High school baseball: New composite bats have cut down on runs, injuries

rgery@centredaily.comMay 3, 2014 

A storm rolled into Bellefonte, wind picking up, when Tanner Day cracked a shot everyone knew was gone last season.

The wind-aided home run soared into the clouds and eventually landed in the middle of the Bellefonte Area High School parking lot. Red Raiders coach Jeremy Rellinger witnessed similar no-doubt bombs frequently in the past, but those power displays had become nearly non-existent since 2012.

That’s when the National Federation of State High School Associations adopted a new performance standard that made aluminum and composite bats more wood-like. And that’s why Day’s homer brought back memories for Rellinger.

“The big towering shots,” Rellinger said, “you’re just not gonna see 'em unless you get a lot of help from the wind, or unless you got basically a man child up there swinging the bat.”

The BBCOR — Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution — standard replaced the BESR — Ball Exit Speed Ratio — standard used since 1999. BBCOR went into effect in the NCAA in 2011, resulting in the fewest runs and home runs per game and lowest ERAs in more than 30 years.

Centre County high school coaches have seen similar effects in three years under the new rule. Scoring is down. Small ball is back. And pitchers can throw inside without fear.

“There’s a huge difference,” Philipsburg-Osceola coach Doug Sankey said. “I mean the game has changed significantly. The way we practice has changed, the way I coach has changed, it really has. It’s a whole different approach — more bunts, we hit and run more, just a lot of little things that we typically wouldn’t do 10 years ago.”

Time for change

The NCAA and NFHS both recognized the need for change as the performance of non-wood bats spiraled out of control.

For the NCAA, concern grew after watching College World Series games end in “football scores.” For the NFHS, inflated statistics and safety issues couldn’t be ignored.

“Our three tenants of writing rules has always been risk minimization, a balance between offense and defense and the sound traditions of the game,” said Elliot Hopkins, NFHS director of sports and educational services and staff liaison for baseball. “All of our rules editors and all of our 17 rules committees, that’s our mantra, that’s what we do before we start discussing any rule changes.

“With the proliferation of non-wood bats back in the '70s, we have seen that balance has been out of whack, there has been an increase in risk.”

Hopkins said risk minimization was the top concern for his organization — which serves 50 member state high school athletic and activity associations, including the PIAA — in making the switch to BBCOR.

The bats under the BESR standard were simply too powerful.

Especially composite bats.

They improved with use, exceeding the acceptable levels under the BESR standard. And they were susceptible to “rolling,” a process in which a bat is compressed in a machine to enhance the “spring-like factor” of the ball off the bat.

At the 2009 College World Series, 20 of 25 composite bats failed the BESR test, according to the NCAA’s proposal to ban the composite bats that July.

“Someone sooner or later was gonna get killed,” said Sankey, the Philipsburg-Osceola coach. “They were rockets hit with those bats.”

“You really had to be on alert,” said Jeff Holter, an umpire for 12 years and Centre County’s PIAA rules interpreter.

The birth of BBCOR

The discussions to develop a new performance standard began a decade ago.

University of Illinois physics professor emeritus Alan Nathan met with the NCAA in 2004 to share alternative schemes to bring aluminum more in line with wood. Hopkins traces the start for the NFHS back to 2005, when Dr. James Sherwood of the Baseball Research Center at UMass Lowell made a presentation to the NFHS Baseball Rules Committee showing the same possibility.

“Our rules committee had always wanted to get the bats wood-like,” Hopkins said. “There was just no scientific way to do it at the time.”

The scientific breakthrough took place in early May 2008.

After years studying data from the Baseball Research Center whenever he found time, Nathan finally discovered the solution.

“It literally was an ‘aha’ moment, where ‘Oh my goodness, look at this,’” Nathan said. “It seems so obvious now.”

Nathan could barely contain his excitement as he fired off a memo to fellow members on the NCAA’s Baseball Research Panel with a plot showing the data and how he came to his conclusion. They responded with questions – and he knew he still had some loose ends to tie up – but the BBCOR standard was born.

BBCOR is “simply a quantitative measure” of the trampoline effect of a bat, according to Nathan. Aluminum and composite bats had flexible walls that could “give” when striking the ball, resulting in less energy lost in the collision and a larger ball exit speed.

Nathan sent a memo to the NCAA with his findings on the new standard.

By September 2008, the NCAA announced it would adopt the BBCOR standard in 2011. In July 2009, the NFHS announced it would follow suit, putting the BBCOR standard into effect in 2012.

The NCAA decided to limit the BBCOR value to .50, slightly higher than a wood bat, which has “essentially no trampoline effect.” Under the BESR standard, Nathan found the highest performing bats had BBCOR values between .55 and .57. A BBCOR value of .55 has a batted ball speed that is five miles per hour larger than .50, resulting in a significant difference in how far the ball carries.

The game would never be the same due to Nathan’s discovery.

“I’ve had a long career as a nuclear physicist, as a teacher of physics, and a much shorter career doing physics of baseball work,” Nathan said. “And I can tell you quite unequivocally, there’s not a single thing that I’ve done in my career that has had such a huge effect as coming up with the BBCOR standard.

“It has had a big effect on how the game of baseball is played at the high school and college level. People can like it or hate it, but certainly it’s had an effect.”

Before BBCOR

Bald Eagle Area coach Jim Gardner has seen a drastic effect.

Doc Etters Field once served as the Eagles’ personal launching pad.

It was normal for Gardner’s 2007 team to crush 15 home runs at practice. Gardner quickly found himself repeating the same phrase — “gotta have that” — after each blast. And eventually, after the first flew out, players remained stationed beyond the fence to track balls.

“If you don’t chase 'em when there’s that many going over,” Gardner said, “your ball bucket’s gonna get slim in a hurry.”

Gardner recalls those days fondly, smiling at the memories of his team hitting 35 homers en route to capturing the 2007 PIAA Class AA title. It was part of stretch that saw the Eagles average 25-30 home runs, a run capped by 31 homers in 2011, the last season before the switch to the BBCOR standard.

Brian Kochik hit 13 homers in 2007. In 2011, Justin Taylor hit a team-high nine homers.

“I couldn’t get enough of those high fives rounding third base,” Gardner said. “It was always neat to greet the guys that were coming around there. And when we were hitting that many, it gets to be a lot of fun.”

Sankey can relate.

There was a time when every Mounties player hit a few homers into the trees at practice in Philipsburg. And like Gardner, Sankey developed a system to keep the team’s ball buckets stocked.

“We’d go out in the woods and just look for baseballs after,” Sankey said. “That was our conditioning, we’d go look for baseballs.”

Philipsburg-Osceola smashed 28 home runs in 2004 and finished with 21 in 2010.

Though both coaches had gifted hitters, they admit the old bats played a factor in the staggering production.

Those days feel like ancient history now.

Home runs have become a rarity — at practices and in games — with the BBCOR bats.

Bald Eagle Area has five homers this season. Philipsburg-Osceola has just one.

“That’s it,” Sankey said. “It’s crazy.”

The effect of BBCOR

Penns Valley coach Chuck Romig always believed in small ball, so his approach to hitting hasn’t changed.

“Honestly, I think the biggest difference in the way I coach with the BBCORs is not offensive at all,” Romig said. “It’s trying to teach your pitcher to throw inside because you can get outs now, whereas BESRs, you can jam somebody and it might go over the fence for a three-run home run.”

Teams are bunting more, State College coach Bill Tussey said, trying to move runners because they can’t depend on the shots in the gap or even the cheap bloop singles off the handle.

“The BESRs were live enough that you could still get that dinker outside the infield,” Tussey said. “Where the BBCOR, you’re not going to get that.”

The BBCOR bats forced Sankey to adjust his coaching style.

In 2012, the first year under the BBCOR standard, the Mounties stole 73 bases, nearly double their previous high of 39 in 2011.

“We knew we weren’t gonna score 10 runs a game just by driving the ball,” Sankey said. “I mean we had good hitters too, but you could tell a difference in them, even in practice, we’re not even hitting balls out in practice.”

Gardner knew the home run totals would drop.

“When we first started it,” Gardner said, “I was really stressing line drives, line drives, line drives as opposed to burning somebody.”

Though the switch has changed the game, Bellefonte’s Rellinger said offenses still erupt for big innings.

There’s just more singles than doubles now. And players may need a little help to hit a home run.

“It really emphasizes the natural strength a kid can have,” Rellinger said. “When you see a ball fly off these bats, you really know a kid’s got some strength and they’ve got a quick bat.

“It really clarified who’s who in terms of the strength.”

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