By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."
Whenever a new season of baseball is set to begin, I always find myself going back to find this famous quote. Uttered by Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, it perfectly illustrates the wait a true baseball fan endures, as the cold weather of fall replaces the sunshine filled days of summer.
For the college follower, that wait begins sooner, as the lights of TD Ameritrade Park and the College World Series go off in June, leaving seven months of emptiness before the "ping" returns.
That time is here, as just hours remain before the start of the 2013 college baseball season. While there are several familiar faces in the Southeastern Conference, much has changed since South Carolina fell short of their third straight National Championship last June in Omaha.
With that as the backdrop, we began another year of the SEC "Numbers Game". If you don't know the drill, the premise of this column is simple. Use numbers to tell the story. My goal is to explain why some stats matter more than others, and how you can understand and sometimes even predict future success based on just how you interpret the data.
The numbers tell all.
1. SEC Dominance
The Number: 8
The SEC is pretty good in football, right?
Anyone familiar with the SEC has heard the laundry list of achievements experienced in football. Seven straight National Championships, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and unmatched depth. Many argue that this year was the SEC's most dominant, with at one point six of the top nine teams in the Bowl Championship Series standings coming from this conference.
Consider this though. Is the SEC just as dominant in baseball?
SEC baseball teams have won nine of the last 22 national championships, having finished runner-up six times during that span. That includes South Carolina in 2012, which fell two wins short of winning their third straight title. Although LSU and the Gamecocks have won eight of those championships, this isn't a case of two teams dominating while the rest coast on that reputation.
The SEC has sent 10 of its 12 schools (not counting Missouri/Texas A&M) to the College World Series since 1990. Since 1990, an SEC team has played in 150 of the 330 games in the College World Series, 45.5 percent of all games at the event. An NCAA-high 11 conference programs have competed at the College World Series overall. Newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M have been to the CWS a combined 11 times in their history, adding to already crowded field of talented teams.
So, how does that compare to SEC football?
Let's go back to this year's past football season, and the depth I mentioned earlier. The SEC, as great as it was, never had more than seven teams ranked at any point during the 2012 season in either the AP or Coaches Poll. Most of the year six league teams were listed among the nation's best.
In every preseason baseball poll released so far, the SEC has had eight teams ranked. To reiterate, according to every national poll, 32 percent of the best teams in the entire country come from the Southeastern Conference. In the Coaches Poll, two teams (Ole Miss and Georgia) were receiving votes, just outside the list. Collegiate Baseball Newspaper ranked Texas A&M 26th, while Baseball America projected 10 SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament.
A further breakdown illustrates just how great a baseball conference the SEC has become. Three conference teams (Arkansas, Florida, and South Carolina) made it to Omaha last year, yet only the Razorbacks are in the top four of early season publications. Arkansas is the consensus number one squad in three of four polls, and checks in third in the other.
Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are all in the mix, including the Commodores placing second overall in Baseball America's poll. Add in the CWS trio, and you have 57 percent of the SEC nationally ranked to start the season. Not bad.
In 2012, just six league losses separated number one seed LSU and number ten, and if these polls are accurate, that again appears to be the case.
While everyone has come to accept the SEC’s dominance on the gridiron, the numbers show just as much dominance on the diamond.
2. SEC Talent
The Number: 18
What makes a good baseball program?
Now that we’ve established the SEC is the premier league in college baseball, what makes it so special? That’s not an easy answer, but there are several factors to which this can be attributed to.
Facilities, location and coaching all play a part. However, great players help too. Talent is paramount, and one stat stands out above all others in this regard.
That’s the number of current players on Vanderbilt’s roster that have been drafted. The Commodores have 34 players on their squad total. So, that means more than half the players on their team are talented enough that Major League Baseball teams wished to sign them as professionals. That total leads the nation, and a key reason why the Commodores are so highly touted this year.
Vanderbilt, led by head coach Tim Corbin, has turned his program into a factory for MLB talent. Names like Cy Young Award winner David Price, Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez and others have worn the Black and Gold, a pipeline of Commodores to the professional ranks.
Vanderbilt isn’t alone in this aspect, with several SEC teams ranking near the top in this category. After VU’s 18, Kentucky ranks second with 15 draftees. Equally impressive for the Wildcats, who in 2005 didn’t have a single player drafted off their team. UK had a school-record nine players selected in 2012, on the heels of the best season in program history.
Of the top 11 teams in this category, seven come from the SEC. Every program in the conference has at least four draftees on their roster this year. According to the publication Minor League Ball, 10 league players are among the top 50 prospects for the upcoming MLB draft. The highest rated is Arkansas pitcher Ryne Stanek (5th), a preseason All-American that will anchor the Razorback rotation this season.
Success breeds more success. 146 SEC players have been drafted in the past two years, including seven in the first round. That doesn’t count the numerous high school players that were committed to SEC schools, but then decided to play professionally instead.
Great players plus great coaching usually equals great teams. The SEC is full of them.
3. New Again
The Number: 12
Last year was historic for the SEC Baseball Tournament, as 10 teams headed to Hoover to compete. The league was in the process of expanding, and in turn so was one of the SEC’s premier events. A new day of play was added, and people got used the idea of a 10-team tournament.
That “history” lasted all of one year.
As announced back in December, the 2013 SEC Tournament is getting bigger, with 12 teams now getting a chance to play at the six-day event. More important that participant total is the changes to the bracket, a significant difference from previous years. You can see the bracket here.
The first day of the tournament, Tuesday, will be a single elimination format. Seeds 5-12 will square off in four games, with the winner advancing and the loser going home. Once Tuesday is over, Wednesday through Friday will return to the traditional double-elimination bracket.
However, Saturday is back to single elimination. Despite the two added teams, the total number of games in the SEC Tournament will remain at the previous 17.
Although it sounds confusing, it is essentially a tournament broken into three events. There is the “opening round” of single elimination, then a normal eight-team bracket that builds up to a one game championship on Sunday.
What does this mean for the SEC Tournament? Potentially a lot, because as I wrote last year, a higher seed doesn't translate to more victories.
The fifth seed, which is currently set to play on that first day, has won the event three times in the past 15 years, tied for the most during that span. Last year seventh seeded Mississippi State captured the hardware, meaning that as many seven seeds (2) have won the SEC Tournament as number one seeds (2) in that time.
In such a competitive conference (remember 6 games separated 1-10 in 2012), it is now even more imperative to secure a top four slot. That guarantees you two games, removing yourself from the all or nothing matchup on Tuesday.
Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint, so having your entire tournament riding on one game isn’t ideal. You also have to factor that every SEC team will be competing up until the previous Saturday, leaving just two days to try and game plan for a single elimination tilt.
There is no doubt it adds excitement. For those 5-12 seeds, Tuesday means everything. For those teams that lose yet reach the NCAA Tournament, it could mean going nine days without playing a meaning game.
The SEC Tournament has gone from eight teams to 12 in the past two years. That said, all roads still lead to Hoover, even if now the road needs to be a four-lane highway.