“You can pucker up,” Lyn Rollins says on the broadcast, “and kiss that baby good-bye.”
By the time the words left Rollins’ mouth, Danny Zardon’s home run had just — and we do mean just — cleared the left field wall at Alex Box Stadium.
In fact, the solo shot didn’t even make it to the first row of the left field landing bleachers. The ball smacked onto the metal walkway along the top of the wall, banging around as fans scrambled for the soon-to-be souvenir.
Zardon trotted around the bases to a more than roaring 6,000 fans, got a high-five from third-base coach Will Davis and stomped on the plate for a homer that pulled LSU to within one run of Missouri during a game three weeks ago.
All of the above — Rollins’ call, the souvenir, the trotting and the celebrating — would not have unfolded if Zardon had hit a baseball in the same direction at the same time on the same pitch just one year ago.
“New ball homer for sure,” LSU director of baseball operations Nolan Cain tweeted moments after Zardon’s shot.
The ball came off Zardon’s bat at a speed of only 96 miles per hour. Only? Yes, only. A ball’s exit speed with the old balls normally had to hit the triple digits to soar over any walls.
Zardon’s towering homer was exactly what college baseball wanted. It’s exactly what college baseball got.
The game has completed its first regular season with the new lower seam baseballs, and the results are in: Home runs are up.
The college game saw an increase of homers by 41 percent — 0.39 per game last year to 0.56 this year. The average team has 30 homers this season over a 56-game schedule. It had 21 last season.
College coaches are pleased with the results, and the NCAA couldn’t be happier, said Damani Leech, the NCAA director overseeing baseball.
Still, as 16 four-team regionals begin across the nation Friday, one question remains.
“The wildcard still hanging out there,” Leech said, “is Omaha and how the ball performs there.”
That answer won’t come until another month. For now, most involved in the game are thrilled that the lower seam ball has, somewhat, yanked college baseball from its worst hitting slump in nearly a half-century.
The new ball has helped bring back some of the fireworks, reignite a college baseball offense that hit the skids when the new bats — stripped of a larger sweet spot — were instituted in 2011.
Batting average is only slightly up — .270 to .274 — but home runs were the primary statistical target. The 0.39 homers hit a game last season was the lowest in the recorded history of college baseball.
How does the 0.56 figure stack up to other seasons? It’s the highest since the new bats were instituted in 2011, but not near the 0.94 homer rate of 2010.
The difference is evident in the local team.
LSU, 48-10 and the NCAA No. 2 overall national seed, enters Friday’s Baton Rouge regional with 47 home runs — six more than the Tigers had in one fewer game played at this point a year ago.
LSU has 12 home runs this season with an exit speed of less than 100 mph. What’s that mean? Most, if not all, of them would have stayed in the park with the old balls.
“New ball home runs,” Cain said while pouring over exit speed data from his office at Alex Box Stadium.
Even those on the pitching side — like LSU’s Alan Dunn — admit the obvious: the new ball is what baseball needed.
“I do believe it was something that is good for the game,” Dunn said. “I think it’s made a big difference. I think it’s definitely helped the game. I really do.”
The new balls are, at least, here for one more season if not much longer. The NCAA’s initial plan was to have a two-year trial period before making any more changes to the game.
That doesn’t mean discussion of more changes won’t take place during three offseason baseball meetings the NCAA will conduct, Leech said.
A vocal group of coaches, despite the new ball results, are clamoring for more change.
The American Baseball Coaches Association is in the midst of polling college coaches on their feelings about the new ball, said Craig Keilitz, the ABCA executive director. More than 100 surveys have been returned. About 92 percent are “highly favorable” or “favorable” to the new ball, but “there are quite a few coaches who want to switch to the minor league ball,” Keilitz said.
That includes LSU coach Paul Mainieri.
“It will be a little more lively,” Mainieri said.
More changes may be contingent on what unfolds on June 13-23 at the College World Series.
Since the CWS moved to TD Ameritrade from Rosenblatt Stadium, a total of 25 home runs have been hit: nine in 2011, 10 in 2012, three in 2013 and three in 2014.
It’s not that the fences are any different from Rosenblatt. It’s the position of the park. South winds prevail in Omaha in the summer. The park’s home plate points southwest.
“We’re curious, for sure, particularly given how it’s performed in the regular season. Will home runs go up 40 percent in Omaha?” Leech asked. “We’d certainly like to see more than three.”
Changes to the park, the core and, even, another tweak to the bats have all been discussed by the NCAA, but no alterations would likely come this offseason, Leech said.
“We didn’t want to rush into making a decision after one year of data,” he said.
Coaches and players have stumbled upon an unintentional side effect of the new ball: it helps pitchers, too.
Pitchers have developed fewer blisters, and there’s more movement or spin on their fastballs and breaking balls. It hasn’t necessarily balanced things out, of course.
Just ask LSU left-hander Jared Poché, whose ERA is a full run more than what it was last season.
“Given up a few home runs that, off the bat, thought they were fly balls,” Poché said. “Look up and it’s going over the batter’s eye.”
NEW BALL ERA
The new ball era is in its first season and, already, a difference is clear in college baseball’s offense.
New bat era
Old bat era
Wooden bat final year
*before NCAA postseason
The new balls have, for now, put a stop to declining offense in college baseball.
Home runs a game
Runs a game
*before NCAA postseason
^also before NCAA postseason
#last year of the old bats
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.