The Nevada Wolf Pack baseball team welcomed a new season on Friday and also a new era of college baseball.
The Pack, which went through its first day of practice at Peccole Park in preparation for the season opener Feb. 18 at UC Irvine, and every other NCAA college baseball team will have to get accustomed to a new style of baseball this year.
The aluminum bats used by college baseball players will now have less pop and "trampoline effect" this season. Umpires are also going to enforce a new 90-second time limit between innings and a 20-second limit between pitches with no runners on base.
"With these changes we might now play doubleheaders in four hours or less," smiled Pack coach Gary Powers. "This is going to have a significant effect on the game."
The change in the aluminum bats will be the bigger change. The time limit between pitches and innings will just require a bit more hustle and focus. The change in bats, though, will require an entirely different philosophy on how to play the game.
"The ball coming off those new bats is so much like a wood bat it's incredible," Powers said.
The NCAA began using aluminum bats in 1974. From that moment on, though, manufacturers began producing stronger, bigger, more livelier and lighter bats almost every year until the point in the late 1990s when hitters looked like they were toting a tree trunk to the plate that weighed less than a feather. The result was that the college game began to resemble a video game with an avalanche of scoring.
The changes in 1999 were prompted by a 1998 College World Series in Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium that saw USC beat Arizona State 21-14 in the championship game. That 14-game College World Series also produced an eye-opening 62 home runs. There were 10 or more runs scored in 10 of the 14 games in that World Series and seven of the games had 18 or more runs combined by both teams.
"The game back in the 1990s was a much different game," Powers said. "We took advantage of it as much as anyone with all of our big, strong home run hitters. You had to hit the ball out of the park back then to be successful."
In addition to reducing the ball's exit speed off the bat, the NCAA is also limiting the size of the barrel to a diameter of 2.5 inches and the difference between the weight of the bat (in ounces) and the length of the bat (in inches) can be no more than plus-three.
Another change is to prevent manufacturers from producing bats where the bulk of the weight is near the handle as opposed to the barrel. A bat with the bulk of the weight near the handle swings much faster than a barrel-weighted bat.
Powers said the bat changes were made with safety in mind and to help speed up the games. Less offense, after all, means quicker games. The NCAA studied such things as "ball exit speed ratios" and conducted "moment of inertia tests" on bats. Everything was done to decrease the bounce or the "trampoline effect" the ball gets off the bat.
"The wall of the bat seems to be thicker now than it used to be," Powers said. "The ball doesn't come off it as fast it used to."
"I've used the new bats a couple times and if you hit the ball square, it still carries off the bat well," said former Pack first baseman Shaun Kort, who attended Friday's practice. "But you won't see too many home runs off the end of the bat now like you used to see."
The result of all the studies and changes, Powers said, is going to favor the pitcher.
"It's going to be much tougher on the offense," Powers said. "It's going to be a lot harder to drive the ball now. And pitchers with an 85 or 86 mile an hour fastball can now just lay it in there over the plate when they get behind in the count and let them hit it without a lot of fear of it going out of the park. This is really going to change the game."
Hitting the ball out of the park might become a rare treat now in college baseball. The Wolf Pack, 36-22-1 last year, hit .308 as a team in 2010 and averaged 7.7 runs and 1.2 home runs a game.
"It's going to be interesting to see what happens," said Pack senior Brian Barnett, who slugged a team-high 18 homers and drove in 71 runs a year ago. "It might be a lot tougher to hit the ball out."
"The game might change completely," said Pack junior Nick Melino, who hit .388 with seven homers in 2010. "We might be going back to the old days with a lot of bunting and hitting behind the runner. We'll see."
Powers isn't all that worried about strong, physical hitters like Barnett and Melino.
"The guys it will affect the most are what we call aluminum bat hitters," Powers said. "The smaller guys who aren't as strong, guys with questionable strength. They are going to have to change their approach at the plate."
Powers has warned his younger hitters, those that are less physically gifted than others, that they will have to learn how to play more small ball, bunting and hitting behind the runner.
"I have to manage the game differently, too," he said. "A lot of our guys will have to do a lot more of the little things. You can't just stand up there and swing away now. You have to have a different approach."
The penalty for abusing the time limit constraints is a called ball or strike, depending on who commits the infraction. The limit between pitches only applies when nobody is on base. One of the base umpires will be in charge of watching the clock.
The 90-second time limit between innings will be extended to 108 seconds if the game is televised to make room for commercials. On the limit between pitches, the pitcher must be in his windup within 20 seconds after receiving the ball back from the catcher. Batters also cannot step out of the box within five seconds of the 20-second limit.
"They want to speed up the game," Powers said. "You can't waste any time anymore. Pitchers and catchers have to be ready to go out there when the inning is over and get their warm-up pitches in. Hitters have to be ready to hit between pitches. It's going to take a lot more concentration and focus and a stronger mental approach to the game."