Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
With baseballs shooting out of parks at a rate that could be described as nakedly extreme, the NCAA implemented rules changes in 2009 that were designed to alter the way college baseball was played. The so-called "BBCOR" (Batted-Ball Coefficient of Restitution...but you knew that already) rule went into effect for the 2011 season and home run production across the board plummeted while pitchers reaped the ensuing rewards.
Arkansas tagged a school-record 92 team home runs in 2010; in 2011, the ban on composite bats knocked the Hogs' power output down to only 38 bombs in 62 total games. The team batting average sank from a respectable .306 in 2010, a mark that was fourth-best in the SEC, to .270 in 2011. That suggested, to the casual observer, that maybe the equipment adjustments were also robbing the college game of the overall offense that caused its popularity to surge dramatically the past couple of decades.
Of course, the impetus for the BBCOR rule's passage was not built out of some kind of unnatural spite for hitters. Rather, the NCAA, in one of its rare moments of clarity and sensibility, demonstrated that it was desirous of making the college game approximate the "real-world" or professional experience. After all, that .270 team clip the Hogs boasted in 2011 would have placed them sixth out of the 30 Major League teams, even as it placed them dead last among the 12 conference teams.
While college baseball's appeal was partially rooted in its no-lead-is-ever-safe spirit, the composite bats were arguably doing a disservice to amateur players with higher aspirations on the diamond. Khalil Greene hit .480 with 26 home runs for Clemson in 2002, winning the Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur player in the country, then floundered as a professional with a .245 career mark. That's not an indictment of Greene, because we all acknowledge that hitting Major League pitching is an incomprehensible challenge regardless of what kind of materials you are wielding. Nevertheless, in retrospect it does appear that those gaudy college numbers of yore were misleading as indicators of long-term success.
The less-publicized byproduct of the rule change is that it probably shifted strategy more than anything else. Yes, the ball does not spring off the barrel of these aluminum bats as it did previously, but coaches knew this change was coming and began to account for that. Again, the Razorbacks' season-to-season comparison bears this out, along with the comments that head coach Dave Van Horn offered before and during the guinea-pig year of 2011. Whereas the 2010 Hogs had a cadre of experienced, chiseled hitters like Zack Cox, Brett Eibner and Andy Wilkins, the 2011 squad was a smaller and scrappier bunch, and Van Horn and hitting coach Todd Butler seized upon this. For all the Razorbacks' general offensive woes last season, they did prove more adept at manufacturing tallies by hustling and swiping bases — their 122 stolen bases led the SEC by a wide margin.
It's a credit, then, to Van Horn and Butler for trying to reshape the offense to suit personnel, but overcorrecting may have been a byproduct of it. The Hogs were still strikeout-prone (second in the SEC) and had struggled with the much-ballyhooed "situational hitting." Their season ended at the Tempe regional because they simply couldn't overcome those scoring deficiencies over the latter half of the season.
So far in 2012, it appears that Arkansas is trying to balance things out. The Hogs are 11-2 after winning two of three at the Houston College Classic over the weekend, scoring seven runs in a routine win over Texas on Sunday. They are hitting at a more proficient clip (.312 team average, 11 home runs in 13 games) and still relying heavily on an extraordinarily deep pitching staff that was assembled, in part, to capitalize upon the rules changes.
The season is young, though, and the SEC as it does in every sport represents a meat grinder that will test the Hogs' ability to sustain this balance. There seems to be a concerted approach by Van Horn and Butler to level things out, to take advantage of potential sluggers like Cabot product Sam Bates and third baseman Matt Reynolds while still being able to employ a station-to-station approach when justifiable. If Arkansas is going to capitalize on its enormous promise in 2012, the NCAA's effort to mold the game in a newer, more demure image should not impede the team's development.
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