OMAHA, Neb. — College baseball is on pace to set a record for fewest home runs and a 40-year low for scoring and batting average. Now some coaches are calling for a livelier ball to bring the numbers back up.
The switch to toned-down metal bats in 2011 has led to an offensive decline greater than many expected.
“The game isn’t the same,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said this week. “It’s not as exciting.”
Leggett is leading an effort to adopt the ball used in the minor leagues. That ball has flat seams and a harder core, which he says makes it conducive to greater flight than the college ball. No change could be made until the 2015 season.
The NCAA’s midseason statistics report shows a continuation of the drastic offensive drop that began two years ago. Division I teams entered April averaging one home run about every three games. In 2010 the average was about one per game.
The per-team home-run average of 0.37 a game at midseason was on track to be the lowest since it was 0.40 in 1970, the first year the NCAA kept statistical trends.
The midseason batting average of .270 and per-team scoring of 5.25 runs are the lowest since 1973, the year before the aluminum bat was brought into the college game.
Bat standards were scrutinized for more than a decade after ridiculously high offensive numbers became the norm in college baseball in the late 1990s. The so-called trampoline effect of the old bats became a safety issue for fielders confronted by high-speed grounders and line drives. The current bats are designed to perform like wooden bats.
The effect of the change has been most apparent on the game’s biggest stage. After 32 home runs were hit in 16 games at the College World Series in Omaha in 2010, only nine were hit in 14 games in 2011 and 10 in 15 games in 2012.
Leggett and other college baseball people say the easiest solution to goose the offense, short of bringing in the fences, is to liven up the ball.
NCAA rules mandate balls used in regular-season and tournament play have a COR, or coefficient of restitution, of no greater than .555.
The COR is a measure of bounciness at impact. The higher the COR, the greater the bounce. Balls used in pro baseball have a maximum COR of .578.
The NCAA does not set standards for seams, but national tournament games are played with a Rawlings ball that has raised seams. Because of that, most conferences choose to use the raised-seam ball in the regular season as well.
Though science hasn’t offered a definitive answer, it’s widely believed that raised-seam balls have a “drag” effect and don’t travel as far as those with flat seams.
An American Baseball Coaches Association survey of the 292 Division I coaches taken before the season indicated some concern. According to executive director Dave Keilitz, 53 percent wanted to keep the current COR value at .555, but 55 percent wanted the flat-seam ball to be the standard.
Keilitz said he plans to survey lower-division coaches this summer, and he has asked ball suppliers to provide detailed information on the differences between the college and pro ball.
“I don’t see any change coming unless they are willing to do a lot of research on it concerning the COR,” Keilitz said. “If the Division I, II and III coaches think we need to have a flat-seam ball instead of a raised seam, (the NCAA) might consider that.”
Leggett said he surveyed about 50 coaches and that only one wanted to keep the ball as it is.
Rawlings is the ball supplier for more than half of college baseball teams and all the so-called power conferences, senior vice president for marketing Mike Thompson said.
“We can build a ball however you want it,” Thompson said. “If the NCAA required us to produce a livelier ball, we would.”
The NCAA Baseball Rules Committee won’t consider rules changes until July 2014, meaning it would be the 2015 season before a new ball could be put into play. At least until then, home runs will be at a premium.
Only five of 292 Division I teams started the week averaging better than one home run a game. In the major leagues, on the other hand, 16 of the 30 teams are averaging more than one a game.
Samford and Mercer lead Division I with 45 homers. Then there’s Iowa. The Hawkeyes have one, fewest in the nation, and it happened Feb. 17 when Nick Day went deep against Austin Peay in the third game of the season.
Iowa had just 10 homers last season and isn’t built for the long ball. What little power the Hawks have has been compromised by the unseasonably cold and wet spring in the upper Midwest.
Iowa coach Jack Dahm said he’s surprised by the low number of homers, not just by his team but by others. He said the lack of offense has been a popular topic among coaches.
“A lot of people would like to see more offense back in the game,” Dahm said, “and the baseball would be a good way to add a little.”
Keilitz said the loudest complaints he hears are from the coaches who have a history of relying on big offensive numbers as opposed to pitching and defense.
Leggett’s Clemson team hit 93 homers, or 1.33 a game, in 2010. That dropped to 48 (0.76) in 2011 and 44 (0.70) in 2012. This season the Tigers have hit 13 in 40 games (0.33), with Garrett Boulware leading them with seven.
“The season-ticket holders are looking for home runs, looking for excitement,” Leggett said. “I see them sitting on their hands a lot, everywhere I go. So I just think the simple transition to play with the minor league baseball is the way to go.”