Thursday, January 13, 2011

End of Composite Bat Offenses?

New performance standards for non-wood bats are now in effect in the NCAA. These same rules will have an impact on high school players beginning in 2012.  Baseball America's fabulous little 32-page online publication called Bat Guide came out in November and there's no better resource. It's all there. You couldn't ask for anything more comprehensive and intelligent.

The new operating term is Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR). The old Ball Exit Speed Ratio (BESR) just wasn't a good enough test for high-tech, hollow composite super bats. The NCAA knew they had a problem and outlawed these bats in 2009 when it became clear that over time they got hotter and that, in fact, players had learned how to "roll" their bats mechanically to break down the interior support systems that limited the trampoline effect. 

With the rolling problem in mind, bats must now also pass a test called the Accelerated Break-in (ABI) test. Go here to the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts - Lowell website for more on both the BBCOR and the ABI tests.

The old BESR was supposed to limit the speed of the ball coming off a bat to no more than 97 mph. But with break-in and rolling, coaches were seeing balls travel 105 - 110 mph regularly. Not a huge difference -- maybe 5% or so, but still, when milliseconds and inches count, far too much power for the safety of fielders and pitchers. 

Here's the most salient points to all these changes in a nutshell:

1. All NCAA players must switch to the BBCOR standards for composite bats this year. Composite bats, in theory, will now be no different than wood ones (caution: we've heard this before).

2. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has decided to allow a one year grace period for these changes. The old BESR standard bats will still be legal in 2011. Come 2012, though, high school players too will need to use BBCOR standardized bats. See the NFHS website for a list of bats acceptable this year only.

3. If you're a young hitter and you're interested in playing with the big boys, it's time to upgrade your bat. Don't wait for 2012. When it's cold out, use wood (of course), but if you feel like you need to use metal, swing a new BBCOR and understand that hitting is not about the bat but the hitter.

Here's a good place to start looking for the new bats online:

Why does this matter? For starters, the new performance standards for composite material bats in college have dramatically reduced the oomph that the old super bats had. In a September Baseball America article, "Knock on Wood," Augie Garrido (Texas Longhorns) is quoted as saying: "..we might have hit 15 or 20 balls out in batting practice before, we're now hitting five or six balls out..." See this video from the North Texas Baseball Academy for a good synopsis of the rules.

It's very likely then that not only will home runs diminish in NCAA baseball, but fielding will again become a premium in the game...and speed...and pitching. Nice, huh? It is, if you like baseball...

Implications for Amateur Baseball?
To me there are two interesting outcomes to all of this so far. The first is that the NCAA has still not made any real effort to re-examine going back to wood bats. Changes were supposedly made to bat standards in the early 2000s that fixed the super bat problem. Very possibly the industry (and its marketing directors) figured out, slowly, how to get around the problem by engineering bats that would pass initial tests and then get hotter over time. Perhaps this wasn't wholly intentional. Or perhaps, like steroids, when one company began the process everyone else realized they needed to join in or lose out. It would be nice to see -- when the industry slowly works its way around these new rules (because it probably will) -- the NCAA at least consider moving to some version of wood bats (I'm going to post something here shortly on a number of new wood-based bats that are less prone to breakage).

The other point that sticks out is that there is more than a tacit admission by coaches who have a problem with these changes that the "nuclear sticks" of old (2009 and before) were indeed blessed with powers that made the offensive game truly offensive (to many of us). While it seems like the majority of college and high school coaches understand and agree that hot bats pollute the game, there are a number of holdouts (I've chosen not to identify them, but if you do some research online you'll be able to track many of them down) who -- legitimately concerned about the popularity of college baseball -- point out that there's a chance fans will lose interest in the game because there aren't enough long balls.

I suppose it all really remains to be seen -- and Little League Baseball should take note of this -- are home runs exciting because there are so many of them, or because they are rare and exemplify profound skill?

And should we just tell pitchers when they go out there: "Tough luck, kid. You know as well as anyone that we want to see as many hits as possible. If it's going to increase the chances that you get a serious injury -- or die -- at least you're helping out with ticket sales." The NCAA and NFHS have done something very intelligent and revolutionary here. Let's hope the bat industry has learned it's lesson. Next time around, I'm predicting the only real solution is returning to wood.

See you out on the field real soon.