A new era for baseball began this month, perhaps one of the most talked about rule changes in the collegiate game’s history.
After the NCAA announced changes to measuring bat performance two years ago, the new Batted-Ball Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) bats have finally been introduced in competition this season. Years of research and testing, and working with bat manufacturers went into the NCAA’s decision for the change.
The NCAA Baseball Research Panel has studied all aspects of equipment such as bats and balls since 1999, working with the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee to investigate trends in the game and suggest changes when needed. The Panel found the previous standard of the Bat Exit Speed Ratio (BESR) was ineffective in measuring the true performance of all lengths of bat. With increasing offensive production through the years, the Committee sought to find a more accurate prediction of the speed with which the ball will leave the bat, and use non-wood bats that performed more closely to that of a wood bat.
“The intent has always been to balance offense and defense in all rules we have and to allow many different styles of play,” said Ty Halpin, NCAA liaison to the Baseball Rules Committee. “That goes for all NCAA sports. There are many viewpoints on baseball and NCAA baseball has slanted toward an offensive game the past 20 years or so.”
Following the Committee’s decision to change the standard, bat manufacturers were then charged with the task of designing and producing bats that met the new specifications.
“Fortunately, the industry was given enough time to make the adjustment,” said Mike May, director of communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. “I think every bat maker found it somewhat challenging producing a bat to this new, stricter standard. Anytime you produce a bat to any new standard at whatever level, there is going to be some trial and error involved.
“It’s challenging to create a metal bat that acts like wood,” May said. “Most people would scratch their heads and go back to the drawing board, and I think that’s what the bat makers have found.”
But the bat manufacturers delivered, and teams across the nation received the BBCOR bats in time for fall practice, allowing players and coaches to adjust to the change.
Opinions of the new bats varied. Some coaches were harsh critics, others were happy the game would go back to a purer form. The consensus view was the new bats will drastically change the game’s results – especially home run numbers and scoring.
While it is too early to judge the statistics as a whole, there were some glaring differences, especially in two of the Division I conferences that are known for its power numbers. Atlantic Coast Conference teams hit 47 homers in 38 games during the opening weekend of play last year, but blasted just 18 round-trippers in the same amount of games this season. In the Southeastern Conference, teams belted 44 home runs in 36 games last year, but managed to hit just 21 out of the park in 38 contests during this year’s opening weekend.
Although the home run numbers were down after the first weekend of play in Division I, there was not a complete power outage. A handful of players hit multiple home runs on the weekend, including James Madison senior shortstop David Herbek, who belted five home runs in a four-game sweep of Bucknell. As a team, JMU batted .481 with 23 home runs and 91 runs scored in the series.
“[The bats] are definitely different than the old ones,” Herbek said. “I feel like the sweet spot might be a little smaller. If you don’t hit one exactly on the sweet spot you notice a bigger difference to how far it will go. With that said if you do hit one on the sweet spot it’s going to go.”
Herbek credits his team’s offensive explosion to the Dukes using wood bats during fall practice and scrimmages. “When they finally did bring the new bats out, we were used to hitting with wood,” he said. “Wood bats have a very small sweet spot, so it seemed like an upgrade from that. We looked at getting the new bats as a good thing. New bats compared to wood seem pretty good to us.”
Herbek, who hit just seven home runs in 2010, said his attitude toward hitting has changed with the new bats. “I don’t really think about hitting home runs that much anymore because with the new bats you have to pretty much hit one perfectly to hit one out,” he said.
Siena’s Dan Paolini – the top returning home run hitter in Division I — agrees with Herbek. “I hit a home run in our first game that went pretty far over the fence, but I hit it about as well as you can hit it. You don’t get cheated with the new bats,” said Paolini, who hit 26 home runs in 2010.
“If you hit it off the end or handle, the bat doesn’t help you very much. The balls just don’t come off the bats at all. I think balls come off harder off a wood bat after playing the summer in the Cape Cod League.”
Paolini, like lots of players, has mixed feelings about the new bats. “I think it’s better for the game because you won’t get a lot of cheap hits or home runs,” he said. “You know if you hit a home run with these bats it is legit. I like it and I don’t like it.”