By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
When David Chase became commissioner of the Prospect League in March 2010, one of his top concerns was the lack of offense in the summer collegiate baseball league.
Teams averaged just 4.33 runs per game and 0.31 home runs per game in 2009, the league's inaugural season.
"I went through my first week of traveling throughout the league, and I'm thinking, ‘You know guys, we could bring the outfield fences in,'" Chase said.
The league didn't make any wholesale changes, but the offense caught up nonetheless. Team averages in runs per game, home runs per game and batting average in the league are at an all-time high this season.
Teams are averaging 6.23 runs per game and 0.68 homers per game through play Monday. The home run average is twice the previous high, set last season. The league batting average stands at .279, up 13 points from the previous high in 2011 and up 29 points from that inaugural season.
Three players -- Chillicothe's Giancarlo Brugnoni (18 home runs) and Springfield's Matt Tellor (17 HRs) and Mike Fitzgerald Jr. (15 HRs) -- already have surpassed the league's previous single-season home run record of 14, with a week of games still remaining.
Meanwhile, the league ERA of 5.22 is an all-time high and way up from the 2009 low mark of 3.61.
"Sometimes I look at the scoreboard this year, and it almost looks like we're playing football games instead of baseball games," Chase said. "The league, the first couple of years, was a pitcher's league without a doubt. Offense is up."
Happening across the nation
The Prospect League isn't alone in seeing an offensive boom.
"Overall, I think there has been a really significant increase in offense (in summer collegiate baseball)," Allan Simpson said. Simpson, who founded Baseball America, is now the national coordinator of Perfect Game USA's scouting report service, Crosschecker. He's followed summer collegiate baseball since the 1970s.
Runs per game, home runs per game and batting average are also at a high this summer in the Cape Cod League and Northwoods League -- the nation's top two summer collegiate leagues, according to Simpson -- during the same four-year period.
This year's averages in all three categories also top the 2009-2012 period in the New England Collegiate League -- the nation's No. 4 league, according to Simpson -- and home runs per game and batting average in the West Coast League -- Simpson's fifth-best league -- are at a high for that four-year period.
Of Simpson's top five summer leagues, only the Coastal Plain League -- which he considers the nation's third-best league -- is seeing an offensive dip this year.
"It's been very offensive this year," said Aaron Fitt, national college baseball writer for Baseball America. "Just talking with scouts and coaches who have seen some of these leagues, we're hearing the same thing all over the place."
Why is it happening?
It's tough to pinpoint with certainty why this offensive explosion is occurring in summer collegiate baseball.
One popular theory is that players aren't struggling to make the transition to wood bats in the summer as much as they used to, because of a change the NCAA made to the bats players use in the spring.
The NCAA required players to use Batted-Ball Coefficient of Restitution bats starting with the 2011 season. Those BBCOR bats, unlike the old aluminum bats, have smaller sweet spots and behave more like wood bats.
Offense has plummeted in collegiate baseball during the first two years since BBCOR bats were implemented. Runs per game (5.38), home runs per game (0.48) and batting average (.277) figures for the 2012 Division I baseball season now more closely reflect the numbers being posted in summer baseball.
"There was a learning curve, but now I think these players have gotten used to hitting with those new (BBCOR) bats, and it's helped them handle wood bats in the summertime," Fitt said. "They're used to generating offense other ways, and they're better at having to square the ball up on the barrel.
"It used to be there was such a huge adjustment for these kids who were used to swinging the old (aluminum) bats (in their college season) and then going to wood. It was a completely different ballgame. Now the adjustment I think is a lot less."
Like Fitt, Hannibal Cavemen manager Jay Hemond believes the NCAA's change to BBCOR bats is the No. 1 reason offense is booming in summer collegiate wood-bat leagues.
"I know a lot of guys who actually prefer wood over the BBCOR bats," Hemond said.
Another factor at play could be the uptick in the number of summer leagues.
It's hard to determine exactly how many summer leagues there are because there isn't a single regulatory body governing all leagues, and not all leagues are tracked by organizations such as Perfect Game and Baseball America.
However, Simpson and Fitt agree that there are more summer collegiate leagues now than ever before. Chase estimates that the number of leagues is in the 50s or 60s. Baseball America scouts 20 leagues, Fitt said, a number that's an all-time high.
"I think we're starting to see kind of the renaissance at the summer collegiate league level, with all the number of teams and leagues and interest," Simpson said.
The prevailing belief is that as the number of summer options increases, talent -- particularly pitching talent -- is spread thin.
"It's great to have more teams available," said Scott Melvin, a scout for the Kansas City Royals whose job includes scouting summer collegiate leagues. "But you've diluted the talent pool."
Melvin scouted the Prospect League all-star game this summer and said there were probably only four to six pitchers who he'll put on his follow list.
"There just wasn't guys with big velocity this year (in the Prospect League)," Melvin said.
Offensive numbers ticked upward after the latest rounds of Major League Baseball expansion in 1993 and 1998. It's no surprise to Fitt then that offensive numbers are trending up in summer collegiate baseball.
"There is definitely more (summer) teams, and I think that's definitely a factor," Fitt said. "Every time there is expansion in Major League Baseball, we see offensive numbers go up for the same reason."
Weather also might be playing a role in the offensive surge.
The average June temperature in the contiguous U.S. was 71.2 degrees, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Since 1995, only three years have had a hotter June, according to NCDC figures. USA Today, citing NCDC figures, reported Thursday that this July is on pace to be the hottest on record for the contiguous U.S.
Locally, of the 50 Quincy Gems games this summer in which temperature was kept, game-time temperature was at least 100 degrees nine times. A year ago, game-time temperature hit 100 just once in the 50 Gems games in which temperature was kept.
"The hotter its gets, the easier the ball flies," Simpson said.
On top of that, Melvin said he thinks the heat is taking a toll on pitchers.
"These arms are tired," Melvin said, "whereas a position player, they're tired too and maybe their running times are a little bit slower, but there is no doubt the pitchers have paid a higher price with the extreme heat that we've had."
Here to stay?
The question becomes, will the Prospect League -- and other summer leagues experiencing similar trends -- revert to the pitching-dominated league it was in 2009, or will the offensive numbers continue to climb in years to come?
"It's the ebb and flow (of baseball)," Quincy Gems manager Chris Martin said. "I think it comes and goes. This is the trend we're seeing right now, but in five years, it could be different."
Fitt, Simpson and Chase also mentioned the cyclical nature of baseball as a reason the current trend might not continue. That especially could be true if the higher summer temperatures were a prominent factor and next summer's temperatures don't match this year's heat wave.
If the NCAA's move to BBCOR bats is the biggest factor, however, Fitt said the summer league offensive surge could be here to stay.
On the flip side, Fitt said there soon could be an upward trend of quality arms in collegiate baseball. That, in turn, would make more high-caliber arms available for summer leagues.
Fitt's reasoning stems from a provision in Major League Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement that limits how much teams can spend on signing bonuses in the MLB Draft. With draft spending limitations in place, high-school pitching talent that was previously being plucked away by the draft might now turn down an offer to go straight to the minor leagues and instead go to college with hopes of getting drafted higher later.
"If that happens, maybe pitching kind of reasserts itself in summer college baseball in a couple years," Fitt said. "It's worth watching."
Most agree that this year's offensive explosion throughout the Prospect League and several leagues has been worth watching too.
"Rather than going to summer ball and being completely overmatched, I think it's a better brand of baseball if the (hitters) can go in and hold their own," Fitt said.
Chase isn't making any plans to move outfield fences back after this year's offense surge. He's determined that baseball functions best when left alone.
"I'm not a big fan of trying to legislate change," Chase said. "Just let the game go through its normal cycles."
The current cycle yielded the summer of the slugger.