When Indiana State was crowned as the regular season baseball champion of the Missouri Valley Conference last Thursday, it marked the fifth different regular season champion the league has had since 2005.
ISU, Creighton, Wichita State, Missouri State and Evansville have all won regular season titles in that eight-season span.
That might not strike you as terribly remarkable until you go backwards from 2005 to find the previous five different teams that won or shared regular season MVC championships.
You have to wear out the pages of the MVC record book to find them. The Valley wayback machine finally stops in 1974.
From 1974 to 2005, Tulsa (no longer in MVC, no longer has baseball), Wichita State, Southern Illinois, ISU and Missouri State were those five champions.
The Shockers, of course, were the standard bearers with 21 outright or shared regular season championships during that period, one that made WSU one of the best programs in the nation.
The parity the league has experienced since 2005 could be a sign that other programs have stepped up their competitive games. It could also point to an erosion of WSU’s dominance in a league it once lorded over.
Both of those explanations are legitimate. But one shouldn’t overlook a subtle change made to the league structure in 2005 that has changed how teams are put together … and it undoubtedly helped ISU reach the top of the conference this season.
From 1995 to 2004, the MVC played four-game conference series. In 2005, the league switched to the three-game format it currently uses.
It seems like an innocuous change, but its had a significant effect on leveling the playing field in the MVC. It has unquestionably changed the game in one particularly important way.
“It eased up on the weekend pitching,” ISU coach Rick Heller said.
“When I was at Northern Iowa [Heller coached at UNI from 1999-2009], we’d use eight to 11 pitchers on a normal [four-game] series weekend. Now it’s more like seven, maybe eight, guys. It’s awesome from a pitching standpoint because it’s hard to recruit that many pitchers that can play that four-game series,” he added.
In a similar way that scholarship limits leveled the college football playing field in the 1990s, three-game series have changed the recruiting game in the MVC.
In the past, a successful MVC program, like say, Wichita State, could stack up talented pitchers by the truckload.
With a four-game format, those pitchers would know they could get a chance to play.
The Shockers, or any other league power, could lure 15 arms from the cream of the crop, theoretically weakening the talent pool for the rest of the league to choose from.
Programs don’t have the luxury of hoarding the pitching talent in a three-game format. If a team only uses seven to eight pitchers on a regular basis, some of the pitchers that previously would commit to a program like WSU won’t get the same chance to play in a three-game format. Those pitchers who seek playing time can be hooked by other programs and the talent level evens out, especially in a sport that is heavily reliant on junior college transfers who do want to play right away.
Heller also saw another benefit to the three-game series that has undoubtedly helped the Sycamores this season.
“It allowed us a better opportunity to win midweek games. In the past, we had to play against leagues that had three-game series and we were playing four. Sometimes you’re going with your seventh or eighth pitcher against them and they’re throwing their fourth guy,” Heller said.
ISU had a talented fourth-starter in Kyle Rupe this year and the Sycamores were 10-2 in midweek games in 2012.
Heller liked the old four-game format because it appealed to his underdog teams at UNI. But the same reason Heller liked them is the same thing that made them taxing.
“I felt like you had to be tough to play a four-game series. That doubleheader day was rough. You could catch guys napping or maybe not showing up. You play a night game and then you have to get up early? A 2 p.m. game is pretty easy to get up for, but if you’re up for a 1 p.m. doubleheader, I felt like I might be able to knock them off that way,” Heller said.
Four-game series used to be somewhat common, but the Summit League is the only Midwestern loop to still use the format. Its demise in the MVC has helped the rest of the league be more competitive — on and off the field.
“It’s changed a lot. It’s perfect baseball with a three-game series. It’s straight baseball. Really, every game’s like a Friday game,” Heller said.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.