Westover’s Desmond Jordan drives the ball during practice earlier this season. Prep baseball players across the country are having to use a brand new kind of bat this season as mandated by the National Federation of State High School Association.
ALBANY – Everybody loves that “ping” sound that echoes across the field after a well-struck baseball meets aluminum.
Most area high schools agree, however, there will likely be a little less ping this spring.
The National Federation of State High School Associations, which is the governing body of high school baseball across the country, made rule changes this offseason requiring hitters to use a new type of bat, one with a BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution) certification.
The difference in bats from the past three decades or so, most recently the use of BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) certified bats, to this season’s BBCOR bats comes down to a scientific formula.
Put simply, it’s more difficult to square up on a ball with bats required for the 2012 high school season.
“A lot of our kids are comparing it to a very good wooden bat,” Deerfield Windsor head coach Rod Murray said. “It’s going to change the game.”
If the NCAA’s baseball results from 2011, which was the first year collegiate baseball was mandated to used the BBCOR bats, are any indication, get ready for a little less pop from the new sticks.
According to the NCAA, Division I teams in 2011 averaged 5.58 runs per game, the first time the average has been below 6.0 since 1977, which was just the fourth season of the aluminum bat in college baseball.
Batting average in 2011 was .282, the lowest since 1976. Earned-run average, not surprisingly, was its best (4.70) since 1980 (4.59).
“With the new bats, it’s going to be a pitcher’s season,” Westover head coach Kevin Fretwell said.
The previous bats used BESR standards that measured the speed of the ball once it left the bat without taking into account an increased exit speed, known as the trampoline effect, once the bat is broken in.
Nearly all 100 percent composite bats, which were shown to have an increased trampoline effect over time, have been banned.
Some hitters around the country were rumored to be “rolling” or “shaving” bats in the past. Rolling a bat involves putting it between two nylon or hard rubber rollers to artificially age the bat and boost its trampoline effect. Bat shaving is a process that involves thinning the inner walls of the bat to increase the bounce off the bat.
The BBCOR formula requires bats to meet a standard measuring the bounce off the bat, which cannot be altered. The way the game is played, though, will certainly be altered.
“With the new bats it’s definitely going to have to be line drives, bunts, hit-and-runs,” Deerfield Windsor senior Hunter Brettel said. “It just dies. You can’t rely on the long ball any more.”
College baseball teams found that out last year.
NCAA statistics recorded that balls left the park an average of .52 times per game last season, nearly half the .94 average in 2010. The BBCOR bat homerun rate in college resembled the days of the wooden bat, which showed a homerun average per game of .42 in the last year of wood in 1973.
“The ball doesn’t carry as far obviously,” Murray said. “It’s a little slower off the bat so our infielders can get to a lot more balls in between the corners that we used to not be able to get to. We’ve got to make adjustments on how deep we play our outfielders and infielders.”
The sweet spot on an average BBCOR bat is two inches smaller than a comparable BESR bat from years past and has a five percent drop in exit speed, according to an ESPN Sport Science segment examining the change.
Coaches and players all agreed that the different bats will change their approach at the plate and lead to more “small ball,” or moving runners around the bases using methods outside of the power game – like bunting, stolen bases and hit-and-run.
“Bunt defense is going to be extremely important this year because a lot of teams are going to know (about the BBCOR limitations) and they’re going to focus on the bunt,” Fretwell said.
Less offense is likely, but the game may return to its roots prior to the days of relying on the long ball.
“You’ll see more bunting, more hit-and-run,” Lee County senior Pedro Cruz said. “Pretty much how the game is supposed to be.”
Trojans’ head coach Rob Williams agreed on the increased small-ball theory, but noted that everyone’s still on a level playing field with the change in bat regulations.
“It’s what we’ve got to play with,” Williams said. “I’ve heard some people complain about the bats. Our young men have not complained one bit. If we have to play with a wet newspaper, then that’s what we’re going to hit with.”
Williams’ Trojans were limited to just three hits and one run in its first loss of the season last week against Tift County. Lee County, though, didn’t have any problems with the bat change to open the season, scoring 41 runs in its first four games.
“I contribute it more to good pitching than the bats,” Williams said after the loss to Tift County.
And, of course, the kids who can swing the stick can still slug no matter the bat. Lee County first baseman Daniel Nichols, who has signed to play for the University of Georgia next season, hit two homers in the opening weekend.
“The way I see it, good hitters hit the baseball,” Nichols said. “There is a difference with it, but if you can hit the baseball, the ball’s still going to travel. I really don’t think it’s going to affect it that much. Maybe RBIs go down a little bit (and) home runs go down a little bit.”
The bottom line for the change is safety, according to the NFSHSA. By slowing down the ball’s bounce off the bat, players have more time to react even if only by a split second.
“The new standard ensures that performances by non-wood bats are more comparable to those of wood bats,” the NFSHSA said in a statement concerning the changes. “It’s also expected to minimize risk, improve play and increase teaching opportunities.”
Baseball purists will likely enjoy a return to a reliance on small ball to generate runs, while some fans may not like a change that could lessen the long ball. Or high school baseball could go a different route than the stats from collegiate baseball in its first full year using BBCOR bats.
No one truly knows, but Murray, for one, believes more changes may come in the future once a larger sample size is available.
“I still think they’re learning about it,” Murray said. “I feel like it’s not finished yet. Recently some bats are still being (ruled) ineligible and the season has started. I still think it’s a work in progress. We want to keep the players safer (as well as) the coaches coaching the corners.
“Any step we can make to keep the game safer,” Murray added, “is a step in the right direction.”
NCAA Division I stats, comparing 2010 stats using BESR bats to 2011 stats, the first year using BBCOR bats.
Home runs per game 0.52* 0.94
Runs per game 5.59* 6.98
Batting average .282* .305
ERA 4.67* 5.95
*Homeruns/game lowest since 1975; Runs/game lowest since 1975; Batting average lowest since 1976; ERA lowest since 1980
-- Average stats according to NCAA.org