New bat standards a boost to college baseball
The College World Series has been played in Omaha, Neb., since 1950, but almost nothing looks the same or sounds the same this year.
The biggest visible change is that the event is being held in a new stadium, TD Ameritrade Park, replacing the old and familiar and historic Rosenblatt Stadium.
The new $131 million ballpark has many of the features one would find in a Major League stadium, although on a lesser scale.
There are luxury suites (30) for those who want to view the game at the high end; well-equipped concession stands for the enjoyment of the fans; and comfortable clubhouses for the players.
The stadium sound system is much improved from the Rosenblatt days, but it is the sound from the playing field that has caught the attention of the baseball people in attendance.
There no longer is the "pinging" sound of an aluminum bat meeting the baseball and thus turning hitters with average bat speed into home run sluggers.
A new testing standard by the NCAA this year requires metal bats to perform more like wood. The new bats must meet a standard that is designed to lower ball-exit speeds off the bat.
The change was made to protect the pitchers and also reduce the high-scoring games and the length of the games.
The new bat standards have had the desired effect, as evidenced by the regular-season games in the NCAA and now at the College World Series.
According to NCAA Division I statistics through the end of the regular season on May 22, the overall team batting average dropped from .305 last season to .282. Home runs were nearly cut in half from 0.93 a game to 0.52, and scoring was down from 7.01 runs a game to 5.62. Sacrifice bunts were up from 0.58 a game to 0.75.
It was just as noticeable from the pitching standpoint, of course, with team ERAs going from 5.97 to 4.70. And there were 886 shutouts, up from 525 a year ago.
When Kent Emanuel of North Carolina, a freshman left-hander, blanked Texas, 3-0, on Monday to eliminate the Longhorns, it was the first shutout at the College World Series in five years.
The bottom line, in my view, is that the changes in the bat have not only been good for the college game but also for professional baseball.
Players being drafted and signed by Major League teams are going to have an easier time adjusting to professional baseball, and that applies to both hitters and to pitchers.
Several scouts I spoke to said they liked the change in the bats, but didn't find it critical to judging players.
"I've always felt that the best hitters will figure out how to hit if it's wood, plastic or a broomstick," said veteran scout Gary Hughes of the Chicago Cubs.
"I do think the new bats make it easier to judge present power," said former college star and Major League player Chris Gwynn, now a scout for the San Diego Padres. "However, in the long run, I think hitters do learn to become more mechanically sound to achieve the results they want."
One young scout who has just made the switch from the playing field to the scouting profession and preferred not to be named offered these thoughts: "My take on the bats has been a positive one for both the pitchers and the hitters. For the hitters, it has really been an eye-opener for players to develop and learn now instead of pro ball. With the old bats, undersized and below-average players were putting together unrealistic type stats. This led to small players or those with limited power thinking they can drive the ball out of the park and not focusing as much on bunting and baserunning and situational baseball.
"From a pitcher's standpoint, which for me is the biggest factor, college pitchers now pitch with the fastball and work more on the inner half of the plate. Before coaches would be calling for their pitchers to use their breaking ball pitches and stay away from the hitter. The change in approach means pitchers learn to pitch more off their fastball and this leads to better command at an earlier stage in their careers."
You won't find many scouts at the College World Series, because the players already have been drafted. But one experienced baseball man, ESPN announcer and former star pitcher and pitching coach Orel Hershiser, has been looking on with keen interest.
"The change in the bats has completely changed the college game, and that's a good thing," said Hershiser. "It looks more like the game of professional baseball as we know it. The players have had to make an adjustment and so have the coaches in running the game."
Hershiser is in his sixth year of covering the College World Series for ESPN, and he said in the past that he felt some of the players simply relied on their strength, not technique, to propel the ball out of the stadium.
"In some ways, it's like what took place at the Major League level when hitters were on performance-enhancing drugs," said the one-time Cy Young Award winner for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Hershiser said he feels it's easier to judge the hitters in the College World Series this year.
"One young man who caught my attention last year was Jackie Bradley Jr. of South Carolina," Hershiser said. "He was so strong that the bat gave him a big advantage, but I couldn't be sure if it was the bat or the swing.
"I've seen him this year with the new bat, and there's no doubt in my mind that he can hit. He's a talented individual and a great athlete who is going to hit."
Hershiser said he has been enjoying this year's College World Series more than any other year.
"I'm a fan of low-scoring games," said Hershiser, spoken just like a man who has spent much of his life on the pitcher's mound.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice-President and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.