By Trey Mongrue
During a week where the topic of every water cooler conversation revolved around whether or not the New England Patriots played in the AFC Championship with deflated footballs, even Paul Mainieri made note of it at LSU Baseball Media Day last Friday.
“I’d like to announce that we have not deflated our baseballs,” the LSU coach quipped. “They are perfectly legal.”
However, the talk about changes in a game ball did not stop there. The difference being, though, that the change likely will not cause a firestorm of hot takes from all parts of the world.
In an attempt to reinvigorate offensive numbers, the NCAA Division I Baseball committee held session back in November of 2013 and unanimously voted to switch to a baseball that has a livelier, farther reaching reaction when coming off the bat. That change is now set to take place for the 2015 season and with LSU’s season opening series against Kansas two weeks away, Mainieri is ready to see the new baseball in action.
“I think everyone would be happy to see a few more home runs in the game,” said the LSU coach who will begin his ninth season with the Tigers on Feb. 13.
The new NCAA-approved baseball’s seams have a height of 0.031 inches, compared to the one used in previous season’s that had a seam height of 0.048. While that may not seem like much of a difference to the human eye, it is predicted to make an impact on the college game.
“The high seams gave a drag effect much like an airplane that would lower its landing gear to slow its plane down while it’s trying to land,” Mainieri explained. “That was slowing the baseballs down. The idea was if the seams got flattened with consequently less drag, the ball would carry further.”
According to a test done by NCAA committee members using a pitching machine to simulate a baseball leaving the home plate at an exit speed of 95 mph, the new ball traveled an average of 387 feet while the ball with the more raised seams traveled 20 feet less.
When the Tigers used the new ball in practice for the first time, Mainieri saw similar results.
“Our indication is there is going to be more life given to the offense and the ball will carry more if you hit it well,” said Mainieri. “That last 20 feet may mean the difference between that ball landing on the warning track or going into the stands.
“I think anyone who loves college baseball will probably be happy to see that.”
With the implementation of the BBCOR (batted-ball coefficient of restitution) bats in 2011, offense in college baseball has been at a premium and, at times, anemic.
In 2010, the final season of the juiced composite bats, 10 college teams hit 100 or more home runs for the season. In the four seasons that used the BBCOR bats since, not a single team has surpassed 90 home runs. In LSU’s case, the Tigers haven’t surpassed 50 home runs since the bat change — a far cry from the 107 homers that LSU mashed en route to a national title in 2009.
More alarmingly than the lack of balls leaving the park, though, was the lack of runs being scored in general. 2010 saw teams averaging roughly seven runs per game. 2011 saw that average drop below six. By last season, teams were barely scoring five runs per game.
Now, this new baseball won’t bring back those gaudy numbers in full, and that’s not the NCAA’s goal with the new ball. After all, the reason for the bat change four years ago was in an effort to have something that more closely resembles the wood bats used in professional baseball.
But this latest addition should make the game more exciting to watch once again.
“It’s hard for me to predict,” said Mainieri on the amount of home runs he expects LSU to hit this season. “I would guess that we are going to probably hit about 60 to 70 home runs this year.
“It’s not going to return to the ‘Gorilla Ball’ days, no question about that. But, I do think that there will be more home runs and consequently maybe some late inning rallies.”
Having played with a similar lowered-seam baseball in both minor and Major League Baseball, new LSU hitting coach Andy Cannizaro believes that the biggest difference may not be seen with the long ball, but on a sharp double into the left center field gap.
“I think the effect is going to more noticeable on the hits per game,” explained Cannizaro. “What were fly ball outs (last year) can now become doubles and triples into the gap.”
According to a radar gun that LSU uses to track the exit speed of balls hit during practice, the Tigers have had 94 mph balls this year travel farther than balls that were hit with an exit speed of 100 mph last year.
“The exit speed off the bat is better and balls are shooting through the infield,” said Cannizaro, who often heard the complaints of the lack of offense in the college game during his time as a scout for the New York Yankees.
“We have an opportunity to light up the scoreboard and score some runs and we’re really looking forward to that.”
Of course, the hitters aren’t the only ones that will see a difference. Just as the drag effect with the lower seams increases travel, it also makes it a little tougher for a pitcher to drop a curveball right where he wants it.
However, LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn believes his pitchers will not have much trouble adjusting to that aspect. According to Dunn, trouble will come when a pitcher falls behind in the count and is forced to just get a fastball over the plate for a strike.
“Those 1-0, 2-0, 3-1 counts and as a pitcher, we’re going after you and the hitter knows a fastball is coming,” Dunn explained. “They put a good swing on it and in the past, maybe they don’t get rewarded for it as much as they would now.
“I still want to evaluate it when everyone is at their ‘A game’ during the season, but so far I haven’t seen that drastic of a change from a pitching standpoint, but there is going to be a change.”
And that right there is the overarching theme to all of this: change.
How much will actually change regarding the new baseball still remains to be seen. If LSU’s recent inter-squad scrimmages are any indication, Mainieri saw his team hit two home runs, a double and plate six runs in just four innings.
Whether that’s solely the talent of the players or the new ball’s doing is still up in the air.
Either way, it can only mean good things for Mainieri and LSU.