By Gary Brown
Midseason data in college baseball show significant changes in power and run production in the wake of new bat specifications that took effect this year. And anecdotal evidence suggests that most coaches are OK with the trend.
With the new metal bats in college baseball performing more like wood, some people are asking why not just return the game to its roots, both figuratively and literally?
The wood-bat discussion in college ball is not new, but it strikes out more often than not. It may be closest to a reality in Division II, where three conferences (the Northeast-10, the East Coast Conference and the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference) use wood during the regular season and in their postseason regional.
Also, at its October 2010 meeting in Phoenix, the Division II Conference Commissioners Association resolved to support the idea of wood bats, with the intention of Division II collectively moving toward being a wood bat-only division by 2012-13.
While that sounds promising, the old factors of cost, quality and competitive equity always retire the side in Division I.
“It becomes a rather circular type of conversation,” said Big 12 Deputy Commissioner Tim Weiser, who chairs the Division I Baseball Committee. “And now technology has gotten us to a point where we’re able to mirror the performance of wood without the cost/quality issues we know we always face when we talk about the discussion of using actual wood bats.”
Jeff Schaly, the director of compliance at Lynn and chair of the Division II Baseball Committee, said people on both sides of the same argument are using this year’s results in the wood-metal debate.
“Those who support metal say let’s play with these new aluminum bats for a year or two and see if they really do perform like wood,” Schaly said. “If they do, then we don’t even need to talk about wood anymore. But those who favor wood are using these same data to support their case, too. If the metal plays just like wood, then why not go to wood?
“Each side of the argument is using these results to bolster their case, and neither side is wrong.”
Data from the NCAA statistics staff reveal that in Division I games through April 3 (essentially the midpoint of the season), scoring is down by more than a run per game per team compared with the same time last season (from 6.98 per team in 2010 to 5.63 in 2011), and home runs have dropped from .85 a game per team in 2010 to .47 this year.
Batting average has also declined sharply, from .301 per team at midseason last year to .279 so far in 2011. Conversely, earned-run average has improved, from 5.83 in 2010 to 4.62 this year. In addition, more shutouts have been thrown this year (444) compared with this time last season (277).
The trends are similar in Divisions II and III. In Division II, scoring has gone from 6.86 to 5.90 and home runs have dropped from .72 to .43. In Division III, the decline in scoring is from 7.05 to 6.03, and in home runs it is from .54 to .30.
NCAA Baseball Rules Committee chair Jeff Hurd, a senior associate commissioner at the Western Athletic Conference, believes the new bats are causing the effect.
“Our coaches in the WAC for the most part are not upset about it – they realize it’s just different, and they’re OK with that,” Hurd said. “I believe coaches and players overall understand why this change was made, and generally speaking, the reaction has been positive.”
The new bat standards that went into effect this season feature a stricter “Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution” standard (BBCOR) that reduces a batted ball’s exit speed.
The new BBCOR formula provides a better measure of a bat’s performance and allows the Baseball Rules Committee and bat-testing laboratories to better predict field performance based on lab tests. The goal is for non-wood bats that meet this new standard to perform similarly to wood bats.
The reasons for the new bat standards are numerous, but Hurd said maintaining the integrity of the game and enhancing player safety were at the forefront.
The NCAA Baseball Research Panel, a group charged with maintaining the protocol for testing bats in the college game, recommended the new standards after reviewing Division I statistics from previous years that revealed sharp increases in offensive performance, particularly in home runs and runs scored, that was attributable mostly to the kind of bats in use at the time.
In 2007, the per-game average of home runs hit was .68 per team. That increased to .84 in 2008 and to .96 in 2009. It was .94 last year.
Runs scored per game experienced a similar trajectory. The 6.1 average per team in 2007 ballooned to 6.57 in 2008, 6.88 in 2009 and 6.98 in 2010.
Tim Weiser, deputy commissioner at the Big 12 Conference and chair of the Division I Baseball Committee, said the feedback in Division I is mostly positive but that there are some dissent.
“I hear more from people who support the change than from those who don’t,” he said. “Most people think this has taken the game back to the type of game baseball was when wood bats were used.”
Division III Baseball Committee chair Jack McKiernan, associate AD at Kean, said the new bat standards caused uneasiness at the outset just because people didn’t know what to expect. But he said coaches and players in his region have been pleasantly surprised.
“What people wanted to know was that if you hit the ball solid, will you see the results you normally would? That has been a resounding yes – you’re still rewarded for skill,” McKiernan said. “If you hit it on the sweet spot and you’re a power hitter, the ball is still going into the gaps and over the fence.”
That means pitchers are having more success with good pitches, too, rather than hitters being able to fight off those pitches for hits just because the bat was more powerful. McKiernan said while hitters might prefer the older bats, they are adjusting to the new ones.
Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association and a member of the Baseball Research Panel, said the range of opinion from his constituents is about 180 degrees.
“There are coaches who feel that the new bats are good for our game, and there are those who don’t care for them at all,” Keilitz said. “But most of the coaches I’ve talked to either like them or feel that it’s still too early to be decisive.”
Keilitz said coaches who like to manufacture runs with the stolen base, the hit and run and the sacrifice bunt, and who rely on pitching and defense, tend to like the new bats, while coaches bent on home runs and playing for the big inning probably don’t.
“But I’ve heard coaches say that the guys who are good hitters are still good hitters,” Keilitz said. “Guys who coaches didn’t consider to be good hitters but still hit for good average with the old bats aren’t hitting for good average anymore with the new bats.”
Weiser said the people who question the change may tend to be the younger coaches who haven’t experienced college baseball with anything other than an aluminum or composite bat. They didn’t think there was anything wrong with the game, but others were saying that the new, more power-oriented version of baseball wasn’t the game they grew up playing.
“That’s not to say one version is better than the other,” Weiser said. “But these new bat standards have brought the game back to its original style of play. It has put a premium back on strategy, pitching and defense, and not on the No. 9 hitter being able to hit the ball 400 feet just like the No. 4 hitter can. That’s what a lot of the positive feedback I’m hearing is centered on.”
Weiser said the new bats allow players who are strong and talented to still hit home runs, but those who aren’t maybe as strong and talented are hitting singles and doubles rather than the three-run homers they enjoyed in the past.
“This change has been good for the game, but clearly some in the younger generation liked the 15-13 games that we had been seeing in Omaha,” he said.
Division II Baseball Committee chair Jeff Schaly said the new bats have brought “small ball” back.
“I haven’t gotten the sense that coaches are either pleased or upset with the change,” said the director of compliance at Lynn. “It’s more of a ‘this is what it is and we’re dealing with it’ kind of thing. But there’s also no question that coaches understand why these changes were made.”
Hurd said he’s eager to review an entire year’s worth of data and get more feedback from coaches. Keilitz will provide much of that feedback through a survey the ABCA is conducting later this spring. The Baseball Rules Committee meets in July.
“We need a full season of numbers to review before we can make any definitive statements,” Hurd said. “We also need more feedback from coaches nationwide to determine not only the impact on the game itself but how they feel about whether the game has improved.”