Thud! The college baseball season is now under way but something is … different.
Ever since the 1998 College World Series -- dubbed Gorilla Ball and culminating with USC's 21-14 title-game win over Arizona State -- college baseball increasingly has regulated metal bats.
Beginning this season, only bats certified to a new standard (Bat Ball Coefficient of Restitution) are allowed. The aim is for non-wood bats to perform like wood bats, with a similar exit velocity, both for safety of players and game integrity.
While the dampened bat power has center fielders pinching in and infielders adjusting to a ball flight delay off bats, just about everyone fears college baseball will loose [sic] its might. Some worry that the long ball will be long gone, that home run numbers will sink, extra-base hits drop as singles and slugging percentages turn, well, sluggish.
In a recent "Baseball America," Texas coach Augie Garrido lamented about how practice home run numbers are down about 75 percent, from 15 to 20 a BP to five or six, while Paul Mainieri, coach of the 2009 national champion LSU, reported fall intrasquad practice games homers dropping from 36 in 2008 to just six this past fall.
The game has changed, and it's not just the familiar ping being replaced by a less obnoxious sound. Power doesn't come as cheap as it once did. Programs are now expected to change the way they do business. On the field, more small-ball and an emphasis on defense. Recruiting shifts its focus to speed and athleticism.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. MLB teams are in the midst of a similar transition now that the Steroids Era is in the rear view.
This is going to be something worth keeping an eye on. One potential effect of the change that has piqued my interest is how it could modify player development for hitters and pitchers alike.
We hear a lot about the adjustment period hitters face when jumping from the collegiate ranks into professional baseball, which includes the transition from metal to wood bats. The old metal bats were all sweet spot. Hitters didn't need to square up a pitch in order to make hard contact. There was no incentive for precision.
That is not the case with wood, of course -- sweet spot or bust, sometimes literally. The adjustment period for a new professional batter is partially spent trying to figure out how to deliver the fat part of the bat to the ball more consistently than he had been doing in college. This is part hand-eye skill and part pitch selection.
It's now becoming more vital for college hitters to refine their stroke before reaching pro baseball. The new bats won't allow them to get nearly as many cheap hits. Does this mean we'll see more polished hitters in the low minors going forward? Is there a chance we might see hitters climbing the minor-league ladder a little quicker?
Pitchers also have to adjust their game when moving from metal bats to wood. What are two things we always hear a young pitcher needs to work on? Pitching inside and commanding the fastball. The new bats figure to allow pitchers to better work on these areas before draft time.
With the old equipment, college pitching was all about home run prevention. Pitching inside was too risky -- what is a broken bat in a pro league might be a home run down the line in college -- so that skill was rarely honed. It seems unlikely that hitters will still be able to hit a baseball 350 feet off the handle of the new bats, however. Not only were pitchers unable to move their fastball around the zone in fear of the long ball, they also relied heavily on their breaking pitches. Now that there is a little more opportunity to pitch to contact, pitchers should be able to learn how to better command their fastballs. Throwing fewer breaking balls could also help keep wear and tear at a minimum.
Will this change create more prepared A-ballers? I think it might, but only time will tell.
There are many more questions that will have to be left for another day. How will this change the way MLB clubs scout at the collegiate level? Is it suddenly more advantageous to dig into and analyze college stats? What kind of effect can changes in recruiting trends have on the types of players entering pro baseball? What will this mean for the popularity of college baseball? And many more, I'm sure.
It will be some time before we have enough data to make sense of what all this means, but early indications point to this rule change impacting professional baseball. Stay tuned.