Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Q&A with Baseball America's Aaron Fitt

By Samuel Chi

For various reasons, Aaron Fitt of Baseball America seems to be a lightning rod for some Titan fans. Maybe because he's not Will Kimmie, maybe because we haven't liked BA's rankings sometimes, or maybe because you didn't agree with him during a live-chat session.

But whatever you think of him, Aaron was gracious enough to provide us a lot of interesting and thoughtful answers when CSF Baseball asked him a whole host of questions.

So here they are. And as Vin Scully would say: Pull up a chair. This will take a while:

CSF Baseball: Let's go right to it, who are your picks to go to Omaha this year. And who will win it all?

Aaron Fitt: If you ask me today, I'm going with North Carolina, Texas, Texas A&M, Cal State Fullerton, Rice, LSU, Clemson and Arizona State. I've gone back and forth between UNC and Texas A&M to win it all since last summer, but I went with the Tar Heels in our College Preview issue, and I'll stand by them.

CSF: What do you really think of Fullerton's program?

AF: I don't know how anyone (aside from folks in Long Beach and Irvine, maybe) could have negative feelings toward Fullerton, which has simply been one of the very best programs in college baseball for 30 years--and you can make a strong argument that it has been the best. The Titans do things the right way. They recruit hard-nosed players who appreciate the game, they maximize their talent just about every year, they rise to the occasion with their backs to the wall, and I love their style of play. I always had and continue to have a wonderful relationship with Coach Horton and his staffs, and the same is true with Coach Serrano and his staff. I have the utmost respect for everyone associated with that program, and I have praised them effusively since I took over the college beat. Some Fullerton fans apparently think I have some agenda against the Titans, and it absolutely baffles me. I think a lot of it stems from last year, when we made the mistake of omitting Fullerton from our preseason top 25. Hey, that was a mistake--it's pretty obvious to see that in hindsight. And just because we were off on our evaluation doesn't mean it was because we don't like the Titans or have some anti-Titan bias. We pegged Fullerton as a strong regional team, a likely No. 2 seed, and they exceeded our expectations, earning a No. 1 seed and winning a regional. We undersold the Titans, mostly because we didn't think they had the kind of shut-down power arms to get to Omaha. In that respect, at least, we were right. Jeff Kaplan, Cory Arbiso and Co. were solid college pitchers who gave the Titans a very good chance to get back to the CWS, but they were not dominant, and they couldn't quite hold down a good Stanford offense enough.

CSF: George Horton and Oregon ... what about the Ducks in their first year?

AF: We knew they would be competitive right away, because Horton's teams always play hard, no matter what. For my money, he's the best coach in college baseball, and he's showing it right now. That team has a very real chance to make a regional this year, which is absolutely remarkable. In another year or two, I expect Oregon will be vying for the Pac-10 title and knocking on the door to Omaha.

CSF: The BA poll ... can you shed some light on how that works? How many people actually vote on it and is it a points poll or a consensus poll?

AF: It's more of a caucus. We try not to refer to it as a "poll"--you'll notice we almost always refer to it as the top 25 "rankings". That's because it's not a straight vote. A group of our staff members, led by John Manuel and myself, sit in a room with a printout of all of the week's results, records against the top 25, and other factoids, and we discuss how we think the teams should line up. We don't always agree, and there are plenty of times when I don't get my way, though certainly I have the most influence. But there has never been a week where the official top 25 matches up exactly with my personal top 25 heading into the meeting. I think it's good to have a variety of opinions in the meeting. We usually have about a half-dozen or eight people in the meeting, and not all of them keep tabs on college baseball as closely as I do, but that perspective can be very valuable, because they are sometimes better able to step back and look at the big picture than I am, as enmeshed as I am in the day-to-day grind of the season. Our rankings always stem from the previous week's rankings--we don't just rank 1-25 fresh each week. That means that our rankings early in the year are inherently weighted toward our preseason rankings. Isn't that why people come to Baseball America, to get our perspective on things? Our preseason rankings serve as our expectations of the talent, coaching and overall potential of each team. As the season progresses and we learn more about each team based on what happens on the field, the preseason rankings and our talent judgments matter less, and results matter more. We place the most stock in weekend series, because that is when teams have their best pitchers competing against other teams' best pitchers. Midweek games are also relevant, but we simply don't weigh them as heavily; they can be used as a tie-breaker, and certainly if a team loses multiple midweek games it could drop in the rankings even if it wins its weekend series, but it won't drop a whole lot usually. That's just how we do things--I understand there are other approaches to doing rankings, and fans are welcome to disagree with our methods or disregard our rankings if they like. I find that oftentimes, fans are likely to disagree with every poll except the one that places their team the highest. But I think our rankings are more transparent than anyone else's: We have a podcast and a chat every single week where we explain our thinking and our methodology. Who else does that?

CSF: More on the poll ... last year you guys caught a lot of flak for making UCLA the preseason No. 1. Any regrets? Or is it really the Bruins' fault for not living up to their potential?

AF: Obviously I wish we had selected another team for No. 1, because UCLA was a disappointment. But it seemed like the right choice based on the information we had at the time. UCLA was loaded last year, and the bottom line is those guys did not play up to their talent. There is no question about it: that team underachieved. That said, maybe it was unreasonable for us to expect them to play up to their talent based on what the program had achieved in the past, but I don't think it was such a huge leap when you consider that UCLA was two wins from Omaha in 2007 and returned most of the key players from that team. So, "is it the Bruins' fault" for not living up to their potential? I'm positive that team did not live up to John Savage's expectations either, and I doubt he blames Baseball America for what happened on the field. UCLA's failure is its own. That doesn't change the fact that our prediction was a failure, too--and that's our fault for putting too much stock in a team that lacked the toughness to make the most of its talent. But hey, a big part of our job is to make predictions, and when you do that, you're going to be wrong sometimes. It just so happens that the misses are what people remember, not the hits. Funny how I never hear anyone talking about how we were the only ones to rank Fresno State in the preseason last year...

CSF: How much does tradition impact college baseball programs?

AF: It's clearly a significant factor. I was talking with a scout the other day about Miami, and he said that team is really not that talented (especially compared to last year's team), but they have that "Miami mystique" that gives them an edge in tight situations. When you always believe you're going to win, you stand a much better chance of winning. The same is true of Fullerton or Texas or Florida State or Rice or a few other programs. That doesn't mean a team without that kind of tradition can't win it all--ask Oregon State or Fresno State. Tradition, then, is not the ONLY factor or even the most important factor. I would argue that the most important factors are talent and the mental toughness to utilize that talent. Oftentimes that mental edge goes hand-in-hand with tradition, but not always.

CSF: Do you think West Coast teams get a fair shake from the selection committee, both in terms of selection and also seeding and placement?

AF: I think the West Coast is significantly under-represented in the field of 64 every year. The West Coast Conference, Big West and Pac-10 almost never get as many bids as I believe they should. That said, I get tired of West Coast teams and fans whining about how they always knock each other off in regionals and super regionals. The same is true of any other region: you think Texas A&M is tired of having to play Rice every year in supers? You think Bethune-Cookman likes having to go to Miami or Florida State every year for regionals? You think South Carolina would like to face somebody other than North Carolina with a trip to Omaha on the line? Yet you don't hear Charlotte or UNC Wilmington or Elon or College of Charleston constantly complaining about how it's unfair that the teams from the Carolinas always knock each other off in regionals. If you think of baseball as "West Coast" and "everybody else", than yeah, there are more "everybody else" teams in Omaha every year than "West Coast" teams. But if you think of California as a region, just as Texas is a region and Florida is a region and the Carolinas/Georgia is a region, it really isn't so unfair. I understand there are a lot of teams in California, but there are a lot more teams in the "everybody else" category, and I think West Coast teams have as fair a chance to get to Omaha as anybody else.

CSF: Being in Durham, some fans accuse BA of certain biases toward the ACC and/or the Tar Heels. As an UNC grad, what do you say to that?

AF: I love this one. You've got to have your office somewhere, don't you? Sometimes I think we'd be better off if we were located in Mozambique, because at least then nobody would hold the location of our headquarters against us. The funny thing is UNC fans think we're biased against UNC because we're trying to overcompensate for our undergraduate degrees, so we really can't win with anyone. I think we bag on the ACC pretty regularly for its perennial failure in Omaha, and anyone who listens to our podcasts or reads our analysis really ought to understand how highly we regard West Coast baseball. To say we have an ACC bias is absurd. I'm not shy about saying that I think there are more good teams in most Western conferences than in, say, the ACC. Whenever West Coast teams play other teams in the postseason, we talk a lot about how the West has had everyone else's number, and we talk about why that is. I'll tell you what else: I grew up in Massachusetts, and frankly I didn't have any college baseball loyalties to anyone, which makes it even easier for me to remain neutral, I think. If I were covering the AL East for a living, fans might at least have some basis to question my impartiality, but even then I'd like to think that I'd be professional enough to put aside my childhood rooting interests and cover teams fairly. We are professionals at Baseball America--we do this for a living. When you go to journalism school, they drill into your skulls the importance of being neutral. It cracks me up when fans of a particular team (who are inherently biased by the very nature of being a fan) try to label us as biased. The single most frustrating thing about my job is the way many fans are unable to see past their own allegiances and take a look at the bigger picture. What it usually boils down to is this: criticize my team (even if it's thoughtful, reasonable criticism), or "don't show enough respect" to my team, or rank my team lower than somebody else ranks my team, and you must be biased. That doesn't mean that I don't have opinions--a big part of my job is to express my opinions. That's why people turn to Baseball America--they want to know what we think. But only if we think their team is the best, I suppose.

CSF: Who was the best college baseball player and which was the best college team of all time?

AF: Why, Mark Kotsay and the 1995 Cal State Fullerton Titans, of course!

CSF: Is college baseball getting to be too big? Should it continue its recent growth or is it right where it should be?

AF: I think it's in a pretty good spot. I don't think you're going to see a lot of schools add baseball in the current economic climate, and if anything I think more baseball programs could be on the chopping block, which is a shame.

CSF: Are you gonna miss Rosenblatt Stadium?

AF: Absolutely. I think it's a real shame that the NCAA was dead-set on building new instead of renovating. I grew up a Red Sox fan, and it would have been a travesty if Fenway had been torn down. I love what the Sox ownership group was able to do, updating the park without sacrificing its charm. The same could have been done for Rosenblatt, and it would have been more affordable than building new. The NCAA's logic was, "Well, if we're going to spend $60 million to renovate Rosenblatt, we might as well just spend $120 million and build new." That doesn't make sense to me. $120 million is still twice as much as $60 million, and you lose all the tradition and emotion that comes along with Rosenblatt.

CSF: Why are you a college baseball fan?

AF: I grew up watching Cape Cod League games, and it bred in me a certain reverence for baseball at this level. Players just seem hungrier at this level than many of them are in pro ball, and it's a lot of fun to watch young players develop into stars. I like seeing players before the mainstream baseball world sees them. I also love the college game itself, particularly the West Coast brand. The strategy and gamesmanship of West Coast baseball is incredibly entertaining to me. I enjoy West Coast games quite a bit more than ACC/SEC games. I suppose now I'll be hearing it from ACC/SEC fans about my "West Coast bias", but I can deal with that. ...

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