CLEMSON -- The final score of the 1998 College World Series title game seemed more befitting of a Pac-10 football affair: Southern Cal 21, Arizona State 14.
The game was a wakeup call.
In 1998, college baseball teams set records for home runs (1.06) and runs scored (7.12) per game. In the pro game that June, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were on their way to eclipsing 60 home runs.
Major League Baseball eventually responded with drug testing and offense declined. In the college game, bats became subject to stiffer regulation. As a result, offense dropped 12 percent from 1998 levels in 2000-08 as teams averaged 6.29 runs per game.
As offense declined in the pro game, added emphasis has been placed on run prevention and skilled, athletic defenders (See: Tampa Bay and Seattle).
As college baseball continues its attempt to restrain offense -- scoring spiked last year (6.88) in part due to composite bats -- has defense also become more valued?
As Clemson prepares for its ACC tournament opener against N.C. State (8 p.m., Wednesday, Fox Sports South), the Tigers are leaning more toward defense, moving shortstop Brad Miller to DH against Florida State -- Miller committed 25 errors in 52 games -- and Jason Stolz to shortstop.
"I think there is going to be more emphasis on speed and defense," Clemson assistant coach Tom Riginos said.
"You might not see the 20-25 home run guys anymore, especially in this ballpark."
As offensive has declined -- and new bats next year are expected to further depress offense -- defensive play has improved.
From 1997 to 1999, Division I teams combined for a top fielding percentage of 95.2.
From 2000 to 2004, those numbers increased each year from 95.4 to 95.9 percent. And from 2005 to 2009
fielding became more efficient each season, rising from 95.8 to a record 96.2 percent last season.
Despite moderate improvements in run prevention across the board, Baseball America college writer Aaron Fitt is unconvinced there has been a shift toward defense over offense.
"I think coaches build their rosters differently depending on their ballparks, conferences, climates and philosophies," Fitt said. "Virginia and UC Irvine build their teams based on pitching, speed and defense, because they have pitcher-friendly parks. South Carolina is always going to build around power bats because of its park and its hitter-happy conference."
One reason why a shift toward run prevention might be taking a stronger hold in the pro game is the lack of information available at the college level.
At the pro level, the information age has allowed teams to better measure the defensive value of players. Teams can record the outcome, and placement, of every ball in play. There are new defensive metrics like zone ratings.
College coaches don't have access to similar information. Judgments are more subjective.
Fitt does not know of one program with advanced defensive metrics, and Fitt's colleague John Manuel believes such accounting would be of little help, saying in an email saying "advanced defensive metrics are for advanced players. College players are amateurs. They aren't good enough for such measures."
If Clemson could quantify defensive value, perhaps the most interesting case study in regard to the trade-off between runs scored and prevented is reserve center fielder Addison Johnson.
Johnson has struggled offensively (.257 batting average), but has the best range of any Clemson outfielder.
"We ask ourselves all the time 'What do you want to do better defense or better offense?' " Riginos said. "Addison does save you a few more runs."
To Johnson there is little doubt the game has made a shift toward defense.
He watched college baseball in late 90s, when scores morphed into football territory.
"There are a lot more smaller players these days," Johnson said. "I know at Clemson for one, we have gotten a lot scrappier, we are not nearly as big a team as we used to be."
Clemson has had only two players reach the 20 home run plateau since 2002: Kris Harvey (25 home runs) in 2005, and Andy D'Alessio (23) in 2006. The Tigers had three players hit at least 20 home runs in 2002 (Khalil Greene, Mike Johnson and Jeff Baker).
Clemson coach Jack Leggett says bat regulation has more to do with offensive decline, than a change in his philosophy.
"You still gotta pitch, you still gotta play defense and get timely hits," Leggett said. "The game hasn't changed all that much. It's pretty much the same deal as a long time ago."
Reach Travis Sawchik at email@example.com.
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