Raise your hand if you thought TCU had even a shred of hope for an at-large postseason bid after Sunday morning’s late-innings loss in the Big 12 Semi-final game. None of you either? Makes sense. While it’s refreshing for TCU to finally be on the winning side of a questionable post-season committee decision (2014 football and 2019 basketball stick out prominently in my mind, but a 6 seed versus Syracuse in 2018 basketball seems like a particularly unfavorable draw), the Frogs’ inclusion in the postseason field certainly seems an oddity. Justified or ridiculous, the Frogs are in, and this weekend they head to beautiful (and underrated) northwest Arkansas to compete for a spot in the super-regionals, the first step on the long road to Omaha.
TCU faces one of the elite programs in the country as their host, the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Hogs have been playing on fire, and at times, have looked nigh inevitable this season after coming one dropped pop fly away from a national championship last year. Joining the field is PAC 12 upstart Cal, who at times looked dominant in a season consisting mostly of the Bears taking care of business against inferior opponents on their way to a postseason bid. Finally, the Central Connecticut Blue Devils are the fourth seed after allowing only 9 runs in five games on their way to knocking off one seed Bryant in the Northeast Conference Tournament to clinch an auto-bid.
In preparation for the regional this weekend, I’d like to briefly discuss why TCU was awarded a postseason bid and then provide a statistical snapshot of each team in the Fayetteville Regional.
First, How did the Frogs Get Here?
TCU was quite literally the “last team in” the NCAA Tournament. The Frogs boasted a confusing resume featuring a meager 32-26 record, neutral site wins against Vanderbilt and Houston, and series wins against West Virginia and Oklahoma. The Frogs seemed to peak at the start of the season, with that Vanderbilt win, and then sputtered until the very end, closing the season with wins against Baylor and Oklahoma State in the rain-delay-plagued Big 12 tournament.
Let’s look at the “last four out”:
- Houston (32-24) who split games with Texas A&M but otherwise had very few marquee wins, played themselves out of the field in the AAC championship, going a quiet 0-2.
- Missouri (34-22-1) boasts series wins against regional hosts Mississippi and LSU, but lost 6 of 7, including five in a row, in a fizzling end of season
- Texas State (36-20) has a thin resume aside from a win against Texas A&M, went 0-2 in their conference tournament, giving up 21 runs in two days. That’s not to mention that the committee pretty much rules out a two-bid Sun Belt unless something crazy happens.
- UCF (36-22) has a pretty impressive midweek slate, beating Miami, Florida, Florida State, and FAU on workdays this season, but their resume misses the high points of a TCU.
Any of these four teams could justifiably be in TCU’s place, and you have to think that a couple stolen auto-bids really forced some comparisons. TCU got in on the promise of potential: They didn’t have a particularly hot stretch, and at times looked absolutely lost. The Frogs squandered midweek games to Lamar, Dallas Baptist, UTA, and San Diego. I can’t 100% justify the Frogs being the pick (I probably would’ve put UCF/Tx State in?) but the pick seems made n the basis of TCU being an historically competitive team with some of the top talent in the nation, playing in an extremely difficult conference.
Previewing The Regional
Arkansas leads the pack, with an offense resembling a major league team - high strikeouts, high power, high walks. The Razorbacks have embraced the “three true outcomes” of baseball - 12th nationally in home runs, 20th in walks, and top 50 in strikeout rate. The Hogs have won 22 games by at least 5 runs. In a sweep of regional host Mississippi State, the Razorbacks scored 27 runs in three games. In fact, the Hogs scored 20 runs in a series 9 times this season. For reference, TCU scored 20 runs in a series 5 times, and allowed 20 runs only three times. The Hogs score runs, they do it late, they do it early, and they do it for power - slugging .497 as a team this season, 10th nationally. The Hogs scored in the double digits 20 times!
Cal on the other hand, TCU’s first opponent, reached double digits only 14 times this season - TCU did it 15 times. Cal represents a more old-school idea of baseball success - only 27% of their hits are for extra bases, but they get on base almost 40% of the time and are 24th in the nation with a .297 team batting average and a .497 slugging percentage. They hit a lot, and they hit for contact and power. The Bears don’t walk often, which will come into play against a TCU team whose defense has been, putting it charitably, something akin to Swiss chess in terms of coverage this season.
The Blue Devils haven’t put up much of an offense this season, reaching double digit runs in a game on 7 times. They hit when it mattered, though - two of those double digit games came against conference rival and standings leader Bryant. The Blue Devils shared a common thread with TCU - CCSU was held to two or fewer runs in 10 games, the exact same number as the Frogs. The Blue Devils aren’t going to blow away anyone with their bats this weekend, but they’ve demonstrated some timely hitting over the course of a season and remain a long threat to get hot and compete.
The separation on the pitching side seems more ambiguous. Cal is solid across the board, consistently allowing few hits, home runs, and runs. Whereas Arkansas is prone to allowing power, and TCU struggles with fielding, Cal is first or second in the group in run and power prevention. The Bears held teams to five or fewer runs in 32 games this season, with a record of 25-7 in those games (7-11 otherwise). Cal’s wheelhouse is run prevention and allowing their consistent bats to do the work.
Arkansas has consistently pitched well, similarly, although their pressure is even lighter than Cal’s with all the scoring the Hogs do. Arkansas held teams to 3 runs in 33 games, going 30-3 in those games. Small ball won’t beat the Razorbacks this postseason. It’s going to take runs, and lots of them - the Hogs are 11-14 when they give up 4 or more runs, 2-11 when they give up 5 or more runs. The path to beating Arkansas is lots of offense - you won’t stop the bats most nights, and so getting to the pitching late in the game seems to be their biggest weakness.
Central Connecticut pitched their way to where they are today - only one team in their last 8 games scored more than 3 runs. The Blue Devils are benefited from locking in late in the season, and in such a high-variance situation like the regional, “who’s hot” might matter a lot more than “who’s talented”.
Well, there you have it. TCU faces a tall task in one of the more competitive regionals. The Razorbacks already have their eyes on a second consecutive Omaha appearance, the Bears are looking to continue their consistent, plodding ways towards success, and the Blue Devils are looking to ruin someone’s season. For TCU to succeed this weekend, the Frogs will need to get ahead in the count, induce strikeouts more than contact, and play solid fundamental baseball against some very talented opponents. The Frogs have a high talent ceiling compared to their regional draw, but their execution this season has been less than inspiring. If they play to their potential, TCU could very well escape this regional; that’s a big if, though.