In 2012, the Northern Region saw a 57 percent drop in home runs from the previous season. The dropoff stems from a 2009 NCAA decision, which called for a new standard to measure the performance of bats. That standard, known as BBCOR (batted-ball coefficient of restitution) focuses on the “trampoline effect” of bats — what baseball players call “pop.” The more scientific explanation is that it would now measure the energy lost at contact. A 0.5 BBCOR gave us bats that behaved closer to their wooden counterparts. The NCAA began using this standard in 2011, with high school and youth leagues following suit a year later.
This brings me to the question: Have these bats been good for our game or not?
The argument for these bats is clear. Safety should trump all. Stuart Coach Randy Lightle is an advocate of the BBCORs.
“The BBCOR has definitely reduced extra-base hit numbers leading to fewer runs. I don’t have a problem with that. [However] twice in 2011 my team was involved in games where pitchers were hit with line drives. I am not aware of that happening with BBCOR’s.” Coach Lightle even pitched the idea of going to wooden bats to his district after the 2010 season and remains in favor of that, and not just for safety reasons. “Baseball was invented and intended to be played with wood. As a purist, [I think] metal should be outlawed completely.”
Longtime George Mason baseball skipper Bill Brown sees a figurative “leveling of the playing field” as a benefit of the BBCORs. “Some college coaches love the new bats because they bring back the concept of small ball and more strategy. It seems like most games [at the college level] get to the back third of a game with either team in a position to win.”
The argument against BBCOR bats becomes clear when you look at just what it has done to the game itself. According to ESPN, Division I home runs dropped over 33 percent in the first year of BBCORs. Locally, George Mason dropped 34 percent from a BESR high of 82 in 2009 to only 28 in 2012, and many college teams failed to even match the individual record of 48 in one season (Pete Incaviglia of Oklahoma State in 1985).
Some coaches warn, rightfully so, not to put too much stock in the numbers on their face. Westfield Coach Chuck Welch offers that “At least some of that [drop in production] has to do with who’s swinging ‘em.” Some teams certainly lost some productive players to graduation. But the overall trend is hard to dismiss. Some teams didn’t even hit one home run in 2012. Others, such as Hayfield went from having three guys with five or more homers to only hitting five as a team. One of our kids that year (Bryan DiRosario) hit 15 all by himself. That total in 2012 would have outdistanced most teams. Like it or not, BBCOR bats have changed the game significantly.
Baseball began in the 1800’s as a game played with a ball and a wooden bat. For over a hundred years, that’s the way it was. Metal bats came about in the 1970’s to give a safe and cost-effective alternative to wooden bats, which would break much more frequently, at times with dangerous consequences. As time went by, bat manufacturers got better and better at what they did and soon it became obvious that these new bats were not only safer and lasted longer than wooden ones, but also performed better. Pitches in on the hands used to break bats and result in outs. Now they were being deposited into the outfield for hits. The game on the amateur level began to evolve into one dominated by offense due to these bats, peaking with the era of composite bats (often “rolled” to improve performance) in the early to mid-2000’s.
We must realize that despite undergoing change as it has over about 150 years, baseball probably more than any other sport has remained the same. Small adjustments—like raising and lowering the mound — have served to rebalance the game if it swung too far in one direction. That, along with the safety issue, is what these bat rules are all about. We just have to make sure that we haven’t gone too far back in the direction of the pitchers. Otherwise, like the “dead ball era” before Babe Ruth, we might be entering into the “dead bat era.” And this could reverse all the progress in popularity made between these two eras, which is especially important when we’re talking about young kids who are trying to decide whether or not this sport is for them.
Baseball without the possibility of a home run every once in a while is going to have a harder time keeping kids interested. While most would agree that maybe the major Division I colleges don’t need to swing these pre-BBCOR rocket launchers, some disagree with its use at the youth level. Here, you’ve got high school kids who may hit one home run in their lifetime. Are you really going to take that away from them? And you’ll have 13-year-olds in their first year on the “big diamond” who can barely hit it out of the infield to begin with. Now you’re going to handicap them further? This could further erode this great game, and that would be a shame. After all, even swinging wood bats does not guarantee a pitcher safety from being hit by a liner. To be sure, there has to be a happy medium here between safety and performance.
As Bill Brown put it, “The good hitter is still rewarded, a true power hitter will still get numbers and the games look more like baseball games as opposed to slow pitch softball games. The key to the bats is having a product that is fair to position players and pitchers alike. A good pitch should be rewarded—not compromised by a juiced-up bat—and hitters should have a product where their offensive numbers are indicative of their skill set. I think the new BBCOR bats are very close to having both happen.”
Jimmy Linza is the former Northern Region baseball coaches’ assocation president.
Related: High school baseball players, teams adjust to new bats (2012)