BANGOR, Maine — First there was the crack of a wooden bat, then the ping of an aluminum bat.
This year, high school baseball players, coaches and fans around Maine will be introduced to what Husson University sophomore infielder Cody McInnis describes as a “whop” — the sound the ball makes when it comes in contact with bats developed in accordance with new standards designed to slow the speed of the ball upon impact and make the game safer.
“With the bat I used to use, a Rawlings Liquid Metal, the ball felt like it jumped off my bat,” said McInnis, a former star shortstop at Bangor High School. “With the new ones it feels like the ball sticks to the bat.
“It feels different, it sounds different and it travels different.”
First used by McInnis and other players at the collegiate level around the country a year ago, the BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) certified bats will be employed in the Maine high school ranks beginning with the start of full-team preseason practices on Monday.
It represents perhaps the biggest change in the sport since aluminum bats replaced wooden bats during the early 1970s.
“High school players and coaches and fans are going to be in for a culture shock for a little while, because it will take some getting used to that first year,” said University of Maine baseball coach Steve Trimper, whose team adjusted well enough to the BBCOR bats a year ago to qualify for the NCAA Division I tournament. “That said, everybody will be using the bats so it’s a fair situation.”
The BBCOR standard measures the loss of energy at impact — the “trampoline effect” of the ball hitting the barrel of the bat, compared to the previous BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) standard that measured the speed of the ball after hitting the bat.
With the new BBCOR-certified bats, the ball compresses more as it hits the bat than it did in the past, resulting in more energy lost at impact and the ball leaving the bat at a slower speed than it did when struck by the stiffer BESR models.
The rule change was based on research done under the direction of the NCAA that found that the composite barrel bats previously used in high school and college play fell out of compliance with the BESR standard over time. Specifically, over time the composite barrel bats were shown to have a ball exit speed of 10-15 miles per hour faster than what was allowed when first used.
“The new standard ensures that performances by nonwood bats are more comparable to those of wood bats,” added the National Federation of State High School Associations in a press release announcing the change. “It’s also expected to minimize risk, improve play and increase teaching opportunities.
“After working with the NCAA and having access to its research, we’ve concluded it’s in our best interest to make this change. BBCOR includes the BESR standard, so we’re actually expanding upon our current standard, which will be more appropriate for our age and skill level.”
Research from the 2011 college baseball season suggested that struck balls leave BBCOR bats 5-6 percent slower than they did under the BESR standards — resulting in a considerable reduction in the number of home runs hit last year.
“The average college batter hit the ball 30 feet less in terms of total distance than before, which means a home run that dropped 5-10 feet beyond the fence are now fly balls to the warning track,” Trimper said.
But the power reduction off the bat is not confined to pure power hitters.
For the spray hitters typically found at the lower end of the batting order, what before were flares that made their way into the outfield for base hits are now even softer hits caught by infielders.
“It definitely made a big difference for me, not being a big guy and being someone who makes my living hitting ground balls through the holes and line drives to the gaps,” McInnis said. “It does kind of get into your head that you’re not going to get the cheap hits anymore so you’ve got to make sure you get a real good swing on the ball.”
McInnis’ feelings were not unique to NCAA batters last spring, as home runs, scoring and batting averages were down around the country under the BBCOR standards, as were pitchers’ earned run averages.
Collective batting averages dropped nearly to pre-aluminum bat values, while home runs were at their lowest rate since 1974, the year aluminum bats were first used in NCAA baseball.
One reason for the reduced offensive output was that while a ball that was struck by virtually any part of a BESR-certified bat might have have enough speed to reach the outfield before the defense could react, the BBCOR bats have a much smaller sweet spot — one estimated at just three inches, compared with five inches on a typical BESR bat.
“It will be more like a wood bat in the sense that if someone jams you it’s probably going to become a popup to the infield rather than a flare to the outfield,” said Mark Chevalier, the head baseball coach at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft.
It will be up to Chevalier and his coaching brethren around Maine and the nation to get their players to adjust to the fact that the changing standards are serving to restore baseball to a more finesse-oriented sport than the power-hungry game of the last 35 years.
“You’re going to have to be able to do the little things well and get the kids to buy into it,” Trimper said. “A lot of kids will struggle to hit the ball with any kind of authority, and it will place more of an emphasis on the skill points of the game.”
Indeed, high school baseball is likely to follow the lead of the college game, the focus of which has reverted to pitching and defense and placing greater emphasis on each individual run rather than assuming a single swing of a slugger’s bat will erase a multirun deficit at any time.
“You have to focus more on smart hitting, because you can’t rely on getting a double or a home run now,” McInnis said. “We definitely work on those things in practice more now than we ever did and that translates into how we play in the games.”
Such smart hitting might include more bunting and hitting behind baserunners to help them advance one base at a time instead of waiting for the long ball.
“It’s probably going to be a good change for those who love the purity of the sport,” said Old Town baseball coach Dave Utterback. “A line drive is still going to be a line drive, but the in-between hit, those flares or bloops that just made it beyond the infield before, are probably going to be outs now.”
Coaches also expect baserunning to take on a larger offensive role as teams seek to move runners ever so closer to home.
“The running game has always been a big part of high school baseball because it’s one area that teams really struggle to stop, and it probably will be be an even bigger part now,” Chevalier said. “I know we’re putting more emphasis on being quicker to the plate to help our catcher as much as we can.”
The changes required of teams in response to the new bat standards won’t be confined to offense.
With fly balls not traveling as far as in previous years, outfielders may choose to play shallower in an effort to prevent more hits from dropping in front of them.
And infielders must be alert of more bunts and slower ground balls.
“The ball doesn’t jump off the bat like it used to,” McInnis said, “so the balls I couldn’t get to before to my left or right I can get to now and the ball hit right at me isn’t right on top of me quite as quickly.”
Since the goal of the BBCOR standards is to bring the effect of the ball’s impact with the bat more in line with the wooden-bat impact of earlier generations, some high school and college teams have pondered using wooden bats during games and at least plan to use them during practices, in part to reduce the wear and tear on the more expensive BBCOR bats.
Bangor High School coach Jeff Fahey said his program ordered a dozen wooden bats made by the manufacturer of the bats used by former major leaguer and Bangor resident Matt Stairs to complement his team’s BBCOR bat collection.
And McInnis plans to use bats he purchased from bat manufacturer Paul Lancisi of Dove Tail Cabinetry in Bradford, the father of Husson catcher Nick Lancisi, during batting practice.
“The ball off a BBCOR bat reacts similar to it coming off a wood bat,” he said, “so I bought two wooden bats to use in batting practice to help me find that sweet spot.”
It’s unlikely many teams will rely solely on wooden bats, however, for while BBCOR bats are more expensive at an estimated $200-$300 each, high-quality wooden bats at $80 each are much more susceptible to breaking.
“With wooden bats, you either get a really good one or a really bad one,” Trimper said. “The BBCOR bats really last a long time, and they don’t dent and they don’t lose their pop.”
But no matter what kind of bat is used during batting practice, one thing seems certain with the arrival of the BBCOR era in high school baseball.
“You’ll probably see more lower-scoring games,” Chevalier said.