Baseball

New baseballs help revive offense at college level

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Believe it or not, the four home runs Miami Hurricanes hitters smacked Friday at Wake Forest were more than the entire eight-team field hit during last year’s College World Series, when college baseball’s biggest event turned into a nationally televised power outage.

But long before the CWS last June — when a record-low three homers were hit for the second consecutive year — a team of researchers at Washington State University started looking for ways to turn the lights back on.

Offense had fallen into a steep decline nationwide since the implementation of less dynamic BBCOR bats in 2011, college baseball’s way of keeping its trademark ping! while altering its bats to make them perform like wood.

The effort was sold as a step toward safety but was driven more by intentions of a brand of baseball that more accurately mirrored Major League Baseball’s.

And it worked — too well.

“Every game was 1-0 or 2-1, it seemed like,” said UM coach Jim Morris, whose team’s offensive output decreased by 145 runs between 2010 and 2011, and continued to flat-line in subsequent years.

Enter the remedy: a newly engineered baseball developed to travel farther and resurrect teams out of the modern dead-ball era.

The baseballs, developed by Dr. Lloyd V. Smith and his team at WSU’s Sports Science Laboratory, are in their first season of use and feature flatter seams that are expected to give well-struck flies up to 20 extra feet of distance.

“Bottom line is, now we have a chance to hit some home runs,” Morris said. “Part of this game is the home run. For me, it’s the most exciting part.”

If you have successfully reached for a foul ball at Mark Light Field or FIU Baseball Stadium this season, you have grabbed a sleeker, smoother sphere.

The new baseballs are closer, but still tangibly different than major-league balls, which feature seams wound so tightly they raise little above the ball’s leather surface. The new ones are more comparable to minor-league baseballs, which travel farther thanks to limited drag cultivated by the lower seams.

Comparable, but not exact. The differences come from adjustments in the leather panel cutting, stitching and the extensiveness of the rolling process each ball goes through. The new NCAA baseballs are still an entirely unique entity not seen at any other competitive level.

“It’s such an adjustment for these guys to go from the higher seams to the balls in pro ball,” Morris said. “This ball is getting closer.”

Smith’s team began looking at the effects of drag fluctuations on baseball travel distance in 2008. They were essentially starting from scratch.

“The problem was they wanted us to evaluate a ball that didn’t exist,” Smith said. “There was this idea, but it didn’t exist.”

Eventually, prototypes emerged and field studies in Washington in 2013 and Houston’s Minute Maid Park in 2014 followed.

To create the new design, Smith’s team first developed a special pitching machine that limited the amount of artificial acceleration it put on ejected baseballs. To simulate home runs, researchers then shot balls at near a 30-degree angle and close to 100 miles per hour, while coating the ball with appropriate backspin.

Smith and his team serve as the NCAA’s compliance certification lab. They also were integral in green-lighting the BBCOR bats, which use thicker walls and barrel rings to diminish the ball’s exit-speed ratio at impact.

The physics say the new baseballs should help hitters, but that pitchers should still enjoy an advantage overall. The effect of the flat-seamed balls should, in theory, account for roughly half the effect the BBCORE bats did, Smith said. For hitters, that’s the equivalent of making up five of the 10 steps back they took in 2011.

Early results show a positive correlation: UM scored 160 runs through its first 22 games this season, its most over in that span since 2010.

Pitchers are already making adjustments. Despite assumptions that flat seams would make it more difficult to throw breaking pitches, pitches have had since last fall to perfect their grips.

“I feel like I get a better feel for my pitches now,” said UM starter Thomas Woodrey, who isn’t exactly struggling with a 3-1 record and 2.93 ERA.

“People say you won’t have a better grip with the breaking balls, but it works out fine,” said UM starter Enrique Sosa, who held hitters to a .227 batting average over his first five starts. “My fastball moves way more and I have a better feel for all my pitches.”

Said FIU starter Chris Mourelle: “It took a good month to get used to. There were a couple of pitchers who had trouble with their breakers, but they got it down.”

The hitters have gotten used to the changes too. Teams hit 40 percent more home runs during the season’s first month than they did over the same span in 2014, according to the NCAA.

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