Knock On Wood
Early returns on new bats show significantly decreased performance
Texas' UFCU Disch-Falk Field is the quintessential pitcher's park, with high fences, deep dimensions and slow turf. So ordinarily, a lack of home runs during the Longhorns' fall practice season would hardly raise any eyebrows.
This fall, however, the power outage in Austin has been noteworthy indeed.
The reason? Texas is using the new NCAA-certified bats, which every Division I baseball team will be required to use this spring. The NCAA has implemented a new testing method to make the metal bats perform more like wood than they did under the previous testing method, which measured the ball's speed off the bat. The new BBCOR testing—which stands for batted ball coefficient of resolution—measures how lively the collision is between the bat and ball.
How noticeable is the difference in the new bats?
"It's significant," Longhorns coach Augie Garrido said. "I think every coach kind of goes, 'Whoa.' It is recognizable from the very first batted ball. When you hit it on the sweet spot, it still goes. Whereas we might have hit 15 or 20 balls out in batting practice before, we're now hitting five or six balls out in BP. So it is a significant change—I think every coach will tell you that."
And its impact will be sweeping.
"I think it's going to change the complexion of college baseball," Oregon coach George Horton said. "We've been using it in BP and scrimmages, and I can tell you it's made a big difference. Coach (Andrew) Checketts is throwing a party—I told him he's a better pitching coach than he used to be. Some of those big, strong guys have gotten into some balls pretty good, and they're not going over the fence."
The reports are the same across the country, wherever the shipments of new bats have arrived. As of late last week, many schools, such as Oregon State and Michigan, were still awaiting their shipments, while others like Louisiana State have received just a few bats, but without labels.
At Virginia, only the team's strongest players, including Steven Proscia and John Hicks, have even been able to hit balls out of the park in batting practice with the new bats. But the lack of power isn't what stands out most to Cavaliers coach Brian O'Connor.
"I wouldn't say that it's going to impact the home runs as much as just the way the ball comes off the bat, even on ground balls," he said. "Just consistently, the ball doesn't come off as fast. I think when you square the ball up, it's still going to go, you'll still hit home runs and doubles. But under the old bats, you could get jammed and still hit a home run. You didn't have to hit the ball square on the sweet spot to hit it good. Now with these new ones, that's what you have to do. You have to really square it up to hit it through the infield or hit a home run."
Like Texas, Virginia plays in a pitcher's park and has developed a reputation for winning with pitching and defense. But O'Connor does not welcome the new bat standards, even though they would seem to play to his program's strengths.
"I don't think it's the right thing to do for college baseball at all. I'm not in favor of it one bit," O'Connor said. "I don't understand why we made changes. We're building a $130 million stadium in Omaha to house a two-week national championship. Programs across the country are putting millions of dollars into their baseball programs. The game is at an all-time high, from attendance records to fan interest to facilities. Why would we change our game? There's nothing wrong with our game."
LSU coach Paul Mainieri echoed those sentiments and expressed concerns about how the new bats will affect the style of play across college baseball.
"I just hope the game doesn't turn into take, take, take, put the ball in the home plate umpire's hands, nine pickoff throws to first base because you're worried about the guys stealing," Mainieri said. "I don't think we need to have wood-level bats in the college game. If the pro guys are signing so many of the big prospects out of high school, it's not as high a level of play. I just hope you don't retard the development of the hitters because now all of a sudden everybody's sacrifice bunting with their 3-hole hitters, taking pro hitters and sacrificing all the time because offense is so sluggish.
"We draw almost 11,000 people a game, and I don't want it to be a boring game for our fans. We've worked so hard getting people following college baseball, and let's face it, they like the scoring, they don't want to be bored to death up in the stands."
Of course, pace of play is another major factor in drawing fan interest, and college baseball has been under fire in recent years for the length of its games. Starting in 2011, a 20-second pitch clock will be enforced across college baseball—but the new bats seem destined to play a much more significant role in reducing the length of games.
Mississippi, for instance, is using the new bats this fall, and the Rebels played their first nine-inning intrasquad game in a brisk two hours, eight minutes. Less offense means quicker games, plain and simple.
"It will make the game faster, but I'm not sure that taking away the excitement of the long ball, if it gets taken away drastically—I think that's not going to be good," Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. "If it moderates it then maybe that will be real good, but I would hate to see the home run go away, because I think it's exciting."
Like Mainieri, Maloney said he was concerned that the new bats could stunt the development of hitters by destroying their confidence. But Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, who served as chairman of the Division I rules committee when the bat issue once again became a hot topic a few years ago, said the bats could also help teams develop hitters.
"The way I feel about it is the game played at the highest level is made to reward players with true hit skills," Corbin said. "Players who hit the middle of the ball consistently are going to hit. The notion of hitting the bottom of the ball with a nuclear stick and having success is really unrealistic, unless you're Adam Dunn. If you're a good hitter, you can hit with a hickory stick. The bat, to me, is better than wood but performs less than aluminum."
Oregon State coach Pat Casey agrees with Corbin.
"What are most kids trying to do? They're trying to make it to professional baseball," Casey said. "So I think the closer the college game emulates the pro game, the better it is for the players. If you're a scout trying to grade out a kid trying to hit with a metal bat, that can be difficult . . . I'm in favor of anything that gets the bats closer to wood bats, personally."
The movement to reform the bat standards began as a response to the composite-barreled bats that generated unnaturally high exit speeds at the end of their life cycles, according to NCAA research. Last year, a moratorium was imposed on the composite-barreled bats, and that seemed to address the problem satisfactorily.
But the integrity of the game was just one reason for the new bat standards, and not the biggest reason, according to UC Santa Barbara coach Bob Brontsema, who chaired the rules committee last summer when the changes were announced.
"Safety was the No. 1 reason that was discussed and pushed for the change," he said. "The committee responded because it just got an enormous amount of info and letters from the coaches across the country, so we went based on that. But the college game is pretty good. It's grown as much as any sport's, if not more. So that was definitely discussed—is this going to change what's been good about baseball? But ultimately the safety issue is what won out."
While everyone agrees that safety is important, there is less consensus about whether reforming the bat standards was necessary to improve safety. Several coaches pointed out that pitchers get hit by line drives at every level of baseball; there is just an inherent level of risk involved any time players take the field.
Casey, who likes the new bats, nonetheless said he did not think the change was necessary to address safety concerns. He cited the last major bat reform—in 1999—as a good step, but questioned whether this one was necessary.
"When the national championship game was 21-14 (in 1998), I don't think that's good. But the adjustments were made, and I thought the bat was a good bat. I wasn't really worried about safety from that point on," he said. "I just don't want to see us get into a situation where we're trying to fix everything when it doesn't need to be fixed."
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, the saying goes. Coaches can argue all fall over whether college baseball was broke when the old bats were in use, but the bottom line is it has been fixed—maybe for better, maybe for worse, but definitely for real.