The iconic sound of college baseball is gone.
The “ping” that separated amateurs from professionals for nearly four decades disappeared this year. And in its place is a sound that is, well…. not quite so memorable.
As part of its ongoing attempt to temper the trampoline effect of metal bats – and in part lessen on-the-job hazards for pitchers and infielders in the college game – the NCAA this year mandated that bat manufacturers follow a new standard that now makes metal bats only slightly more lively than wood bats. So no ping. Not even a craaack. These days, the sound of ball meeting bat is more like a thwock. “It sounds like a bag of chips,” one scout says.
This year’s bat switch is one of several that the NCAA recently mandated that could have long-term implications for both players and for scouts. With the safety of the new bat has come a staggering decrease in power across the country. And now professional talent evaluators are left to figure out what the new offensive numbers mean.
Jeff Sackmann, of CollegeSplits.com, found that college home runs are down by about half from the same point last season. Three percent of batted balls left the park last year, but now the number is 1.7% per batted ball. While it’s clear that slugging is down, much less certain are the long-term implications for the collegiate game: Who benefits? Who is hurt? Will this continue? What might be refined?
So far, there are only provisional answers. One scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the new bat might help him better-evaluate players whose numbers might have been helped with the livelier, older bats. “It helps eliminate some of the marginal prospects,” the scout said. “[The bat] lets us do our work.”
An early test case could be Steven Yarrow, a University of San Francisco infielder who ranked among the collegiate home run leaders last season. This year, he has yet to hit one out of the park. Another is Jordan Ribera, who hit an NCAA-leading 25 home runs last year for Fresno State, and despite being draft eligible, wasn’t selected. In a way, perhaps scouts knew what was coming with the new bats: Ribera has only two home runs this season.
But there’s a chance the new bat has dampened offense too much. “It’s worse than wood,” one scout said. “Even when [the ball] hits the sweet spot, it doesn’t go anywhere.” It would seem like basic physics. When wood meets ball, the grain in the wood grips the ball and gives it backspin, which leads to loft. Right?
Physics professor Alan Nathan is skeptical. As part of the committee that advised the NCAA on the bat change, Nathan initially thought the idea might have had some merit, but then he performed an experiment that showed there was no difference between the spin of a ball off an aluminum bat versus a wood bat. He said the aim of the new bat was to approximate wood with aluminum, not to deaden the bat more than wood.
For now, even if it’s not totally clear exactly what physical effects the change will have on the college game, it’s clear that on-field scouts will have an easier time evaluating players. Statistical scouting, though, might become more difficult.
Brian Cartwright, who created the OLIVER projections and writes for The Hardball Times, also runs translations for college numbers. The change in bats, he said, will create an apples-and-oranges effect when comparing this season with previous, offense-heavy ones. In an effort to update his translations, he’ll calculate league factors in two buckets – one for before 2011 and one for 2011 and after. For at least a few years, he said, “the new group will have an inadequate sample size.”
So how will the tension work out? As it always does – a combination of both statistical and traditional scouting. Take a look at Stanford, for instance, which has a stacked team almost every year. The position-player prize in the 2012 draft might be 20-year-old shortstop Kenny Diekgroeger, from Menlo Park, Calif., who scouts think could stick at his position. In a loaded offensive environment, Cartwright’s translations were conservative. His .356/.392/.491 equated to a .242 major league equivalent wOBA. (The major league average wOBA is about .320.) Now that he’s hitting .373/.418/.431 with the new bat, perhaps his next translations will be more favorable. You can bet there will be lots of statistical work between now and the draft.
Scouts can fill in the blanks in the meantime. On an afternoon last month, a scout watching Diekgroeger marveled that his bat is “never out of control.” Diekgroeger kept his hands inside the ball and fought off pitches. Even when he fell behind in an at-bat, the shortstop had a disciplined approach and swing. Diekgroeger’s potential to stay at his position at the professional level, the scout said, would fill in any gaps that might come when deciding his power ceiling. The bat was hardly a concern.
In the end, decisions are made when teams combine all the information available, so little will change in the big picture. Perhaps for a year or two, teams might have to rely a little more on the eyes of their scouts. They certainly won’t be using their ears.
Even if the “ping” is gone, it’s still the same game.
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