COLUMBIA, SC — ANOTHER WEEKEND of outstanding college baseball played at the highest competitive level, another weekend of baseball played at the small-ball level. Over three games, the South Carolina pitching staff shut Clemson out twice. USC hit three home runs, all with no one on base. Clemson did not hit a ball over the fences.
College baseball has altered its game over the past three seasons, tamping down the importance of the long ball while placing a greater-than-ever premium on pitching and defense.
It is a baseball revolution that does not sit well with Clemson’s Jack Leggett, and USC’s Chad Holbrook understands where his coaching counterpart is coming from. Leggett believes the pendulum has swung too far, that pitching has gained too great an edge over hitting.
“I think we took too drastic of a step,” Leggett said. “I think for the excitement of college baseball, there’s got to be a little more life to it, offensively.”
Leggett has an idea that he believes could find a happy medium for the game. Leggett is pushing for a change in the ball that is used in the college game. He wants to switch to the ball used in professional baseball.
“They’re not going to change the bats,” Leggett said, “so I think going to the minor-league baseball, a little bit harder ball with lower seams and a little bit more carry on the ball, you’ve got a more exciting game.”
Prior to the 2010 season, with coaxing from TV networks wanting shorter games with fewer runs and fewer pitching changes, college coaches changed the type of aluminum bats that had been used the previous 30 years. Those bats had made the game more like slow-pitch softball than baseball.
The switch to a modified aluminum bat — more like wood — caused a dramatic energy shortage in the college game, which has moved closer to being like fast-pitch softball.
“This was very significant,” said Daniel Russell, a graduate student at Penn State in his study on the “Physics and Acoustics of Baseball & Softball Bats.”
“Using the new BBCOR bats, players are not hitting home runs with anywhere near the frequency that they had during the last 30 years.”
Runs scored in the college game dropped from seven per game in 2010 to 5.3 in 2012, according to Russell, who also found that batting averages dropped from .305 in 2010 to .277 in 2012, and staff earned run averages plummeted from 6.00 in 2010 to 4.50 in 2012.
Of course, the drastic change in the way the game is played has been apparent in South Carolina. Five years ago, the college game was mostly about having big thumpers scattered throughout a team’s lineup. Teams mostly played station-to-station baseball while waiting for a three-run homer.
Through 10 games of the 2008 season, USC and Clemson had each belted 16 home runs. This season, the two teams have combined for nine home runs in their first 10 games each. Clemson has two long balls.
Through those same 10 games in 2008, USC was averaging nearly 10 runs a game and Clemson was scoring seven per game. Through the opening 10 games for each team this season, USC is scoring an average of six runs per game, and Clemson is scoring four.
So, there is not much doubting about what the new bats have done in curtailing offensive output, a swing Leggett said has made the game less exciting.
“He makes a lot of very good points,” Holbrook said of Leggett. “He’s studied it and researched it. It’s something that he feels is important to the college game. He’s coached a long time, he’s been successful for a long time, so after listening to him and reading his emails, it makes a lot of sense to me.
“I’m for it in many ways. I’m an offensive guy, and I’d like to see a little bit more offense.”
Alan Nathan is a physics professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has conducted many studies on the flight of baseballs. Nathan was asked in an email exchange if the change in ball could have the same kind of effect on the game as the change in the bats has had.
“You can change the ball-bat coefficient of restitution by changing either the ball or the bat,” Nathan wrote. “In the 2011 change to the bats, it was the bat that was changed. And the effect was to reduce the number of home runs. I guess the question you are asking about is whether the ball could also be changed. It can. The effect that a change in the COR of the ball will have on batted ball speed (and therefore on home run production) is well established.”
Since no one probably knows more about the subject than Nathan, we should probably take his word for it. That, and the word of Leggett, who said he will continue to persuade coaches across the country to change the ball.
It took three long decades to change the bats in college baseball. Unfortunately, for Leggett and the game, it might be too much to ask for a change in the ball after three seasons.