ORONO — There was a familiar sound ringing out Friday afternoon at Mahaney Diamond in Orono.
The warm spring air was punctuated frequently by the ping of an aluminum bat as the University of Maine baseball team, preparing for its delayed America East home series against Albany, conducted an intrasquad home run derby.
UMaine and Albany play a Sunday doubleheader (1 p.m.) and a single game Monday (2 p.m.).
There was a bit more excitement than usual because coach Steve Trimper’s Black Bears were using bats the NCAA has banned from competition. Even so, only a half-dozen balls cleared the fence during the session.
This season, UMaine has heard a different metallic clink of bat on ball. The Bears and their college baseball counterparts across the country have seen a decided drop in offensive production, home runs in particular.
The new aluminum bats mandated by the NCAA are performing, as advertised, more like the wooden bats used in pro ball. The changeover has created some challenges at the college level.
“Our averages and our slugging percentage aren’t a lot different than other (Division I) teams in the country,” said Trimper, whose ballclub owns a modest .265 team batting average and is scoring only 4.6 runs per game.
“We (coaches) all are kind of agreeing it’s 25-30 feet less (ball) flight with these bats,” he added. “There’s been a lot of ground balls up the middle that infielders are getting to that used to be hits.”
Last season, a UMaine team that posted a 34-22 overall record hit .314 and tallied 7.4 runs per contest.
One byproduct of using the new bats, from a strategic perspective, has been a re-evaluation of offensive philosophy. Rather than get two or three runs back with one swing, teams are being forced to be more patient at the plate and get baserunners via walks.
Sacrifice bunts and stolen bases also are becoming more critical as teams try to score runs one at a time.
One thing hasn’t changed. Any ball that is hit out of the park this season would have been a homer in previous years with the more lively bats.
However, the new bats require hitters to hit the ball on the barrel of the bat to drive it deep.
“You don’t get the bloop singles that you did, so obviously the on-base percentage is going to go down,” said sophomore shortstop Michael Fransoso.
“You’ve got to focus on squaring the ball up on the sweet spot, which is definitely a lot smaller than last year’s bats,” he added. “If you don’t hit it on the sweet spot, you’d better hope it bleeds through, because it’s not going to be a hard-hit ball.”
Batters who are not as strong physically are far less likely to hit the ball hard enough or far enough to put it in the gaps or get it through the infield.
Whereas almost any player could hit a home run before, the new bats require hitters to supply more of the power through strength and bat speed.
UMaine junior first baseman Justin Leisenheimer is a rugged, strong hitter who has always exhibited power. In the age of revamped metal bats, he said the onus is on the player to find ways to make consistently good contact.
“It’s forcing us, I think, to be better hitters,” he said. “An outside pitch, if you try to pull it, you’re not going to get a hit, so it’s making us work more.”
UMaine has had possession of the new bats since last fall, so they have had ample time to make the transition. Most of the time, batters aren’t dwelling on how much more lively the old bats were.
“Playing with these all the time, you forget what it was like last year,” said junior outfielder Taylor Lewis, whose offensive numbers have dropped considerably. “The difference is amazing. When you go back to the old bats you can see it.”
Taylor, Leisenheimer and Fransoso are among several Bears who have used wooden bats in summer college leagues. They have seen similar performance from those bats compared with the new metal ones.
“In the fall we used to swing with wood a lot in BP (batting practice) and I thought the ball jumped off the wooden bats a lot better than they were jumping off the metal ones,” Leisenheimer said.
Trimper said other reasons for implementing the new bats included the hope they would help protect fielders from being struck by line drives and a desire to shorten games. More outs and fewer hits have achieved the latter result, he said.
UMaine’s coach envisions further tweaking of metal bats in the future, in part to help secure the reputation of Division I ball as an entertaining, high-scoring product. In the meantime, the Bears must manufacture runs with a “small ball” mentality.
“I”ve got the feeling you’re going to see a happy medium,” he said. “College baseball, our No. 1 priority is not about making professional hitters, it’s about providing a good experience for student-athletes.”