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Small ball returns to the college game

As the NCAA baseball tournament approaches, changes in bats have been followed by reductions in homers and ERA.

June 01, 2011|By Gary Klein and David Wharton
  • Stanford volunteer assistant coach Brock Ungricht holds up some of the new metal bats colleges have been using this season. New bat specifications have led to a reduction in home runs.
Stanford volunteer assistant coach Brock Ungricht holds up some of the… (Paul Sakuma / Associated…)

College baseball takes its annual bow in the national spotlight with this week's opening of the NCAA tournament.

Stadiums with typically a smattering of fans will be filled and, as is customary, ESPN will saturate the airwaves with games and highlights on the road to the College World Series.

But over the next month fans will witness something new.

Or rather, something that conjures the past.

Bat specifications introduced this season turned back the clock in college baseball.

Improving safety, standardizing bat performance and eliminating tampering were the goals. The result: A drastic reduction in home runs, scoring and earned-run averages.

So-called "Gorilla Ball" offenses of the 1990s and lesser-but-still powerful descendants of the last decade are extinct. Small ball is in.

"It's changed the game," UCLA Coach John Savage said.

Whether that's good or bad depends on who's asked.

Savage and other coaches and observers say the emphasis on pitching, defense and run manufacturing has made the college game "more pure."

But some, such as Oregon Coach George Horton, lament the loss of the fan-friendly home run and the offensive excitement and interest the power game generates.

"It's changed our game for the worse," he said.

A little bit of history

When a player hits a fastball with a wood bat — a collision that generates thousands of pounds of force — the ball is no match. Cowhide and tightly wound yarn momentarily flatten and must regain their original shape, an inefficient process wasting energy that might otherwise contribute to a towering home run.

Now watch the same thing with a metal bat.

This time, both bat and ball compress a little, and because aluminum rebounds better, its "trampoline effect" can increase the speed of the hit from the low 90s to more than 100 mph.

College baseball adopted metal bats as a cost-saving measure in the 1970s. As scoring through that decade and the '80s increased, a worried NCAA turned to researchers for help. Setting weight limits appeared to stem the tide until USC and Arizona State combined for 35 runs in the championship game of the 1998 College World Series.

"That was the tipping point," said Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Assn.

Looking for a better standard, researchers settled on the ball exit speed ratio, a complicated formula that sought to slow down hits. But offensive production continued to increase amid concerns that manufacturers had sidestepped the limit by, among other things, shifting the center of gravity inside their bats.

At the 2009 College World Series, 20 of 25 bats tested failed the official BESR test for performance levels. "Because all bat designs must pass that test before mass production, the results indicated that the performance of such bats changed thereafter, most likely due to repeated, normal use or intentional alteration (or both)," the NCAA said in a statement announcing a proposed moratorium on the use of composite bats.

By that time, the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee had already asked researchers to try again.

"They wanted the game to return to a different era," said Alan Nathan, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois. "They wanted the game to be what it used to be."

That led to the adoption of the bat-ball coefficient of restitution standard, which uses the same lab test — shooting a ball at a stationary bat — but a different equation. Nathan and others on the NCAA Baseball Research Panel saw it as a simpler, better way to measure batted ball speed.

As early as last spring, Daniel Russell, an associate professor of applied physics at Kettering University in Michigan, was estimating the new standard would shave 5 mph off most hits, which translated into 30 feet off long fly balls. But no one knew for sure.

"We were using physics to predict this," he said. "You like to see how it works out."

The results are in

It did not take long for players and coaches to recognize a difference in the BBCOR bats.

When teams received their shipments from manufacturers, the omnipresent "ping" sound made by aluminum was gone. The "sweet spot" also was smaller and closer to the middle of the bat rather than the end, which particularly affected the swings and the distance of balls hit by younger, less muscular players.

Line drives showed no discernible difference in speed from home plate to the edge of the infield, but fly balls no longer routinely carried out of stadiums.

"Balls that might have gone 10 feet over the fence are landing 10 feet in front," UC Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie said. "It just dies and comes down like one of those parachute toys."

By midseason — the most recent Division I numbers available — home runs were down from .94 per game per team to .47. Batting averages dipped from .305 to .279 and scoring fell about 1.3 runs per team. Shutouts occurred far more frequently and the time needed to complete games was substantially less.

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