Tuesday, February 17, 2015

College baseballs modified to boost offense

Last year's NCAA ball (L) vs this year's (R)
Baseball fans of a certain age will remember NCAA baseball back in the 80’s and 90’s, when it seemed that just about any hitter could crush a mammoth home run using a super-charged aluminum bat. In 2011, the NCAA moved to a composite bat that greatly reduced the exit speed of a batted ball and offensive numbers fell off a cliff. For instance, homers dropped from 0.94 per NCAA game in 2010 to an all-time low of 0.39 per game last season. In the 2010 College World Series, 32 home runs were hit, but that figure dropped to a paltry three round-trippers in the entire eight-team tournament in each of the last two years. To help restore the delicate balance between offense and defense, the NCAA, NAIA and Northwest Athletic Conference have made a slight change to the baseball for the 2015 season, and other junior and community colleges will follow suit in 2016.

To an outsider, the change to the baseball doesn't sound all that significant. The seams on the ball have been lowered from 0.048 to 0.031 inches and they are now consistent with those used in the minor leagues. However, the core of the NCAA baseballs will remain the same, meaning that they'll still be less lively than minor league balls (which in turn are less lively than big league baseballs). Tests have shown that the new NCAA baseballs travel 20 feet further than the old ones when launched from a pitching machine, thanks to less air resistance from the lower seams. The change is expected to not only boost home runs, but also increase the number of batted balls that fall beyond retreating outfielders.

While the change is being welcomed by hitters throughout the collegiate ranks, the same can’t be said for the pitchers. Not only will fly balls carry further, but the reduction in drag lessens the break of a curve ball. The news is not all bad on the pitching side, because two-seam / sinking fastballs have greater sinking action with the lower seams and sliders have a slight increase in velocity. Pitchers should also suffer from fewer blisters than was the case with the high-seamed balls.

The 2014 WCL baseball
Some observers have speculated that since the new baseballs are more difficult to grip (especially in cold weather) that we might see more foreign substances used by pitchers. It remains to be seen if this will be the case, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a few pine tar incidents at the college level like last spring’s Michael Pineda drama.
So far, the results of the change have been encouraging. In the first weekend of the NCAA Division I season, scoring was up by over a run per game compared to last year. According to D1Baseball.com, the average number of runs scored in a game went from 10.40 to 11.52 (it was 13.82 runs per game in the last season with aluminum bats). While that’s not a massive jump, it’s a nice step towards correcting the imbalance.

The West Coast League continues to use the Baden baseball, which is produced according to NCAA specifications. This means that we should see an increase in offense this summer and a few more balls landing on Pembroke Street than in the last two seasons. That extra 10 to 20 feet of carry can only help sluggers like Gabe Clark and Carl Stajduhar, so don’t be surprised to see the modest WCL single-season home run record fall in 2015.

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