It’s simple addition by subtraction. In an effort to increase the run production in college baseball, the Division I Baseball Committee ruled that it would reduce the height of the seams on its baseballs. So far, it looks like the committee hit a home run.
A report released by the NCAA on April 1, approximately halfway through the season, showed that home runs are up more than 49 percent from a year ago, going from .36 per game to .50 per contest.
“I do think it was necessary to take some sort of steps to inject offense back in the game,” said Duke’s third-year coach Chris Pollard, a former pitcher at Davidson College. “I think if you looked across baseball, since the introduction of the BBCOR bat, the power numbers and offensive numbers have steadily declined.”
The aluminum BBCOR bats were implemented in 2011 to improve safety and help hold down baseball scores by making the bats’ impact force more like wooden ones.
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“The intent has always been to balance offense and defense in all rules we have, and to allow many different styles of play,” said Ty Halpin, the NCAA liaison to the Baseball Rules Committee, at the time.
The change in bats coincided with Division I baseball moving the College World Series from Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park, and the result was disastrous for the game’s crown jewel event.
While the two stadiums have the same dimensions, the wind is more of a factor in TD Ameritrade Park. The gusts, coupled with the less-lively bats, produced contests straight from the Dead Ball Era.
“After the move to TD Ameritrade the game has been played totally different in the College World Series,” Pollard said. “It’s interesting because the dimensions of TD Ameritrade are the exact same as the dimensions in Rosenblatt, which was a notoriously homer-friendly ballpark. The difference was simply the orientation of the wind.”
According to an article produced by Baseball America, 32 home runs were hit in the last year non-BBCOR bats where used in Rosenblatt Stadium. Last season, only three round-trippers were hit in 14 CWS contests. The games might as well have been broadcast in black and white.
So drastic was the need for offense that even Duke’s pitching coach, who logic would dictate would be against the flattening of the seams, was all for it.
“I think it’s good all-around for college baseball,” said Blue Devils coach Andrew See. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but I do think the power numbers have gone up. … Overall, I think it’s a good change. I like it.”
The reduced seams were expected to make life a little harder for breaking ball pitchers, but it has increased velocity on fastballs and has improved the exit speed of the ball coming off the bat of hitters.
“There was a little anxiety (before the season) because you just didn’t know the effects it would have on breaking balls. That was the biggest thing,” said N.C. State pitching coach Scott Foxhall. “I think sometimes we have become dependent on those seams to help us spin the breaking ball. That was probably my biggest source of anxiety.
“But, I think it’s worked out well. I think it’s been the best for the game. It was a good decision. It really hasn’t affected the pitching as much as my anxiety thought it was going to.”
A tighter break
North Carolina junior Korey Dunbar, a two-year starting catcher, said the flattened seams may actually have a positive effect on breaking ball pitchers.
“What the seams have done, on off-speed pitches and even some fastballs, is give it a tighter break,” said Dunbar, who leads the Tar Heels with a .338 batting average. “You’re not seeing as much looping breaks or wide movement. You have more of a tighter spin, so you have more late movement. It helps the pitcher out a little bit. But, on the other hand, you don’t have as much movement so it helps the hitter out, some would say.”
Foxhall said the flattened seams has had more of an effect in the batter’s box then on the mound.
“The impact has been mostly on balls off the bat, in my opinion, and that’s the whole reason they changed it,” Foxhall said. “They wanted to bring more offense into the game and I think they accomplished that. The biggest change has just been that the ball is carrying a little bit more. You can tell by the way the outfielders are reacting to fly balls.”
“That’s what I see. Now, some of that is circumstantial, we’re just giving it the eyeball test,” Pollard said. “But, also some of it is when we are radar-gunning our pitchers and a guy squares up on the ball and hits a line drive and the radar gun picks up that line drive, I have seen greater exit velocities.
“They’re not the same exit velocities we had five or six years ago when we had the juiced bats, but they are higher exit velocities than what we have seen in the last few years in the BBCOR era.”
A study done by the Washington State University Sport Science Laboratory showed the flattened-seamed ball travels 20 feet further than the old ball.
See said the reduced seems, lowered from .048 inches to .031, initially threw off some of his younger pitchers, but has been handled well by his staff.
“I think some of the high school guys were probably the ones that we had to work with a little bit more,” See said. “We’re a real fastball-changeup dominant team so I don’t think it affected us that much. So many of these guys play summer baseball and they use the pro-type baseball with the lowered seams, so they were kind of used to it.”
With the lowered seams in mind, See began the preseason making sure his staff paid more attention to one of the fundamental principles of pitching: keeping the ball down.
“We just talked about our need to pitch more in the bottom of the zone. We call it pitching to the string,” See said. “We go out in our bullpen and set a string up a little bit below kneecap level and we try to work there with our two-seam fastball as much as possible.”
While the change in seams has produced the desired results so far, it may have an unintended consequence when it comes to recruiting. Once again, power hitters will be coveted , while the stock on power pitchers will continue to soar.
“The push has been toward power arms on the professional level and on the college level and I think that there will continue to be a premium on those type of guys,” Pollard said. “The other thing is that I think it will mean that coaches will start to recruit power hitters more. I think the last three or four years teams have gone away from recruiting power hitters because they were recruiting guys that can bunt, run and defend in place of that guy who has got some power. I think that’s going to change.”
Home runs are up more than 49 percent from a year ago, going from .36 per game to .50 per contest.
The flattened-seamed ball travels 20 feet further than the old ball.