There’s nowhere for Tulane’s offense to go but up.
A year after finishing the season with a .219 combined batting average, finishing No. 292 out of 295 Division I programs, the Green Wave returns nearly its entire lineup for the 2015 season. While experience on its own can pay dividends, Tulane’s hitters are also getting a boost from the NCAA.
First-year coach David Pierce said he’s seen the new baseballs increase the distance on balls swatted to the outfield by an average of 20 feet. It’s a clear change of course from the increasingly pitcher-friendly equipment rules the NCAA enacted over the past 17 years.
“These balls play totally different,” said Tulane sophomore outfielder Lex Kaplan, who batted just .179 a year after being named Missouri’s high school player of the year. “When the ball comes off the bat, you can feel it, first and foremost, and then when it gets into the gap or heads toward the wall, it’s still carrying. Last year, those types of swings would have just died and been outs. It’s a huge help to have these new balls.”
That attitude, as much as anything, could be responsible for Tulane’s significant improvement at the plate in fall practice as well as the past few weeks of preseason workouts.
The psychological effects of simply believing that a pitch whacked on the barrel could jump into the gap or climb over the fence makes the Green Wave’s lineup more potent on its own, according to several of its rising sophomores whose confidence drowned during last year’s 23-29 season.
“It helps just knowing there’s a better chance to get a hit when you make good contact,” said sophomore shortstop Stephen Alemais, who totaled just 10 extra base hits in 166 at-bats despite being named Perfect Game’s Conference USA freshman of the year. “There were a lot of things about last year that were really frustrating, but certainly that was part of it.
“For me, a lot of the improvement comes from maturity, but when the ball is going further, and you know it is, that’s a big help when you’re at the plate. It’s hard to describe it, but confidence is such a big part of the game.”
One inning into Saturday’s alumni exhibition game, that confidence was founded in evidence. Sophomore Hunter Hope smashed a pitch to the center field wall, off 2014 New York Yankees reliever Preston Claiborne, for a run-scoring double. It was the kind of moment the Green Wave didn’t see much of last season.
Whether an increase in offense can be tied with lower seams on a baseball is unknown. In fact, Pierce said he’s largely unconcerned with the external changes but admitted it is making a noticeable difference.
“I really believe you have to get the elements out of your head,” Pierce said. “If you think you can hit, you go up to hit and become a true hitter. The elements don’t matter.
“But I do feel like we have some kids who have matured from that aspect and understand that there are some things they can’t control and need to play through it.
“Overall, I think the new balls are much better for the game, though. Balls are going to get into the gap and get over the fence, and that’s a big improvement from where we’ve been the past few years.”