ORONO — The distinctive “ping” of aluminum bats has resonated in ballparks at college and high school baseball games for more than 35 years.
Starting next spring, that ringing sound will be replaced more of a dull “clink.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has implemented new standards for metal baseball bats in an effort to more closely align their performance with that of traditional wood bats.
Two years ago the NCAA, the governing body for college athletics in the United States, sent a memo to baseball bat manufacturers announcing its intention to change performance standards for bats starting in 2011.
One excerpt from the memo read: “NCAA Division I baseball statistics indicate increasing offensive performance, particularly in home runs and runs scored, and the (NCAA Baseball Rules) Committee believes this is due, in large part, to the kind of bats in use today.”
Some college programs, such as University of Maine, were fortunate to procure some of the modified bats for their fall season, which wrapped up last week. UMaine baseball coach Steve Trimper said that was only possible because of the program’s contract with Rawlings Sporting Goods, which provided some of the new bats free of charge.
Teams — at least those that could procure the new metal bats — have witnessed first hand that the NCAA’s plan to reduce offensive production is likely to succeed.
“It’s become a huge topic in the college baseball ranks,” said Trimper.
“Basically, what the NCAA did was decided to tone down the bats to make them more wood-like. We’ve seen about 30 feet less of flight on the average (fly ball),” Trimper offered.
America’s pastime meets technology
Aluminum baseball bats have been in widespread use at most levels of baseball since the 1970s. They were first allowed in college baseball in 1974.
Only the professional ranks and many college summer leagues have stayed with or switched to traditional wood bats.
The initial attraction was the durability of metal bats compared to wood models, which frequently broke. Balls struck by aluminum bats also were found to put the ball in play more frequently, even by less-skilled batters, especially as technology improved.
To help maintain a level playing field, the NCAA in 1999 established and since has periodically revised testing procedures to evaluate the performance of nonwood bats. The move came after numerous scoring records were broken during the 1998 season.
Since 2003, bats have been tested by measuring Ball Exit Speed Ratio. That factor is calculated using the inbound and rebound speeds of the ball approaching and coming off the bat.
The NCAA also mandated a bat cannot weigh more than three ounces less than its length. For example, a 32-inch bat must weigh at least 29 ounces.
Bats also were subjected to a moment-of-inertia (MOI) measurement, which regulates weight distribution, and were allowed to be a maximum 2 5/8 inches in diameter.
In recent years, as offensive numbers soared, the NCAA has more carefully scrutinized the performance of bats, and not just those made of aluminum alloys.
In 2009, the NCAA banned composite-barreled bats, which were constructed mostly of graphite and glass fiber materials. Testing of composite bats during the 2009 NCAA Division I Baseball Championship revealed 80 percent failed to meet NCAA limits for BESR.
Those bats had been “legal” when tested at the time of manufacture.
The organization determined the effects of normal use, and/or the intentional alteration or “rolling” of composite bats, altered the original composition of the materials and resulted in the ball traveling farther because of the increased “trampoline effect.”
There also was a significant increase in batting averages and home runs during 2008 and 2009, which was attributed to the composite bats. The NCAA banned them, citing the need “to protect the integrity of the game and to enhance the safety of the student-athletes.”
If it performs like wood, it’s good
In its continuing effort to have baseball bats act as much as possible like wood, the NCAA in September 2008 announced it would change the guidelines for bat performance, starting in 2011.
The recommendations came at the urging of the NCAA Baseball Research Panel and the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee.
The NCAA adopted a different measurement called the Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) to test the ball-bat interaction. NCAA literature says the BBCOR eliminates discrepancies with different length bats and is more accurate in determining bat performance.
It maintained the former requirements for length-to-weight difference (minus-3), MOI and barrel diameter.
The changes also are expected to be adopted at lower levels. The National Federation of State High School Associations also will require that its bats meet the new NCAA BBCOR standards, but not until the 2012 baseball season.
It also has banned the majority of composite bats for 2011. Only those that meet BBCOR guidelines and comply with the Accelerated Break-In Test will be allowed.
Trimper said many other teams didn’t have ready access to the new bats and thus have continued to use the old ones this fall. Come Jan. 1, 2011, the existing supply of bats manufactured under the old standards will become unacceptable for NCAA play.
The new BBCOR aluminum bats retail from $199 to $399 each.
It’s going, going … caught
The NCAA’s desire to reduce the pop of metal bats was successful, according to members of the UMaine baseball team.
“If you want to hit, you’ve got to earn it with these new bats,” said junior Justin Leisenheimer.
“We’re getting a lot less home runs in BP (batting practice) than we usually do,” he explained. “We’ve got more guys hitting them out with wood than we do with these bats.”
Senior Joey Martin of Portland has experience using the different kinds of bats. He has played in wood-bat summer leagues and has swung the outgoing aluminums and the previously banned composites.
“I think they’re very similar where you need to hit it on the sweet spot,” Martin said, comparing the new aluminum alloy bats to wood bats. “Anywhere else and you’re going to have trouble. With the old bats, you could get jammed and still hit a double down the line.”
Pitchers have always held the upper hand in baseball, where even the best batters get hits only 40 percent of the time. Still, you won’t find college pitchers shedding any tears about the new bats.
“The home runs that I’ve been giving up won’t be as far and hopefully I’ll keep a few more balls in play,” joked UMaine senior righthander Matt Jebb.
The pitchers have already observed a dramatic difference in how far fly balls are traveling.
“It’s definitely noticeable, especially in batting practice,” Jebb said. “Guys used to be hitting four or five home runs a round and now we’re lucky to see two or three go out in an entire (session).”
Recently, UMaine played the University of Southern Maine in an 18-inning scrimmage at The Ballpark in Old Orchard Beach. The Bears swung the new bats, while the Huskies used the old aluminum bats.
“Until playing Southern Maine, I didn’t realize how ‘loaded’ those other bats were,” Trimper said. “There’s a huge difference.”
“I gave them (USM) a couple new ones (bats); they didn’t want to use them. I don’t blame them,” he said.
Martin said with the new bats hitters must be more precise in making solid contact on the barrel of the bat in order to achieve consistent results.
“A lot of times in past years you could just miss a ball and still get it out (of the park),” Martin said. “Now I think you have to really square one up.”
In spite of the change that is likely to reduce their offensive numbers, UMaine players aren’t complaining about the bats.
“They’re all right, we’ll get used to them,” Leisenheimer said. “Everyone’s using them. It’s not like we’re the only team that’s using them.”
Where teams may have to make another adjustment is in their strategy. Rather than sitting back and waiting for a home run, the trend may turn toward more of a National League “small ball” philosophy.
“It’s going to make sure that, as a coach, you teach bunting, hit-and-run, stealing bases and try to produce runs,” Trimper said.
He also has a notion the less-potent bats are going to accentuate the emphasis on good pitching and help reduce the performance gap between some of the top-tier programs and their mid-level counterparts.
“The stronger pitching teams are going to benefit,” Trimper said.
Many injury concerns unfounded
The final remaining piece of the puzzle involves injuries to pitchers struck by batted balls. Often, those are blamed on aluminum bats and the perception they are more dangerous than wood bats.
However, the risk of injury was only a minor consideration in the bat redesign.
Scientific research performed to measure the speed of baseballs coming off bats dispels such an assertion. And baseball has not experienced a high number of serious injuries during the last 25 years, aluminum bats or otherwise.
Both of those topics are covered in the story that accompanies this one.
Too much of a good thing?
In spite of the slightly inflated nature of college baseball batting numbers with aluminum bats, Trimper said he and many of his coaching peers are having trouble understanding why the NCAA felt the need to dumb down the bats.
College baseball, especially at the Division I level, continues to enjoy tremendous popularity in the United States. He argued that is due, in part, to the expectation of seeing lots of offense that results from the use of aluminum bats.
“The question is, why did we change it when things were going well at the level we’re at?” Trimper said.
In the end, players and coaches realize there is likely to be a reduction in offensive production next season. Teams have to find ways to win while scoring fewer runs.