The History Of Scoring In College Baseball
Change has been a constant part of college baseball.
But unlike Major League Baseball, where there has long been plenty of speculation and intrigue around changes MLB may or may not have made to the baseball to alter the offensive environment, college baseball has been much more transparent about its tweaks.
College baseball has been much more willing to pass rules to adjust the equipment and bring the game back in line with its desired environment.
Most notably, in 1974 college baseball switched from wood bats to metal. The switch was done partly to cut costs—metal bats last much longer than wood—but also to boost the offense of a game that was somewhat stagnant.
The change almost immediately added another run per game. And home runs per game went up 57% in just four seasons. Batting averages around college baseball soared from .266 in 1973 to .300 in 1981.
College baseball remained in a relatively static offensive environment for much of the 1980s and early 1990s. But the rise of “gorilla ball” in the late 1990s and better and better metal bats led to an offensive explosion that mimicked what was going on in the major leagues, specifically the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
In 1998, Division I teams averaged more than a home run per game for the first time in NCAA recorded statistical history. Southern California beat Arizona State 21-14 in the College World Series final that year, and teams averaged 7.12 runs per game.
Faced with football-like scores and many baseballs disappearing over the outfield fences, college baseball collectively decided that it had too much of a good thing. Concerns over the safety of pitchers and infielders on the receiving end of line drives added to the decision to tone down the bats.
The next year, college baseball adopted a new bat standard. The ball exit speed ratio—or BESR—standard required that all bats be measured for the ratio of exit speed they produced compared to velocity of the pitch and the bat speed of a swing.
They also mandated that bats could no longer have a weight that was more than three ounces less than the length of the bat, meaning that a 34-inch bat had to weigh 31 ounces or more.
Home runs quickly decreased, but not for long. By 2007 and 2008, many players and teams had figured out that many of the composite bats that met BESR standards would perform better as they aged. These “rolled” bats would produce more distance and higher exit velocities than a standard bat
because the bat would become more flexible and create a trampoline effect.
By late 2008, there were stories being shared of entire college teams using one or two bats. If a team had a hot bat, it wanted to use it until it cracked.
The home run rate returned to a rate last seen in the era of gorilla ball. In 2009 and 2010, runs per game in college baseball, which had dipped as low as 6.1 from 2003 to 2007, skyrocketed back to 6.9 runs per game. The home run rate in 2009 was 41% higher than it was in 2007.
In 2009, the NCAA tested 25 bats at the College World Series. Although all of those bats had met BESR standards when new, it found that 20 of the 25 bats failed to meet the BESR standards when retested after being used in games.
“While the committee does not believe tampering or altering of bats is widespread, there is evidence that it has occurred,” said UC Santa Barbara head coach Bob Brontsema, head of the NCAA rules committee in 2009. “The larger issue here is that the performance of composite bats improves through repeated, normal use, and these bats often exceed acceptable levels.”
So the NCAA stepped in again. The BESR standard was replaced by the batted ball coefficient of restitution—or BBCOR—standard in 2011. The new standard ensured that the trampoline effect of bats was strictly controlled to ensure that they more closely replicated the performance of a wood bat.
In one year, the home run rate in Division I was cut by 44%. Runs per game were cut 20%.
And before long, the NCAA realized it had potentially overshot the mark and needed to adjust again. UCLA, the 2013 College World Series champions, hit 19 home runs as a team that year. Pat Valaika led the team with five home runs, and Kevin Kramer was the only other Bruins hitter with more than two homers.
By 2014, the home run rate around Division I was 0.39 per game, lower than it was in the final years of the wood bat era in the early 1970s. In 2014, batters hit one home run every 98 plate appearances. In 2010, they had hit one every 43 plate appearances.
So once again, the NCAA changed the rules to adjust the game. This time it lowered the seams on the baseball. The new ball had less drag than the old one. As a result, fly balls traveled farther.
The change made an immediate effect. The home run rate per game in 2015 was up 44% from what it was in 2014. Runs per game saw a similar jump.
But those bumps brought the game back in line with where it has been for much of the past four decades.
This year, the college game is changing quickly and relatively dramatically without any changes in equipment. The ball has not been changed since the seams were lowered.
Bats are tested not only before the season, but also before series to ensure they comply with regulations.
Despite that, the home run rate is back to the levels last seen in the days right before the NCAA changed the bat standards. But with batting averages plunging and strikeout rates soaring, those home runs are what is keeping the runs scored rate from dipping to rates not seen since the early 1970s.