New Bat Boon or Bane to Scouting Community?

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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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


12 Responses to “New Bat Boon or Bane to Scouting Community?”

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  1. Justin Merry says:

    I love love love that NCAA made this change. I think that, once players adapt, offense will be just fine–though certainly not on the same levels as it was. Players will have to learn to use the new bats, however, which likely means unlearning a lot of bad habits. This should make their transition into professional ranks–for those that go this route–smoother than it has been, so there’s a direct benefit to players who are struggling with the transition right now.

    And beyond that, it hopefully will result in a safer environment for the players on the field. I’d hope that little leagues, high school leagues, and other amateur leagues currently using metal will follow suit and adopt these new bats.
    -j

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  2. Pirateball says:

    As a collegiate coach, I love the change. Games are much more well rounded and the kids are wanting to hone their overall game

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  3. Brad Johnson says:

    Wish they made it six years ago, I can’t tell you how many metal bat hits I allowed in college…

    I too am excited about the possible effects on player development – quicker paths to the bigs for college players, more accurate scouting, and hopefully fewer injuries. As has been discussed, offense/home runs should bounce back a bit once players adjust to the new bats.

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  4. Carl says:

    This may be a dumb question, but why not just transition to wood bats??

    Answer: $$$$ (money for the bat manufacturers and lucrative merchandising contracts for the colleges. So who suffers? the players and the game of baseball.)

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      That was exactly the question I put to the scout, and that was almost exactly the answer I got. There is one wrinkle: it may be easier to quality control metal bats – they can be mass produced more easily, in other words. If you had some colleges using inferior wooden bats because of budget concerns, you might see some new dangers enter the game (see: bat splinters).

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    • Faulc says:

      Carl: I will answer your question with another question: why should colleges transition to wood bats? There is no reason to do that. I’m not buying into your money conspiracy. Presumably, bat manufacturers are going to make money whether they are selling wood bats or aluminum composite bats, so I see no difference there. Colleges may have lucrative merchandising contracts, but so what? Is that a bad thing? It generates revenue for the schools. Finally, you suggested that players and the game of baseball suffer by using aluminum/composite bats rather than wood bats. Exactly how are they suffering? The bats they are using now approximate wood bats pretty closely, but without all of the broken bats. So, who suffers?

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      • Cidron says:

        not all colleges have lucrative contracts (or at least, not equally lucrative). I suspect, (for example) that UCLA, USC, etc have far deeper wallets for equipment than say, a San Diego State. (keeping with the Calif area to semi remove the variable of location.)

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    • joser says:

      Actually, the (wood) bat manufacturers would love the NCAA to switch to wood bats, because the schools would have to increase their equipment budget enormously and most of that money would go right into the bat mfr’s pockets. Which of course is precisely why they haven’t switched to wood bats: wood bats break, frequently, and have to be replaced. Aluminum bats are just more durable. There are over 200 Div I college teams, and there are over 400 games played every week of the season… that’s a lot of broken bats.

      I’d love to see MLB subsidize wood bats for the NCAA (heck, there’s probably a way the MLB owners could get a tax write-off for it) but I don’t see that happening.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        As I discussed in a previous post, in my experience metal bats have about a 3-4 week shelf life until they are too dinged up for game use. We remedied this on my team by designating a handful of bats as game bats which gets them through about half the season. We would be low on game bats by the end of the regular schedule.

        This was for a D-III program in MN.

        Given that the cost of a metal bat is three times greater than wood (it’s actually six times but if the bat breaks/dents it gets replaced once) I’m not too sure wood would be more expense. Not if it was being used correctly.

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  5. MikeS says:

    I think this is great but I need to tell a story. When I was little and my dad was teaching me the game (like we all learned it) we used to get to the park early for batting practice. He taught me that you could tell how well the ball was hit by the crack of the bat.

    That was 40 years ago. Now with maple bats and oversized players it’s not as reliable as it used to be. I still love baseball. I still take my dad to games with my season tickets the way he did with me. It’s still great, but it’s not quite the same.

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  6. CircleChange11 says:

    I’m all for it.

    Decades ago the introduction of metal bats was to be the death of hitting skill. The exact opposite occured … hitters discovered that you could absolutely drive the away pitch. Amatuer pitchers were taught not to come inside because with metal bats hitters could make poor contact and still put it in the gap. Pitchers played right to the strength of the bat.

    In order to have lighter bats, pros use thin handled bats. If they aren’t made thin enough they plane them even thinner. I have a few 34-inch minor league bats that illustrate this very well.

    Metal bats dollars with very thin handles a huge barrels, featuring a sweet spot three times as large as a wood bat.

    Hitters today, especially at youth levels do not swing at inside pitches because they get the “bees” in their hands. They kill the ball middle out, where the fat barrel is.

    Nowhere is this more apparent than in the LLWS where guys have adopted a fastpitch softball swing and let their size and the bat’s technology do the work.

    Hitters will adjust. They’ll figure out what pitches they can drive and will look for those, and it will be something they can use at the pro level.

    As for cost, players on my son’s 10U travel team were complaining that the sporting goods store had 6 “DX’s”? And they were all reserved. The cost is $300. This is the liveliest bat that is allowed in youth tourneys. The bats will be used for one summer. You can draw your own conclusions.

    With wood bats, due to the weight, many batters might find that they need to use a bat 2-inches shorter.

    From the HS wood bat tourneys we’ve played there’s a huge difference … namely in the amount of grounders that make it through the infield. Like I said before it’s refreshing to see 3B’s actually make plays to their left. No more 2-hop rockets through the left side of the infield.

    As a former pitcher, I do take some joy in seeing batters get jammed and hit a weak pop or grounder while running to first wringing their hands.

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  7. Great post. I like trampo and my children too ! Thank you for this information.

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