NCAA hopes new ball will boost offense

College baseball is on pace for the worst offensive year since 1973 — the last season wooden bats were used

“I think if the ball is jumping off the bat in the fall next year, then we might tailor our recruiting and go out and take some chances on more aggressive (hitters).” JAVI SANCHEZ, LSU hitting coach and recruiting coordinator

Sean McMullen has lost count. The sequence plays out far too many times for him to keep a tally.

The bat produces a loud crack.

The ball soars toward the outfield bleachers.

The excitement builds as he rounds first base.

The frustration begins before reaching second.

“There’s at least someone in the dugout that says, ‘Man, with the old bats …’ ” McMullen said trailing off. “Four years later, we’re still saying that.”

McMullen, LSU’s senior designated hitter and outfielder, is in quite the unfortunate situation: His entire college baseball career has stretched over a span of time — 2011-2014 — being dubbed the “Dead Bat Era.”

Halfway through the 2014 season, college baseball was on pace for the worst offensive output in more than 40 years.

Through March of this season, per-game averages for batting average, home runs and runs scored were at their lowest since 1973, the final year wooden bats were used.

The NCAA hopes to pull the college game out of its slump with a new baseball being implemented next season. The ball — with flatter seams to reduce drag — is expected to travel about 20 feet farther when hit well, tests have shown.

The new ball is the NCAA’s way of trying to bring balance back to the game, said Damani Leech, managing director of championships and alliances for the NCAA.

The governing body hopes it will re-ignite a college baseball offense that hit the skids when the new bats — stripped of a larger sweet spot — were instituted in 2011.

“That’s what everybody wants to talk about is how bad our offense is,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said this week. “This isn’t unique to LSU.”

The Tigers (31-10-1, 10-7-1 Southeastern Conference) enter this weekend’s series against Tennessee (25-14, 7-11) with a .272 batting average. That’s above the NCAA’s mid-year average of .268.

Across the nation, teams are struggling to score runs and hit the long ball.

At the mid-year point, teams were scoring an average of 5.14 runs a game, nearly two runs lower than it was in 2010, the final year with the old bats.

Teams were hitting 0.37 home runs per game through the first six weeks of this season. That’s the lowest home-run average since the NCAA has kept the statistic, 1970.

“You see guys hit the ball on the thick part of the bat and you see the ball get caught before the warning track. That’s a bad sign for me,” said Kendall Rogers, a national college baseball reporter for Perfect Game. “If a team gets down 4-0, chances are the game is over.”

The new ball is expected to bring change. How much isn’t known.

Seams will be flattened from .048 inches to 0.31. It’s more consistent with the balls used in minor league baseball, but still higher than those used in the majors.

The Division I Baseball Committee approved to use the new ball in the NCAA postseason in 2015. Each conference must approve the use of the new ball for the regular season.

The SEC conducted its vote this week, Mainieri said. He voted for the league to adopt the new ball.

Leech expects most conferences to approve the use of the ball in the regular season. New balls will be distributed in time for teams to use them in the fall season, he said.

The flatter seams will help the ball cut through the air more, but some pitchers expect the ball to help with their velocity.

No one really knows how the balls will affect the game. Some — like Rogers and Mainieri — believe it won’t be enough.

They want the core of the ball to change to the livelier ones used in minor and major leagues baseball.

Changing the core is “very much” in the discussion for the future, Leech said.

“We looked at three variables you could change: the bat, the core of the ball and the height of the seams,” Leech said. “We opted on the seam height under the understanding that it would be the least disruptive.”

Mainieri said he has a better idea: move in the fences.

“I’ve got plans sitting on my desk of different configuration (for Alex Box Stadium),” the coach said, “but I’m not changing our fences unless they change them in Omaha.”

Changing the bats is the least likely scenario, Leech said.

New bats were instituted in 2011 for safety reasons. The stricter “Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution” standard (BBCOR) reduces a batted ball’s exit speed.

The new balls won’t change the exit speed. They might have other effects, though.

Mainieri changed his recruiting philosophy when the NCAA instituted scholarship limitations and the new bats.

Baseball coaches used to spread 11.7 scholarships over any number of players. In 2009-10, the NCAA put a limit on players who could receive part of a scholarship at 27.

Throw that in with the new bats and Mainieri and his staff made changes.

They went after a more versatile, athletic player — like current LSU starters Andrew Stevenson, Mark Laird and Kramer Robertson — instead of the burly, big-hitting guy.

“You have fewer players you can take a chance on in recruiting,” Mainieri said, “and they’re being forced to use a bat that’s not as lively to hit with.”

The team has also increased its scholarship money on pitchers, specifically those who are from out of state.

That’s being done around the nation.

“One coach in the SEC told me a while back is they shifted they’re recruiting to go 70 percent pitching and 30 percent hitting,” Rogers said.

Javi Sanchez, LSU’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, isn’t sure the new balls will change the program’s recruiting philosophy again.

“It’s hard,” he said. “Do we really go out and get a guy who’s a thumper but can’t run or really doesn’t have a position? It’s so hard. I think if the ball is jumping off the bat in the fall next year, then we might tailor our recruiting and go out and take some chances on more aggressive (hitters).”

McMullen is a guy recruited to fit the new bats — an athletic, speedy player who can hit for extra-bases but might not drive it over the fence.

He won’t get the chance to find out his true home-run hitting potential in college.

Said McMullen: “I’ll never experience any hitting advantage.”