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Courtesy: GoBearkats.com
New bats impacting college game
Courtesy: GoBearkats.com
Release: 05/08/2011
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It's probably happened more than once this spring.

You go out and enjoy a college baseball game and a deep fly ball is hit. What appears to be a home run initially instead falls short and the outfielder makes a routine catch.

Especially early this season, the response often heard in ballparks has been one that's expected.

"That would've been gone with last year's bats."

Beginning this season, college baseball across the board has begun using less-potent bats that are measured with a new Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) standard, which measures the velocity of the ball coming off the bat.

The reason for the change is because of a concern for player safety and also an increasing number of runs scored per game. Over the past three seasons, the national average has gone up to 6.98 runs per game.

The new BBCOR bats, which has shrunk the sweet spot on bats by 22 inches, were designed so that the ball would have less speed coming off the bat and also put an emphasis on defense.

"I think it's great for the game," Sam Houston State head coach Mark Johnson said. "The sweet spot's a lot smaller, so now if you jam somebody, it won't turn into a home run or a triple. I think this year, you've seen more outstanding catches and defensive plays."

Just like in other sports, statistics can tell much of the story in baseball and the story this season is that offensive production (home runs, RBIs and batting average) is down significantly and runs are coming at a premium.

For big and small programs alike, offense and runs have been tougher to come by.

In the Southland Conference, home runs are down 40 percent and there are 13 percent fewer runs being scored. As expected, extra-base hits are down as well with 25 percent going for more than one base this season, compared to .292 last season.

Due to the decreased effectiveness of the BBCOR bats, players and teams have had to adjust and use traditional methods of moving baserunners into scoring position and bringing home runs.

"A lot more small-ball is being played, a lot more traditional, old-school baseball. Not everybody's going up there trying to hit the ball off the wall every time," Sam Houston senior Chris Andreas said. "There's a lot more bunting runners over like if there's a guy at second, you bunt to get him to third. Sac flies are big, too, and squeezes to try and force in a run.

"Last year, we'd get back to around the seventh, eight, ninth innings and then we'd start playing small ball for a run. Now, it's more like the first five innings, people are trying to move runners in scoring position and trying to get opportunities to score runs."

With the ball coming off the new bats at a slower rate, defenses have more opportunities this season to make plays and get out of jams. Hard-hit balls come off the bat slower, allowing infielders and outfielders time to reel in grounders or line up underneath the ball to make a catch.

"In the infield, I think the exit speed from ground balls, if you square it up a lot, those are kind of the same," Sam Houston senior second baseman Ryan Mooney said. "In the outfield, a lot of those are dying that would normally carry over the outfielder's head. In the infield, a ground ball's a ground ball. In the outfield, I see some of our guys getting to balls that with the old bats, they might not get to."

While some teams, such as UTSA, which has actually seen its team batting average improve, have made a smooth transition to the new bats, for others it has not been so easy.

One such example is Northwestern State. The Demons, who lost most of their starting lineup from a year ago, were ranked second in the Southland Conference in batting average (.322) and were fourth in home runs (47) last season, but are batting .264 and have hit a total of 15 homers so far this spring.

"We lost four to five guys in the middle of our lineup, but at the same time, offensive production is down, power production is down," Northwestern State head coach J.P. Davis said following the second game of the Demons' series with Sam Houston on April 2. "The bottom line is that you've got to pitch and play defense and you've got to get timely hitting.

"It's about player safety and it's a good thing. Anything that protects the players is good and from what I've seen so far, the game is playing truer."

The Bearkats, like most teams around the country, got a late start on becoming accustomed to the new bats. It wasn't until late in the fall that Sam Houston began working with the new bats.

"My philosophy has always been to swing the wooden bat as much as we can, especially in fall training, all the way up until about game week. We encourage our guys at that point to swing the aluminum bat as much as possible, even going back to last year," Sam Houston hitting coach Jim Blair said.

"In the games in the fall before we got the new bats, we swung the wood because we thought it would play out the same way and I think it has played pretty true in that way."

While batters are having to adjust the way they approach at-bats, pitchers across the country have used that to their advantage and have thrived.

The country's top five pitching staffs last season combined for an ERA of 3.42 with Texas being the only team in the nation with an ERA less than 3.00. This season, the top five pitching staffs have a combined ERA of 2.45.

In the Southland Conference, ERAs are 1.26 runs lower, while strikeouts are occurring at nearly the same rate.

"(Earned run averages) are down by about one and a half runs across the country," Johnson said. "I think it's helping the pitcher."

With conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament getting under way in a little less than a month, the postseason will look much different as teams will rely far less on the long ball than in previous years.

"I like the fact there won't be as many cheap home runs. So the game will be less capricious in my mind, it will all be in the doing. There will still be home runs from the guys that can hit them, but some guys who have gotten six or seven homers in the past may not get any," Rice head coach Wayne Graham told Baseball America before the season began.

"I think fans that grew up with the aluminum bats will still appreciate the game we have now," Johnson added. "Batters have to do a better job with the strike zone. They have to be ready and be more disciplined. I think it's good."

Sam Houston State takes a break for finals this week then heads to Conway, Ark., for the Bearkats' next-to-last Southland series of the year. Sam Houston and Central Arkansas will begin the series Friday with a 6 p.m. game, then play on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. The regular season will wrap up for the Bearkats with a series against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Thursday, May 19, through Saturday, May 21.

The series marks the final home appearance for Sam Houston head coach Mark Johnson who is retiring at the end of the 2011 season. Game times for the series are 6:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Johnson, who last year became only the 44th head coach in NCAA Division I baseball history to post more than 1,000 victories, will be honored in a special pre-game ceremony on Friday, May 20.

Tickets for the three remaining home games are available online at www.gobearkats.com/tickets or at the athletic ticket office located in the Ron Mafrige Field House at Bowers Stadium. Ticket office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The ticket office telephone number is (936) 294-1729.

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