Expansion leads to summer offense explosion

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I'm wrapping up 15 years at Baseball America this summer. Time really does fly when you're having fun.

In that span of time, plenty has changed in our corner of baseball, but summer college baseball may have changed as much as any corner of the industry. When I started, there were seven to 10 leagues we covered, but mostly we covered USA Baseball, the Alaska League and of course the Cape Cod League.

The Cape and Team USA remain the best places to catch summer ball with college players in terms of talent. But now the next-best home for talent is up for grabs and appears to change from one year to the next. The Northwoods and Coastal Plains leagues started the summer ball revolution in the early 1990s as for-profit leagues, essentially running on a minor league model but using free labor: college players.

Their idea worked. Both leagues have grown, with 16 teams in the Northwoods and 14 in the CPL. Imitation is the best form of flattery, and both leagues have been imitated all over the country, from the New England Collegiate League in the Northeast to the West Coast League in the Northwest and the Prospect League in between.

The proliferation of summer college leagues has led to unintended consequences. College players do have more opportunities to play, a positive. They are playing long summer schedules that stretch into the second week of August, even in the Cape. And summer league coaches and scouts agree that the explosion of leagues has spread out the talent, as happens when the major leagues expand.

Offensive spikes marked big league expansion in the last 50 years, and the same has happened in summer college ball. It caught up to the Cape Cod League this year, where hitting (.247 in 2011 to .260 this year), scoring (more than 500 more runs than a year ago) and especially home runs were all way up.

Cape teams hit 159 home runs in 2011 and 158 in 2010. This summer, the league total was 382, an increase of 140 percent. Harwich's 64 homers broke the single-season record set with metal bats in 1981, while Wareham's Tyler Horan out of Virginia Tech tied the league record with 16 homers.

Similar records were set in the Prospect League as well, and commissioner Dave Chase cites four main reasons that he believes apply across summer college ball: lively balls, record heat (July 2012 was the hottest month on record in the United States), expansion that has sapped the pitching pool and the cyclical nature of baseball.

"I'm hoping it's cyclical," Chase said. "I am not sure that this level of offense is sustainable for this level of baseball. A 30-10 game just demoralizes everybody."

Juiced Balls?

The baseballs being used is the liveliest topic. The eight leagues that are members of the National Association of Summer College Baseball—including the Cape, Cal Ripken, Great Lakes and Valley League—use Diamond baseballs, and league officials in the Cape and other leagues say the rubber core of the ball is firmer than in past years, making the ball jump.

Rice righthander John Simms, playing for Falmouth, told Capenews.net: "The main issue is the quality of the balls . . . The leather, it's more like a pleather. It feels like a plastic. They probably go farther. It's definitely a different ball. We had a game in Hyannis where they ran out of balls so they brought out some of last year's balls, and our hitters were coming back to the bench saying, 'I thought I squared that one up,' . . . and it came up short."

The NASCB website reads, "Funded in part by Major League Baseball." Presumably, some of that funding went to buying poor-quality baseballs. If MLB is paying part of the freight, it is reasonable for it to ask for some control over the quality of equipment.

That gets to the nut of summer ball, which is a hybrid of three distinct, at times competing elements. There's the development side scouts, college coaches and players desire. There's the desire to make money on the side of the local operators, who essentially run professional baseball operations without the payroll or worker's compensation costs. And there's the desire to win that's endemic to college baseball. The best summer league franchises check all three boxes.

Summer college ball fills the void for smaller communities that want baseball with a much lower hurdle to clear than Organized Baseball or even independent ball. Chase estimated team budgets in the Prospect League are at most one-third of those in the Frontier League, the independent league that shares a similar geographic footprint.

The Brockton Rox already have blazed a trail, moving from indy ball down to the Futures Collegiate League of New England. Summer leagues often swoop in when minor league or indy league teams fail in a town, moving into ballparks that otherwise might remain vacant.

Summer leagues' growth seems set to slow down; the talent has thinned out enough, and the market may have reached the saturation point. But if the worst side effect is offensive explosion, then the growth of summer ball has to be looked at as a net positive for the game.