clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The NCAA's Proposed Baseball Change and the Return of Gorilla Ball

Introducing new baseballs is the wrong way to fix the problem with postseason offense. So guess which one the NCAA is considering?


Baseball is probably the furthest thing from most SEC fans' minds right now -- we are in the middle of football season -- but changes to college baseball are being considered that would wipe out most of the progress made towards a more rational game over the last several years. And they're being made largely to protect the parochial interests of two postseason parks that badly need to change, and perhaps to provide more job security to a select group of coaches.

For those who have come to college baseball in recent years: What you watch nowadays is a far different game than what we used to see. For example, in 1998, Southern Cal beat Arizona State 21-14 in what was then a single championship game. No, that was not a football game. In 2008, Fresno State won one of the games against Georgia in the championships series by a 19-10 score.

In 2011, the NCAA decided to do something about this by introducing BBCOR bats. Without getting into the physics behind the change, the BBCOR bats reduced the amount of power in the aluminum bats. They now perform more or less like wooden bats.

Which changed the game. Predictably, runs and home runs fell off by a pretty fair amount. College baseball began to resemble actual baseball instead of the "Gorilla Ball" that the sport had become.

But that introduced a problem in the postseason, which includes by far the most-watched events in the college game. The offense-denying dimensions and geography of parks like Hoover Metropolitan and TD Ameritrade, which debuted the same year, went from producing more rational scores in the pre-BBCOR days to producing dead-ball scores once the new bats were introduced. We've documented this before; the problem is not a widespread issue with offense in college baseball, it's a narrow one that deals only with the postseason.

So what is the NCAA looking at doing in response this? Why, of course, address the problem as if it's a widespread issue with offense in college baseball. Dave Keilitz, head of the American Baseball Coaches Association, wrote a letter to college baseball coaches laying the groundwork for changing the ball by lowering the seams and addressing something called the coefficient of restitution -- to simplify, "ball go far" if these changes are adopted.

But in the survey he sent to coaches, Keilitz asked them to address whether they support a change in the seams and also whether they support a change in the COR.

"If the majority of you would like to do so, I will ask the NCAA Rules Committee and the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee to look into adopting the pro ball in the future," he wrote.

That would be a mistake. The new ball would likely go into effect sometime in 2015, which is too late for some of those (like ESPN's normally great college baseball analyst Kyle Peterson) who want the new ball now. Other have defended the ball by saying that the change won't be that big and makes more sense than changing the only parks at which offense is an issue.

I like and respect Chuck, but he's wrong on this one. He's not wrong on the change in the distance of batted balls for the distances listed in Baseball America, though the "or less" would only come into play on balls hit less than 367 feet with the current standards. But he's minimizing the amount of change that 20 feet might make.

Why? Take a guess at how much distance the BBCOR bats take off of some balls when compared to the old bats.

Dr. Nathan told me that lowering the bat's BBCOR to 0.50 would reduce the batted ball speed by about 5 percent, which would be 5 mph for a typical hard hit ball, which would reduce the distance of a long fly ball by 25 to 30 feet.

In other words, four years after introducing bats with the explicit purpose of cutting down offense in the game, the NCAA is being asked to consider using balls that would take as much as 80 percent of that change back. Baseball America calls this the restoration of "balance." A more accurate description would be the return of Gorilla Ball.

So why the change? I think there are two likely reasons. The first one is that this is cheaper than changing the parks. As Peterson noted over and over during his crusade for new balls in the postseason, there's really no cost to changing the new balls once you get rid of the old ones. The same company makes the "pro ball" and might even be able to cut costs if it doesn't have to continue making the college ball. That's certainly a lot less expensive than rebuilding the outfield walls for postseason parks, or even for using temporary walls to bring in the dimensions for a few games.

But while that's probably a reason for some of the game's higher-ups to encouraging this change, I think the coaches are motivated by something different: Most of them don't want to have to adapt their coaching style to the new game. The response of a lot of coaches has not been to actually learn a new way of managing the game, but simply to tell their players to bunt an absurd number of times. It's far easier than, you know, actually realizing that you might have to learn a few new tricks.

Take Jack Leggett. I'm not picking on Leggett because he's the Clemson coach -- okay, maybe a little -- but because he's been one of the most vocal coaches pushing the new ball. Why? Well, he says it's all about the game not being "as exciting" as it was. A less charitable explanation is that the game is not as exciting for Jack Leggett because he's not doing as well.

Going back to 2004, Leggett's teams have done remarkably better when scoring more runs. That's not exactly a big shock; teams that score more runs tend to win more games. But it's striking. When Leggett's teams score more than 400 runs, his overall winning percentage is 0.669 and his ACC winning percentage is 0.649. When his teams score fewer than 400 runs, Leggett's overall winning percentage is 0.595 and his ACC winning percentage is 0.529. In both cases, that's a pretty significant drop.

One of Leggett's better seasons came in 2010, when he scored 600 runs and led his team to a 45-25 record overall, an 18-12 ACC mark, and a berth in the College World Series. The last three years, Leggett has never matched that overall record, matched the ACC record once and has not advanced beyond the NCAA Regionals. Leggett has never been eliminated in the Regionals in three consecutive seasons since he arrived at Clemson, until BBCOR bats were introduced.

That is a problem for Jack Leggett and coaches like him, but it's not a problem for the game or its fans. The problem for the game and its fans is that the parks used in the postseason are too small or oriented to rein in the kinds of ridiculous offense we saw in the past. The solution now being considered would use a meat cleaver to make what should be surgical change.

Not that we should be surprised that the NCAA would do such a thing. In fact, the NCAA being involved probably ensures that the wrong solution will be the one that the game adopts.