NCAA To Switch To Flat-Seamed Balls In 2015

In an effort to boost offense, the Division I Baseball Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to switch from the raised-seam baseball currently used during the NCAA tournament to a flat-seamed ball, starting in 2015. Conferences won’t be required to use the flat-seamed ball during the regular season, but all of them figure to adopt the new ball in 2015 in order to prepare for the postseason.

The Division II and D-III baseball committees must make their own decisions about whether or not to change balls. They are in the process of surveying their coaches, and there is no timetable yet for when they might discuss the issue.

The D-I switch was widely expected after an NCAA study revealed that the flat-seamed ball travels an average of 20 feet longer out of a pitching machine set to simulate typical home run conditions than the raised-seam ball, as we reported Oct. 2. American Baseball Coaches Association executive director Dave Keilitz presented that data to coaches last month and asked them for feedback. About 80 percent of the nearly 300 Division I coaches cast votes, and 87 percent of the respondents supported switching to the flat-seamed ball.

“We received overwhelming support from the baseball coaches around the country,” committee chairman Dennis Farrell said in a conference call Tuesday. “We look at the baseball coaches as the practitioners of this sport that would tell us whether the flat-seamed baseball would increase the offensive output that we feel the sport is in need of at this point.”

Farrell said committee members were concerned about the diminishing offensive production at the College World Series since the less-potent BBCOR bats were instituted and the event moved from hitter-friendly Rosenblatt Stadium to cavernous TD Ameritrade Park in 2011. In the final year of the old bats and the old stadium, there were 32 home runs at the CWS. This year, there were three long balls in 14 games, and there were just 86 runs scored--the fewest in CWS history, dating back to 1950. Player safety was cited as a driving force behind the bat change, so reverting to the old bats was off the table. But changing the height of the seams does not affect the exit velocity of the ball off the bat; rather, the “drag effect” of the raised seams takes effect the longer a ball travels through the air.

The raised-seam ball has a seam height of .048 inches, compared to .031 inches for the flat-seamed ball. The flatter-seam height is consistent with the balls used in minor league baseball, but still higher than what is used in the major leagues.

ncaa-baseball-2013-awBut the NCAA will not simply switch to the minor league ball, which has a livelier core than the college ball (though it is less lively than the big league ball). Keilitz said Friday that 71 percent of respondents in his survey said they want to switch to the livelier pro ball, but Farrell said the D-I Baseball Committee does not have the authority to make that change. The rules committee must approve a change to the core, and it will consider the matter next summer. In the meantime, more study is needed about the impact of any change to the core. Don’t expect any change to the core until the committee has a chance to see how the change to the flat-seamed ball affects the game, starting in 2015.

“There are two factors at play here: one is the seam height, one is the core. Let’s not change two things at one time--one change may be enough to get the game in balance,” said Damani Leech, NCAA managing director of the Division I Baseball Championship. “Exit speed creates another variable, which is safety. So we want to be careful before we head down that path.”

So rather than simply adopting the minor league ball, the NCAA will use a ball with completely new specifications--using the college core but the minor league seams. Rawlings, the NCAA’s official supplier of championship baseballs, will need time to manufacture and distribute new baseballs using the new specifications, which is one reason the change will not go into effect in 2015. The committee also wanted to give teams a chance to get accustomed to the new balls next fall before using them in the spring.

Pitchers will need to adjust to the new seams, which could make it harder for pitchers to spin breaking balls but could lead to more movement on two-seam balls, according to some pitchers we consulted who played in both college and the minor leagues. Leech said the NCAA conducted a “limited study” about how the new seams affect the movement of the ball out of a pitcher’s hand.

“Part of it is getting a prototype of this ball, which isn’t currently on the market--so it was a very small sample, but the survey we got back was surprisingly supportive of the ball from pitchers and catchers,” Leech said.

For the last several weeks, we have asked nearly every coach we’ve spoken with for their feelings about a potential ball change, and nearly all of them supported the switch. The most vocal opponent of the move was Ray Birmingham of New Mexico, which is annually one of the nation’s best offensive teams.

“If you start taking the seams off the ball, to make it like a big league ball--a cue ball--I think it starts trickling down to high school and eliminates some kids,” Birmingham said. “I love this game, and this game’s for everybody, not just for the elite guy with the elite arm. I want that little lefty that throws 82 mph to get some enjoyment out of the game, because he can change speeds and turn over that changeup. If you take those seams off, only special people can do it. I think right now a kid that’s 88 mph can pitch can beat you, and that scares people.”

Of course, one of the best college pitchers of this generation--or any generation--was Michael Roth, a lefty who worked mostly in the low-to-mid-80s at South Carolina. Roth rocketed to the big leagues in his first full pro season this year, and he said he prefers the lower seams of the professional ball.

“Pro balls are way better,” Roth said this summer. “I can’t throw a straight pitch if I wanted to (with the flat-seamed ball).”

The flat-seamed ball also should result in fewer serious blister issues. And using a flat-seamed ball should help prepare pitchers for the next level.

Some coaches had expressed concern that a potential switch to the minor league ball would result in higher costs, but Keilitz said “there is little to no additional cost” to changing the seam height, according to manufacturers.

Most importantly, adopting the new ball should lead to some more home runs and a little more excitement. And 72 percent of coaches surveyed by the ABCA this month think the game needs more excitement, while 69 percent believe it needs more home runs.

“I did have some personal conversations with the coaches in my own league,” said Farrell, the commissioner of the Big West Conference, “thinking if anyone would be opposed to this, it would be coaches out West who traditionally were built with pitching and defense. When I took this to my baseball coaches’ conference meeting in September, there was unanimous support from Big West coaches as well . . . The numbers from the survey mean the coaches are making a strong statement.”

Kudos to college baseball’s power brokers for making a common-sense change that the vast majority of coaches strongly support.