Regardless of how college coaches and players feel about the change in the composition of baseball bats this season - and many are not happy about it - anxiety lingers over how the new bats will alter the game.
They realize the specifications the NCAA handed down to bat manufacturers in 2008, to be instituted this season, are going to reduce power in the college game. Whether the new bats will affect the game in other ways remains unclear, coaches said.
"We don't know," said N.C. State coach Elliott Avent, no fan of the new bats.
Avent is hopeful his team isn't the only one in the country losing power (his team still managed to hit three home runs on opening weekend).
Baseball America college baseball writer Aaron Fitt said there's plenty of unknowns regarding the new bats.
"The jury is still out on whether it'll be good or bad for college baseball," Fitt said.
Proponents of the new bats thought there have been too many home runs in recent seasons.
NCAA Division I statistics show that from 2006 to 2009, the average number of home runs per game rose from .68 to .96. Even with the moratorium on composite bats, though, that average dropped only slightly to .94 home runs per game last season.
But opponents don't understand why the game, which has seemingly reached the height of its popularity, needed to change.
Duke coach Sean McNally thought there were several reasons for the change, including safety, rising power numbers and a desire to shorten the length of games.
But North Carolina coach Mike Fox said the changes are unnecessary.
"There's not a coach I've talked to think the bats needed to be changed," Fox said. "And we really don't know why they were changed honestly."
Bat manufacturers were informed of the change, which took effect this season, in a September 2008 memorandum that stated the reason for the change was "increasing offensive performance particularly in home runs and runs scored ... in large part, to the kind of bats in use today."
But UC Santa Barbara coach Bob Brontsema, who chaired the committee that instituted the changes, told Baseball America last fall that the No. 1 reason for the change was player safety.
Heading into the 2009 postseason, the Baseball Rules Committee sent another memorandum to athletic directors and baseball coaches, noting that several companies were altering non-wood bats to increase performance aluminum bats, calling this a violation according to NCAA bylaws and warning that the NCAA planned to collect and test bats at many sites of the NCAA Baseball Championships.
Two months later, the committee announced a moratorium on composite barrel bats in the Division I game because testing of bats during the Baseball Championships found 80 percent of the bats tested failed the NCAA performance standard, meaning that those bats either changed after repeated use or were altered.
Both composite bats and aluminum bats that met the old testing standard, known as Ball Exit Speed Ratio, had a trampoline effect, or a bounciness that changed over the life of the bat or, as mentioned, could be altered to perform better. The new bats are designed to perform consistently throughout their life cycle and don't produce a trampoline effect, making their performance much closer to that of wooden bats.
Hitters no fans
East Carolina outfielder Trent Whitehead said his team, long known for its hitting, will have to focus more on playing a small-ball game less reliant on home runs.
"I don't like them as much," he said of the new bats. "There's times when I wished I had the old bat."
McNally said he's seen plenty of well-hit balls in batting practice that should have been home runs.
"I think they've dialed it back too much," McNally said. "Nobody wants a four-hour game. If you're up 12-5 in the eighth, you shouldn't have to feel like it's a one-run game. ... But to go from over there to way over here, I think you should be able to drive balls out of a ballpark at a practice."
N.C. State third baseman Andrew Ciencin said he's trying not to dwell on the new bats.
"If you square it up, it's still a metal bat," he said. "It's still going to go somewhere. I try to take all that out of consideration and still try to hit. ... If you focus too much on the bats, you're going to get away from hitting."
North Carolina sophomore infielder Tommy Coyle said, "I don't think they're as bad as everyone says," but he's glad hit balls will have less velocity.
"Some of the composite bats, it's scary to be so close with pretty much grown men swinging the bats," he said.
Duke two-way player Marcus Stroman said he is no fan of the new bats.
"They stink," he said. "They're bad. It's almost like we've gone to the wood game."
Pitchers don't mind
But the pitcher in Stroman doesn't mind at all.
"As a pitcher, I'm going to love them," he said. "You have to put it right on the barrel and you have to have your best swing to get it out of the park."
East Carolina ace pitcher Seth Maness said coaches are stressing that, in the changed game, there will be a premium put on good defense, and, from the other side, walks.
"The big strong guys are still going to hit their home runs, but those little weaklings, who hit eight or nine homers every year, aren't going to be able to," he said
East Carolina coach Billy Godwin, a former pitcher, said the game didn't need changing, but he has no problem with the changes.
"I think what the fans are going to see is teams that are fundamentally sound are going to execute baseball, baseball at a higher level - not get out on your front foot on a pitch down and hit it 420 feet," he said.
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