Midtown: Sports

New bats reduce high school baseball power game

Smithfield-Selma High’s Ben Youngblood likes the new baseball bat restrictions when he is pitching, but not when he is batting.

“You can still hit it out if you catch it right,” said Youngblood, who has hit four home runs. “But you really have to hit it just right. The ball doesn’t carry as well as it did last year.”

Youngblood said he might have another three or four home runs if he was allowed to use his old bat rather than a newer, red and white Rawlings 51-50.

“There was more action last year,” Youngblood said.

For safety reasons, the National Federation of State High School Associations changed the standard in January for metal high school bats. The new standard – batted ball coefficient of restitution, or BBCOR – measures the bats’ bounciness or trampoline effect. The bats being used this year don’t have as much bounce and are more like the wooden bats that Major League Baseball players use. As a result, the ball comes off the new bat at a lower speed than in the past.

The old standard, ball exit speed ratio, or BESR, measures the maximum speed of the ball after being hit. The maximum allowed BESR was 97 mph, but studies indicated that a bat’s BESR increased after the bat had been used, sometimes by 10 to 15 miles per hour.

The change in bats has altered the game.

Smithfield-Selma coach Mike Joyner said his teams usually hit 30 or more home runs in a season. This year, they’ve hit five.

Joyner’s clubs have had an overall batting around .315 in recent years, but this year’s club is hitting .268. His pitching staff, though, is putting up much better numbers, including lower earned run averages and more innings pitched.

“You can leave pitchers in longer,” Joyner said. “You don’t worry quite as much about one swing of the bat turning everything around.”

More than 30 area players had three or more home runs during the 2011 season, according to statistics provided by the schools. This year, there are five players with three or more with two weeks left in the regular season.

A year ago, area players reported hitting 362 home runs during the season. Through May 1 of this season, there have been 134.

Cardinal Gibbons shortstop Max Schrock, who leads the area with 10 home runs, said the difference in game strategy is noticeable. Instead of waiting for a home run, coaches are more likely to use a sacrifice bunt to set up a scoring opportunity.

“You see a lot more bunting, a lot more hit and runs,” said Schrock, who signed with South Carolina. “You don’t see a hitter being fooled and the ball plopping into the outfield.”

Millbrook coach Josh Pardue likes the new bats.

“More than anything, I think the manufacturers have gotten it right,” Pardue said. “The kids who were going to hit home runs are still going to hit home runs. It’s the two-strike nine-hole hitters who were getting gap shots are now getting outs in the alleys. It makes the game a little more true.”

Apex coach Mike Valder said not only has the strategy changed, but the fundamentals are changing, too.

Infielders have to be more aggressive on ground balls, because the ball is not traveling as quickly.

“The exit speed has really changed the way you play defensively,” Valder said.

Area coaches talk about the expanded importance of managing the game. Joyner said runs are more precious.

“It is much harder to come back,” he said. “You don’t sit there and count on getting a long ball in the fifth or sixth inning.”

Pardue said while most coaches still play their own distinctive styles, he’s seen more bunts with a runner on first. The double play is more relevant when a hitter’s chance of getting a solid base hit is lowered. Pitchers can be more aggressive, hopeful that a good pitch won’t be wasted on a forgiving sweet spot.

“You can get a (pitcher) who is maybe not the strongest velocity-wise, and as long as he’s hitting his spots, ... he’s going to get more of a break with these bats than the other ones,” Valder said.

Schrock said he likes the change.

“It is harder on offense, but the changes make our game better,” Schrock said. “The sweet spot is much smaller, but if you hit square, the ball will still jump.”