Peterson: Preseason State Of The GameColumns
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Welcome to the season. Throughout the year, I’ll be writing a column that will hit on many things within the game. This won’t be a game thread, you can find that plenty of other places. It’s my back of the envelope take on the college game and I hope you enjoy it. If you have questions, feel free to ask, I’ll try to answer a few every time. It’s my opinion and ultimately nothing more than that.
The recent meeting between MLB and some of college baseball’s most influential voices, and the story that D1baseball.com’s Kendall Rogers wrote earlier this week, reignited a piece that’s been written in my mind plenty of times over the past few years. The goal here is pretty simple; provide ideas that spark conversation and hopefully lead to progressive change within the game. Change requires an open mind and compromise and our game is in an ideal place to embrace both.
Let’s start with the draft. To give some perspective, I was drafted during batting practice at Rosenblatt Stadium before an elimination game against Auburn in 1997. I was fortunate I wasn’t going to pitch that game. Some others on the field that day had quite a balancing act. Imagine the NFL holding the draft during the College Football Playoffs or the NBA holding the draft during the Final Four. It would never happen. At that time, that was baseball’s approach. It was flawed and unfair to those of us still competing for a national championship. Thankfully things are changing but we can do more.
Over the last few years, college players have competed in the Super Regionals while the draft itself is taking place. That’s not right. The solution here seems to be pretty straight forward. Let’s start on Tuesday instead of Monday. No college games and if there is a need for negotiations they can take place with a clear mind on all sides. Ideally, it starts the Tuesday following Super Regionals.
Next, draft location. The epicenter of the college game for the past 68 years has been Omaha. It should also be the home of the MLB draft moving forward. Let’s finish Supers on a Monday, start the draft in Omaha Tuesday night in primetime. I can think of a few locations in town that would serve as ideal locations and I am certain the city would welcome it with open arms. The draft runs through Thursday, then ideally the CWS starts on Friday. More on that below. It allows for those still competing to get to Omaha for the show and experience the draft as they all should be able to do. It also serves as an ideal springboard into the CWS itself.
The Great Scholarship Debate
On to scholarships. We need to make college baseball a realistic choice for as many kids as possible. Every year, the game of baseball loses some incredible athletes due to cost of attendance. Football has 85 full rides, basketball has 13. There are 11.7 scholarships allotted to Division 1 baseball and a full-ride is a rarity. It has to be. College coaches must navigate the reality of 11.7 scholarships split between 27 players. All with the uncertainty of the draft mixed in. Major League Baseball has done admirable work through the Play Ball Initiative, it undoubtedly keeps more kids in the game. The disconnect happens when these kids reach college age. Even if kids are engaged in the game through age 18, the economic realities of college often force them away from the game and the ultimate goal of the program is not fulfilled. Need based, full ride scholarships can help bridge this gap.
Let’s look at the business side of the argument for MLB, that’s important here. On Opening Day of the MLB season last year, the breakdown of players was as follows:
College Drafted Players: 49%
International Free Agents: 27%
High School Drafted Players: 24%
Math seems to be very popular at the Major League level now and for good reason, it’s another valuable tool to evaluate players and thus make a club better. The above math is pretty straight forward. The hit rate at the Major League level is significantly higher when drafting college players vs. high school players. And it makes total sense. College athletes have lived on their own and competed against similar athletes for at least three years. There is more data both socially and athletically for the clubs to crunch. It makes more sense that they will be right more often. This should be no great surprise given the scouting challenges with high school athletes but keep one thing in mind. Major League Baseball gets first dibs on high school players. If they want them, they can draft them and attempt to sign them. It would stand to reason that the talent pool that enters college as a freshman is less than the talent pool that enters the Major League systems through the high school component of the draft. Even with this competitive advantage, drafted college players make up double the roster spots at the Major League level. The hit rate for MLB teams when drafting college players is higher and the return on investment is quicker. This is sound business.
There are currently 298 Division 1 baseball programs. Let’s assume, for the sense of argument, that the blended average cost of attendance across these 298 programs is $40,000 annually. And let’s start with Major League Baseball funding one need-based scholarship, every other year, at every program in the country. That’s approximately $24 million annually when fully funded, or $800,000 per team, to get an additional 596 kids into the Division 1 college baseball landscape. The roster limit raises from 35-37 and we expand the travel and postseason rosters by two each as well. MLB and the ABCA/college baseball landscape work to create an agreeable AGI threshold that fits this requirement.
The value add for all is very clear. For MLB, they create a collegiate opportunity for many kids who would otherwise be unable to afford it, and it allows the professional game to be more efficient in the draft process. We won’t lose as many kids to other sports based on financial hardship. The social component of this cannot be ignored here either. At an absolute minimum…MLB allows more kids to attend college. They also expand the scholarships available at those schools that don’t currently fully fund the 11.7 scholarships. This is thought to be approximately 25-35 percent of Division 1 programs.
For the college game, it gets more kids to college who would not otherwise be there. The overall collegiate baseball product is in fact better and more kids around the country are given the opportunity to attend college at zero cost. How does this not make sense for all involved?
Addressing The CWS Format
To the CWS itself. The format now, while extended, seems to be very fair. It adequately rewards those teams who win their first two games in Omaha with extended rest. The designated day off is required to allow for arm recovery. But what if…everything shifted back one day and we eliminate the two single games in the middle of the tournament. Stay with me here. Games start on Friday, the if necessary games are the following Thursday and the second Friday is the designated dark day. The Finals start Saturday night in primetime. Game 2 of the Finals is Sunday afternoon, which leads into Baseball Tonight and then Sunday Night Baseball. It becomes a true Baseball Day in America. We highlight the collegiate and professional games in one day and ultimately tie the two together. If Game 3 is necessary, it’s on Primetime Monday, which is the same day the National Championship games for both football and basketball are played.
The schedule change above avoids a potential dark weekend, something we’ve had in the recent past here in Omaha. Instead, if the Finals start on the weekend, it allows for more fans to make the trip to Omaha and creates a weekend environment that would be incredible. It also shortens the overall tournament by one day and all involved would appreciate that. One thing could make this schedule even better…a Major League game in Omaha leading up to the CWS.
MLB In Omaha And More
I was in Williamsport last year for the inaugural Little League Classic, and it was a day I will never forget. Now let’s replicate that in Omaha. Initial discussions on the game seem to be favorable and it would only add to the excitement that surrounds the CWS. Here’s the ideal week: The MLB Draft starts Tuesday night in downtown Omaha. Wednesday is the MLB game at TD Ameritrade, all of the collegiate teams are already in town and can attend. The draft wraps up Thursday and teams practice at TD that day as they do on Friday now. Games start Friday, the Finals start the following weekend. Oh, and the College Baseball Hall of Fame opens its doors in Omaha earlier that year. This can happen, and it should happen, and 2019 seems like the most ideal timeframe.
Now to the potential detractors, namely the NCAA. Let’s start with the draft in Omaha and the proximity to the CWS itself. Put yourself in the shoes of the kids for a minute. How does this not enhance their experience? And the draft itself is going to happen, be it in Omaha or somewhere else. This brings more eyes upon the college game and enhances the mission of college athletics. It celebrates our best at a critical time in their lives and puts even more eyes on the kids and the programs they represent. It better tells the story of college baseball and provides an amazing backdrop to the CWS itself. And, it allows more kids the ability to experience the draft in person.
Now to the scholarship piece. Major League Baseball has indicated an interest in discussing the matter further. If this comes to fruition, and it allows more kids access to college and college baseball, I struggle to find any logical argument against it. It would also benefit every Division 1 baseball program, not just the elite. I know there are plenty of details that need to be worked out, but the discussion needs to continue. It gives more kids access to an education and ultimately enhances the college baseball product as a whole.
While we are at it, let’s solve the agent piece, too. Currently, active collegiate players can lose their eligibility if an agent acts on their behalf in negotiations with MLB teams. But, if that same player is in high school when drafted, they maintain their eligibility should they choose to attend college. This is absurd. Think if it were your own kid here. You are asking a family to directly negotiate, what may be the most important economic decision of their lives, with a Major League Baseball team without the benefit of an agent. This one needs to change now.
Our game is in an outstanding place right now, and the potential to work more closely with Major League Baseball allows for greater growth across all levels of baseball. Let’s improve the future of the game by expanding the number of student-athletes that are playing baseball at the collegiate level. Let’s create a draft that works in concert with the college season and provides a springboard into the CWS. Now is the time to capitalize on our sport’s momentum by putting some common-sense reforms into place, for the good of the game at all levels.