Arizona Establishes TD Ameritrade Template
OMAHA—Perhaps the greatest irony of TD Ameritrade Park Omaha is that the new home of the College World Series is also home to a postseason Home Run Derby.
Home runs are nearly impossible to come by in CWS play now. The combination of BBCOR bats with the new ballpark has removed an essential element from the game, when the national title is on the line. Just 10 home runs were hit in the 2012 Series, in 969 at-bats; the eight teams combined for a slugging percentage of .317. That's after last year's nine homers and .320 slugging.
In 2010, the last year in Rosenblatt and with BESR bats, the teams hit 32 homers (in 160 more at-bats) and slugged .386. As recently as the 2009 Series, teams hit 45 homers and slugged .482.
Try to imagine college basketball teams playing their entire seasons and first five rounds of March Madness with the current rules, then getting to the Final Four and moving the three-point line back 10 feet. It's a completely different game.
That's what the CWS is now. The decrease in offense and power is in part a product of the new bats, which needed to be changed; bats performed too well and were too easily tampered with from 2008-2010. But it's also a result of TD Ameritrade, which has Rosenblatt Stadium's dimensions without Rosenblatt's hilltop locale or winds that usually blew out.
According to Creighton media relations chief Rob Anderson and Omaha World-Herald writer (and CWS historian) Steve Pivovar, no one has hit a home run at TDAP between the 375-foot signs in the power alleys or out to center field. It's not literally impossible, but no one has done it yet, not even in the TD Ameritrade Home Run Derby. South Carolina's L.B. Dantzler came close against Florida, crushing a double to deep center, but the ball landed on the grass shy of the warning track.
Essentially, the new bats and the new park have created summer ball conditions in college baseball. BA's Matt Eddy crunched Cape Cod League numbers and found slugging percentages from 1999-2009 that ranged from .297 to .347. That's the game we're seeing now in Omaha. It's the Cape without the wood bats, beach chairs and "Summer Catch" jokes.
Gorilla Ball Is Long Gone
We're watching what baseball must have been like before Babe Ruth. Instead of the Dead Ball Era, call it the Dead Bat Era. Some coaches believe that will make teams pursue old-time college mashers—the guys who can still hit homers even with the BBCOR bats—even more aggressively, putting them at a premium in recruiting.
I suppose that could help in the regular season, but I don't see how teams constructed of "gorilla ball" players would win in TDAP. Instead, the ballpark will shape roster construction and coaching at the college level the way spacious Blair Field in Long Beach helped shape West Coast baseball in the 1960s and '70s.
California's state juco tournament was held at Blair, and coaches realized trying to hit homers was a fool's errand there. That pushed pioneers such as Wally Kincaid—and disciples such as Augie Garrido, Dave Snow, George Horton and Dave Serrano—to adopt an aggressive offensive formula based on bunting, baserunning, hit-and-run and other ways to score that had nothing to do with the home run.
Sounds like TD Ameritrade to me.
"You look at the pitching numbers, and ERAs are way down," said Serrano, now the head coach at Tennessee and of USA Baseball's collegiate national team this summer. "The emphasis now is on the good center fielder who can cover ground. I think it's more suited to West Coast baseball, to be honest with you, and yet a big part of South Carolina's run has been pitching and defense."
Added Horton, who is assisting Serrano this summer, "You're going to have to be more athletic not just for the end of the road, TD Ameritrade, but for the BBCOR bat and the style it has created. The exciting thing for our industry is big ballparks bring teams closer together. It provides an opportunity for new blood to get to Omaha, teams that are based on good coaching, athleticism and good pitching. You saw that this year with Stony Brook and Kent State."
South Carolina won its CWS rings across the eras, winning with the old bats in the old park as well as in TDAP. It's an amazing success story, one that will grow in stature through the years. Arizona dethroned a worthy champion by employing a club that fit the ballpark and the current conditions well, and which could become the new template for how to win.
The crucial elements: athleticism, speed, defense and strike-throwing. None of it is revolutionary, but the Wildcats did all of it better than anyone else. Several defensive plays stood out, such as Alex Mejia's diving stop that ignited a first-inning double play in the first game of the Finals. Robert Refsnyder homered in the bottom of the inning, and Arizona was on its way. And in the second game of the Finals, third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean made an acrobatic play on a bunt, charging and fielding, turning his body and throwing a bullet to second to force the lead runner.
Frankly we expected Arizona to make those kinds of plays. What we didn't expect was for Arizona to pitch as well as it did in Omaha, with a 1.12 ERA to lead the field while posting a 3.70 ERA overall for the season. Essentially, Arizona's Omaha philosophy was for its pitchers to throw fastballs for strikes and let the defense work.
"I haven't been there yet," Serrano said, "but it looks like a beautiful place to pitch."
If you like pitching, TD Ameritrade is the place for you. If you dig the long ball, well, you'll cherish the home runs that do get hit in CWS play. They are special because they are rare.