Rolling The Wrong Way

Bat rolling inflates offensive numbers

College baseball had relative peace on the bat front for about a decade, since the 1999 season, when Division I started using bats with a length-to-weight differential of minus-3 instead of minus-5. But now there's a new challenge to the relative stability of the level of offense in college baseball.

As bat manufacturers have developed new composite metal-bat technology, players have figured out that bats perform better the more they are used. In the words of one coach, "Right before a bat goes, it's hot as a firecracker. The ball doesn't make a sound anymore. It sounds like you're hitting a bean bag."

To speed that process, many players are now rolling their bats, and several new companies roll bats for a fee, boasting of the improved performance. Others will shave the insides of composite bats to improve performance. An official with the American Baseball Coaches Association said they've heard about the problem for a "few years" but it's become more acute the last two years, particularly in the Southern Conference. Three of the top eight scoring teams in the nation in 2008 were SoCon teams, with College of Charleston (10.6 runs per game) and Georgia Southern (10.3) ranking 1-2 in D-I.

"This composite material can be pressed, hardened, rolled, put in a vise (and) the nature of the metal changes," a SoCon coach said. "The result is the bat will increase exit velocity and distance. So the last 25 percent of its life, a bat is hotter than in earlier part of its life."

It's not just the SoCon's problem, though, and throughout Division I, scoring increased from 2007 to 2008, with batting (.291 to .296), scoring (6.10 runs to 6.45 runs per game per team) and home runs (0.68 to 0.84 home runs per game) up significantly. Offense is up again in 2009—at midseason, the NCAA reported D-I teams were hitting a collective .299 with 6.87 runs scored per game, the highest levels since 1999,

Coaches are concerned someone will get hurt by a line drive before changes are made to detect bats that have been rolled or shaved. They said they would bring up the issue with bat manufacturers when the season is over.

Added another SoCon coach, "Our guys charting pitches have seen exit speeds of 116 mph, and you can't hear the ball off the bat. It's like there's a silencer on it. Our conference is trying to focus on it, but it's very hard to detect."

The SoCon is trying to get out in front of the issue, with some suggesting that bats be thrown out if exit speeds over a certain threshold get detected.  One coach suggested dyes in the bat have helped softball detect similar problems with their bats.

"The integrity of the game is at stake," one coach said.

Nightmare Interrupts Dream Season At OCC

The 2009 season will be one John Altobelli will never forget. It's packed enough drama to fill a lifetime.

Altobelli is in his 17th year as the head coach at Orange Coast JC in Costa Mesa, Calif., The California juco circuit always is competitive, and Orange Coast was having one of its best seasons ever. Ranked No. 1 for most of April, Orange Coast went undefeated in March and has several top prospects for the 2009 draft on its roster, from sons of big leaguers Josh Berryhill (son of Damon) and Brett Wallach (son of Tim) to brother duo Mykal and Ricky Stokes to righthander Calvin Drummond.

That talent has played out on the field to the tune of a 28-12 record, including 16-6 in the tough Orange Empire Conference. But Altobelli wasn't around to see the last four games as April wound to an close. He was suspended for the rest of the season after an April 14 ejection during a game against Irvine Valley JC.

Altobelli acknowledges he "got his money's worth" in a string of three ejections that led to a violation of the new two-strike sportsmanship rules in effect in California's Council on Athletics (COA), the governing body of the state's JC athletics. He contends umpires failed to follow procedure, however, by not warning him prior to his ejections.

Altobelli filed an appeal on that basis to have his suspension reduced, so he could rejoin his team for games down the stretch of the regular season and postseason. While he can still run practices and make out his team's lineup, he can't be in the ballpark during games, with assistant Jeff Piaskowski Jr. filling in.

"I made a mistake, I'm man enough to admit it," he said in a mid-April interview. "What I hope is that the umpires will admit their mistake."

The suspension is actually the smallest distraction Orange Coast has faced this season. The year started under the dark cloud of the death of catcher Jordan Watanabe, a sophomore who was an all-conference performer as a freshman. Watanabe was redshirting this season as he faced a vehicular manslaughter charge stemming from an alleged street race in 2007, but his death shook the team.

The team's psyche took another hit when outfielder Trevor McDonald was hospitalized and required three surgeries to fight an infection by necrotizing fasciitis, better known as flesh-eating bacteria. McDonald was just starting to run again and wasn't expected to return to action this season but survived his bout with the bacteria, which has a mortality rate of around 30 percent, according to WebMD.

The drama doesn't excuse Altobelli's behavior. But it does make a couple of ejections seem fairly trivial. This would seem to be a team that needs its coach. Altobelli should have understood that before he got ejected, but baseball's culture dictates that coaches stand up for their players; in fact, COA rules specify the head coach is the only person allowed to argue. Now he's making one more argument—for another chance for his fragile team.

"If they just look at the black-and-white, I don't think I'll get reinstated," he said. "What I hope is they take a human look at the situation, and that the administrators will have a little compassion for what we've been through."