The NCAA Division I Home Run Record Has Been Broken, Again


Image credit: (Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images)

Even though the season isn’t complete yet, we already know this will be another record-breaking season for home runs in college baseball.

Last year’s 1.14 home runs per game in Division I baseball broke the seemingly unbreakable record of 1.06 home runs per game set at the peak of the “gorilla ball” era in 1998.

This year has broken the record that broke the unbreakable record. In 2024, there have been 1.17 home runs hit per game through the end of the Super Regionals.

The record is assured. Even if there isn’t a home run hit in the College World Series, this year would still finish at 1.16 home runs per game.

Last year, D-I teams hit 18,696 home runs, the most ever. This year, they have already hit 19,001. Over a three-year span from 2012 to 2014 D-I teams hit 21,335 home runs combined. Teams hit 6,495 home runs in 2014 at the low-point before the NCAA adjusted the seams of the baseball for 2015.

It’s easy to theorize why the home run rate has skyrocketed. Finding theories that hold up to scrutiny is a little tougher.

Is It The Bats?

One suggestion is that bat manufacturers have figured out how to produce better performing bats within the BBCOR regulations.

The problem with that theory is these bats are tested every year. According to officials who do the NCAA-sanctioned bat testing at Washington State, the bats have continued to test within similar ranges year after year. Those results haven’t changed much since the BBCOR regulations arrived.

“The limit is pretty low to be wood-like performance,” Washington State Sport Science Laboratory assistant director Nick Smith said to Baseball America last year. “What we have seen with BBCOR, manufacturers are making bats that are right up against the limit. What they are doing now is making the sweet spot bigger and maybe aligning those pieces better.

“But the BBCOR number we report, it has been close to the limit (since the beginning).”

A bigger sweet spot may have helped a little bit, but it’s hard to say that this would lead to massive home run gains.

What About The Baseballs?

This year, the performance of the NCAA baseball became the prevailing theory. Multiple coaches describe the current NCAA baseball as being extremely “hot.” It seems to carry further than baseballs of a few years ago.

But the baseball theory also has issues. It may be a contributing factor, but there’s evidence that it’s not the overriding factor, because when it comes to Division I baseball, we have a near perfect control group–Division II baseball.

While the ballpark environments, players and even the teams in D-I and D-II baseball change from year to year, the conditions (rules, bat specifications and baseballs) are consistent between Division I and Division II. So we can expect that the two will generally move up and down in home run rate in similar manners.

(Initially this study was going to also include Division III baseball, but the NCAA doesn’t have complete stats posted for D-III for 2021).

That’s exactly what we find. The home run rate began to skyrocket late in the 2000s, as teams discovered that for some models of composite bats, the bat’s performance would dramatically improve as it aged. As the bat aged, it flexed more which could add plenty of performance. That led some teams to speed up the process by rolling their bats. That knowledge seemed to reach Division I before Division II, but both levels saw significant increases in the home run rate, and both levels saw home runs plummet in 2011 with the adoption of BBCOR bat standards (which eliminated that form of bat rolling).

After home runs plummeted, the NCAA adopted flatter seamed baseballs in 2015 to try to increase offense. It worked, and both D-I and D-II home run rates climbed at similar rates respectively after the baseball was altered.

So for almost 20 years, the two levels seemed to largely move in concert. When D-I home run rates rose, so did D-II. They weren’t always identical, but the overall environments seemed to move in sync. When D-II home run rates fell, so did D-I. Both rose and fell depending on bat standards, baseball changes and other rules changes, but they seemed to move together.

In 2022, that stopped. The two levels have diverged dramatically in the past three seasons.

Division I’s home run rate in 2022 topped one home run per game (1.03) for the first time since the drop-five era of “gorilla ball” in the late 1990s. Division II’s home run rate dipped slightly (0.88). In 2023, the D-I home run rate set an all-time record (1.14), while D-II’s rate stayed relatively flat (0.84). The 2024 season will break the home run rate record again in D-I (1.17), but D-II’s home run rate is almost identical to what it was in 2022 (0.87).

This doesn’t prove any one factor, but it does make the case that the rise in home runs is not primarily based on changes to how the NCAA baseball performs, because if it was, the D-II rate would likely be rising right alongside D-I.

So while the baseball theory seems to be disproven by D-II data, that doesn’t explain why home runs are up. It’s easier to disprove than prove something with data, and there are likely multiple contributing factors. 

New Eligibility, Draft Rules Play A Role

It’s possible that the rise in D-I home run rate is being driven by older/stronger players who gained extra eligibility because of the coronavirus pandemic. That was also true for D-II, but it’s possible that more D-I hitters took advantage of additional years of eligibility.

It’s also possible that the reduced number of draft rounds (20 instead of the previous 40) and the rise of NIL payments have affected D-I more significantly than D-II.

There is some data that supports this point. Thanks to the combination of shorter drafts, liberalized transfer rules, extended eligibility and NIL, D-I baseball is an older sport than it was just a few years ago, and older players generally hit for more power. The share of at-bats taken by seniors has jumped from 26.5% in 2014 to 39% in 2024.

That playing time has been taken somewhat from the freshman class, which went from 16.7% of at-bats in 2014 to 12.4% in 2024, but there also have been reductions in playing time for sophomores and juniors as well.

And since older, more physically mature players produce more power, the share of home runs hit by seniors has also climbed.

If we look at the past five seasons more closely, we see a COVID-boom that has climbed through the ranks. Everyone who was a freshman during the cancelled 2020 season was considered a freshman again in 2021, as were any true freshmen in 2021. So there were effectively two freshmen classes in 2021. That “double class” had steadily moved through their college careers and became seniors in 2024, which explains in part why we have such a large share of at-bats and home runs by seniors.

The 2021 freshman class is the largest freshman class (as a share of at-bats) in any season from 2019-2024. They became the largest sophomore class in 2022, the largest junior class in 2023 and the largest senior class in 2024.


So how much of this power surge can be explained by this extremely large class of seniors? Some.

We calculated the 2024 season with 2019 rates of playing time distribution. If you applied current home runs rates by class to the 2024 season with 2019 playing rates, we’d see roughly 382 fewer home runs than we have seen this year. That would reduce the home run rate from 1.17 to 1.14 per game, right back where it was last year.

But It’s Not Just The Seniors

That’s clearly part of the spike, but only a contributing effect. If that explains a .03 increase in home runs per game since 2019, that leaves a further increase of .39 home runs per game since 2019 that aren’t accounted by more home runs hit by 2024 seniors.

That’s because freshman, sophomores and juniors are also homering at massively higher rates. The home run rate for freshman has increased at the highest rate. A freshman in 2019 averaged a homer every 61.6 at-bats, compared to seniors hitting one every 40.6 at-bats.

In 2024, freshman average a home run every 38.9 at-bats, while seniors average a home run every 27.4 at-bats. So while the share of freshman at-bats has dipped, those that still play are producing significantly more home runs than they did in 2019.

There’s some logical underpinning to this. The freshman whose at-bats are being taken by seniors (and other older transfers) are more likely those who are less ready to contribute immediately. The freshmen who continue to get playing time in 2024 are those that are most ready.

Coaches Question The Strike Zone

The ever-changing strike zone may also be playing a part. College coaches say that the strike zone has become more narrow and taller as umpires are now evaluated off the “Trackman strike zone.” That means pitchers have lost the ability to nibble on the edges of the plate. They are now forced to pitch more up-and-down, where misses are more likely to be squared up.

The walk rate in college baseball is up. At 11.34% of all plate appearances, it’s continued to climb almost without exception over the past decade. While that is a long-running trend, the evidence for a smaller strike zone is that the strikeout rate actually peaked in 2021 and has declined in every year since. Batters struck out in 20.96% of plate appearances in 2021. This year, the strikeout percentage is 19.63%. The combination of increased power and reduced strikeouts does seem to indicate that the strike zone has likely gotten smaller. Pitchers are facing a tougher task.

And then there is the question of bat tampering. It’s something we wrote about last year, and if anything the exit velocities across college baseball this year make last year’s seem modest. 

A simple Google search shows that there are plenty of “bat shaving” companies, all of whom claim that their bats will look identical externally to a full-complaint BBCOR bat, while providing massively improved performance.

At the top end, college hitters are currently hitting the ball harder than their pro brethren. There are close to 50 D-I hitters with 50 or more plate appearances and a 90th percentile exit velocity of 110 mph or better. You can count the number of minor league hitters with 50+ plate appearances in 2024 and a 90th percentile exit velocity above 110 mph on one hand.

Are NCAA Teams Tampering With The Bats?

Of all the theories, this is the one that is hardest to prove or disprove, because the players and teams that might be cheating in this manner have every incentive to keep it quiet. Multiple coaches and players we have talked to in the past two years said they believe bat tampering to produce bats that perform far beyond the legal levels is going on to some extent, but exactly how common is hard to estimate.

There are clear incentives. Bat tampering can both help a team’s success and also potentially raise a player’s draft stock. If a tampered bat helps a player raise his exit velocities by a few miles per hour, it could help him climb several rounds in the draft which could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There is bat testing, and the NCAA has encouraged conferences switch from testing before each series to before each game. But the current testing still has leaves ways to skirt the system, multiple sources have told Baseball America. Bats are tested with a ring test to ensure the circumference of the bat meets the bat standards. Then they are tested with a compression tester. Any bat that falls below the allowed PSI testing standard is declared non-compliant.

Any bat that meets the standards has a sticker applied to it to signify it’s a legal bat. The stickers are designed to destruct if removed, but multiple sources say there are ways to remove a sticker without destroying it. Something as simple as removing a sticker from a compliant bat and putting it on a non-compliant bat would make an illegal bat seem legal.

If caught, the penalties for an illegal bat also remain quite lax. While a pitcher found using an illegal substance while pitching is ejected and suspended for four games, a hitter found to be using a non-compliant or illegal bat is only declared out for that at-bat and the illegal bat is removed from the game. The player is not ejected or suspended, and there are currently no provisions in the NCAA rule book for NCAA, conference or other officials to further inspect the bat.

It is possible for a sticker to fall of a legal bat. It’s also possible for a bat to pass the compression testing and then become non-compliant in-game because the bat cracks, wears, the end cap falls off or an internal piece detaches from the bat. (A bat with a rattle is a non-complaint bat).

The NCAA regulations say that any non-compliant bats are held for the remainder of the series or tournament, but they are then returned to the team at the end of that series. There are currently no provisions for non-compliant bats to be further inspected or tested to determine why they failed the test.

If college baseball wants to crack down on tampered bats, there are approaches that would create much more dramatic deterrents. Simply creating a provision to impound and further inspect non-compliant bats whenever they are discovered would create an incentive to not try to sneak an illegal bat into a game. Similarly, allowing coaches to challenge a bat during a game for a compression test (the same way that coaches can ask an umpire to examine a pitcher for illegal substances) would provide a significant tool to catch a hitter trying to use an illegal bat.

But the biggest change would be to allow these non-compliant bats to be further inspected after the game or series to determine why they failed the test. A bat that does not meet BBCOR compression tests because of normal wear or defect will look identical internally to a compliant bat, and in such cases, it would quickly become clear that the bat ceased to meet standards for non-nefarious reasons. These means of inspection would require removing the end cap, which would likely make a bat no longer usable, but the bat has already been determined at that point to have failed to meet BBCOR testing standards.

As the bat-shaving companies themselves note, there is no hiding a tampered bat if you inspect it internally. It’s quite clear if a bat has been shaved once the end cap is removed. The lathing technique used to remove material from the inside of the bat will leave clear and obvious marks that have no innocent explanations. In some cases, bat shavers will also have to remove an internal sleeve that limits the amount of trampoline effect a composite bat will create.

So the answer to why D-I home run rates keep setting records is that there is no one easy answer.

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