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Small ball returns to the college game

College baseball takes its annual bow in the national spotlight with this week’s opening of the NCAA tournament.

Stadiums with typically a smattering of fans will be filled and, as is customary, ESPN will saturate the airwaves with games and highlights on the road to the College World Series.

But over the next month fans will witness something new.

Or rather, something that conjures the past.

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Bat specifications introduced this season turned back the clock in college baseball.

Improving safety, standardizing bat performance and eliminating tampering were the goals. The result: A drastic reduction in home runs, scoring and earned-run averages.

So-called “Gorilla Ball” offenses of the 1990s and lesser-but-still powerful descendants of the last decade are extinct. Small ball is in.

“It’s changed the game,” UCLA Coach John Savage said.

Whether that’s good or bad depends on who’s asked.

Savage and other coaches and observers say the emphasis on pitching, defense and run manufacturing has made the college game “more pure.”

But some, such as Oregon Coach George Horton, lament the loss of the fan-friendly home run and the offensive excitement and interest the power game generates.

“It’s changed our game for the worse,” he said.

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A little bit of history

When a player hits a fastball with a wood bat — a collision that generates thousands of pounds of force — the ball is no match. Cowhide and tightly wound yarn momentarily flatten and must regain their original shape, an inefficient process wasting energy that might otherwise contribute to a towering home run.

Now watch the same thing with a metal bat.

This time, both bat and ball compress a little, and because aluminum rebounds better, its “trampoline effect” can increase the speed of the hit from the low 90s to more than 100 mph.

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College baseball adopted metal bats as a cost-saving measure in the 1970s. As scoring through that decade and the ‘80s increased, a worried NCAA turned to researchers for help. Setting weight limits appeared to stem the tide until USC and Arizona State combined for 35 runs in the championship game of the 1998 College World Series.

“That was the tipping point,” said Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Assn.

Looking for a better standard, researchers settled on the ball exit speed ratio, a complicated formula that sought to slow down hits. But offensive production continued to increase amid concerns that manufacturers had sidestepped the limit by, among other things, shifting the center of gravity inside their bats.

At the 2009 College World Series, 20 of 25 bats tested failed the official BESR test for performance levels. “Because all bat designs must pass that test before mass production, the results indicated that the performance of such bats changed thereafter, most likely due to repeated, normal use or intentional alteration (or both),” the NCAA said in a statement announcing a proposed moratorium on the use of composite bats.

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By that time, the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee had already asked researchers to try again.

“They wanted the game to return to a different era,” said Alan Nathan, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois. “They wanted the game to be what it used to be.”

That led to the adoption of the bat-ball coefficient of restitution standard, which uses the same lab test — shooting a ball at a stationary bat — but a different equation. Nathan and others on the NCAA Baseball Research Panel saw it as a simpler, better way to measure batted ball speed.

As early as last spring, Daniel Russell, an associate professor of applied physics at Kettering University in Michigan, was estimating the new standard would shave 5 mph off most hits, which translated into 30 feet off long fly balls. But no one knew for sure.

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“We were using physics to predict this,” he said. “You like to see how it works out.”

The results are in

It did not take long for players and coaches to recognize a difference in the BBCOR bats.

When teams received their shipments from manufacturers, the omnipresent “ping” sound made by aluminum was gone. The “sweet spot” also was smaller and closer to the middle of the bat rather than the end, which particularly affected the swings and the distance of balls hit by younger, less muscular players.

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Line drives showed no discernible difference in speed from home plate to the edge of the infield, but fly balls no longer routinely carried out of stadiums.

“Balls that might have gone 10 feet over the fence are landing 10 feet in front,” UC Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie said. “It just dies and comes down like one of those parachute toys.”

By midseason — the most recent Division I numbers available — home runs were down from .94 per game per team to .47. Batting averages dipped from .305 to .279 and scoring fell about 1.3 runs per team. Shutouts occurred far more frequently and the time needed to complete games was substantially less.

Offensive performance increased somewhat in May, but regular-season statistics remain down compared to those of 2010.

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UCLA, for example, batted .309, hit 52 homers and compiled a 3.02 earned-run average going into last year’s NCAA tournament. This season, as they prepare to host a regional this weekend, the Bruins have recorded lower numbers across the board: .264 batting average, 16 homers, 2.45 ERA.

Four-time NCAA champion Cal State Fullerton, also hosting a regional, saw its batting average dip from .348 to .285. Its homers plummeted from 56 to 17 — nine of them by first baseman Nick Ramirez — and its ERA from 3.76 to 2.85.

Still, Fullerton’s offensive style, traditionally featuring many more bunts, steals and hit-and-run plays than opponents, has been adopted by teams attempting to cope with the power outage.

“Maybe the most important part of the game [on offense] is the double and triple that hits the gap,” Fullerton Coach Dave Serrano said.

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A spokesman for bat makers doesn’t see the decrease in offensive firepower or a return to yesteryear as necessarily a good thing.

“Just because that’s the way baseball was played then doesn’t mean that’s the way the game should be played now,” said Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. “The college game was in great shape with the BESR standard.”

Pitchers, however, are happy that weaker hitters no longer resemble Alex Rodriguez.

“One-handed swings on changeups don’t necessarily go off the wall anymore,” said UCLA junior right-hander Gerrit Cole, who is expected to be a first-round pick in next week’s major league amateur draft. “You can be more aggressive.”

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Bruins outfielder Beau Amaral also has noted the change at the plate but sees the effect mainly when chasing fly balls.

“There are times that I think it’s crushed,” he said, “and I’ll be able to sneak under it and catch it.”

Mission accomplished

Manufacturers keep the inner workings of their bats a closely guarded secret. Researchers merely test the finished product.

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“They’re probably changing the thickness of the walls, changing some materials,” said Jeff Kensrud, manager of Washington State University’s Sports Science Laboratory, an NCAA testing site. “We don’t do an autopsy on these bats.”

A season’s worth of statistics is enough to make NCAA officials confident the new standard is working.

“I don’t think there’s any question it has made a difference,” said Jeff Hurd, a Western Athletic Conference executive who serves on the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee. “We’re really trying to get the bats to react more like a true wood bat.”

The shorter fly balls that Russell predicted probably explain the dip in home runs per game. And lower batting averages could mean that, with slower batted ball speeds, infielders are reaching more hard grounders and bloopers.

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Furthermore, the fact that strikeouts have not changed significantly seems to rule out pitching as a reason for the offensive decline. But home runs and strikeouts aren’t the only concern. Critics have long complained that pitchers face greater danger from line drives off supercharged metal bats.

That risk probably hasn’t significantly changed.

“Slowing the ball down 5 mph isn’t enough to help the pitcher get a glove up and protect himself,” Russell said. “It’s less than half the time to blink an eye.”

Still, in the heated and often emotional debate over metal bats, Nathan calls the new standard “a triumph of science over hype.” After years of receiving criticism for the shortcomings of previous standards, researchers feel vindicated by what they have seen on the field.

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“It’s nice when you argue for something and it works out,” Russell said. “It gives you confidence that you know what you’re doing.”

Going forward

Major league scouts, preparing for next week’s first-year player draft, have observed the changes in the college game. The new bats have taken some of the guesswork out of player evaluation.

“It does give a truer read on what they are going to do in the future,” said Jaron Madison, scouting director for the San Diego Padres. “Guys that can really hit are going to hit with these bats.”

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Eight super regionals will be held the second weekend in June, the winners advancing to the College World Series in Omaha.

After six decades at hitter-friendly Rosenblatt Stadium, the event moves across town to $131-million TD Ameritrade Park, which opened in April.

Will the stadium play differently?

Savage hopes to find out as the Bruins try to secure their second consecutive trip to the World Series.

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“I think it’s a more legitimate game,” he said of the changes wrought by the new bats. “It’s just changed the whole dynamic of offenses. “

Meantime, Horton is planning for next year.

As an assistant and head coach at Fullerton, he was part of national championship teams that excelled on the mound, defensively and in the small-ball game.

Oregon missed the playoffs this season, but Horton blamed coaching and poor execution — not bats — for his team’s struggles. Still, he said the new standards have created an overcorrection and wonders how it will be received by fans.

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“It’s like watching Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal going head to head,” he said. “It’s great if one of them is throwing a perfect game, but other than that….”

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

david.wharton@latimes.com


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