SEC experiences a power outage
Offensive numbers have plummeted on baseball diamonds around the Southeastern Conference.
The change to a new form of less-lively metal bats has reduced the once-gaudy deluge of hits and cut out the "cheap" homers that were synonymous with college baseball.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri is seeing more zeros in box scores than he's ever seen in his 29-year coaching career.
"It's dramatic," Mainieri said of the drop in offensive statistics. "The bats have made an enormous difference. It's changed the way you play. There's more hit and runs, more stealing and more moving runners any way you can.
"The days of swinging for the fences on every pitch are finished."
The new metal bats must meet a standard -- the Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) -- and are supposed to react closer to wood bats and also decrease exit speed off the bat. One benefit is a safer game. Another is a game that more closely resembles that of Major League Baseball.
As a result, across the 12-team Southeastern Conference, almost every offensive category has dropped compared to a year ago.
Some of the numbers:
- Homers have almost dropped in half, with 220 homers (through 197 games) last season compared to just 120 (through 204 games) this spring. Scoring is down as well over the same period -- from 8.06 runs per game to just 6.68.
- Batting average has dropped from .313 to .304.
- ERA has dropped from 4.04 to 3.17.
- Conference teams have already combined for 25 shutouts. In 2010, there were only 33 shutouts the entire season.
Some coaches are wary of the new bats, while others embrace the changes. But all agree that it's fundamentally altered the college game.
"You can see that pitchers have their confidence back," Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. "When a pitcher throws a fastball over the plate and can still get an out, there's not as much pressure to be perfect on every pitch."
Conference play begins Friday and many of the usual powerhouse programs such as LSU, Florida, Vanderbilt and South Carolina have performed well during their non-conference schedule. They're just going about winning in a much different way.
"It puts a premium on being a complete baseball team," LSU center fielder Mikie Mahtook said. "You've got to be able to have productive at-bats all the time. You've got to play defense and you've got to pitch well. We're doing that right now and that's why we're winning."
Mahtook leads the SEC with six homers so far this season, anchoring a lineup that's second in the league with 14 homers and is second with a .325 batting average. But like most teams, the Tigers have taken a small-ball approach. They already have 23 sacrifice bunts this year, compared to 20 for the entire 2010 season.
"It's definitely cut out the cheap homers," Mahtook said. "As a team, we just had the mindset that we're not going to let the bats be an excuse. It's still a bat, and if you hit it in the sweet spot it will still travel."
There's little doubt SEC pitchers are taking advantage.
On just about every team, there's a handful of pitchers with minuscule ERAs. Arkansas right-hander D.J. Baxendale is one ofthem, throwing 19.1 innings without giving up a run. He's given up just 11 hits, walked three and struck out 21.
"It's all about filling up the zone with strikes and then trusting my defense," Baxendale said. "If you can just avoid walks and letting people on base easy, you can usually avoid trouble."
Mainieri has said multiple times he's not sure if the BBCOR bats are good for college baseball because he feels that part of the game's appeal was high-scoring games. After a month of using them, he's still not sure if the NCAA made the right decision.
But that's the one it made, and he's not about to complain."There's no use in that," Mainieri said. "It's a level playing field for everybody and the team that adapts the quickest will probably have the most success. So that's what we're trying to do."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press