Fauquier Gators Coach Paul Koch calls the wooden bat baseball's great equalizer. It is also perhaps the sport's biggest ego crusher.
Area players in the Clark Griffith and Valley summer leagues who use the wooden sticks can certainly attest to both. As they transition from the aluminum bats used both at the high school and college level to the wood bat leagues that feed into Major League Baseball, most watch their batting averages plummet with the same speed and suddenness of a well-thrown curve.
"All these guys come from places where they've had a lot of success," said Koch, in his second season with the Gators, "and it takes them some time to accept that the wood makes a lot of difference. It's an ego-check for them . . . and some handle that better than others."
Herndon Braves first baseman Rhett Teller, a 2002 Liberty graduate, is a prime example. Teller was selected a first-team all-American this past spring at Frederick Community College after batting .500 with 15 home runs and 56 RBI. The showing earned him a full scholarship to St. Leo's (Fla.) University.
But last season, in his first year playing with in the Clark Griffith League, he batted just .280. Through the first seven games this season, his average stands at .174.
"The best hitter in this league last year only hit .360, so I guess that puts it in a little perspective," Teller said. "But when you're used to getting a hit every two at-bats and you drop down to about three hits every 10 at-bats, that's a huge difference. There's no way for that not to drive you a little bit crazy."
The biggest difference between hitting with an aluminum versus a wooden bat is the "sweet spot." With a metal bat, a player often only needs to make contact with the ball. Even if a pitch is taken off the handle or off the tip of the bat -- as opposed to its barrel -- it can still result in a hit. With a wooden bat, however, all any player will get from a shot off the bat's handle or its tip is a broken bat.
"Aluminum bats are definitely more forgiving," said Gators outfielder Josh Campbell, a 2003 All-Met while at Fauquier who now plays for George Mason University. "You can get a lot of cheap base hits off a metal bat, because even if you take it off either end you can still get a blooper base hit. But with a wooden bat, you can't get away with a bad swing. You know as soon as it touches, by the feel, whether it's going somewhere or whether the bat is going to snap."
Players say they break, on average, about five bats each season. Campbell, who traded in the $40 off-the-shelf bats for two specialty bats that totaled $170, says he's hoping not to reach that total this summer.
"Let's just say I'll be a little upset if I break either of those bats," Campbell said. "But then, I guess that's part of the challenge. I love playing with wooden bats. It's definitely easier to hit with an aluminum bat, but I like the challenge of the wood. It makes it much more exciting."
And, for coaches, much more frustrating.
Koch said he watches players struggle mightily with the switch from metal to wood but tries to stay out of a batter's way initially, giving them time to adjust their swing. If he hasn't seen sign of improvement a couple weeks into the season, he steps in.
"I try to take the approach that I'm not going to meddle with them until they come to me," Koch said. "I mean, these guys come from all different colleges across the country, and some come with a plan in place from their coach. So I give them free reign the first couple weeks to figure it out for themselves. But there is a limit."
Overcoming the smaller sweet spot requires a batter to keep his hands inside the pitch. If the swing is too long and the ball gets outside of the batters' hands, the ball will hit off of the bat's handle instead of the bat head. On top of that, there is also the issue of adjusting to the weight of a wooden bat. On average, wooden bats weight about three to four ounces more than metal bats.
"That may not sound like a lot," Koch said, "but that translates into a lot of bat speed."
Chris Hart, who coaches the Loudoun Rangers in Valley Baseball League, said some players adjust to the change quickly. Others, he said, sometimes never do.
"A lot of these guys, coming in, have swung wooden bats in practice but never before in a game situation, so you expect it to take some time," Hart said. "You just can't get away with as much stuff with a wooden bat. Most guys come around and figure that out, but some guys never can learn to swing a wooden bat."
If they do, though, everyone agrees the rewards are great.
"There's no question it makes you a better hitter all around," Teller said. "And ultimately, every guy out here has the same goal of making it to the major leagues someday. We all understand that this will be a big part of getting there."