Defense wins championships in football. On the baseball diamond, the equivalent is strong pitching. Or so we think.
Below is a chart looking at the college baseball programs to lead the nation in earned run average in each of the past 25 years and how they fared in the Division I tournament, according to stats collected by NCAA.org. How do the results line up with your expectations?
|2016||Cal State Fullerton||2.22||36-23||Regional|
|2014||TCU||2.22||48-18||CWS Second Round|
|2009||Arizona State||2.90||51-14||CWS Semifinals|
|2008||North Carolina||2.92||54-14||CWS Semifinals|
|2006||Cal State Fullerton||2.73||50-15||CWS Semifinals|
|2005||Long Beach State||2.53||37-22||Regional|
|2002||Rice||2.79||52-14||CWS First Round|
|2001||Delaware State||2.99||37-10||Did not appear in tournament|
|1998||St. Francis (NY)||3.46||26-12||Did not appear in tournament|
|1997||Arkansas State||3.14||35-18||Did not appear in tournament|
|1994||Delaware||2.53||19-8||Did not appear in tournament|
|1993||Kent State||2.37||41-15||Regional Final|
|1992||Le Moyne||1.95||28-9||Did not appear in tournament|
That's zero national champions to crack the list. Surprised?
That's not to say there haven't been deep runs during this stretch. Six of the 25 ERA champs advanced to the eight-team College World Series. Five of those six have come in the past 11 years, showing that perhaps there is a greater correlation in today's game between pitching and postseason success.
On the flip side, 11 teams on this list failed to advance past the opening Regional round, including five that didn't even qualify for the 64-team tournament.
Now let's look at the teams that did go on to win the College World Series during this period and how their pitching staffs lined up:
|Season||School||ERA||ERA national rank|
|2004||Cal State Fullerton||3.73||22nd|
|2000||LSU||4.43||Outside top 35 *|
|1998||USC||5.03||Outside top 35*|
|1995||Cal State Fullerton||3.40||13th|
|1994||Oklahoma||3.73||Outside top 25 **|
* NCAA.org lists only the top 35 in team ERA this year
** NCAA.org lists only the top 25 in team ERA this year
It's a mixed bag among this group of champions. Eight teams finished within the top 10 in ERA their respective years while seven came in outside the top 30. All together, this field averaged a combined 3.55 mark — almost a run more than the average among the past 25 ERA leaders (2.62).
More interesting facts and notes from these two charts:
- Pitching is on the rise, if the ERA leaderboard is any indication. The No. 1 pitching staff in the nation hasn't had an ERA over 2.99 since 2000.
- The team with the lowest ERA in the past two and a half decades did not see any postseason play that year. That 1992 Le Moyne squad finished atop the MAAC regular season standings (28-9, 16-2) but did not qualify for the Division I tournament.
- 1998 USC's 5.03 ERA is the high-mark among CWS champs in the past 25 years. With an offense that scored more than seven runs a game, led by future Major Leaguers Eric Munson and Morgan Ensberg, the Trojans prevailed. Fittingly, in the national championship game against Arizona State, USC won an offensive affair 21-14.
- Rice led the nation in ERA in both 2002 and 2004 but failed to advance past the CWS Semifinals. In between those years, the Owls lifted the trophy in 2003 with the country's second-best ERA. That's an impressive three-year stretch.
So what do these past results mean as we creep closer to the 2017 tournament? Well, No. 1 Oregon State currently leads the nation by a wide margin in ERA (1.74, as of April 20) behind an electric rotation and a shutdown bullpen.
Opponents will likely have to scrape and claw for each and every run when going up against the Beavers in a postseason setting and Oregon State will rightly be one of the favorites heading into the tournament, barring any prolonged slump in the final two months of the regular season.
But, assuming the Beavers stay atop the ERA leaderboard, they will have to fight against recent history in order to capture their first title in 10 years.