Taking a round bat and hitting a round ball squarely is arguably the hardest thing to do in all of sports.
It got even harder in college baseball recently when BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bats were implemented to lessen the trampoline effect the barrel has on the ball. The immediate effect of the bat regulations has resulted in a considerable transition process in the college game, as teams have gone from "Gorilla Ball" to more of a small ball approach. Sitting back and waiting for the long ball has taken a backseat to pitching, defense, and situational play.
In our Winter issue last year, Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell admitted the challenge the new bats posed; "With the change in the bats, we saw the game change right before our eyes and I'll be the first to say we weren't prepared for it. We weren't prepared to defend the bunt, and on offense we didn't incorporate it enough."
After finishing 32-29 in 2011, the 2012 Cardinals won the Big East and finished the season in the top 25, bowing out to eventual national champ Arizona in the Tucson Regional.
While generally supported throughout college baseball, the new bats certainly have their detractors. In Small ball returns to the college game, a 2011 piece by the L.A. Times, Oregon head coach George Horton claimed that the bats had "changed our game for the worse," and UC Irvine head man Mike Gillespie agreed, noting that "balls that might have gone 10 feet over the fence are landing 10 feet in front. It just dies and comes down like one of those parachute toys."
The new style does have its supporters, however. In a 2012 GamecockCentral.com
article, Scott Hood wrote that "the people who oversee college baseball say that the game is healthier, more competitive and attractive to fans than ever before, athletically and academically" and that "college baseball has been dominated by schools in the South and West regions of the country for the past 15-20 years, but the participation of Kent State (Ohio) and Stony Brook (New York) in this year's College World Series is viewed as a sign that parity is alive and well."
"The main thing about the bat is our coaches like it," American Baseball Coaches Association Director Dave Keilitz said of the bat changes. "Eighty-four percent of the Division I coaches said they either liked the bat or it was acceptable. Only 16 percent said they didn't like the bat."
Clemson head coach Jack Leggett has noted that there has been some improvement with the adjustment. "It's getting a little bit better in terms of the players understanding what it's all about," he said. "We really haven't done anything different in terms of recruiting; we find best athletes, the best baseball players, the toughest guys we can find."
Many supporters note that the bat changes have resulted in the college game resembling professional baseball, which uses wood bats. To that end, Leggett poses an extremely intriguing question: why not change the ball?
Leggett sent an e-mail this past offseason to coaches all across the country, noting the dramatic rise in offensive output in summer leagues that had started using a ball with a harder core and lower seams. In the e-mail, he asked coaches to consider what the college game would be like if the ball were changed.
"I got a lot of positive feedback," said Leggett, who has led Clemson to 40+ wins 14 years in a row. "My thought process was to try to inject some life back into the game. I thought we had a good game going, that it was right where it needed to be and at the height of its enthusiasm in Omaha."
"I'm hoping we could get some momentum by bringing a minor league-style baseball into it," Leggett poses. "It's got a harder core, lower seams and less resistance, and I think it would make for a better game, a more exciting baseball game."
Due in large part to an exclusive agreement with Diamond Sports, leagues in the National Alliance of College Summer Baseball (NACSB) rolled out a new baseball this past summer that had a noticeably harder core and lower seams. As a result, NACSB teams had a front row seat for a record-breaking summer. "Our players came back talking about it," Leggett added.
"I'm all about fundamentals and the tradition of the game but at the same time, I think we have to be aware that we want to continue to build our fan base," Leggett continued. "They want to see some excitement, some offense. We have 3,000-plus season ticket holders [at Clemson] and I don't see the same enthusiasm in the stands as I did a few years back." It just doesn't seem like the same excitement in Omaha. The ballpark is so big and there's very little chance of a homerun."
"Every time I'd been there as a player or coach, when you take BP the kids would be out there chasing home run balls. Now, you may hit one out here and there, but it's just not the same excitement. You don't go to MLB batting practice and not see home runs. You don't go to MLB games and not see home runs. That's when they play the music and when everyone gets out of their seat."
Leggett is right. Since the event moved to the brand-new TD Ameritrade Park, the College World Series has seen its runs per game drop off significantly, from 12.3 runs or more in 2007-2009 to 7.2 and 7.1 runs per game in 2011 and 2012, respectively. In the past two years, 19 homeruns have reached the seats at TD Ameritrade.
By comparison, 62 home runs carried out of Rosenblatt Stadium in 1998 alone, with Louisiana State and Southern California hammering 17 jacks each that year.
"We considered moving the outfield fence in and moving home plate out in the offseason," said Leggett. We're just trying to make our game as good as it can be, as exciting as it can be, and for the fans to be into it. I've been around this for 35 years and the last couple years have just not been exciting."
"The pitchers are still going to win, they're still going to get you out. Good pitching and good defense is still going to win."
There are many coaches that continue to support the BBCOR bats and the way they have changed the game, but Leggett and others contend that what makes the college game attractive to fans is now in jeopardy.
"You look at the shot clock and the three point line in basketball, the play clock and the no-huddle offense in football. Every other game is after guys that can score points. We took some excitement out of our game, I think, in a time where everyone's trying to put excitement into their sports."