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Offense increasing in college ranks with new ball

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There was little fear about running out of baseballs in Omaha, Nebraska, circa 2013, because virtually none were leaving the park.

It was the College World Series, a 15-game event that would determine the best team in America, and just three home runs were hit.

College baseball had been experiencing a dearth of offense over the previous few years after changes in bat regulations came in response to outlandishly high scores, and the ESPN-televised event brought the anemia into focus.

“That’s kind of what we saw, was throughout the teams we played, it was just really, really tough,” recalled BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood. “Even if you hit the ball really well, it was a warning track fly out.”

Whether the World Series was the sole cause has been debated, but soon after UCLA took home the title in 2013, discussions began to take place about how to get more offense in the game.

Research conducted at Washington State University found that baseballs with a flat seam, as opposed to the raised one that was being used, traveled about 20 feet farther out of a pitching machine.

Plans were made in November 2013 to start using a flat-seam ball this season. Just another three dingers were hit in the 2014 CWS.

About a month into the 2015 campaign, most offensive statistics are virtually the same compared to a year ago, but the NCAA is reporting a 40 percent surge in home runs.

Entering this weekend, Utah, BYU and UVU had seen a total of 39 home runs hit in a combined 48 games.

“There is a little bit of a change I think,” said Utes coach Bill Kinneberg, who feels that it’ll take until the weather is consistently warm before the alteration may completely manifest itself. “The ball is carrying a little bit further. I don’t know if it’s a drastic change. It’s not close to where it was four years ago before they changed the bats, but we are seeing the ball hit further I think and have a little more carry to it.”

That’s the general consensus among Kinneberg, Littlewood and UVU skipper Eric Madsen, but there is some disagreement about whether or not the change is good for the sport.

“(Pac-12 coaches) were not in favor of changing the baseball as a group,” Kinneberg said. “The West Coast is kind of a pitching-dominant, not gorilla ball style. I think we’ve prospered because of that nationally.”

Though he saw firsthand the lack of offense, Littlewood was initially neutral to any changes. As the season has begun to unfold, however, he’s grown to like the new ball.

“In our lineup, hopefully one through nine are gonna have a chance to hit the ball out of the park if they hit it well, and I think that’s what baseball’s all about, really,” he said.

With a good amount of offense being Littlewood’s favored brand of baseball, one unexpected effect of the new ball comes as a bit of an irony.

All three coaches in Utah have seen that the flat seams allow pitchers to get more movement on breaking balls.

“A guy that can really control the baseball and has good arm strength, there’s the ability to make it hold its line a little longer, and so the late break, the late movement gets a chance to increase,” Madsen said.

Though it’s not as if offenses are producing at pre-2011 levels, it’s the fact that pitchers aren’t complaining about the change that has Littlewood feeling as though the new ball will be a good thing in the collegiate ranks moving forward

“I think it’s a happy medium, and I’m happy with the change that’s been made,” he said. “I think it’ll be a positive.”

Ryan McDonald is a part-time reporter at the Deseret News. Follow him on Twitter @ryanwmcdonald.