For a quick window into how much college baseball has changed over the past year, look no further than the stat line of Arkansas center fielder Andrew Benintendi.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound sophomore hit just one homer in 225 at-bats last season, watching as a few potential long balls fell just shy of the fence.
This year has been a different story.
He's already hit 14 out of the park and there's still a month remaining in the regular season.
The NCAA's new baseball — which has flatter seams than the previous version — was introduced this spring with the hope that it would increase offense.
So far, it has worked.
"I haven't really changed my approach from last season, but I do think I'm a little stronger which has helped," Benintendi said. "There's no doubt the new baseball has helped some, too. I didn't think I would hit this many (homers) and really, I'm not thinking about it. I'm just trying to hit it hard into the gap and fortunately some are leaving the park."
Benintendi's huge power spike might be an anomaly, but offensive numbers are up across the Southeastern Conference. The 14 teams have already combined for 399 homers through Tuesday's games after hitting just 392 all of last season.
With the weather warming up, don't expect the trend to stop any time soon. Pitching and defense are still important, but the SEC's elite are all hitting the ball with authority.
"It's partly because of the new baseball and partly because of some really good hitters," Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said. "But mostly, it's about confidence. Guys have noticed that the new ball carries and they're really attacking. It's what everyone is talking about."
The offensive increase isn't all about homers. Four teams — LSU, Texas A&M, Florida and Kentucky — have a team batting average above .300. Last season, no one reached that mark.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said he's much less likely to call for a sacrifice bunt this spring, playing for the big inning instead of trying to squeeze out one run.
The Tigers (35-6, 12-5 SEC) lead the league with a .320 batting average and are tied third with 38 homers. Texas A&M (36-5, 12-5) has a league-leading 47 homers. The two teams — ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the d1baseball.com poll — meet this weekend for a three-game series in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
LSU's Kade Scivicque, who is hitting .396 with five homers, leads an offense that returned eight of nine players from last season. He says the ball has had a huge effect on hitters' psyche.
"When you have a positive mindset in the batter's box, good things happen," Scivicque said. "You're getting good swings, getting some backspin and the ball is carrying."
Benintendi is one of five SEC players who has reached double digits in homers. Florida's J.J. Schwarz has 13 and teammate Harrison Bader has 11, Tennessee's Christin Stewart has 12 and Texas A&M's Logan Taylor has 10.
Only two players — Kentucky's A.J. Reed and Mississippi's Sikes Orvis — had more than 10 homers last season.
College baseball's home run rate is still much lower than its heyday in the late 1990s, but the threat of a long ball has certainly increased. Benintendi said everyone he's talked to has been pleased with the new baseball and the results it has produced.
His coach agrees.
"To me, this is a lot more like baseball," Arkansas' Dave Van Horn said. "The last few years, if you were down three runs going into the 7th inning, the game was basically over because it was so hard to hit the ball over someone's head. That's not the case anymore."
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Posted on Thu, April 23, 2015
by DAVID BRANDT, AP Sports Writer