Could the Section 1 baseball tournament be better?
That question isn’t meant to rain on the parades of the high school teams that just won section titles — Roy C. Ketcham in Class AA, John Jay-Cross River in Class A, Keio Academy in Class B and North Salem in Class C. They’re all worthy champions, and no one can ever take those memories away from the players and coaches who made it happen.
But, there are legitimate concerns that have been raised and there are legitimate suggestions for ways to improve upon what is already a great tournament.
Many coaches have been vocal about this, perhaps none more so than Fox Lane coach Matt Hillis. He spoke up about it at this year’s Section 1 coaches meeting, and the conversations are ongoing.
“I don’t like the Section 1 format at all,” he said. “Our section rewards mediocrity.”
Hillis’ biggest beef is that two of his most difficult games against out-of-section opponents Warwick and Tottenville did not count toward his team’s seeding, while other teams were rewarded with bonus points for playing smaller and less-talented teams.
The current seeding system awards one bonus point for playing a Section 1 team that is .500 or better and two bonus points for playing a team that is .750 or better, regardless of class. So if a Class AA team plays a Class B team that goes 10-10, that’s worth a point. But if that same team plays a powerhouse team from upstate that went 19-1, it’s worth nothing.
“You should be exposing your kids to good competition, playing good baseball and taking on all-comers to make your kids better,” said Hillis, whose team ended up with the No. 8 seed in Class AA. “There is no incentive to play the Iona Preps, Tottenvilles, etc., nor does it encourage a difficult non-league schedule.”
“They’re stupid and pointless,” Ketcham coach Pat Mealy said recently. “The Section 1 seeding system is flawed. Games played outside the section aren’t counted, no matter how good the opponents were. Fox Lane plays a tough schedule and deserved a top-three seed.”
Many coaches are also pushing for fewer teams to qualify. Of the 22 teams in Class AA, 20 made it to the tournament this year. It was similar in Class A, where 21 of 23 made the cut.
“I’ve been around for a long, long time, and I remember the time when you had to have a .500 record get in,” Keio coach Rocky Pasquale said. “I think once you limit teams, then you can start to do the things that you want to do with the tournament. If you want to make the playoffs, you have to be close to the .500 mark. Your goal for the tournament is to try and reward the better teams, and have those teams move on.”
One change that Section 1 baseball co-chairman Chris McCarthy said is being discussed is altering the conferences. Teams would be grouped according to class and there would be mandatory crossover games against other leagues within the same conference.
That would prevent some of the larger schools from playing smaller schools to pad their bonus points.
“I don’t know that we can totally knock that out, but I think it will happen less often,” McCarthy said. “As we move to a pure class conference, then we’ll start getting real data as to what we need to do from a seeding standpoint.”
Whether you’re talking about bonus points, scheduling or how seeds are calculated, there are many variables and opinions. There are certainly improvements that should be made, but there’s no way to please everyone.
Yet, there is one very interesting proposal that McCarthy and many coaches have stated that they would support, and it could go a long way toward creating a fairer and more exciting tournament.
“The biggest thing that I’ve been looking at is the top 16 get in, the first round is single-elimination, and then after that it’s College World Series style, double-elimination,” McCarthy said. “If you’re a baseball purist, I think you would love to look at the final eight as a double-elimination. … That would, to me, wipe away a lot of the seeding issues.”
Ah, double-elimination. It’s like music to any baseball traditionalists’ ears.
In the past, Section 1 had this type of setup, with the championship being determined by a best-of-three series. In order to simplify and let more teams into the tournament, that format was done away with, but the idea seems to be picking up steam again.
Baseball is the type of game where anything can happen on a given day, and one hot pitcher can negate one great team. That’s why there are series instead of one-and-done games at almost every level.
If Section 1 were to adopt such an arrangement, that would mean more playoff games and less rest, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be done. Instead of being able to get through the playoffs using only two starting pitchers, teams would need at least three and maybe four. But in the grand scheme of things, that will only benefit programs by forcing them to develop more depth.
McCarthy said that 2017 would be too soon to implement such a drastic change, but 2018 is within the realm of possibility — if they get moving quickly, and most important, if local coaches and athletic directors unify behind the cause.
The idea is very popular among those who are involved, and if they can come together to map out a real, detailed plan, McCarthy is confident that Section 1 would seriously consider it.
“If there’s enough support and if we do our homework, then in this coming year, I know that we can get the championship committee and the section to listen,” he said. “We know that everyone screams for change, but once you sit in the room with the ADs, those screams become mumbles.
“I think it’s absolutely worthwhile to go after it. There’s no one saying no to us, except us. When we’re all behind something, we can go after that. But when it’s fragmented, it looks ugly.”
Vincent Z. Mercogliano writes for The Journal News.