College baseball's new bat rule transitions hitting game from power to precision

Monday, April 18, 2011 at 9:05pm

Halfway through this college baseball season, home runs are down. So are runs scored and batting averages. So a dumb question to ask a college baseball hitter is: Do you like the new bats? 

“No,” Vanderbilt slugger Curt Casali said. “It is what it is. We got to use what they give us. I’d rather it be these bats than the bats they’ve been using for the past two years. We’ve seen the top of the spectrum and the bottom of it.”

Feelings are mixed about the new metal bats. With a smaller sweet spot, or ideal point of contact, they’re more like the wooden bats used in Major League Baseball. The ball also has a lower “exit speed” off the bat, which is a safety issue for pitchers and infielders and ultimately led the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee to pass a temporary ban on composite-barrel bats after the 2009 season. 

That season, during the Division I national tournament, 20 of 25 bats the NCAA selected for “Ball Exit Speed Ratio” certification tests failed. With repeated use, the composite barrels would soften, leading to a trampoline effect that had the ball coming off the bat at a speed that violated NCAA standards. Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said the bats were tampered with so much they took the form of “nuclear weapon.” 

“Those bats, before they fixed them, were pretty ridiculous, and something needed to be done. Anyone that tells you otherwise isn’t being truthful,” Vanderbilt hitting coach Josh Holliday said. “There were some swings and some balls that weren’t how baseball was meant to be played. I think it is back to a more fair game and a safer game and I think that is probably why changes were made.” 

While offensive production is down, local players and coaches agree the game is safer. 

“The ball was exiting off the barrel so fast that somebody was going to get hurt — a pitcher,” Middle Tennessee State coach Steve Peterson said. “I think definitely a pitcher has better reaction time.”

Pitchers aren’t just benefiting from the safety standpoint. A report released by the NCAA two weeks ago compared numbers at the midpoint this season to last year’s. Home runs per game dipped from 0.85 to 0.47. There was a decrease in runs scored per game (6.98 to 5.63) and overall batting average (.301 to .279). On the flip side, earned run average dropped from 5.83 in 2010 to 4.62 so far in 2011. Plus, the number of shutouts have taken a huge jump from 277 to 444. 

“Obviously, from a pitcher [standpoint], we love the new bats,” Vanderbilt reliever Will Clinard said. “The ball doesn’t jump as much as it has. It gives the pitchers a little room for error.”

Coaching styles also had to be tweaked. Bunts and hit-and-runs are more evident and appear to be beneficial to programs like Vanderbilt, which feed off small ball.

“I think it is very conducive for a program like [Vanderbilt’s] where they play a lot of pressure offense,” said Belmont coach Dave Jarvis. “Tim [Corbin] has always been a very good teacher of the small game. I think the bats are going to actually enhance a team like that, with that philosophy, to help them because it minimizes some of the gorilla ball, especially in the SEC, where programs just played hold-back-and-wait for a three-run home run.”

Power hitters have had to adapt, too. Vanderbilt’s Jason Esposito has seen his power numbers decrease. Heading into last weekend, he had 27 RBIs but just two home runs and a slugging percentage of .438. Last year, he led the team with 64 RBIs, 94 hits and a .599 slugging percentage and 12 home runs, the second-most for Vanderbilt. Casali can relate. While he has 11 doubles, just two shy of all of last year, he has only two home runs. He finished 2010 with eight. 

“Obviously, they don’t have as much pop as the old bats,” Casali said. “You’re splitting hairs when you compare them to wood bats. But it’s a safety thing. We want to keep the fielders and pitchers safe. We don’t need their heads to get taken off.”

Still, Vanderbilt’s Aaron Westlake and Middle Tennessee State’s Will Skinner don’t seem fazed by the new bats. Westlake had five home runs, 12 doubles 27 RBIs, a .397 batting average and a .627 slugging percentage. Skinner had eight homers, eight doubles, 24 RBIs, a .352 batting average and a .617 slugging percentage. 

“Skinner has hit some balls that will go out anywhere,” said Peterson, who’s been at MTSU for 24 years. “He has power. Westlake has hit balls that will go out anywhere. So if you can hit, you can hit. It’s like a wood bat — you have to hit it right on the nose. Whereas the bats of the past, you didn’t have to be as precise.”