AUBURN, Ala. -- The high, deep fly ball looked good off the bat of Casey McElroy, soaring toward left-center field as the Auburn crowd stood in anticipation of the season’s first home run.
Not with college baseball’s less-lively bats. Instead, the ball caromed high off the wall, leaving the Tigers third baseman with a double.
“I think it would have been out (last year),” McElroy said. “I don’t know how far. I knew right when I hit it I had to run.”
Expect more of that this season after the NCAA, concerned by skyrocketing offensive numbers and the injury risk from exceedingly high speeds of batted balls, made its biggest changes to bat standards in more than a decade.
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The new bats, which lack the distinctive “ping” associated with the college game, conform to standards similar to the wood bats used in professional baseball, with a smaller sweet spot, less of the “trampoline effect” common in old composite bats and, as a result, decreased speeds.
Coaches and players anticipate a radical change to the game, with fewer slugfests that pass the four-hour mark, an across-the-board drop in home runs and scoring and, as baseball purists love to hear, an added emphasis on pitching and defense.
“I think it’s probably closer to what baseball should be,” Georgia coach David Perno said.
College teams began bracing for the bat change during the fall workouts, quickly finding out the ball simply didn’t fly off the new bats like it used to. The days when 150-pound utility infielders could smash opposite field home runs appear to be over.
“You can definitely tell a difference,” Auburn first baseman Kevin Patterson said. “With the old bats, the ball really jumps. We had the most home runs in the country last year (but) we are a new team this year. We are going to be a hit-and-run type team and create things.”
While hitters are adjusting, pitchers are rejoicing.
“You don’t have to stay away from the hitters as much as you used to,” Auburn left-hander Cory Luckie said. “You can really attack hitters now.
“It has more of a pro ball feel to it. You can pitch how pitching is meant to be. You don’t have to just stay away from guys when they might hit a bloop home run. That’s really what it was a lot of times last year.”
The biggest difference, most think, will be those power numbers. Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard estimated they will be cut in half this year. Perno said it will put more of a premium on true power hitters.
“The guys who are strong, the guys who can put it on the barrel are still going to have success,” he said. “You might not have guys who can hit 25, 28, but now, all of a sudden, you hit 15 home runs in a college season, you’re a power guy.”
Said Luckie, glancing at the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Patterson: “I don’t think it’s going to matter to KP that much.”
Not the first tinkering
While the changes seem radical, it’s not the first time college baseball has tinkered with the bats. Aluminum bats were introduced to the college game in 1974 but weren’t adjusted until a lighter limit on the weight was instituted in 1986.
But as bat technology advanced, offensive numbers soared. The breaking point was 1998, when several scoring records were set. That year’s College World Series featured 62 home runs and concluded with Southern Cal’s 21-14 win over Arizona State for the championship.
The NCAA instituted changes that ended the so-called “Gorilla Ball” era, implementing a test standard to limit performance of aluminum and composite bats (the Ball-Exit-Speed-Ratio or BESR), limiting the barrel size and adding the “minus-3 rule,” which stated the difference between the length of a bat in inches and weight in ounces couldn’t be greater than three.
The changes worked initially. Batting averages, home runs and scoring dropped overall, returning to early-1990s standards by the mid-2000s.
But offensive numbers began to rise again near the end of the decade, coinciding with the popularity of lightweight composite bats, which have the same aluminum exterior but also a woven graphite wall on the inside that has a slight give, acting as a springboard for the ball (aka, the “trampoline effect”).
Furthermore, composite bats perform better the longer they are used, increasing the trampoline effect. There are even methods to accelerate the breaking-in process, called “rolling,” which involves putting the bat under intense pressure (in a compression machine, for instance).
During the 2009 College World Series, 25 previously approved composite bats were tested. Twenty failed to meet the NCAA’s BESR standard, through prolonged use or being broken in intentionally.
Offensive numbers shot up in the latter half of the decade. In 2006, Division I teams hit .291, averaging 6.15 runs per game and .68 home runs. By 2009, teams batted .302 with 6.88 runs per game and .96 homers.
With that increased offense came safety concerns. Balls were coming off the bats at dangerous speeds, particularly for pitchers who finish their motion less than 60 feet from home plate.
“We’ve seen balls come off the bat up to 115 miles per hour,” Perno said, much higher than the approximate 93 mph reference point for wood bats. “That’s scary. Just one shot and a kid’s career could be over.”
The NCAA decided to take action, placing a moratorium on composite bats in July 2009 and instituting a new standard -- the Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution or BBCOR -- for this season.
While the science behind the testing would require a Ph.D. in physics to understand, BBCOR essentially measures the trampoline effect, how lively the collision is between the bat and ball. It expands on the BESR standard and adds an Accelerated Break-In test that simulates heavy use to make sure a bat’s performance does not improve over time.
The result? A metal bat that performs remarkably similar to a wooden one.
Some criticize change
Not everyone is in favor of the change. LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who won a College World Series title with the Tigers in 2009, has expressed concerns that deadening the bats will take away from the college game’s appeal. He doesn’t want to see No. 3 hitters laying down sacrifice bunts because runs are at such a premium.
“Offense is something that makes college baseball a little different than professional baseball, and I think fans enjoy that,” Mainieri told the Associated Press.
Others think fans will adjust to the product.
“I do think that the game’s still going to be exciting,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. “Maybe not for the people that love the home runs, but, from a pitching standpoint, there are going to be a lot more close games this year.”
While some predict radical changes on the recruiting front, with an emphasis put on finding well-rounded players, Perno thinks that might be an overreaction.
“I think it might even put even more emphasis on the true power guys, because you’ve still got to hit home runs to win college baseball games,” he said. “Our mentality is that we’re still trying to recruit the best baseball player. If he’s a power guy, we want him, because I think those guys will figure it out, no question. Hey, if we have wooden bats, we would still recruit power guys.”
Perno said the new bats could help from a scouting side, because the bats will give a better read as to how a player’s skills will translate to the professional level. When all high schools adopt the BBCOR standard next year, it will help college recruiters evaluate prospects as well.
“I think, in the end, this year may be a little bit of a shock and a change from what it has been,” Perno said, “but I think, eventually, it will be better for college baseball.”