The Nike Bat Kerfuffle: Much Ado About Nothing?

When Nike makes moves, the sporting world listens. They are, after all, the top sporting apparel company in the business.

So when they released contracted universities from any commitment to use Nike baseball bats during the upcoming season, it set off some waves. Presumably, it was a chink in the Nike armor, and an admission that their bats were suspect. But there’s more to this, even more than we can hope to uncover today.

The original piece cited statistics that seem compelling at first blush. In 2011, new standards were put in place to dampen the speed of balls coming off the bat in order to help ensure the safety of pitchers. Even with those standards in place, it does seem that the schools that used Nike bats suffered more than most. Miami, a Nike school, averaged 93 home runs from 2008-2010 and hit just 33 this season. Alabama was down to 23 from an 86.6 average over the same time period. Home runs were 20 percent lower than the 2011 NCAA average in the six schools known to use Nike bats. None of the top 20 NCAA teams in home runs used Nike bats.

All together, they paint an unforgiving picture. But before we blame the Nike bats, we have to examine the statistics further. If we are to lend credence to the fact that none of the top 20 teams used Nike bats, we should have an idea of the proportion of Nike-bat teams to the whole. Well, we don’t know how many teams use Nike, but there are 280 teams in division one NCAA baseball. If we are only looking at six known Nike-bat schools, then perhaps that top 20 thing is not so significant. Perhaps our sample is not even significant.

As for the power drops at the programs mentioned, they seem dire. But first one has to put these drops into context as well. Absent team numbers for the past decade-plus, we can look at home run trends across all of the NCAA, courtesy their own website.

Take a look at 1988 and 1989 for example. That year, home runs per team per game dropped precipitously. That is a 20% drop… in a year in which there was no major bat change. If the NCAA has seen drops like this before, then even a high-powered perennial contender like Miami has probably seen a large power drop before.

Finally, the graph shows that the new standards cut home run power across baseball around 45%. Now the 60+% drops in Alabama and Miami look like they might be within a standard deviation or two from the mean. In less exact terms, are we going to blame Nike bats if one program’s home run power drops even 70% if the national mean drop was 50%?

The bat was meant to sap power, in a way. Technically, it was meant to eliminate most of the trampoline effects that separated metal bats from their wood brethren. The guidelines for the new bats, which were suggested in part by Professor Alan Nathan, sound a little confusing to those that don’t remember much of their physics. If given an incoming speed and an outgoing speed, and the weight in the barrel of the bat, engineers can easily calculate the so-called ball-bat coefficient of restitution (BBCOR).

Put most simply, the BBCOR is a measure of the “bounciness” of the ball-bat collision, and the new metal BBCOR number was meant to equal wood’s. The procedure for measuring it in the laboratory is very well defined and understood.

Alan Nathan has confidence that the smart engineers at Nike have the standards well in hand. “They are smart guys!” Nathan exclaimed in reference to an article that suggested that reliably measuring BBCOR was “part of the problem.” Perhaps the team had a hard time building bats to meet the specification, or perhaps it was a company decision about allocation of resources, Nathan continued, but it was not an inability to measure BBCOR.

There’s even a possibility that the Nike engineers are too good at their job. It’s a well-known fact that you can tamper with an Easton bat through the process of ‘bat-rolling‘ (please skip ahead to about 4:00). Some feel that the Nike bats cannot be tampered with in the same way.

Perhaps what is most clear about this story is that we don’t know the whole picture. Statistically, we are only just now figuring out the effect of the change in bat standards across baseball. And when it comes to Nike’s decision-making process with regards to the bat, we don’t know the company’s motives.

We do know that we cannot blame all of the University of Alabama’s power outage this year on their particular brand of bat. And that might be all we know for sure.

Thanks to Alan Nathan and Aaron Fit for their input. Here’s more background about the new bat.

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

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