High school baseball players, teams adjust to new ‘BBCOR’ bats with less pop


Woodbridge's Tyler Thomas hits a home run during a 2010 game. Virginia is one of many states to implement NFHS regulations this season that mandate the use of bats with a smaller sweet spot, resulting in fewer home runs. (Richard A. Lipski/For The Washington Post)
April 19, 2012

In reaching the Virginia AAA baseball championship last season, South County hit 56 home runs, a staggering total for a high school team that played 29 games.

The Lorton team — and just about every other team in the country — likely will launch far fewer balls over the fence this season, now that the National Federation of State High School Associations has mandated use of bats with less pop than the old ones, a switch that some hitters liken to basketball players trying to shoot a ball through a narrower hoop.

Recalibrating the game to a purer brand of baseball and minimizing risk were the main reasons for the rules change by the NFHS.

The “BBCOR” bats, a performance standard designation short for Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution, could fundamentally change high school baseball. If results in the college game are any indication — the NCAA began using BBCOR bats last season — the new bats will slash the number of home runs hit and runs scored, embolden pitchers and more than ever reward teams that can throw strikes, bunt effectively, are aggressive and smart on the base paths, and play sound defense.

“It’s a little bit more like real baseball in terms of you don’t have guys that shouldn’t be mashing balls mashing balls,” Paul VI Catholic Coach Billy Emerson said. “All the little things are important, instead of sitting back and waiting for a big donkey to bail you out with a home run after four or five mistakes you made.”

The metal BBCOR bats act — and sound — more like wood bats, with a smaller “sweet spot” on the barrel, an area that Woodbridge 2010 All-Met Tyler Thomas figures to be about half the size of the previous bats’ sweet spot. That makes it more challenging to square up a ball and drive it. And when ball and bat do meet, a dull thud has replaced the perky ping of the old bats.

“If you have a high average with these bats,” Thomas said, “it definitely shows that you can hit the ball.”

High school hitters are allowed to use wood bats, but few do other than for batting practice at times. A BBCOR bat still has a larger sweet spot than a wood bat. And even though a BBCOR bat (average price is about $300) is far more expensive than a wood bat ($50), it also is far more durable. One could last entire high school, summer and fall seasons, not to mention countless batting practice sessions. Wood bats break easily, particularly when wielded by weak hitters.

“An average hitter with a wood bat, he’d be toast,” said Mike Colangelo, a former Hylton and George Mason University player who spent parts of three seasons in the major leagues and now runs a baseball instructional business. “His parents would have to take out a second mortgage to pay for his bats.”

With the diminished “trampoline effect” of BBCOR bats, balls do not fly off as sharply, which could be good news for infielders and pitchers, who now might have a fraction of a second longer to react to scorching line drives, although not everyone agrees the change makes the game safer.

The switch is not particularly good news for hitters, especially marginal ones, who will be more exposed because those cheap hits off the end or handle of the bat now are more likely to be routine outs. Woodbridge Coach Jason Ritenour, whose team reached the state final two years ago, said he could count on one hand how many balls left the infield on the first day of tryouts at his school.

Professional scouts like the new bats because they better approximate wood, which is what the pros use.

“With the other bats, you could get lucky and mis-hit it and it would still go out,” said South County senior outfielder Andrew Rector, a first-team all-Northern Region selection last year. “But this, if you hit a pop-up, it’s going straight [up] in the infield.”

With hits harder to come by, teams are resorting to more small-ball tactics, by bunting runners over and being more resourceful on the bases in manufacturing runs. Ritenour said his team’s aim is to score a run an inning.

“Our motto is: ‘Get ’em on, get ’em over, get ’em in,’ ” said South County senior infielder Kyle Fairbanks, who hit seven homers last season and has three in his first 12 games this spring.

The NCAA’s switch to BBCOR bats last season dramatically altered the college game. From the 2010 season to 2011, the norm for team batting average dropped to .282 — the lowest since 1976 — from .305. Runs scored per team per game dropped to 5.58 from 6.98, the first time the average had dipped below six runs since 1977.

Home runs per team dropped to 0.52 per game from 0.94. ERA dropped to 4.67 — the lowest since 1980 — from 5.95. From one season to the next, shutouts rose to 947 from 556.

The new bats not only have resulted in many hitters tweaking their approach at the plate but in some cases have forced coaches to reconsider their philosophies.

South County’s Mark Luther, for example, second-guessed himself early in the season for defaulting into his preferred coaching style — having one of his better hitters swing away — when perhaps a bunt would have been the better call given the new bats and game situation.

The batter popped out. South County (9-3) ended up losing that game, 5-4, at W.T. Woodson.

“You change the way you practice for sure, just trying to get balls in play, trying to move runners, trying to score runners from third with less than two outs,” Luther said. “The difficult part is really changing the mind-set. It’s easy to do in practice, but when it comes to actually doing it in a game, you’ve got to believe in it and go ahead and do it. I’ve never been a bunt guy, but you have to.”

Pitchers are better able to throw hittable offerings — pitch to contact, as they call it — because the balls generally will not be hit as hard or as far. They can work the inside part of the plate more because hitters are less likely to bloop those pitches for hits now that they are using bats that require more solid contact.

“It’s a huge difference,” said Lake Braddock senior right-hander Michael Church, who will play at James Madison University next season. “I can just throw strikes now and get groundballs easier or pop-ups easier instead of home runs and line drives.”

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