The following story will be available in the SEC Baseball Tournament Program, on sale this week at the Hoover Met, as well as online here: bit.ly/2015SECBasebProgram
Year after year, the Southeastern Conference continues to set the standard in collegiate baseball.
Since Georgia won the SEC's first NCAA Championship in 1990, teams from within the conference have captured 10 of the last 25 national titles. Four different SEC teams have won national titles during that span and the league has sent 11 of its 14 schools to the College World Series in the last 25 years.
Last season was another milestone campaign as 10 SEC teams earned berths to NCAA regionals, setting a record for the most teams from a single conference in a year. Individually, the conference boasts 13 former National Players of the Year and 12 Baseball America National Coaches of the Year.
"The thing that helps our teams when they get to the postseason is the experience of 10 weeks in a row of the ultra-competitive SEC schedule that you have to play for two-and-a-half months," said Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson, the 2012 SEC Coach of the Year. "When you get to postseason, you feel like you're prepared and your kids are confident. That is very consistent from year to year."
The SEC's results on the diamond are the most visible part of the conference's success, but the accomplishments transcend the field of play into academic and community achievements. Moreover, the SEC has consistently taken a leadership position in the advancement of college baseball.
"We've always been looked at nationally as one of the top baseball conferences in the country because of the depth of our league," said Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn, who has taken the Razorbacks to three College World Series appearances. "We've got facilities across the league that are second to none, along with the commitment that administrations have put into baseball programs. The league and the schools have done a really good job of getting improvements passed. It's nice for us to be out front."
The programs of the SEC have been at the forefront of the latest innovations in technology and fan experience, most notably beginning in 2010 when the league was the first to implement a 'pitch clock' at its tournament. The clock was designed improve the pace of games without interrupting the rhythm of the games. A staple in SEC games since that time, the pitch clock is now being used in the AA and AAA levels of Minor League Baseball.
The SEC was also at the forefront of implementing a four-umpire rotation for every conference game beginning with the 2013 season.
Last season, the SEC was one of a handful of conferences to implement video replay in officiating for its baseball tournament. In 2015, the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee began allowing the use of experimental video replay for regular-season games over a limited set of scenarios. The SEC coaches agreed that it was important to add video replay to regular-season conference games.
"If it betters the game and we have the resources to do it, I think the SEC coaches have always been creative enough to develop it or implement it," said Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin, who led his team to the 2014 NCAA Championship. "I think the video replay has gone well. It doesn't come into effect as much as one might think, but it's pretty balanced. It's something that may look different five years from now as more plays become reviewable and more camera angles become available."
Henderson agrees that the first year of video review has been successful and appreciates the opportunity the officials now have to ensure that the umpiring decision made on the field is the correct one.
"I think it's a really positive thing," he said. "You can take out some of the grey area and some of the unknown. We've been a part of two challenges this season and the umpires got both of them right on the field. It's a really good thing because you know the play was given the necessary attention and the right call was made."
The use of video review has been in place at the College World Series since the 2012 campaign, though its use has been expanded and refined in the years following. With so many SEC teams advancing to the CWS over the years, many coaches feel that it's important for conference games to follow as similar of a protocol as possible.
"Without question, if we're going to do anything in the postseason, most of the guys in the league want to do it that way during the regular season," Henderson said. "Ten of our 14 teams went to the NCAA Tournament last year."
One of the main factors in the implementation of video review has been the launch of the SEC Network in August 2014, a national multiplatform network devoted to SEC content 24/7.
Across the SEC Network and the ESPN family of networks, more than 100 baseball games this season aired on live national television. Additionally, more than 350 games were televised live on SEC Network +, the digital platform of the SEC Network. The advent of the SEC Network more than quadrupled the SEC's baseball television coverage from 2014.
"The SEC Network has given tremendous exposure to all of the universities in the league in all sports," Van Horn said. "The baseball coverage has been incredible. There are so many different ballgames that are on, one way or another. It's great for exposure and really good for recruiting."
For the first time, every game of the SEC Baseball Tournament will air on national television in 2015, including the championship game on ESPN2. The SEC Network's SEC Now show will broadcast live from the first-base line at the Hoover Met throughout tournament week.
"The SEC Network is great for us and it's great for college baseball," Corbin said. "From a recruitment standpoint, we can point to those telecasts and tell the kids to take a look at us and see what we're all about. Overall, it just gives us a lot more exposure throughout the country and gives SEC baseball more status nationwide."
New to college baseball across the country in 2015 is the implementation of the flat-seam baseball. The new ball was introduced in an attempt to increase offensive performance and make the game more entertaining for offensive-minded fans. The ball, according to the NCAA, travels approximately 20 feet further than the old baseball.
According to the midseason report issued by the NCAA Baseball Committee on April 1, home runs had increased more than 39 percent from the previous season. Runs scored also were improved from the previous year by five percent.
"I think it's added the right amount of offense to the game," Corbin said. "There is harmony between the defensive and offensive sides of the ball. At this point, I think it's a very fair adjustment that has been made. Now, when the ball is split by a hitter, it gives him the outcome that he deserves. The double and the home run weren't so prominent a year ago. I think it's good for everyone."
Van Horn believes that the new baseball has also impacted the way teams play defensively. With the combination of the composite bat and the high-seam baseball that was being used in college baseball in recent years prior to 2015, Van Horn believes defenses were being forced to play out of traditional position.
"Teams used to play so shallow they were almost playing out of position," Van Horn said. "It was hard to go from first to third on a base hit and singles were being robbed. Outfielders were playing in. Now, batters are able to take bases like they should be able to. It's a better game now."
While most of the attention surrounding the new baseball has been focused on the offensive improvement, the change has also aided pitchers across college baseball. Most especially, it has aided fastball pitchers by putting more movement on the pitches. The NCAA midseason report cited that strikeouts are also up 10 percent this year.
"Pitchers aren't getting the blisters that they used to," Van Horn said. "With the rubbing of the high-seam ball, pitchers were always having problems with blisters, especially some of our guys who are now in the major leagues like Drew Smyly and Dallas Keuchel. Looking back at that ball, it's ridiculous how big those seams were. If a pitcher had a great breaking ball, the seams didn't really matter. Now, with the flat-seam, pitchers are seeing a little more movement on the fastballs."
All of the new advents in SEC baseball will culminate in Hoover, Ala., this week when the league's top-12 teams descend upon the Hoover Met for college baseball's premiere event. Each year the tournament features some of the nation's preeminent matchups, including an epic 11-inning championship game in 2013 between the top-two teams in the country in front of more than 10,000 fans.
"Hoover is a great city and a great host," Corbin said. "When you get people who are willing to spend thousands of dollars to get in motorhomes and park them in the outfield for an entire week, you know that's something special."
Over the years, the SEC Tournament has featured countless College World Series champions, many future Major League Baseball players, and some of the greatest games in the history of the sport. But what is most evident each year in Hoover is the unique pride and passion that surround SEC baseball.
"We're all really fortunate to work in a league where the commissioner and the administrations on the campuses really care and give us the resources to do all of these things," Henderson said. "One of the really great things about the SEC is that people truly care. It's a wonderful part of the experience of being in the SEC."