PEARL, Miss. — College baseball’s new metal bats have been praised by fans, coaches and pitchers. Game times are quicker and there are dramatically lower run totals.
But some of the biggest fans of the new bats are Major League Baseball scouts.
For these talent evaluators, the college variation of the game resembles “true” baseball for the first time in years, making their job a little easier as MLB’s draft approaches in June.
“It takes some of the guesswork out of recruiting in college baseball,” said Art Gardner, a Major League Baseball regional scout who is based in Mississippi. “You used to go to a game and it seemed like every team’s lineup had six guys with 10-plus homers.
“It was a constant struggle to figure out the true power hitters.”
The new metal bats — which must adhere to the NCAA’s new Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) standard — aren’t perfect. One difference: There’s no broken bats on inside pitches so there’s still bloop singles in the college game that wouldn’t occur at the professional level.
Jim Fleming, the Florida Marlins’ vice president for player development and scouting, agreed the new bats were a vast improvement, but said college baseball should go one step farther and use wood bats. College players currently use wood bats in some of the elite summer leagues like the Cape Cod League.
“We use wood — so anything other than wood isn’t a completely accurate representation,” Fleming said. “That being said, the new college bats are much better. It’s much more accurate. It’s more of a true, clean game.”
The old bats, which produced so much offense, made college baseball difficult for scouts to evaluate for many reasons. In 2010, there were 36 players in the Southeastern Conference who hit at least 10 home runs.
Even marginal power hitters could produce big numbers, and when those same players reached professional baseball and used wood bats, many of those homers turned into fly balls to the warning track.
Now with the new bats, power numbers have plummeted. Two-thirds of the way through the season, LSU’s Mikie Mahtook leads the SEC with 10 homers. Florida’s Preston Tucker is second with eight.
“Now we have a much better idea who really has the ability to get the ball out of the park,” Gardner said.
It’s not just power hitters who are easier to evaluate. Gardner said the new bats have changed college baseball in every facet.
Instead of swinging for the fences, smaller players steal more bases, execute hit-and-runs and bunt, which are the skills scouts want to see from players who aren’t projected to produce big power numbers at the professional level.
Pitching has changed, too.
“In the college game, the strategy was to pitch away from contact,” Fleming said. “But we want pitchers who pitch to contact. With the new bats, I think you’re starting to see pitchers regain their confidence and use their fastball a little more.”
Mississippi coach Mike Bianco said the SEC had become “a breaking-ball league” as pitchers tried to trick hitters. Nibbling at the corners was normal since a pitch over the plate often got crushed 450 feet.
Before Tuesday’s game against rival Mississippi State at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Miss., Bianco gestured out to the outfield fences.
“Now if you’ve got a big park like this, you can throw fastballs and let your defense work,” Bianco said.
Bianco expects the college game to be fundamentally altered in the coming years as recruiting patterns change. An added emphasis on stealing bases and defense means better athletes will be needed.
“You used to see a big guy who could hit homers and say to yourself ‘Well, we’ll teach him how to catch a fly ball,’” Bianco said. “Now you can’t do that. Defense is too important. We’ll need guys who can do it all and a little power will be a bonus.”
That’s good news for scouts like Fleming. He said the new bats won’t make the Marlins more likely to draft college players, but it’s still a positive trend.
“We’ve always drafted by evaluating tools and that won’t change,” Fleming said. “But hopefully, these new bats will help answer more questions.”