New college baseball has outfielders adjusting to different trajectory _lowres

Advocate file photo by John Oubre -- LSU outfielder Andrew Stevenson dives to catch a fly ball as he gets the out against Georgia last season at Alex Box Stadium.

It was the catch seen ’round the college baseball world.

With LSU and Texas A&M tied at 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth, Aggies junior infielder Blake Allemand stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. LSU closer Joe Broussard delivered a 1-0 fastball tailing away from the plate.

Allemand smoked the pitch to left field, and Tigers junior Jared Foster began his sprint in an effort to save the contest. Foster dove, fully extending and snatching the ball in the edge of his glove to send the game to extra innings. LSU went on to win 5-4 in 10 frames.

It was a catch that may not have been made in 2015.

The critical element in the play — the baseball itself — has undergone a slight transformation since that May 2 night in College Station, Texas. The seams have been flattened, the ball experiences less drag while flying through the air and outfielders around the country are having to adjust as a result.

After working with the new baseball throughout the fall and into the spring, LSU coach Paul Mainieri said testing has indicated the new baseball may carry 20 to 40 feet farther.

Foster said he’s already noticed the change.

“You can definitely tell a difference on it,” Foster said.

“Just the way it flies in the outfield, the balls are carrying a little more. It’s more of a challenge.”

LSU fans witnessed a rare sight during a spring scrimmage Jan. 25.

Freshman outfielder Beau Jordan stepped to the plate and stroked a pitch deep into centerfield. The ball soared over junior Andrew Stevenson’s head.

LSU sophomore outfielder Jake Fraley said he’s seen such an occurrence multiple times since the new baseballs were introduced.

“Oh, my gosh, yeah,” Fraley said. “You ask anyone … how many times has (Stevenson) got burned in the outfield? I’ve seen two balls so far that (Stevenson has) gotten burned on, and that never happens. The ball just pops off the bat a lot different. It gets to you a lot faster.”

It’s unusual for balls to find themselves out of the reach of LSU’s speedy outfielders.

For two seasons, juniors Stevenson and Mark Laird have patrolled the outfield in Alex Box Stadium, making diving grabs and robbing extra-base hits in the gap. With Stevenson in center field and Laird in right, the duo has combined to create a black hole that has given opposing hitters more than enough fits.

And they rarely make mistakes. They’ve combined for three errors in 209 total starts.

The Tigers outfielders are also two of the rangiest in college baseball. A player’s defensive range factor, or the ability of a player to reach a batted ball, can be calculated by dividing total putouts and assists by the number of games played.

Laird’s range factor indicates that he makes 2.35 plays per game. The highest recorded range factor for a right fielder at any level of competition was 2.81, which Babe Herman of the Cincinnati Reds recorded in 1932.

Stevenson makes 2.24 plays per game, ranking him among the best in the Southeastern Conference.

But as great as their ranges are, both have had to begin a transition period since the new baseballs were introduced. After multiple seasons of learning the tendencies of fly balls in Alex Box Stadium, Laird, Stevenson, Fraley and Foster have had to adjust.

Stevenson said he noticed the baseball’s new flight pattern almost immediately.

“They’re definitely flying a little bit farther,” Stevenson said. “Those balls that would have ended up on the warning track last year are getting out this year.”

Learning how to track the new baseball became one of the primary concerns early in camp.

One moment, Laird thought he knew where the ball would land. The next, he was sprinting to a new location.

“First time I noticed the difference was first day we were hitting live (batting practice), and we were taking balls in the outfield,” Laird said. “It was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be there.’ Then, it’s past us. We really had to adjust to that in the outfield.”

As someone who is supposed to be the general in the outfield, Stevenson began trying to adapt to the new baseball’s flight pattern during fall camp.

With Opening Day less than a week away, Stevenson and Laird both said they’re now comfortable with the changed ball.

“The first week, it was a little different,” Stevenson said. “The ball was just carrying out farther, so we had to take a little bit deeper angles on them. But now we’ve been playing with them for the whole fall and starting in the spring, so we’re kind of used to it now.”