Competitive equity is always a hot-button issue in college baseball, where variations in the quality of bats can have a significant impact on wins and losses. Not all bat technology is created equal, and while it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions about the quality of equipment by looking at statistics, it seems entirely plausible that teams with certain bat contracts could have a distinct competitive advantage over others. Offense was down across college baseball in 2011 due to the advent of the new BBCOR bat standards, but some manufacturers surely adapted better than others to the new standards.
With that in mind, here's some fascinating news from the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News that Nike is releasing Alabama—along with every other college under contract with Nike—from its obligation to use Nike bats in the upcoming season. The paper reports that the Tide requested that Nike allow it to use other manufacturers' bats following the 2011 season, but that the Tide will continue to use all other Nike apparel and field equipment.
"As an industry leader in the sport of baseball, our goal has always been to serve the athlete," Nike said in a statement sent to Baseball America on Tuesday. "We believe in our baseball bat technology and are committed to providing the most innovative footwear, apparel and equipment to athletes at all levels."
So Nike schools can use other bats as long as they do not sign a contract or sponsorship with another manufacturer—which allows those schools the flexibility to switch bats at any time during the season.
It will be interesting if other Nike schools—Georgia, Kentucky, Miami, North Carolina and Southern California are five notable ones—elect to stick with Nike bats or switch, and whether their offensive performance is affected. The Tuscaloosa paper reports that those five Nike schools and Alabama hit 20 percent fewer home runs and slugged 44 percent lower than the national average. But how much of that performance gap was a product of the bats, and how much was a product of personnel, or the superior quality of pitching in power conferences, relative to the national average? Cherry-picking statistics—especially when considering a miniscule sample size—inevitably leads to faulty conclusions.
Regardless, the bat manufacturer discussion is worth having, and worth monitoring.
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