A subdued crowd cheered on the Georgia baseball team at Foley Field a month ago. The fans quietly watched their team build a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning over Tennessee.
Then, sophomore catcher Zack Bowers crushed one.
The sharp ‚ÄúPing!‚Äù cut through the dull murmur in the stands, breathing new life into the Bulldog faithful. Many sprung to their feet and raised their arms in anticipation as the ball rocketed down the left-field line. The decibel level in the stadium peaked as the left fielder hopelessly sprinted toward the 350 foot sign. The ball looked long gone.
It landed in the middle of the warning track for a two-run double.
The disappointment in the stands was palpable for what has become an all too familiar sight for frequent visitors to Foley: Georgia (25-25-1, 10-15-1 Southeastern Conference) has not hit many home runs.
‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt worry about it,‚Äù Bowers said after the game. ‚ÄúYou just have to put a good swing on it, and if it goes, it goes.‚Äù
The Bulldogs have hit 12 home runs this season, averaging around one home run every five games. As they enter their final home stand of the season, today through Saturday against Kentucky, they rank 189th out of 296 teams in Division I and 12th in the SEC in home run totals. Bowers leads the team with just three.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a little frustrating because home runs are fun,‚Äù junior Nelson Ward said. ‚ÄúIt gets everybody pumped up, including the fans.‚Äù
The power outage at Foley Field mirrors a trend across college baseball. Home runs, and offensive numbers in general, are down significantly over the past few years. Players and coaches said the culprit is the bat.
‚ÄúThe new bats are difficult to get hits back-to-back,‚Äù said Scott Daeley, an assistant coach for the Bulldogs. ‚ÄúNow you really have to find a way to string together quality at-bats. You can‚Äôt get anything for free anymore.‚Äù
The NCAA baseball rules committee decided in 2008 to tweak the standards for the aluminum bats used in the college game. The new bats debuted in the 2011 season, and with a smaller sweet spot and less-forgiving barrel, they have caught the ire of power hitters and long-ball lovers.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs no more ‚Äògorilla ball‚Äô in today‚Äôs game,‚Äù said Dick Cooke, chairman of the committee and head coach of the Davidson Wildcats. ‚ÄúBack in the day, if we played an SEC game and I threw out a mid-level starter, I was hoping we wouldn‚Äôt give up 16 runs that night.‚Äù
Cooke said the change was originally made to make the game safer for pitchers, as batted ball speeds (BBS) had risen. The higher the BBS, the less safe a defenseless pitcher is on the mound.
‚ÄúIf you reduce the BBS, then you are making the game safer,‚Äù said Alan Nathan, a physics professor at the University of Illinois who served on a baseball research panel for the NCAA. ‚ÄúIt is the consequence of reducing bat performance. But I don‚Äôt know for sure if the offensive decrease was ever an intended consequence as well.‚Äù
The pre-2011 bats were measured on a standard called BESR, short for Ball Exit Speed Ratio. This statistic involved measuring the ratio of BBS to the pitch and swing speed in a given swing. However, Nathan tested different methods to classify bats, and found that a new BBCOR (Ball Bat Coefficient of Restitution) standard served as a better indicator of bat performance.
The new standard measures what Nathan described as the ‚Äútrampoline effect.‚Äù When a pitched ball hits a moving bat, the ball slightly deforms at the moment of the impact. The BBCOR statistic measures the ‚Äúpop‚Äù of a bat at impact rather than the speed of the ball after being hit.
The pre-2011 BESR bats had a thinner aluminum wall, which allowed for a more pliable and ‚Äúbouncy‚Äù collision. The current bats have a thicker build, becoming more akin to the performance of a wooden bat.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs very little you can do to improve a wood bat, but there‚Äôs a lot of things you can do to improve an aluminum bat,‚Äù Nathan said. ‚ÄúBut major league scouts are probably quite happy with this development because it will provide a better indication of how they would perform at the pro level.‚Äù
In the three years prior to the bat change, the Bulldogs averaged more than 83 home runs per season. They also batted .300 as a team and had a slugging percentage of .477.
Those numbers plummeted after the change. The Bulldogs averaged 32 home runs, hit .277 and slugged .368 from 2011-2013. The team is on pace to hit only 14 this season, which would be its lowest team total since 1976.
‚ÄúGrowing up, I watched my brother play college baseball, and the numbers that those guys used to put up were unbelievable compared to now,‚Äù sophomore first baseman Daniel Nichols said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs definitely tougher on the hitter to get more hits. With the old bats, a pop fly could become a home run.‚Äù
The decrease in power at the plate has led the team to take a different approach. Daeley said they try to teach the players to focus more on small ball, but that he can tell some of the big hitters are tired of coming up short.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôve never said anything, but you see it from time to time,‚Äù Daeley said. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôll see someone hit it great to the warning track and get frustrated. But it happens to everyone and you just have to get through it.‚Äù
It doesn‚Äôt help that Foley Field is one of the most cavernous ballparks in the SEC. At 350 feet in the left field corner and 404 feet to dead center, the park has yielded only 12 home runs in Georgia games this year, with the Bulldogs hitting five of those.
Some relief may be on the way for the struggling sluggers. This time, it‚Äôs the ball that is due for a makeover. The NCAA baseball committee (separate from the rules committee) approved the use of a flatter-seamed ball for the 2015 Division I College World Series.
The ball, which is modeled after the one used in the minor leagues, has been observed to fly farther than its raised-seamed counterparts. Cooke thinks that the flatter-seamed ball will eventually make its way to regular-season play.
‚ÄúThere were only three home runs hit at the College World Series last year, and some people were concerned about that,‚Äù Cooke said.
The rules committee has not taken any action to approve the new ball for regular-season use at this time. Proponents of the ball say that it will help balance the offensive reduction seen from BBCOR bats while also maintaining the increased safety. But until the ball is adopted, no one will know how it will affect home-run output.
‚ÄúIf you hit a ball coming 95 miles per hour, its still going to come off the bat at 95 miles per hour,‚Äù said Daeley about the new ball. ‚ÄúIt might carry better, but you‚Äôre probably not going to see a huge difference.‚Äù
Some Georgia players like the move toward a more professional bat and ball because they feel that it better prepares them if they go to the next level. Others like how the decreased bat power has led to the line drive approach.
‚ÄúYou have closer and lower scoring games all the time, so things like steals and passed balls become more important,‚Äù said freshman outfielder Stephen Wrenn. ‚ÄúThe coaches talk about it all the time. There‚Äôs more strategy in play now.‚Äù
Even a power hitter like Ward appreciates the new style taking over college baseball.
‚ÄúJust get people on, get them over, and get them in. That‚Äôs how you win games now,‚Äù said Ward.
After the initial pushback, both players and coaches seem to have gotten accustomed to the new bats. Even 30-year veterans of the game such as Cooke thinks the current bats are just right.
‚ÄúI think college baseball is the best that it has ever been,‚Äù said Cooke. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs more parity across all leagues and there‚Äôs a better chance that the underdog will be able to stay in the game.‚Äù
College baseball games may be closer and more competitive. Yet for the Georgia Bulldogs, the new bats mean fewer balls flying out of Foley Field.
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia‚Äôs Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.