Iowa baseball: Fuzzy RPI math means Heller's Hawkeyes must finish strong

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

In preparation for writing this column, I went through Iowa’s 2018 baseball schedule through 48 games and circled:

Wins against top-25 opponents.

Wins against teams in the NCAA RPI’s top 50.

And one-run losses.

(There were a lot of circles.)

In fact, you could argue that this has been one of the most impressive of Rick Heller’s five consecutive 30-win seasons. With a team that was supposed to be rebuilding after last year’s stirring Big Ten Conference tournament championship run, the Hawkeyes have posted a 10-9 record against the (current) top-50 RPI.

Iowa's Rick Heller is pictured during the Hawkeyes' game against Cornell College at Duane Banks Field on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

(Remember that stat; we’ll come back to it.)

And yet the Hawkeyes — almost inexplicably — enter their final weekend on the outskirts of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“This team has really, really played well. And our schedule was brutal,” says Heller, close to wrapping up his 31st season as a college head coach. “The RPI is fickle, that’s for sure. I would tell you, based on all my years, that we should be in the 30s right now.”

Instead, entering the regular-season-finishing series that starts at 6:05 p.m. Thursday against Penn State, Iowa’s RPI is … 64.

That’s probably almost certainly too high to get in if at-large bids were doled out today.

Baseball America didn’t even list Iowa among it’s “first four out” and “next four out” Wednesday when it published its latest projections for the field of 64.

It seems no matter what Iowa does, its RPI takes a hit.

Two weeks ago when Iowa won two of three games against then-No. 12 Oklahoma State (now RPI 22) and lost 17-16 against Missouri (RPI 32), the Hawkeyes’ RPI actually got worse (going from 46 to 50).

Still, Iowa was considered “in” the NCAA field (barely) by the experts that are usually pretty accurate on this stuff.

But on the heels after losing two of three at Northwestern (RPI 214 out of 297) over the weekend, a strong body of work all season almost entirely unraveled as Iowa plummeted 14 precious RPI spots.

A top-50 RPI, and Iowa could feel pretty safe.

Being outside the top 60? The outlook suddenly became: Better win the Big Ten Tournament.

“I used to think I had a grip on (the RPI),” Heller says. “But this year’s been really weird.”

Digging inside the numbers, Iowa has a legitimate gripe

Remember Iowa's 10-9 record against top-50 RPI teams?

Here is a sampling of teams ahead of Iowa in the RPI, with their record vs. top-50 RPI opponents:

21. Jacksonville, 4-8.

24. Tennessee Tech, 4-2.

26. Indiana, 7-10.

28. Florida Atlantic, 2-4.

29. Dallas Baptist, 4-6.

35. St. John’s, 3-5.

37. UCLA, 5-7.

41. Northeastern, 3-9.

42. Missouri State, 1-7.

49. Baylor, 6-11.

50. Michigan, 2-6.

52. Cal-State Fullerton, 1-7.

And here’s the kicker: Baseball America projects all 12 of those teams to occupy spots in an NCAA regional.

Sure, the Hawkeyes are justifiably dinged for being 10-2 against 200-plus RPI teams (both at Northwestern, with mid-30s wind chills on the heels of finals week, with one of those losses by one run in extra innings).

But St. John’s is 12-3 against 200-plus teams; Missouri State is 8-2. Yet the RPI formula hasn't punished those teams, or others, as sternly as it has Iowa.

The math doesn’t add up.

And that’s why Heller hopes — if his team doesn’t repeat as Big Ten tournament champs next week — the NCAA selection committee looks at much more than the RPI.

For example, UNLV was one of the top Division I teams (top-20 RPI) when it swept three games from Iowa in early March. The Running Rebels have since faded to 75.

Nestled into Iowa’s 10-9 record vs. the top-50 RPI are five losses by one run (against Illinois, Ohio State, Minnesota, Missouri and Oklahoma State — all considered solidly in the NCAA field).

“There wasn’t a hotter team in the country than UNLV. And it was our fourth week on the road in a row,” Heller says. “(Northwestern) shouldn’t be the death blow, because our resume, I think, is really good.”

How can the Hawkeyes make a third NCAA appearance under Heller?

“Not lose again” would be the obvious answer. The Hawkeyes eked one out Tuesday, with Mitchell Boe’s steal of home plate in the ninth inning providing a 5-4 win at Western Illinois. (Assistant coach Marty Sutherland, who was coaching third with Heller ill, made the call.)

You’d think Penn State being the worst team in the Big Ten would be good for Iowa. But it’s actually not good.

Even if the Hawkeyes pull off a three-game home sweep, they won’t get much (if any) credit for doing so against a team with an RPI of 235.

Still, the Hawkeyes must sweep. Anything less, and their only NCAA hope would be winning the Big Ten Tournament — which they have yet to qualify for.

The top eight teams make it; Iowa is seventh, at 10-9. Maryland and Michigan State are tied for eighth, at 9-11.

“There’s lots of ways that we could get knocked out if we don’t play well,” Heller points out.

The good news is Iowa should get right-hander Cole McDonald back this weekend, for about 60 pitches in a Friday start. The solid No. 3 starter has been sidelined for several weeks with inflammation on his ulnar nerve. That'll help.

Once in Omaha, Iowa will then get some at-large litmus tests. Beating a team like Minnesota (RPI 18) or Indiana (RPI 26) would help its NCAA case. It would be a shame if Iowa got boxed out of the NCAAs despite 11 or 12 top-50 RPI wins.

Minimum, it'll probably require another magical Big Ten run to find the NCAA promised land.

Under Heller, we know that’s a firm possibility. Iowa was the tournament runner-up in 2016 and won it in 2017.

He is bringing the proper perspective into the stretch run.

“I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys than this group,” Heller says. “Sitting here with the schedule we’ve played, still with a chance to do everything we set out to do at the beginning of the year, is a good feeling.

“You just hope the baseball gods look down on you. It would be just phenomenal for this team to get to a regional.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

#Hellerball finishes regular season

Matchup: Iowa (30-18, 10-9 Big Ten) vs. Penn State (15-31, 3-18) at Banks Field, Iowa City

Start times, TV: Thursday, 6:05 p.m. (BTN Plus); Friday, 6:05 p.m. (BTN Plus); Saturday, 6:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

Notable: Despite their record, the Nittany Lions arrive in Iowa City having won six of their last nine games. ... Catcher Tyler Cropley (.367 average) has reached base safely in 19 straight games and is tied for the Big Ten lead with 19 doubles. ... Iowa's pitching staff leads the Big Ten in strikeouts, with 447; second-place Ohio State has 398.