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.


34 Responses to “The Nike Bat Kerfuffle: Much Ado About Nothing?”

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  1. Bora says:

    How are you able to determine the extent of the individual effects of what seems like a blend of variables here? To explain further we have seen an overall decrease in performance from a hitter’s perspective due to BBCOR indefinitely:
    http://www.kettering.edu/physics/drussell/bats-new/NCAA/BattingAvg.jpg

    and

    “Home runs left parks at an average of .52 per team per game in 2011 compared with .94 last year and 1.06 in 1998 (also the peak year for that category). That resembles wood-bat days, too (.42 in the last year of wood in 1973, and .49, .50 and .55 in the first three years of metal).

    Batting average in 2011 was .282, the lowest since 1976. Earned-run average, on the other hand, was its best (4.70) since 1980 (4.59).”

    Taken from:
    http://www.ncaa.org/wps/wcm/connect/public/NCAA/Resources/Latest+News/2011/July/New+bats+are+a+hit,+for+some

    It seems from the view of this article that the blame is due to Nike when it seems possible that it could be the obvious and manufacturer-widespread detraction of the BBCOR standard. How are you able to isolate Nike’s bats as the main driver of poor offensive statistics relative to previous years? I feel you would need to test Nike schools vs other schools and look at only 2011 data in order to come up with that sort of conclusion….
    -Bora

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Isn’t that what the author did.

      Teams that used Nike bats experienced a greater reduction in power than those that did not.

      The author was saying that simply based on that information, you cannot blame NIKE for the extra reduction.

      You could blame small sample, the better pitching in that conference/region, higher humidity as compared to other regions, … or even Nike bats.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      You didn’t read very well. HR’s across all Division I schools dropped 45% since last year; power at Nike schools dropped 60ish%.

      The main point of the piece is that we can’t make any real conclusions based on the data.

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      • Rudegar says:

        How about before this year? In years prior to this one, the power difference was much greater between non-Nike and Nike bats. One team in particular blames an CWS loss on having the wrong bats as their competitor slugged their way to a win in the finals.

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    • Jack says:

      #TIM
      english isnt his first language

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      • Bora says:

        60%-45% = 15% a 15% different from the mean. Can anyone cite the standard deviation as well?

        Small sample size is to blame for that discrepancy.

        I read that part. Seems like I did miss the author’s ambiguous motive though. I will re-read and re-read again next time.

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        Unfortunately NCAA did not provide the SDS.

        I just don’t understand your reaction Bora. I title the piece much ado about nothing, and then tried to show the weakness in the original article’s statistical assumptions, then tried to show that there is a big power drop across NCAA baseball, then tried to show that the standards are clear and Nike understands them.

        If anything, I went too far in the other direction. There is a possibility that Nike bats are to blame, but I personally doubt it after looking at what’s out there.

        What’s missing is a comprehensive database for NCAA stats, which I don’t have access to. But wish I had!

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      • Bora says:

        Initially reading this I saw it to be an argument targeting Nike without much consideration for BBCOR. The article you wrote fits what I thought I was missing, leaving my initial post very forgettable.

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  2. CircleChange11 says:

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

    Isn’t the arguement that th epoiwer outage would not have been as severe with a different, albeith BBCOR-compliant, bat?

    How would we know that.

    Hopefully, the analysis isn;t just saying [1] home runs are down across the board in college baseball, and [2] there have been big power outages before. Thus, NIKE bats are not the cause of Alabama’s severe power outage.

    Wouldn’t that be a faulty assumption, hasty generalization, or perhaps an incorrect statement.

    ‘Bama and Miami’s power reduction could, actually, be a result of NIKE bats being “less bouncy” than the bats everyone else is using.

    You ask the question …

    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%?

    Isn’t the answer “maybe”? Or “possibly”?

    There’s lots of possibilities, but I don;t think one can rule out Nike bats as one of those possibilities. Certainly NIKE thinks it’s possible, perhaps even probable.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Yeah, the conclusion of the piece seems to go too far in the opposite direction (i.e., “don’t blame Nike”). When the correct conclusion based on the same data should be, “The stats show that Nike’s new bats are even worse than other new bats, but the statistics are not so overwhelming to be damning.”

      I also think a more accurate stat would be to use HR’s as a percentage of contact (AB-K+SF) rather than HR’s/game. Maybe a lot of the drop in HR’s at Alabama and Miami is because of a high strikeout rate; it’s hard to blame the bats for that.

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        I added two words to the most forceful part of the conclusion to soften it a little. It is now more exactly how I feel. We cannot blame Nike for all of their power drop, and trying to figure out how much we could blame them for it would require a two-pronged approach that would look into rolled bats and the ability to roll Nike/Easton bats and the prevalence of rolled bats on one hand, and then a more detailed statistical breakdown of the drops (with full knowledge of all Nike programs) across NCAA baseball.

        Might be worth it for a magazine article, a little beyond the scope of a blog post.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        Fair enough on the last sentence. Not asking you to do the research yourself. But (for those interested in the subject), I don’t think your study is conclusive enough that people should stop asking questions. That’s all. As I outlined below, I think there’s a more rigorous study is do-able, without a crazy amount of effort.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Yeah I don’t understand the first comment, but these two I understand.

      I think what Yrmiyahu said in the first thread best sums up my position, but I’m a little more forceful. I don’t think we can blame the Nike bats in particular, especially if there’s a possibility that Easton bats are more manipulate-able… unless one of the goals of the manufacturer should be to allow for secondary companies to alter the makeup of their bat to get around the BBCOR standards.

      In other words, the BBCOR standards are clear, Nike can handle them, the power drops in the programs are most likely within a normal distribution of the power drops across baseball, and there’s a possibility that some programs are altering the makeups of their bats — I don’t really see this as a good case against Nike.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I wonder if Nike has more data on their own bats that leads them to believe that their bats are “less lively” than the other BBCOR-compliant bats.

        I also wonder is Nike advertised a certain performance level, and the bats actually delivered a lesser performance level … which could be a breach of contract or some issue like that.

        By allowing the teams out of their contracts, they may have prevented any type of suit against them.

        It makes ya wonder just what is going on behind the scenes. Certainly bat manufacturers/competitors are looking at all sorts of perofrmance issues with their bats and with the competitors bats … and if Nike bats are not delivering as promised, the rival companies would not hesitate to inform the schools/NCAA and then follow it up with their own sales pitch.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        Sure. But it’s not as if you debunked the theory. I think your inconclusive numbers call for more vigorous research. I assume there’s more than 6 schools that use Nike bats. So then look at HR/contact in 2011 at all known Nike schools against a 2- or 3-year average for the same schools. Compare the % change to the % change for all schools know to not use Nike bats.

        Personally, I’m not particularly interested in why Nike bats might be less bouncy. If it’s because they’re more tamper-proof, it’s still a reason teams and players won’t want to use Nike bats. Is bat-rolling against any rules, anyway? From my understanding, all it is is essentially using mechanical means to ‘break in’ the bat.

        The fact that Nike’s released schools from their contracts is also evidence that the company might have internal data to believe that their bats aren’t performing.

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      • Swingdoc says:

        While I would agree that the data will not lead you to a valid conclusion that there is an issue with the Nike bats, the one year temporary release would seem to make it clear that both sides know there is a performance issue. Why would Nike do this without significant push back from players/schools? Isn’t the temporary release the best solution for both sides that allows Nike the time to go back to the drawing board and fix the issue?

        Also, I can’t imagine that Nike would agree to this if the performance difference was because the competition’s bats were being illegally altered. If this is the case, it will get shut down just like what happened with the composite bats.

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      • Swingdoc says:

        Just one other small point….From Tuscaloosa News

        “A search of the Nike Store online Monday showed that the company no longer sells bats certified for college use on its website. Nike released a statement Tuesday stating that it is still committed to selling bats and that the company continues to believe in the technology used in their production”

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  3. Telo says:

    BBCOR is one factor, size of the sweetspot is another. If a Nike bat is X length, Y weight, and Z BBCOR, and an Easton bat has exactly the same parameters, that doesn’t mean they were engineered the same way. It’s very possible that Nike’s bat didn’t have as big of a sweetspot as other major brands, which could easily explain the larger drop in HRs hit.

    Just a thought, no proof or data to back it up.

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    • Telo says:

      Short version, the bats could easily be inferior, and have the same BBCOR.

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        This could be possible, but one of the inputs into the BBCOR calculation is MOI – the mass of the bat in the barrel. That seems to me to be an approximation of the ‘sweet spot.’ But! I am no physics professor or bat manufacturer. I do think there’s more here to unpack.

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  4. Chris R says:

    All I know is that the word kerfuffle has no place in baseball.

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  5. CircleChange11 says:

    @Rudegar

    That’s the part that interests me.

    As a pitcher, there was a difference in performance betweenDiamond and Wilson baseballs.

    Bat performance is a BIG deal … And big business. For Nike to release teams from their contracts is a decision that likely costs them money. Not only at the college level, but high school and travel ball. This is the era where every player aged 10 to 20 has their own bat and the prices are between 100 and 400 bucks.

    My 10yo has 2 bats, a CF4 and an Easton Stealth. We take BP in 50 pitch clusters, and rotate the bats to keep from using one up. Anyway the difference between the 2 bats (both legal) is about 20 feet in distance in favor of the CF4. On fields with 200 feet fences, that can be significant. The Easton is now his BP bat, and the CF4 is the game bat.

    To me there has to be “something” to this for Nike to nake such a drastic business move.

    It’s also interesting because players and coaches see enough batted balls to detect whether the ball is travelling like they think it should.

    For a team, this could be a very big deal.

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    • Nitram Odarp says:

      I know that Alabama’s players were complaining about the bats throughout the season. They were just locked in to using them because they had an all-sport deal with Nike primarily because of football, but if the players had their choice, not one of them would have been using Nike. From what I heard this was a well known fact within D1 baseball.

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  6. David Carter says:

    Since the 280 teams in Division One Baseball provide a substantial number of the players chosen in the MLB draft, the ONLY thing that makes sense is to go back to wooden bats.

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    • Nitram Odarp says:

      That’s just not a realistic option. The cost would be prohibitive, teams lose a ton of endorsement money from the bat companies, they would end up with very low quality wood bats (best wood goes to the majors, next best to the minors, and in this case pretty much the worst would go to college baseball), and the wood bat companies need something like 3-5 years of lead time to up their production of wood for the bats. Besides, the percentage of D1 baseball players that actually get drafted isn’t all that high and forcing everyone to use wood bats would completely kill offense in the college game.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        as the new BBCOR bats cost more than $400 each

        I don’t think many folks realize [1] how much the metal bats cost, [2] how long they last (one spring … maybe), and [3] how many bats each team buys (likely multiple bats per player).

        Now, it’s very possible that major programs get the bats free to serve as advertizing. That would be the same case with wood bats.

        Wood bats would not be all that costly. As I mentioned before, our HS team has essentially stopped buying “team bats” (and even helmets) because all of the players have their own helmets and bats anyway (not from a wealthy area). Same deal with catcher’s equipment. There are already lots of players with their own wood bats that are used in select team wooden bat tourneys.

        It might be a bigger issue at the college levels where broken bats would be more common.

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  7. Deek says:

    Personally I think one of the most over looked points is the change in rosters year to year. Look at ’06 and ’07 when HR/Game per team was under 0.70 and then 2 years later it peaked at over 1.0 HR/Game per team. All with the same BESR regulations in the bats, probably statistical noise (and maybe a good crop of pitchers).

    A quick look at Alabama’s 2010 roster reveals that 4 players accounted for 51 of their 66 HR’s (Clay Jones – 17, Jake Smith – 15, Josh Rutledge – 10 and Ross Wilson – 9). In 2011 all four player were gone due to graduation or the MLB draft and took along with them 77% of Alabama’s dingers.

    I would think that the only real way to compare bat statistics between manufactures would be to analyze individual players between 2010 and 2011 and look at HR/contact for individual player.

    Any comments?

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      This is good. Was thinking about trying to express this somehow for all of the teams but went about it a different way: I looked in the 2010 draft for those players and didn’t find many at the top. Duh. Should have gone the way you did.

      Well done.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      The best way is to have a machine swing the bats and measure the distance the ball travels.

      Same amount of force in each swing. Set the ball on a T, set the trajectory of the swing, and repeat numerous times with each type of bat.

      In the case of using players 2010 to 2011, the player may be the same, but the opponents are not.

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    • Brian Cartwright says:

      I did just that, do player by player comparisons and quite coincidentally published my results on the same day as this article by Eno. http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/whats-the-effect-of-the-new-college-bats/
      For all 1977 players, I found a HR factor of .57. The 46 players on the 6 Nike teams identified in the linked article had a factor of .47. Somewhat less, but considering the sample size I don’t think it’s significant.

      Alabama and Georgia have two of the three highest ratios in the SEC of player’s HRs in college compared to pro ball, but I normally attribute that to the ballpark. For example, USC, another ‘Nike’ school had the lowest HR factor in the Pac-10, while North Carolina and Miami were right in the middle of the ACC.

      My impression is that the bats standards are being studied more accurately now. It’s possible that before this year Nike bats might have been a little hotter than others, and now with the BBCOR standard their bats are closer to all the others.

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  8. bbc says:

    I could be wrong, but I thought the bat rolling problem was no longer an issue with the new BBCOR bats. Also nike bats break a lot more than easton bats. I played college baseball before the BBCOR standards and we would break a bat a game (end cap would fly off or barrel would dent).

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  9. Real Game says:

    Everyone should use wood.

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