arkansas Baseball
Fans may not be happy about it, but Dave Van Horn is happy that the Razorbacks’ first-round matchup with Santa Clara is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT Friday, with first pitch between TCU and Arizona to follow at 8 p.m.
In fact, he requested the early time slot for Arkansas. It isn’t ideal for fans who have to work during the day, but it’s a strategic move from a baseball standpoint.
“It means you don’t have to sit around all day,” Van Horn said. “Then, obviously, if you play a little bit earlier, win or lose, you get a little bit more rest before the next day. The third thing is, this time of year, a lot of the thunderstorms that pop up are in the later afternoon, so you might stay away from a delay.”
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