This year, college baseball games could see a reduction in scoring and a shift in strategy. Updated limits on baseball bats have coaches and players expecting fewer ‘cheap’ home runs, more pitching inside, and more bunting and base stealing.
While a departure from scores similar to those seen in beer-league softball appeals to some around college baseball, a few coaches are afraid the recruits they’ve brought in the past couple of years may not be suited to an extreme shift in strategy that may accompany a tougher scoring environment.
There has been a fair share of commenting and speculation regarding the changes the new bats will make on the field. But the impact on scouting, projectability, and the transition from college baseball to the wood bats of professional baseball could be even more profound.
One of the main reasons colleges chose aluminum bats in the first place was the price difference. Wooden bats crack and break, while aluminum ones lasted all season.
As college baseball has fought for funding as a non-revenue-producing sport with fewer scholarships to offer and smaller budgets to make use of, aluminum bats have been replaced by space-age materials that have risen in costs. An advantage that once saved programs money now may have turned into a strain on the budget as smaller teams spend big money to try to keep up with the latest advancements.
In 1988, graphite bats made their first appearance, and while players noticed that the ball came off the bat faster, a player often found himself with a “hand full of bees” after contact.
In 1989, rumors even emerged about Major League Baseball possibly switching to aluminum bats. Joe Carter, with the Cleveland Indians at that time, predicted that such a change would result in “a lot of dead pitchers and third basemen.” Carter knew what many around baseball also knew about the newer bats—the exit speed of the ball was rising past a point where infielders could react to it.
Aluminum bats have long shouldered the blame for high scores in college baseball. But it’s not just the balls leaving the yard that led to double-digit affairs. Pitchers had to adjust by picking at the corners and offering more walks, since hitters could hit a ball off the handle and still get a looper to the outfield.
Those factors prolonged innings and forced pitchers to throw at max effort. Many felt pitchers used a disproportionate number of breaking balls than they might against wooden bats in an effort to avoid giving up the ping of a 450-foot homer.
There are a couple of reasons hitters have seen such a benefit from metal bats. For one, the sweet spot, about three inches or so on a wooden bat, expands to as much as eight inches on some metal bats.
Bat makers disagree with those numbers and put the difference at 2.34 inches wide with wood and 3.20 with metal bats, claiming that for a “good hitter” the sweet spot is not as big because of his bat speed. However, it’s harder for the manufacturers to dispute the lighter weight.
Bats are measured with a ratio of length to weight, and metal bats can have a bigger differential in that ratio, which can produce faster bat speed. That means a lighter and longer bat, without fear of the breakage that players see in a wooden bat of the same dimensions.
Finally, there is the “trampoline effect,” where the ball literally bounces off the barrel of some composite bats, a bounce that can increase exit speed and distances exceeding the forces the batter actually puts in the swing himself.
By the mid-1990s, bat manufacturers found ways to use composite materials, thin walls, and other modifications that made the first generation of aluminum bats seem impotent in comparison. The NCAA looked into setting limits on metal bats after a particularly high-scoring College World Series.
However, bat manufacturers, riding a wave of increasing sales and price points along with fan interest in the college game, argued against limits set on their product. To sway their customers, companies routinely provided free product and other incentives to coaches and programs, including cash sponsorships. As the sport trickled down to younger levels, parents and players from Little Leagues to high schools forked over more and more money for the “hottest” bats.
In 1996, the NCAA set limits on bats. One test measured the bounce off a stationary bat in comparison to the bounce off a solid wall. Bats would have a new limit of 1.15, meaning they could only have a “trampoline effect” of 15% more than what a ball had after hitting the wall.
In 1998 and 1999, the NCAA implemented further restrictions, mandating that bats should only be allowed exit speeds of 93 mph and put limits on their length-to-weight ratio. Easton, one of the country’s largest bat producers, promptly sued the NCAA for $267 million, giving a clear indication how much was at stake for them in the unending quest to make the hottest bats in the world.
All the restrictions in the late 1990s did not drastically change college baseball, but reports indicated that the runaway scoring had been quelled, at least temporarily. And, despite the savings initially offered by metal bats, their durability became a liability as thinner walls dented or flattened out, leaving them worthless after a $250 investment.
At some point, the price of composite bats, some of which have an even shorter life-expectancy than their aluminum brothers, may exceed that of what it would cost a team to purchase enough wooden bats to last a season.
That leads us to now, when wooden bats—despite their breakage—may actually be cheaper than composite bats, which cost hundreds of dollars apiece. Big programs may have access to the most expensive bats through their athletic departments deals, but smaller schools are footing the bill.
Parents, as soon as their kids started playing kid-pitch levels, become conditioned to paying small fortunes for bats. Many feel pressure to keep their pride and joy equipped with the latest bat and able to keep up with other kids.
Manufacturers are also in constant competition to produce hotter and hotter bats and spend big money performing tests to back their claims of a safe product, as well as doling out endorsement deals. It’s similar to golf clubs, except baseballs routinely fly towards people, where golf balls only occasionally do so.
This offseason, the NCAA again looked at bat performance. The renewed interest lies in what happens to a composite bat as it ages. For instance, testing of fresh-out-of-the-wrapper bats may find consistent exit speeds meeting the 93 mph threshold. But after a bat ‘breaks in’ due to fibers loosening from hundreds of hits, those speeds may rise 10 mph.
There’s also the hidden game of “rolling” bats, where a rigged device loosens the composite fibers and artificially and illegally expedites the break-in process, producing the metal bat equivilant of wooden bat “corking.” New testing that takes effect this season will supposedly account for any increase in the “trampoline effect” after the break-in process. That includes those who like to roll their own.
The new change is supposed to result in bats that perform closer to their wooden counterparts and drop the sweet spot down to a similar size that players fortunate enough to play in the minor leagues will be accustomed to.
While pitchers and purists welcome the new tighter restrictions, some coaches actually oppose the changes. LSU’s Paul Mainieri and Virginia’s Brian O’Connor have questioned whether lower scoring and fewer home runs will actually be good for college baseball when many fans enjoy high-scoring games and are often turned off by constant pickoff throws and the limited action of a 1-0 game. Others, like Vanderbilit’s Tim Corbin, choose to look at the bright side and think of the possibilities of preparing hitters for the next level.
One solution that has been suggested by some—and is even more radical than this year’s changes—is for MLB to start a program that supplies wooden bats to college teams.
Proponents argue that professional baseball would see a huge return on investment by supplying colleges with wooden bats. Such a program could do away with the transition period college hitters face when going to the minors. It may also help pitchers learn to work the inside of the plate better as well and develop more confidence in their fastballs.
The talent on the field during a college game may rival that seen in the low minors, but aluminum bats cloud professional scouts’ opinions and make it harder for them to get a handle on hitters and pitchers.
While a switch to wooden bats will not happen anytime soon, hopefully getting the bats they currently use in college to perform more like wooden ones will help players fulfill their professional dreams. Hitters may make a smoother transition in the pros. Pitchers may challenge hitters more often. Scouts may be able to more accurately identify professional players.
And, who knows, it may also keep Little League and high school dads off the bat-rolling devices and out of the poor houses trying to keep up with their kids’ competitiors.
References & Resources
Chicago Tribune, Baseball America, Houston Chronicle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Orange County Register, Kansas City Star, Daily Herald