By David Arkow
With the first pitch of the College World Series this weekend, we set out to predict which of the eight teams in Omaha have the best shot at the title. While the College World Series might not have the same viewership as college football bowl games or March Madness, many fans will still tune in for the 10-day long tournament with non-stop baseball. With so much baseball being jam-packed into just over a week, there guarantees to be exciting games and the emergence of new star players or Cinderella teams. It might not be a 64 team March Madness bracket or a 128 player Grand Slam tennis draw, but the double elimination format of the CWS creates for many different potential paths to the title. Similar to its professional counterpart in the MLB, college baseball has the longest regular season usually with over 50 games played. And on top of that, each team that has made its way to Omaha had to advance out of a regional (4 teams) and a super regional (2 teams). All eight teams at the CWS have a proven resume, earned their ticket to Omaha, and all have a shot at the championship. Nevertheless, there are definitely favorites and underdogs so we set out to simulate the bracket to see which teams have the highest probability of becoming NCAA champions.
Trying to predict outcomes with probabilities is common in sports. Similar to any other playoff bracket, a lot of the probabilities are interdependent and can change meaningfully with each result, particularly unexpected ones. For example, if No. 3 Tennessee (favorite in the second bracket) were to be eliminated before the championship series, it would greatly increase Vanderbilt’s odds (who are in the other bracket) since they would no longer have to face the best team. In contrast to the NCAA basketball tournament where a team simply has to win six games in a row, there are multiple paths to victory at the CWS as it is double elimination. A team could lose its opener and then win six games in a row or it could just win all of its games (five). Both are legitimate paths to the title although the former proves to be much harder than the latter. Winning the opener seems to be crucial as only one team in the last 10 years (2018 Oregon State) has lost the first game and gone on to win the CWS.
Using Warren Nolan Elo ratings, I simulated the bracket thousands of times to see the different potential outcomes to arrive at probabilities for each team. For example, if Texas wins the simulation 2,000 out of 10,000 times, they have an approximate 20% chance of winning. While having some similarity to NCAA rankings, Elo also factors in strength of schedule and run differential as it helps provide a more accurate estimate of which teams are the best beyond just their winning percentages.
Flaws and Caveats
A brief caveat especially for predicting baseball is the importance of pitchers. The pitcher is probably the most important position of all team sports and has the most impact over any individual game odds. Therefore, it is hard to have a baseline rating for a specific team where their quality depends on who is on the rubber as it could be their ace or third starter. While the Elo ratings account for the overall strength of a team’s pitching staff, they do not adjust for in-game matchups as that would be impossible to forecast beforehand. Baseball is also much harder to predict than other sports with more “noise” in each game. The spread between the teams in Omaha is very competitive. For example, if the highest ranked team by Elo (Tennessee) faced the lowest ranked team by Elo (Stanford), they would only have a 64% chance of winning. Ultimately, this is what makes the CWS so exciting as every team has a legitimate chance at the title and just has to get hot at the right time.
Previewing the Field
No. 3 Tennessee
The Volunteers will enter Omaha as the statistical favorites but not by much at 25%. Tennessee was greatly underestimated heading into the season ranked No. 16 but are now the second highest ranked team in the country by Elo behind SEC rival Arkansas, who defeated them in the conference championship. While the favorite to win this year, the Vols are the most unfamiliar team in the field when it comes to Omaha having not made the CWS since 2005 (they lost their first two games) and never won a title (they have only made the entire NCAA tournament twice in the last decade). Tennessee doesn’t have any of the standouts or potential MLB stars (no player in the MLB Top 200 prospects) that some of the other programs do, but they are a solid all-around team on both sides of the ball. A potential second round matchup with orange and white counterparts Texas would feature the two highest ranked teams in the tournament (Tennessee would have a 54% chance of winning). In the midst of one of their best seasons in program history, the Volunteers will look to capitalize on that success heading into Omaha to complete this historic season.
No. 16 NC State
The Wolfpack pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament in last round’s super regional against No. 1 Arkansas. The SEC champions had been at the top of the rankings for the past eight weeks and had they made the tournament, they would have had the highest probability at 26% to win their first ever national title. The other surprising feat is how NC State pulled it off. After being absolutely crushed in Game 1 (21-2), the Wolfpack won Game 2 (6-5) and Game 3 (3-2) by a one-run margin including a go-ahead homer in the ninth inning by Jose Torres (#72 MLB prospect). NC State started the season a middling 13-14 but have gone 22-3 since as this second half season resurgence has them as the third best team by Elo which puts more weight on recent performance. Twenty-five year coach veteran Elliot Avent will look to lead this deceptive “Cinderella team” to the title. Shockingly, NC State has the lowest betting odds (+1200) of the field despite having the second highest probability to win at 18%.
No. 2 Texas
The Longhorns will be riding their ace and Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Ty Madden in their opener against No. 7 Mississippi State. Madden boasts a 2.40 ERA (second in the Big 12 behind teammate Pete Hansen - 1.84) and is the ninth overall MLB prospect. Not only does Texas have an ace but their whole staff is the best in the NCAA with a league lowest 2.89 collective ERA. While their offense might not be as potent (ranking 46th in runs per game), the Big 12 champions will rely on their pitching throughout the tournament. They’ve arguably dominated the most on their road to Omaha not dropping a single game and scoring nearly 10 runs and only allowing 2.4 per game. The only cause for concern is Texas’s relatively easy schedule as they have faced the weakest regular season opponents among the eight teams (28th overall). Texas is one of the most historically decorated all-around NCAA programs in the tournament (ranking sixth all-time with 47 titles) and will look to capture their seventh CWS title and first since 2005.
No. 4 Vanderbilt
Head coach Tim Corbin and the Commodores have likely been the baseball equivalent of Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide for the past decade. Unlike their other two major college sports (football and basketball) in which they finished dead last in the SEC this year, Vandy has consistently been atop the SEC, the strongest conference in baseball. They have had a Top 10 recruiting class in all but one year. Often referred to as “Pitcher U”, they boast 11 current MLB pitchers and 16 total players (T-3 most active MLB players among NCAA schools). This year is no exception as they have two of the best pitchers in the country: Jack Leiter (2.16 ERA) and Kumar Rocker (2.46 ERA) who are two highest MLB pitching prospects and third and fifth highest overall respectively. Famous for his 19 strikeout no-hitter in the 2019 super regional against Duke, Rocker is still mowing down hitters boasting the second highest strikeout total in college baseball (155). His co-ace Leiter has 156 on the year. Both Leiter and Rocker will be relied on to shut down opposing offenses and if playoff baseball has shown anything, it is that teams can ride their pitchers all the way. The 2019 CWS champions have a probability of 15% to go back-to-back.
No. 7 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs entered the preseason ranked No. 7 and they finish exactly where they started. They have plenty of hitters that can match up to Texas’s deep pitchers like SEC Player of the Year Tanner Allen (who hit a conference leading average of .392). Their opener against Texas is the most competitive of all with Mississippi State being slight underdogs at a 46% chance of winning. They have never won a CWS title (runner-up in 2013) despite being one of the more dominant programs of the last decade in their third consecutive trip to Omaha and only missing the overall NCAA tournament once (2015). In addition to an opening round win, the Bulldogs will also be rooting for their SEC rival Tennessee to lose, who just crushed them 12-2 in the conference tournament. Mississippi State has proven they can beat the tough competition having the hardest strength of schedule (8th overall) in the field and will carry that with them into the tournament.
No. 5 Arizona
The Wildcats opener against No. 4 Vandy might prove to be one of the most interesting opening day matchups in a battle of strength vs. strength (Arizona has a 44% chance of winning). In contrast to Vanderbilt who has dominated with their pitching, Arizona has found success with their bats. They enter the tournament as the highest-scoring offense (8.6 runs per game) of the eight teams and in the entirety of the NCAA. They are a well-rounded offense too with both contact and power hitting with a collective slash line of .329/.428/.513 which respectively rank fourth, second, and seventh in Division 1. All nine hitters in the starting lineup are hitting above .300. The Pac-12 Champions will prove to be a tough test for Vanderbilt’s pitching aces and their opener will be critical to their success in Omaha: if they win, their championship probability jumps from 9% to 19%, but lose and it dwindles to 2%.
No. 9 Stanford
The Cardinal have relatively cruised through both regionals and super regionals giving them confidence and momentum heading into their bracket play. While they did face an elimination game against UC Irvine in their home regional, they shellacked No. 8 Texas Tech in the Lubbock super regional outscoring them 24-3 in the two games. Despite that, Stanford has the second lowest probability at 5% to win as they have the lowest Elo rating of the eight teams (possibly due to being in the weaker Pac-12 conference). The Cardinal will look to ride their ace and Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, Brendan Beck in their opener against NC State of which they have a 40% chance of winning. Beck has a 7-1 record with a 3.03 ERA and has held hitters to a .188 batting average. As Stanford’s highest MLB prospect (#163), Beck will look to bolster his draft stock with a quality opening start and be available deeper in the tournament should the Cardinal advance.
Virginia is the only team at the CWS ranked outside of the NCAA Top 25. Similar to their ACC counterparts in NC State, they started the season below .500 (17-20) but have since gone 18-5. They’ve arguably faced the weakest competition in their path to Omaha as they defeated No. 11 Old Dominion (non-Power 5) in the regional and unranked Dallas Baptist in the super regional. Nevertheless, they have had the most exciting road to Omaha winning all six of their elimination games. Their luck has caught up to them as they now have the toughest path to the title in Omaha facing the No. 1 team by Elo, Tennessee in the opening round. They still have a 35% chance but are the biggest first round underdogs and have the lowest overall championship odds of the field at 4%. The Cavaliers had 17 players on an MLB opening day roster (second in the NCAA behind Florida) including former World Series champions Washington Nationals Ryan Zimmerman and Sean Doolittle. The Wahoos will be hoping their elimination game clutchness and luck will follow them to Omaha in hopes of capturing their second CWS since they won their first in 2015.
All eight of these teams have a solid shot at becoming national champions each with their own unique compositions whether they have pitching aces or power hitters. There are the usual familiar faces and traditional powerhouses like Vanderbilt or Stanford, but also newcomers like Tennessee or NC State. This sets the field for an exciting College World Series in Omaha as the eight teams will battle on the diamond for the NCAA title.
David Arkow '24 is an economics major and also serves on the board of HSAC. If you have any questions about this article, you can reach out to him firstname.lastname@example.org.