Where have all the CWS home runs gone? - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, June 22, 2013 at 10:49 pm / Updated at 10:48 pm
BASEBALL
Where have all the CWS home runs gone?

335 down the lines. 375 in the gaps. 408 in center.

The dimensions of TD Ameritrade Park didn't come from an architect's guide to stadium construction. They didn't come from a mathematician's calculator or a panel of legendary coaches. They came directly from three miles south — Rosenblatt Stadium.

“I remember it being suggested,” said Dave Keilitz, head of the American Baseball Coaches Association and a member of the planning committee for Omaha's new ballpark. “Everybody thought it was a good idea, including myself.”

Who wouldn't want to replicate the magic of Rosenblatt? Every June, that's where college baseball grabbed the casual fan by the sweat-stained sleeves and wouldn't let go.

Sure, Omaha's diamond on the hill played a little small — especially on hot, breezy days in the 1990s — but the College World Series owed much of its tradition and popularity to three-run homers and ninth-inning rallies.

These days, pitchers are laughing last. Three years after the CWS moved downtown, the familiar numbers on the outfield wall — 335, 375, 408 — may as well represent miles, not feet. There's a force field at the warning track.

Look at the evidence:

>> In its final three years, Rosenblatt yielded 2.45 homers per CWS game. In 2011 and '12 at TD Ameritrade, the average dropped to 0.64 and 0.67. This year, three balls have cleared the wall — 0.25 per game.

>> The NCAA dialed back the aluminum bats the same year the CWS moved to TD Ameritrade. So home run reductions aren't as simple as changing venues. But in the three seasons prior to 2011, the CWS produced 34 percent more home runs per game than the regular season. Since then, the CWS has produced 43 percent fewer homers than the regular season.

>> Through 77 regular-season games since 2011, TD Ameritrade has yielded only 29 home runs. That's 0.38 per game, less than half the average college ballpark. Just for comparison, the average major league ballpark in 2012 gave up about two home runs per game.

>> During the last three CWS at Rosenblatt, 14.8 percent of fly balls went over the fence. The past three years downtown, it's roughly 3 percent.

>> In 41 CWS games at TD Ameritrade, there have been tense moments, even a few walk-off hits. But no team trailing after eight innings has ever won. The last team to rally in the ninth was LSU during the 2009 championship series at Rosenblatt.

>> CWS teams are 21-0 at TD Ameritrade when scoring five runs or more. In other words, there has never been a game in which both teams scored five.

Depending on your point of view, these facts aren't necessarily bad for the game — you might prefer a 2-0 game to an 8-6 score (especially if you're a pitcher). But without question, this year's CWS has turned a spotlight on power hitting and its place in college baseball.

How will the NCAA engage? First it must figure out what's going on.

Some observers attribute the drop in CWS home runs predominantly to the bats. Some point to a golden era of college pitching.

Some say it's all about wind direction — TD Ameritrade was designed and built to face the prevailing south winds, while Rosenblatt, like most parks around the country, faced northeast. Some speculate that the downtown air is heavier and fly balls, even trailing a north wind, simply don't carry.

Perhaps all of the foul territory at TD Ameritrade plays a factor — it ruins an at-bat or two each game. Or maybe the park has a reputation now and, thus, it's an obstacle in hitters' heads. LSU coach Paul Mainieri alluded to that.

Derek Carty, who has studied major league ballpark factors for Baseball Prospectus, said it's “definitely not normal” for parks to have the same dimensions in the same city and play so differently. But it may be too soon to make conclusions.

“Even for major league teams that play 70-80 games in a park, it takes 3-4 years to get an idea of the ballpark factors,” Carty said. “I think what you're looking at is a combination of the bats, the wind, different talent levels and randomness.”

Regardless of cause, the effect is clear. Pitching, defense and station-to-station offense is the new ticket to success in Omaha. Look at UCLA, which entered the CWS 188th nationally in home runs, but plays small ball as well as anyone.

Bruins coach John Savage notices the contrast between Rosenblatt and TD Ameritrade before he eats breakfast at his Omaha hotel. In the old days, he remembers waking up during the CWS and immediately checking the nearest flagpole.

“If it was blowing (from the south), it was like, 'Oh, God,' ” said Savage, a former pitching coach at USC. “If it was blowing (from the north), it was, 'Sweet, here we go.' That was a big deal because the wind could change the whole game.”

At Rosenblatt, Savage told his players not to give away too many baseballs to kids. The NCAA allots each team a certain number of balls and it was easy to run out. Why? Because you were guaranteed to lose dozens over the wall in batting practice.

“Here, you don't have to talk to your team about that,” Savage said. “The ball never reaches the stands anymore unless it's a foul ball.”

Mississippi State's Wes Rea doesn't need Savage's experience to know the no-homer zones.

“We had an opportunity to take BP on the field (Friday),” Rea said. “It's like if you don't hit it to the left side of the 375 sign (in left field), you're not going to hit a home run. Just seems like the ball's knocked down no matter how hard you hit it.”

Rea is right. According to multiple frequent observers at TD Ameritrade, no player in three years — during the regular season or the CWS — has hit a home run between the 375 signs in left-center and right-center. Ever.

What will the NCAA do?

Forget more bat modifications. Only 16 percent of Division I coaches don't like them, Keilitz said. They're safer and they force hitters to square up a ball.

How about bringing in the fences? Creighton coach Ed Servais doesn't rule it out, but renovation would be “a major, major expense,” Keilitz said. Remember, outfield seats would need to be relocated, too.

That leaves the baseball.

One factor in the ball's performance is how much it bounces at impact — the coefficient of restitution. The higher the COR, the farther the ball travels.

The majority of coaches don't want to follow major league baseball and increase the COR. They do, however, want to look at the seam.

The professional ball has a flat seam — you barely notice it in your hand. The college ball has a raised seam. It's easier for pitchers to throw breaking balls. It also increases air resistance on fly balls.

The new bats, Servais said, reduced the distance of a 400-foot shot by about 25 feet. Significant. A flat seam would restore about 15 feet to the same fly ball and take a few more over the fence.

“That sounds to me like a good compromise,” Servais said.

Keilitz believes the majority of Division I and II coaches favor the flat seam. If his next survey confirms it, he will make a recommendation before the rules committee. It's an easy change, he said, because all of the ball companies already make a flat-seam ball — there's no additional cost.

Here's the catch:

The rules committee doesn't make changes again until July 2014. Which means a new ball wouldn't be in play at the College World Series until 2015.

That's at least one more year for coaches to tailor their programs for Omaha. The more TD Ameritrade Park gains a reputation as a pitcher's park, the more teams are likely to recruit and develop small-ball characteristics. Add a little more hit-and-run. Strengthen the infield defense. Work on bunting. You don't win a national championship in this town anymore with big boppers.

Just as you don't catch souvenirs sitting in the outfield bleachers.

World-Herald staff writers Steven Pivovar and Matt Wynn contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain

dirk.chatelain@owh.com    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

CWS SCHEDULE »
Friday, June 14
Opening Celebration

Saturday, June 15
Game 1: Mississippi State 5, Oregon State 4
Game 2: Indiana 2, Louisville 0

Sunday, June 16
Game 3: N.C. State 8, North Carolina 1
Game 4: UCLA 2, Louisiana State 1

Monday, June 17
Game 5: Oregon State 11, Louisville 4
Game 6: Mississippi State 5, Indiana 4

Tuesday, June 18
Game 7: North Carolina 4, LSU 2
Game 8: UCLA 2, N.C. State 1

Wednesday, June 19
Game 9: Oregon State 1, Indiana 0

Thursday, June 20
Game 10: North Carolina 7, N.C. State 0

Friday, June 21
Game 11: Mississippi State 4, Oregon State 1
Game 12: UCLA 4, North Carolina 1

Championship Series

Monday, June 24
Finals Game 1: UCLA 3, Mississippi State 1

Tuesday, June 25
Finals Game 2: UCLA 8, Mississippi State 0
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