A smooth transition

Shenandoah University's Darrell Thompson throws a pitch during a recent game. The Hornets, along with the rest of college baseball, are using new flat-seam baseballs this season as the NCAA seeks to increase run production. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER — The NCAA implemented the new flat-seam baseballs into the college game prior to the start of the 2015 season in an effort to boost offense in a sport that has been largely dominated by pitching since bat specifications were altered four years ago. Through the first half of the regular season, players on Shenandoah University’s baseball team have seen the difference.

“You definitely notice it,” Hornets junior pitcher Michael Scimanico said Friday afternoon. “You see it more when the balls get out of the infield. They seem to travel just a little bit farther.”

Therein lies the thought process behind the NCAA’s shift to the new baseballs, which feature a flatter seam than their predecessors and now closely resemble the balls used in the minor leagues. Research shows that the flat-seam balls travel up to 20 feet farther than the ones previously used throughout college baseball.

It was, and remains, the NCAA’s hope that the new baseballs will help increase run production after the sport saw offense decline following the introduction of BBCOR bats in 2011.

“I would say most of our hitters are happy about the change just because it gives us a little bit more of an advantage,” said Hornets senior third baseman J.J. McDaniel, who is batting .443 with a home run and 16 RBIs this spring. ” … I never had a problem with the bats being degraded, but with the balls being upgraded I think it’s given us a little bit of an advantage kind of thing.”

Shenandoah University's Michael Scimanico throws a pitch during a recent game. The Hornets, along with the rest of college baseball, are using new flat-seam baseballs this season as the NCAA seeks to increase run production. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

Though the purpose of the new baseballs was to increase offensive production, Shenandoah has actually seen a statistical decline at the plate through this season’s first half after displaying one of the most potent lineups in Division III baseball in 2014. The Hornets are batting for a lower average, have seen a 73-point drop in slugging percentage and are hitting fewer home runs. SU has also seen its run production drop from 9.05 runs per game in 2014 to 6.43 runs per game this season.

But just as Shenandoah’s offense has defied the intended effect of the flat-seam baseball, so too has the Hornets’ pitching, which has seen notable improvement from a season ago.

Not including SU’s suspended game against Bridgewater on Wednesday (which SU leads 3-2 in the top of the ninth), the Hornets’ pitching staff boasts a 2.24 earned run average in 21 games — a top-five mark in Division III baseball — and has allowed only one home run while limiting opponents to a .207 batting average.

Shenandoah junior starting pitcher Darrell Thompson — last season’s Old Dominion Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year — said batters aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of the new baseballs. The left-hander said that while he’s noticed baseballs “jumping off the bat,” his fastball velocity has risen from 86 to 88 miles per hour this season. Scimanico (5-0, 0.75 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 36 innings) said he too has seen a slight increase in velocity since using the flat-seam baseball and McDaniel added that he has noticed more movement on pitches thrown from right-handers.

“I feel a little more comfortable with the lower seam pitching-wise,” said Thompson, who is 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 32.2 innings pitched. “The upper seam, sometimes you’d get a guy that capped one and there would be a giant dent in the ball and it would just feel awkward in your hand. I like the lower seams personally because the changeup’s got more fade and the fastballs have a little bit more tail to them now.”

Thompson added that he and Scimanico might be less affected by the transition because both pitchers throw sliders instead of curveballs, and he said that a curveball pitcher could have trouble getting the same amount of “bite” on his breaking ball with the flatter seams.

Though both pitchers have continued to thrive on the mound, Thompson and Scimanico said they had to go through an acclimation process with the new baseballs during intrasquad scrimmages in the fall.

“It was just a little harder just to maybe throw the slider at first, and throw a changeup,” Scimanico said. “It was a little up in the zone just because you can’t really feel it as much, there’s not much feel on the ball. But after about two weeks of throwing with it, it just feels like the same ball again.”

Thompson noted that Shenandoah’s pitchers are torn about the flat-seam baseballs — “Some guys love them, some guys hate them,” he said — but he and Scimanico are two pitchers who have embraced the change.

“From a pitching perspective I think it about stays the same. If you’re a good pitcher with high seams you’d be a good pitcher with low seams,” Scimanico said. “But I think for the game, the baseball makes it a lot better. You get more excitement with the long ball, people hitting more home runs now.

“The better ball definitely equals it out to a good, even playing field,” he added.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com