Baseball practice has just begun at many high schools across the country, but this year, the game is different. The National Federation of State High School Associations has adopted a new standard for baseball bats that is expected to change the way the game is played.
The switch involves a change of bat — from a regular aluminum bat to a metal bat known as Batted-Ball Coefficient of Restitution, or BBCOR. The bats are less springy and have a smaller "sweet spot." In other words, they behave more like old-fashioned wooden bats. The idea is that since the balls come off the bats more slowly, there's a reduced potential for injury.
New Bat, New Game?
But there's another consequence: fewer home runs. In college baseball, which adopted the standard last year, the rate of home runs per game fell almost in half.
Antoine Williams, the baseball coach at the Maret School in Washington, D.C., tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel that he expects the BBCOR bats to have the same effect on the high school game as well.
"I think it's going to be a big deal," Williams says. "And watching the NCAA last year ... the numbers dropped offensively and you know, there was more of a premium on defense, and moving guys over — playing the game the right way."
Changes in bat technology have historically changed the game, Williams says. Aluminum bats allowed for more home runs and balls hit in the gap, and he says he expects to see more one- and two-run games in the upcoming season.
New Bat A Boon For Pitchers
Andrew Culp, a junior who pitches and plays first base at Maret, says he can feel a difference when hitting. And although it may take some adjustments as a hitter, Culp says he's looking forward to pitching to players with the BBCOR bats.
"[I'm] really excited about that, looking forward to getting bad contact with the smaller sweet spot and getting guys to roll over on balls," he says. "And you can pitch with a lot more confidence now ... and not be afraid to throw strikes."
Why Not Use Wooden Bats?
So why not just go back to wooden bats? The answer is obvious to Williams.
"Finances — it's a lot more expensive. The aluminum bats, even though they're BBCOR-certified and perform much more like wood bats, they last longer," he says. "With the wood bats, you can break a wood bat, on average, once a game."
While BBCOR bats like the one Culp uses may cost around $400, a wooden bat can run $85-$120, Williams says. Over the course of the season, he says a player might run through six wooden bats. The BBCOR bat is designed to stand the test of time.
The final question is then for the people who coach, play and watch the game — will baseball still be as fun without so many home runs?
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
At many high schools, baseball practice has just begun. And at high schools all over the country, the game is different this year. The National Federation of State High School Associations has adopted a new standard for baseball bats. College baseball did it last year. High school bats must now meet the BBCOR bat standard. Robert, please explain.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
OK. BBCOR stands for batted-ball coefficient of restitution. It means that the metal and composite bats that college and now high school teams are using are less springy, and they have a smaller sweet spot. In other words, they behave more like old-fashioned wooden bats.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL PRACTICE)
SIEGEL: The other day, Antoine Williams - the baseball coach at the Maret School, an exclusive Washington, D.C., private school - was in the batting cage tossing baseballs to one of his players. In recent years, baseballs were flying off metal bats so fast, they were causing injuries. The new bats should reduce that. But they should also reduce a lot of hits and especially home runs. In college baseball last season, the rate of home runs per game fell almost in half. How big a deal is the new bat for high school baseball? I asked Coach Williams.
ANTOINE WILLIAMS: I think it's going to be a big deal, and I really don't know how to answer that question because we haven't gone through it yet. And watching the NCAA last year when they made the rule change and how the numbers dropped offensively, and, you know, there was more of a premium on defense and moving guys over, playing the game the right way.
SIEGEL: They changed the college game by changing the bat.
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. But, you know, the bat itself over the last 20 years, if you look, the technology that they've used to create these aluminum bats changed the game because there were more home runs, more balls hit in the gap. But I think this year, you're going to see a lot of one- and two-run ball games.
SIEGEL: So when does it start affecting the way you make up a lineup, what you tell your kids, when the bat-ball-coefficient-of-restitution bat is the rule, do you start changing the way you coach?
WILLIAMS: You start changing the way you coach, but it starts before the first day of practice. You hear a lot of guys talking about it. And, you know, it has more of a mental impact on some guys because guys out there who know just by being in the batting cage, the guys that are actually playing the game, you feel the difference.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL PRACTICE)
SIEGEL: Andrew Culp, who pitches and plays first base, was the young slugger in the batting cage. He was swinging a new bat that conforms to BBCOR standards.
ANDREW CULP: Yeah. I mean, I can definitely feel the difference. Definitely, the new BBCOR bats, I think the regulation was supposed to take five miles an hour off the exit speed coming off the bat. But you can definitely feel that.
SIEGEL: And can you feel the smaller sweet spot on the bat?
CULP: Yeah. I mean, you can definitely feel that as well, like, even the sound that the bat makes. If you hit a dead red, you can tell, and you can hear it. And if you don't, you know that too.
SIEGEL: You know, (unintelligible) the questions I've asked here by being a hitter, but you also pitch.
SIEGEL: So is it better to be pitching to guys who are hitting with this new bat that they can't hit as far away?
CULP: Absolutely. Really excited about that. Looking forward to getting bad contact with the smaller sweet spot and sort of just getting guys to roll over on balls. And you can pitch with a lot more confidence now that you know that they don't have, like, that resource for them to use, and it's not at their disposal. So you can sort of attack guys more, not be afraid to throw strikes.
SIEGEL: Because of the bat that they've got?
SIEGEL: Not quite as big a club as they had last year?
CULP: No. It's definitely changing the game.
SIEGEL: Now, since the standard that collegiate and scholastic baseball is trying for is a metal bat that will behave like a wooden bat, you might ask, why not go back to wood? I put that to Coach Antoine Williams and even at well-heeled Maret, the answer is obvious.
WILLIAMS: Finances. It's a lot more expensive. The aluminum bats, even though they're BBCOR certified and performed much more like wood bats, they last longer. With the wood bats, you can break a wood bat on average once a game. Over the long haul, it's more expensive.
SIEGEL: Let's do the numbers. How much does the bat that Drew would swing, how much does that bat costs?
WILLIAMS: This is 400.
SIEGEL: That's a $400 bat?
WILLIAMS: Right. And a wooden bat...
SIEGEL: A wood bat?
WILLIAMS: A good wood bat is probably going to run you about $85 to $120. So over the course of a season, you may use six bats or so if you're lucky.
SIEGEL: Six bats at $85 each cost more than one $400 bat. And that's just for one season. The Maret School coach says think of how many wooden bats break over four years or eight years, while that metal bat is still intact. The question for people who coach, play and watch the high school game is: Will baseball without so many home runs, the kind of little ball that purists love, still be as much fun? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.