For decades, the metallic ping of a college baseball striking an aluminum bat was heard at baseball diamonds across America, from Jackie Robinson Stadium at UCLA University to Ball Diamond just outside of Ball State. It was the noise that represented college baseball.
Not anymore, not after the NCAA made all college baseball programs transition to use metal bats starting in the 2011 season.
These bats are meant to behave similarly to their wooden counterparts used in the major leagues.
The NCAA says that the change was an attempt to lower the velocity that the ball comes off the bat, in order to prevent dangerous injuries, like what occurred to Minnesota pitcher Ben Birk.
Birk was hit in the face by a line drive clocked coming off the bat at nearly 100 m.p.h. The strike required Birk to have a titanium plate inserted close to his left eye.
Ball State coach Rich Maloney understands why the NCAA would make the change.
“Player safety is always going to be a top priority,” Maloney said. “When safety is threatened, the NCAA will act.”
Alan Nathan, a retired physics professor at Illinois University, spent time dissecting the potency of the new bats, and the effects they have when a ball is put in play.
The overall message that Nathan sends is fairly simple. The slower the ball comes off the bat, the more reaction time the pitcher will have to get in position to either field the ball or get out of the way.
“A typically hard hit ball that’s moving at 100 m.p.h. is going to reach the pitcher in about four tenths of a second,” Nathan said. “If I reduce the batted ball speed by five percent, which is essentially what the new bats do, it gives the pitcher an additional 20 milliseconds to react.”
The NCAA is hoping that extra time is enough to save a pitcher from injury, but it’s not the only thing the new bats do.
Reducing bat potency has had a number of other side effects, none more noticeable than the drop in power.
Ball State redshirt junior Billy Wellman has played with both bats in college, and has noticed a huge difference.
It’s so different, Wellman said he’s had to completely change his style of hitting to accommodate for the new bats.
“With these bats, if you don’t hit it perfectly right, it’s not going out,” Wellman said. “I used to rely solely on my muscle to hit it out, but now I’ve had to learn to be more patient because I can’t always swing for the fences.”
It isn’t just Wellman who’s had to make changes. Across the country, home run numbers are plummeting, along with the average runs scored per game and batting averages.
Before the switch, teams were averaging nearly seven runs per game. Now, that’s fallen to 5.63.
Box scores have seen the final numbers in hit and runs fall, along with pitchers ERA’s. Pitchers used throw balls that danced around the strike zone, scared to throw along the inside wall of the strike zone because it was impossible for a batter to get jammed.
Maloney admitted that the game may have been too offensively oriented, but thinks the NCAA has gone too far trying to scale back.
“I don’t think a team should be hitting 120 home runs in a 50 game schedule, but I also don’t think a team should only hit 14,” Maloney said. “We need to find a bat that provides a happy medium between those two, around 50 per season.”
Although many offensive statistics have fallen, Nathan said he believes it’s possible to see a slight rise in the numbers in the future.
“As players become more adapt to using the new bats, it’s possible that we’ll see some of those numbers increase again,” Nathan said.
As those numbers have diminished, so has the length of college baseball games. Maloney said that one of the reasons for the new bats may be to help shorten the game.
Games with the old bats averaged around three hours and 15 minutes, and it’s dropped to two hours and 45 minutes since the new bats were enabled.
“Baseball is a patient game, but some fans don’t want to watch it if it’s running over three hours,” Maloney said.
A faster game means fewer runs are being scored, as evidenced by the drop in runs per game since the switch.
Maloney is worried that the lower scores will adversely affect the young demographic that’s just turning old enough to appreciate the finer details of games. He said when a fan turns on ESPN for baseball highlights, he see’s diving catches and home runs, not sacrifice bunts and singles up the middle.
“Baseball purists may love the 1-0 game, but our young fans aren’t enamored with it,” Maloney said. “Those are the kids we’re trying to recruit to the sport, and I’m nervous that we’re creating failure.”
With the old bats, it was much easier for young players to get on base because even making bad contact with the ball gave the player a decent chance to get a hit.
Now, bad contact consistently results in an out. It’s a difference that Wellman has seen and had to adjust to.
Wellman didn’t hesitate to say whether he’d like to go back to the old bats.
“I would love to go back to the old bats,” Wellman said. “I wish I could go back and use those bats again, there’s nothing like the sound that comes off the bat when you send one over the wall.
Ball State offensive statistics:
2009: 72 HR, 599 H, .323 Ba
2010: 77 HR, 627 H, .298 BA
2011: 79 HR, 453 H, .264 BA
2012: 14 HR, 432 H, .249 BA