College bats debate: new models truer to the game

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 13, 2011 - 6:59 AM

Gophers coach John Anderson has led the charge to make aluminum bats less able to launch rocket shots over fences or at players, helping to give pitching and defense more sway.

A Gophers baseball player showed off one of the new NCAA-mandated bats during practice Wednesday at Siebert Field. The new-style bats are meant to act more like a wood bat. Use of the bats has led to less scoring and fewer home runs compared with the same time a year ago.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Even when he's just talking baseball, John Anderson can sound like a scientist as he summons the jargon, a parent when protecting his players, and a coach pretty much all the time. But listen closely to those voices, and you'll discern Anderson's true identity: He's a revolutionary.

The Gophers baseball coach is a leading proponent of reining in the technology that has transformed the college game by turning bats into catapults and ballparks into shooting galleries. By joining with other coaches to lobby the sport's governing body to implement a series of highly technical standards and provide the muscle to enforce them, Anderson has essentially, perhaps unintentionally, helped trigger a struggle over what the game should be.

Is it baseball as it's been played at the professional level for decades, a give-and-take between offense and defense that rewards a multitude of different skills and teamwork? Or is it a real-life video game, a high-octane fireworks display that lacks subtlety but is rich in crowd-pleasing, made-for-TV taters?

Anderson, Minnesota's coach for three decades, has lived through the latter. Now he is trying to restore the former.

"We got away from what the game is supposed to be," Anderson said. "Pitching and defense are supposed to matter, too."

The NCAA's baseball rules committee, troubled by ever-increasing scoring and alarmed at the danger posed by cannon-shot line drives, agreed. Last year, the committee mandated the most restrictive guidelines yet governing the composition of aluminum bats, which were embraced by the NCAA decades ago out of concern for the costs of breakable wood bats. The complex new rule sounds as if it was written by NASA -- "Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution," or BBCOR, is the crucial measurement, if that gives you an idea -- but essentially it bans the "trampoline effect," which occurs when thin, flexible aluminum depresses upon contact and then bounces back, adding extra speed (and thus distance) to a baseball.

Those design advances souped up the sport to the point, Anderson said, that the game was unfair to pitchers, a problem that peaked (or bottomed out) in 1998, when Southern California wrapped up the most power-drenched College World Series in history with a 21-14 title-game victory over Arizona State.

"The game was turning into softball. There was no regulation of the technology, and it got way out of hand, just like in the golf industry," Anderson said. "No one wants to go pitch out there and take a beating. You see the size of kids these days, then put a lightweight metal bat in their hands -- you want to go pitch to them?"

A drastic change in a year

A few more might want to now, because the change this season has been dramatic. Deadening the bats -- the rule attempts to make aluminum behave as closely as possible to wood -- has stripped nearly half the home runs and one-fifth of the scoring out of college games, according to statistics compiled at midseason by the NCAA. Doubles have become more plentiful, ERAs are down, shutouts are up and defense, particularly in the outfield, has become more critical.

"I believe we have succeeded in restoring, for lack of a better term, true baseball," said Jeff Hurd, chairman of the NCAA baseball rules committee.

Games are more frequently being decided by one run, the NCAA says, making strategy more important and moving the sport away from trigger-finger power and toward speed and athleticism.

"It's definitely changed the game. It separates the great players from the good ones, because not everybody can hit it out once a game anymore," Gophers closer Scott Matyas said. "I think some teams are in culture shock. It's going to take a while for coaches to start recruiting for the game today, but it's made things more exciting."

Easy for a pitcher to say. Gophers first baseman Nick O'Shea hit 13 home runs last season, fourth most in the Big Ten, but has only five so far this year, so he is far less enthusiastic about the change. There are many reasons for his power decline, but O'Shea can tell that his bat isn't as friendly as it once was.

"There have been a number of balls that have found their way into outfielders' gloves instead of over the fence," the junior said with a shrug. "We got used to the [previous] standard, and now we have to adjust, so it's not easy. Maybe it'll be good for the game, maybe not. If we were [playing] well, maybe my answer would be different."

Effects aren't just on offense

Anderson's answer definitely is, despite the defending Big Ten champs' mediocre 19-18 record. As the only head coach on the Division I Baseball governing committee, charged with implementing the new rules, Anderson was vocal about the need for the change, and cutting down on home runs was only a small part of the reason.

More important, he said, was that the bats had become a destructive force on the game, on pitching staffs and potentially the players themselves.

"We were routinely playing 3 1/2 or 4-hour games, and that just turns people off. The bats were so light, guys could flick off pitches, 14 or 15 an at-bat, and pitch counts went up in a hurry," Anderson said. "We've only got 11.7 scholarships for a roster of 25 to 30 guys. We can't recruit enough pitchers who can pitch at this level with that workload."

And the bats had infected the style of pitching as well.

"A lot more fastballs are being thrown now. You don't have to trick hitters anymore," Anderson said. "Everybody before was trying to miss bats. Pitchers were afraid to throw strikes because they just get pounded. Now you can go inside, you can throw the ball by hitters."

It's the balls that go by pitchers and infielders that really concerned the coach. Lighter, springier bats were able to produce line drives that screamed past pitchers' ears at upwards of 110 mph. It didn't take much imagination to predict tragic consequences. The new bats have reduced the "exit speed" off the bat by almost 10 percent; that may not sound like much, but Matyas said it's noticeable on the mound and in the infield, where the defense is able to reach more grounders.

Draining some of the firepower out of bats might make the game more closely resemble professional baseball -- but not everyone necessarily agrees with Anderson that it's a reasonable goal. Some coaches in other conferences have complained that the changes have gone too far. Other observers fear that casual fans, enticed by all the home runs, won't embrace a reduction in scoring.

"A lot of people follow college baseball because it's more exciting than playing with a wood bat -- more doubles, more home runs. That's exciting for people to come watch," said Gophers shortstop AJ Pettersen, who like O'Shea has mixed feelings about the change. "The bats have taken some of that away. We don't always have a huge fan base. I hope we don't turn them off."

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