In the final two games of the 2011 Division I high school baseball season, Cranston West beat North Kingstown 17-13 and 18-7 to capture the state championship. The Falcons went out with a bang, pounding 27 hits and six home runs in those two games.
It may have been an old era going out with a bang too.
This season, high schools around the country are switching to less potent metal bats in accordance with a decision by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The move follows in the footsteps of the NCAA, which switched to the same bats last year.
Nobody knows exactly what to expect from the new bats – but everybody knows things will be different.
“I think those 10-7 games are going to turn into 3-2 games,” said Cranston West head coach Rob Malo. “Those 17 and 18 run games we had at McCoy last year are probably a thing of the past.”
Concerns about the safety of aluminum bats have been growing for years. Since they’re lighter than wood, they can be swung faster, which in turns makes balls come off faster. On top of that, bats were manufactured to be more and more lively, with a trampoline effect that could take a 90 mile per hour pitch and send it back at almost 110 miles per hour.
The dangers have been well-documented, with stories emerging from around the country of serious injury and even death as a result of line drives off metal bats.
In response, the liveliness of bats has been toned down steadily in recent years, and last season, the NFHS required all bats to meet certain requirements.
The big step came from the NCAA, which instituted the BBCOR bat standard for the 2011 season. BBCOR stands for batted ball coefficient of restitution, which essentially measures that trampoline effect. The new standard says the coefficient of restitution must be .500 or lower, which means that a ball loses in impact roughly half the energy it had coming in. That number is similar to what’s expected from wood bats.
The result should be a safer game.
“For safety reasons, it makes sense,” Malo said. “I think they had to do it.”
The new bats may also make for a different game. Coaches around the state are expecting a lot less offense, which means more of an emphasis on pitching, defense and small ball.
“We’ll be more like National League teams,” Malo said. “It’ll be more of getting a guy on and bunting him over instead of getting a couple of guys on and hitting a three-run homer.”
That isn’t just speculation. In 2011, college baseball’s first season with the new bats, offensive numbers were down across the board. The batting average for all Division I teams combined was .282, the lowest since 1976. Runs scored and home runs were also down, as was team ERA.
“I have some friends who coach in college and in the discussions I’ve had with them, they say the ball just doesn’t fly,” said Cranston East head coach and former Warwick Vets standout Mike Walsh. “When you hit it, it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a big difference.”
The difference is likely to be felt at the high-school level too, with varying impacts for each club. For a team like Hendricken, the dip in offensive numbers might not be as pronounced for the team’s top players, four of whom are Division I signees. But the depth of the lineup may not be as great as usual.
On the flip side, teams like Toll Gate and Warwick Vets that have had their offensive struggles in recent years, might still struggle but could find themselves on a more level playing field.
“You can see the numbers with the college teams,” Malo said. “So I can only imagine how much everything’s going to go down for us. It’s a smaller sweet spot, and I’ve heard the ball goes about 20 to 30 feet less than with the old bats. You’re going to see a big difference. The days of getting jammed and hitting a double to the gap are over.”
Malo made sure all his players knew about the new rules at the first informational meeting. He gets the feeling that the hitters aren’t too excited about it, although pitchers probably don’t mind one bit. Many players experienced a similar switch last summer, when American Legion Baseball instituted wood bats.
“They know the numbers are going to be down,” Malo said.
But in terms of the way the game is played, that may not be a bad thing. The switch to wood in legion ball drew mostly positive reviews.
“I liked it very much,” said Jim Foster, a member of the Rhode Island American Legion board of directors. “I thought it was a big equalizer for teams when they played each other. I think it put a lot more of the fundamentals of baseball back into the game, like bunting, hit and runs and stealing. You saw a lot more of that this summer than you have in the past.”
Coaches expect a similar style of play to develop this summer.
“We’ve talked as a staff about doing more to try to create runs,” Walsh said. “I think it’s going to add a lot to make the game more traditional. It’s going to be more about pitching and defense. We’re definitely going to work on bunting, hit-and-runs, hitting it to the right side – all the little things that we’re going to need to do.”
The new bats will also change the approach for pitchers. Experienced pitchers will be primed to attack hitters who won’t have as much of an edge.
“It’s going to show the holes in some of these guys’ swings,” Walsh said. “We’ve already had a discussion about throwing inside more. That’s something we’ve always done anyway, but now it’s an even bigger focus. We want to work both sides of the plate.”
In addition to safety, one of the objectives of the switch on the part of the NFHS was to create balance between teams. For teams like Pilgrim and Cranston East, who have been just outside the upper echelon in recent years, it’s easy to envision the possibilities.
“We’ve always relied a lot on pitching and defense because we don’t score a lot of runs,” Walsh said. “What I’m hoping is that the teams that come out and pound the ball like Hendricken, North Kingstown, Cranston West – it might narrow the gap a little bit with teams like that.”
Rhode Island’s teams will find out exactly what that means soon enough. Monday was the first day of spring sports practice. Malo’s Falcons didn’t swing the bats on day one but were eager to get in the cage on Tuesday.
It could be the beginning of a new era.
“It’s definitely going to be interesting,” Malo said. “I think it could help us. Going in, we’re definitely going to be focusing a little more on pitching and defense. The game is going to be different.”