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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

NCAA approves new college ball

Kendall Rogers        

MORE: NCAA Director of Baseball Damani Leech talks the issues

Backed by a majority of the nation’s college baseball coaches, the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday for more sweeping change in the sport, opting to switch from the current raised-seam baseball to the livelier lower and flat-seamed baseball.

"The committee first became concerned about diminishing offensive numbers, particularly in the College World Series," Division I Baseball Committee chairman Dennis Farrell said. "We look at the baseball coaches as the practitioners to this sport, and we believe the flat-seam baseball would increase the offensive output we feel the sport needs."

The long-term ramifications of moving to the livelier ball are significant, though, there won’t be an immediate effect. While approved by the committee, the new ball standard will not be in place for the 2014 college baseball season, and only will be mandatory by the ’15 NCAA postseason — not required for the regular season portion of the schedule. It’s expected most conferences will adhere to the new ball standard in time for the ’15 regular season. When pressed on why the ball couldn't be implemented for the '14 campaign, the NCAA Division I Committee made two things clear: They want teams to get accustomed to the new ball next fall, and there would be a major inventory issue with a swift change.

As for the long-term effects, there are plenty of intriguing nuggets regarding the new ball to chew on between now and the implementation. For instance, the NCAA, along with Rawlings, underwent studies to determine the “drag effect” of the current college ball versus the ball that now will be used beginning in ’15.

The crux of the drag effect is the longer the ball travels, the more “drag/distance” it will have. To be precise, NCAA Division I Baseball Director Damani Leech told Perfect Game a few weeks ago — following the study of the two balls — that in most instances, the drag effect of a ball increased the distance traveled by a whopping 20 feet, depending on how hard the ball is hit.

Also important and worth noting, the new ball isn’t expected to increase risks for pitchers and other players. Though the drag effect comes into play on balls hit long distances, the exit velocity will remain unchanged on baseballs with only different seams. Some have proposed moving to the Minor League ball, but that would require using a ball with a greater coefficient of restitution, something the NCAA Division I Committee, at this time, isn't ready to advance.

The door on moving to the professional baseball, however, isn't closed. Next summer, the NCAA Division I Baseball Rules Committee will do a study on what changing the core to the new baseball to professional standards would do to exit velocities, and even costs. Though the costs associated with moving to a lower-seam, flat-seam version of the current ball are minimal, if any, there definitely would be an increased cost of moving to the professional ball, something many programs viewed as a concern at January's ABCA Convention.

"The rules committee [even if it is fine with a new baseball core] will probably want to review how the current change in the ball actually impacts the game first," Farrell said. "That'd probably happen before any additional actions take place [after the 2015 season]."

This vote and approval comes on the heels of much debate about power production in college baseball. The winds of change hit college baseball a couple of seasons ago when the NCAA Division I Committee opted to switch from the red-hot composite bat to the BBCOR bat, which college baseball programs currently use.

But while the BBCOR bat presents a safer alternative with decreased exit velocities, many college coaches, such as Clemson’s Jack Leggett and Rice’s Wayne Graham — vocally and via written letters — argued too much power production was taken out of the game with the raised-seam ball combined with the BBCOR bat. Interestingly, the tide very much turned on this debate in favor of a new ball after decreased power production in the College World Series this past June. To put this into perspective, at January's ABCA Coaches Convention, only 55-percent of head coaches supported going to a new baseball. However, in the latest ABCA survey, 87-percent of head coaches indeed were in favor of a new ball. Perhaps most surprising, when Farrell piqued interest from Big West Conference head coaches on moving to the flat-seam ball, the traditionally "pitching and defense" coaches were unanimously in favor of the change.

For Graham and a majority of college baseball coaches, Tuesday’s vote by the committee indicates a major victory for those wanting to increase the excitement and production in the college game. The long-time Rice skipper believes even more can be done moving ahead.

“It’s a positive step, but the reason we couldn’t do it in 2014 has nothing to do with the accommodation. We just have to deal with it. The low-seam ball is definitely going to help, it’s going to help the pitchers, they might get a mile or a half-mile more velocity, less blisters with more missed bullpens, etc.,” Graham said. “The MLB and Minor League ball is livelier than this ball, so in my mind, the best accommodation is to go to the pro ball.

“At the end of the day, you can’t take excitement out of the game if you’re wanting to grow the sport. But this is a step in the right direction.”

The NCAA took a significant step forward by approving these new ball measures. Now, just maybe, we’ll soon start seeing more power production not only in the regular season and earlier rounds of the NCAA postseason, but most controversially, in the College World Series.

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