CHICAGO—College coaches no longer gripe about BBCOR bats, which have suppressed offense dramatically since becoming mandatory two years ago. In fact, American Baseball Coaches executive director Dave Keilitz said 86 percent of Division I coaches now support the new bats, according to the results of a survey he conducted of his membership.
But even though coaches are content with the less lively bats, there is a new movement to switch to a livelier ball—specifically, the ball used by professional leagues. That was one of the more notable topics of discussion at the 2013 ABCA convention, where coaches gathered for the annual Division I business meeting on Thursday night.
Clemson coach Jack Leggett led the push for switching to the professional ball this fall, prompting Keilitz to study the issue. Currently, Keilitz said, the NCAA does not mandate any ball standards for regular-season play except that the ball’s coefficient of restitution (COR) cannot exceed .555. The higher the COR, the farther a ball will travel. Professional baseball uses a ball with a maximum COR of .578.
In the NCAA tournament, games must be played with an official Rawlings ball with seams that are higher than the seams of a pro baseball. For that reason, college conferences generally use the raised-seam ball during the regular season to prepare for the postseason.
Leggett sent a letter to coaches across the country in the fall. He said about 55 coaches responded to him, and all but one supported his proposal to switch to the minor league ball.
“I was discouraged where the game was going,” Leggett said. “What I see now, it's become more of a bunting game. The thing that bothers me is we're not mirroring the excitement of what Major League Baseball is doing. You turn on the TV, you've got guys hitting center-field home runs, opposite-field home runs. I think I can count on one hand the amount of balls hit out to center field or the opposite field all season long. I'm not sure it's the best thing for the game. That's why I kind of drummed up interest, because I know they're not going to change the bat. The only other way to inject some life into it is to go to the minor league ball.”
Keilitz’s survey revealed that 53 percent of D-I coaches are content to keep the COR the same, while 47 percent prefer a livelier ball. But 55 percent of coaches said they prefer the flat seam to the raised seam currently in use, so Keilitz—a former coach at Central Michigan—said he will take that issue to the rules committee next summer.
“I've always felt the raised seam gave you a better breaking ball,” said Keilitz, echoing the conventional wisdom. “Others say you get better movement on a two-seamer with a low-seam ball. The question is how much drag is there on the ball? The ball comes off the bat the same whether it's a flat seam or a raised seam, but with the raised seam you could have a drag (that could affect distance off the bat). I have no idea how you'd test that sort of thing.”
But more testing is exactly what many coaches want to see before they make up their minds.
“I just want some more information to find out, is there a flight difference?” St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer said. “Do I want some more offense in the game? I think so. I’m not looking to go back to the Gorilla Ball days, where balls were just flipping out there and flying. We’ve been checking this bat for so long, I think the right thing to do is to re-inspect the ball.”
While opinion is split about whether or not to switch to a livelier ball, support for lower seams is stronger. Tennessee coach Dave Serrano said he would support a switch to the flat-seam ball, but he doesn’t believe the raised seams make it easier to throw a breaking ball. The former Cal State Fullerton pitching coach does believe lower seams help pitchers throw harder, however.
Most of the coaches we spoke with in Chicago agree that a switch to lower seams would be good for players’ development.
“I’m all for lowered seams—why wouldn’t you, if it helps prepare you for pro ball?” said North Carolina pitching coach Scott Forbes. “I love throwing with them; they don’t cause nearly as many blisters.”
The other factor to consider is cost; pro baseballs are more expensive than college balls, though the minor league ball is not as pricey as the major league ball. And many conferences have contracts with different ball manufacturers, so don’t expect to see an official NCAA ball become mandatory during the regular season.
But it has become apparent that ball standards could change in the next year or two, and manufacturers would have to adapt. Of course, Rawlings already makes balls for the minor leagues with a higher COR and lower seams, so Leggett’s proposal would be easier to implement than a switch to a new ball with lower seams but the same college COR.
“It doesn’t make any sense to try to make a new ball,” Leggett said. “That, to me, is not the answer. The answer is, let’s go with the minor league ball and see what it does for our game. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.”
Coaches from the Big Ten and Mid-American conferences organized a meeting to discuss Purdue coach Doug Schreiber’s proposal to allow teams the option to play fall games that matter.
A creative remedy to the weather disadvantages that hamper Northern teams, Schreiber’s idea would let Northern coaches take advantage of mild fall weather, allowing them to draw better crowds. By playing a handful of games in the fall that count toward the 56-game limit and also count in the Ratings Percentage Index, Northern teams could start their seasons later in the spring, cutting down on the number of February and March road trips they would have to make to warm-weather locales against better-prepared teams. The proposal would not require anyone to play fall games, so Southern teams satisfied with the current system would not have to change anything.
Many teams already play fall scrimmages against other schools, voluntarily sacrificing some of the 56 games they are allowed to play in the spring. Of course, those games are exhibitions, so teams can rest their top arms if necessary without worrying about winning. It is common for high-profile pitchers to rest in the fall after shouldering significant workloads in the spring and summer.
Division I Baseball Committee chairman Dennis Farrell said the committee is “not prepared to move forward” with Schreiber’s proposal at this point because of concerns about how it would impact the NCAA tournament selection and seeding process. He did encourage the conversation to continue, however.
Keilitz, who sympathizes with the plight of Northern coaches, said the proposal has a long way to go before it becomes a reality.
“I don't know how much legs it has,” Keilitz said. “I know there are a lot of very good ideas there. I know the baseball committee, one of their concerns is how do you evaluate a game that's played in October versus a game that's played in April or May? That's one of the big questions. I think some of the people who work in the Big Ten will continue to work on this and propose it. How far it gets, it's hard to say right now.”
ABCA Convention Notes
• Instant replay will be expanded in the College World Series this year to include fair or foul balls down the line. Currently, replay is only an option for determining whether or not a ball is a home run, but now it will be expanded to include balls in the field of play, down the lines. Replay still will be used in Omaha only.
According to national coordinator of baseball umpires Gene McArtor, any ball that was initially ruled fair is reviewable. If a ball was initially ruled foul in the infield, it is not reviewable. But if a fly ball or line drive over the infield is ruled foul, it is subject to review—even if baserunners and defenders had stopped as soon as the ball was ruled foul.
“If that call is changed to fair, then the crew chief will place any baserunners using his discretion,” McArtor said. “Our instruction to our umpires in that situation is if there's any doubt to at least be a little bit conservative. The offense is getting a little bit of a break anyway in reviewing the play and having the ball changed to a fair ball, so the placement of runners ought to be conservative.”
Umpires can conference to discuss a close play, and if they determine replay is necessary, they can leave the field and go to a viewing area, like major league umpires do. UPDATE: An NCAA official followed up Wednesday to explain that umpires will also be able to change foul balls to fair balls during regular-season action, after conferencing. They will be allowed to use their discretion to conservatively place baserunners where they see fit. The only difference from the College World Series is instant replay will not be available to help them get those calls right.
The expansion of replay in Omaha is a welcome change. Disputed balls down the lines can have major impacts on the outcomes of games, and it makes sense to use available technology to get calls right. But allowing umpires to use their discretion to place runners is a major step.
“It’s an indication that it’s expanding,” McArtor said. “Of course there will always be the question of where do you stop, in establishing which calls can be reviewed or not? I think one of the major limitations in the past has been allowing umpires to place runners. Here’s a situation where umpires would be in a situation to place runners, and that at least slightly opens the door for the potential for many other calls that now can’t be changed, just because you’d have to place runners on the play.”
• The NCAA is gradually evolving toward a more realistic and practical stance regarding agents and baseball. At each of the last two ABCA conventions, NCAA baseball and football honcho Dennis Poppe has acknowledged that the rules prohibiting agents from negotiating with pro teams on behalf of baseball players are outdated and must be re-examined. Most prospects already use agents during the draft process, and the “no agent” rule is unevenly and arbitrarily enforced.
Because baseball players are drafted before they show up at NCAA institutions and because they retain eligibility after the draft if they elect not to sign, a different standard must be applied.
That new approach is slowly making its way through the NCAA’s labyrinthine legislative process. Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president for academic and membership affairs, said an idea is being circulated now that would only apply to prospective student-athletes (high school and junior-college recruits) in sports that don’t have “opt-in” drafts (baseball and hockey).
“They might have the ability to have an agent or advisor actually be in the negotiations with them and a professional organization, as opposed to the shadow negotiations that are going on now,” Lennon said. “We've talked about this a long time.”
The proposal has made it through the NCAA’s amateurism cabinet and is now headed to the leadership council. Keilitz said that any change in the agent policy is very unlikely to materialize in time for the Board of Directors meeting in two weeks, and that it is difficult to pinpoint a realistic time frame for the change.
“Things move differently through the NCAA structure,” Keilitz said. “The fly in the ointment is football and basketball—they don't want it. But what they don't have is 850 kids drafted out of high school.”
• Farrell said the committee had a vigorous debate this summer about whether to begin seeding the top 16 teams for the NCAA tournament, instead of just the top eight seeds like it does now. Under the current system, the No. 1 national seed might be paired with the de facto No. 9 seed in super regionals, while the No. 8 national seed could get an easier path, facing the de facto No. 16 seed. That’s because geographic concerns drive the super regional pairings, and two regionals cannot be paired together if the No. 1 seed in each regional comes from the same conference. But if teams were seeded No. 1-No. 16, there would inevitably be super regional pairings between top regional seeds from the same conference.
“After a robust discussion about that, the committee has elected not to move forward with that because of some concerns about how that could impact matchups between conference rivals at the super regional level, and how it could impact the cost of the championship as well,” Farrell said.
• One small change the committee did make: the day before Selection Monday, the committee will no longer announce regional hosts at 3:30 p.m. ET, as ESPN has required it to do in recent years. Instead, the hosts will be announced at 9 p.m., giving the committee time to factor in the results of conference championship games on Sunday. This is a positive change; it makes sense for the committee to have the opportunity to consider a team’s complete body of work before determining hosts.
• For the record, here are the 10 current members of the Division I Baseball Committee, representing the eight regions of college baseball: Randy Buhr (Washington State senior associate athletics director), Joel Erdmann (South Alabama athletics director), Dennis Farrell (Big West Conference commissioner), Larry Gallo (North Carolina senior associate athletics director), Rick Greenspan (Rice athletics director), Eric Hyman (Texas A&M athletics director), Dave Heeke (Central Michigan athletics director), Robert Goodman (Colonial Athletic Association senior associate commissioner), Mark LaBarbera (Valparaiso athletics director), Ed Scott (Binghamton associate athletics director for student services).
• The NCAA Board of Directors is slated to vote on a number of proposals at its Jan. 19 meeting that would affect all sports, including college baseball. The BOD is expected to approve most or all of the proposals, which include a general loosening of some restrictions. For instance, once a recruit signs a Letter of Intent with a school, new legislation would allow the school to contact him as much as it wants; currently that contact remains restricted.
Another rule change would allow schools to provide reasonable entertainment in conjunction with competition or practice. “Within reason, you can bring your team together and spend on team building things, entertainment, etc.,” Lennon said. “The broadest thought is you manage to budget. You’re very disciplined people, you can determine where it fits with your budget.”
One other notable proposal would make head coaches more responsible for the actions of their assistants and other staff members. So if a recruiting coordinator commits an NCAA rules violation, his head coach is responsible.
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