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College baseball: NCAA has taken the sting out of the ping

How college baseball's bat change brought players like OSU's Saulyer Saxon back in play
By John Helsley Published: May 22, 2012

Saulyer Saxon strode to the plate back on April 21, sent out to pinch-hit in a clutch situation in a close game.

Or in Saxon's case, sent in to pinch-bunt.

Job well done, with his seventh-inning sacrifice setting up the first run in an Oklahoma State win, the 5-foot-7, 163-pound Saxon stayed in to play right field and got another at-bat in a four-run 8th inning that led to the Cowboys' 5-2 final verdict over Texas Tech.

And this time, Saxon contributed a base hit to the rally.

A bunt base hit.

Meet the emerging faces of college baseball's Dead Bat Era:

The fundamentals guy.

The good-glove guy.

The speed guy.

And yes, the guy who can bunt.

They'll all be on display at the Big 12 Tournament, starting Wednesday, in a shifting college game that now features lower scores, shorter games and more bunts and bloops than blasts.

Little more than a luxury and mostly unwanted when the aluminum was lethal, position players with skills beyond bashing have been legislated back into the game, thanks to recent NCAA requirements to take some of the sting out of the ping in the name of safety.

“It's allowed more guys to have a role and have success,” said Texas A&M coach Rob Childress.

Guys like Saxon.

“It's like the game is starting back in small ball again,” said Saxon, a sophomore from Shawnee High. “OSU has always been about home runs, but we're playing small ball, winning games 3-2 and stuff like that.

“You don't see guys who hit 15 home runs. Guys used to hit .450 with 25 jacks. It was amazing.”

Aluminum bats were introduced into college baseball in 1974, meant as a more durable and cost effective choice to the large number of wooden bats that were being broken. Initially, those aluminum bats performed much like wood. But as companies competed for the market, producing lighter bats that could be swung easier, creating more bat speed and better bat control, offensive numbers started to rise.

Concerned about the style of play and the safety of players, the NCAA got involved, imposing a weight minimum on all bats in 1986. Again, the bat companies adjusted, with scoring records shattered in the late 1990s resulting in more NCAA legislation, this time limiting barrel size and weight ratio.

Still not content, for 2011 the NCAA made a shift to the BBCOR standard — Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution for the nerdy types — further limiting barrel size and the “bounciness” of the ball off the bat.

The drop in offensive numbers has been staggering, with home runs cut in half, batting averages down nearly 30 points and an overall decrease of 2.6 runs scored per game from the big bat era of the late 90s.

That's bad news for hitters; good news for pitchers, who are enjoying the lowest earned run averages in 30 years.

“It's pretty awesome for a pitcher,” said Baylor ace Josh Turley, who enters the Big 12 Tournament at 8-0 with a 1.67 earned run average. “You have more confidence. All you have to do is go out and throw strikes. It's definitely fun to play the game now.”

For a change, it's the pitchers who are empowered.

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