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College baseball offense takes hit with new bats

College baseball teams are hitting half as many home runs and averaging a run less per game halfway through the season.

Blame — or credit — the new metal bats put into play this year.

The average Division I team is hitting 0.47 home runs a game and scoring 5.63 runs, compared with 0.85 home runs and 6.98 runs at a comparable point last season.

The NCAA researched data through Sunday's games and released the findings Thursday.

Coaches Mike Fox of North Carolina and Mark Marquess of Stanford said the numbers support their anecdotal evidence — and they're not happy about it.

"I didn't see what was wrong with the bats last year," Fox said. "I thought last year there were great pitching performances, and if you could pitch, you could beat the hitter. There were just enough home runs to keep it interesting."

If the trend continues, Marquess fears losing fans.

"I'm a little concerned it's too much," the 35th-year Cardinal coach said. "I was concerned about making any change when we're doing so well as far as the popularity of college baseball. I've been at this a long time, and it's never been as popular as it is now."

College baseball officials gradually have been taking pop out of bats for more than a decade. The turning point was the 1998 College World Series, when there were a record 62 home runs in 14 games. Southern California's 21-14 championship-game win over Arizona State featured seven home runs and 39 hits.

The new metal bats are designed to perform more like wood. They have shrunken sweet spots designed to decrease the exit speeds of the ball off the bat, meaning lower power numbers and ERAs.

Among the NCAA's other findings, comparing midseason 2010 to this year: The overall batting average has dropped from .301 to .279; ERA from 5.83 to 4.62; and the number of shutouts has jumped from 277 to 444.

Advocates argue that the reduced speed with which the ball exits the bat makes the game safer for pitchers and infielders. They also say keeping the offense in check speeds up games and restores integrity to the game.

Jeff Hurd, chairman of the NCAA baseball rules committee, said he's received generally positive feedback about the new bats from coaches.

"That doesn't mean it's been universally positive," said Hurd, senior associate commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference. "There is a tendency to say the game has changed. Those of us on the rules committee prefer to look at it as if the game is being played more like it was prior to the advent of aluminum bats."

Marquess said the fact college baseball doesn't use wooden bats is part of the game's appeal.

"We're not playing with major-league players," he said. "For the 5-foot-9 guys, it's nice to hit a double or home run that he couldn't with a wood bat or facing a guy throwing 95."

The NCAA doesn't track the length of games during the regular season. Hurd said it's believed the new bats have helped reduce game times, but Marquess said the new limit of 20 seconds between pitches has done more to speed up play.

Fox said he hasn't noticed much change in the way he coaches, though he has called for a few more bunts.

"I think we're going to probably recruit a little differently," he said. "We've always focused on pitching and defense. You have to get guys who can run. I think it will change the future of the game."

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