Offense takes a hit as area teams adjust to new bats
The sound of bat hitting ball is a little different this season in the area's prep ballparks.
For the first time, all U.S. high school baseball teams are required to use a new bat that is intended to improve safety. At the same time, the bat is tempering offensive performances and changing the way teams pitch and play defense.
The bats are called BBCOR, which is the acronym for Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution. Gone is the piercing ping sound as well as the "trampoline effect" of the old metal bats that virtually launched the ball and sometimes made it hazardous to be standing on the pitcher's mound or near third base.
"As a hitter, you can't get by anymore not hitting it off the sweet spot," said Willmar head coach Mark Stier. "When you'd play teams from bigger schools, you could see some of the bigger guys come up (with the old bats) and it could get a little scary playing third base, or if you were playing on turf. You could get lucky with the old bats and swing at anything and hit it out there. That doesn't happen with these bats."
Even early in the season, area coaches are seeing a marked difference.
BOLD head coach Brian Kingery said some his players have hit balls that may have been home runs in previous years.
"I think we'll see a big reduction in home runs this season," Kingery said.
Litchfield head coach Jeff Wollin said he's noticed a difference and that it might even out the competition.
"Players are finding out that these new bats don't have the pop the old ones had," Wollin said. "We've had a couple of guys who just crushed the ball and they died in the outfield. But the (old bats) were getting pretty high tech and were giving teams an advantage if you could afford them. Now, everybody is kind of in the same boat."
The NCAA put the BBCOR bats into play last season and teams in Division I saw a decrease in home runs per game, runs per game and a drop in batting averages, according to Baseball America.
But a survey of college coaches by the American Baseball Coaches Association stated that only 16 percent of the coaches didn't like the new bat. Almost 84 percent said they either liked it or found it acceptable.
The National Federation of State High School Associations adopted the new bat this year. Prep teams can also use wood bats but it's not likely many will opt for wood because of the expense.
Stier said he believes the new bat will improve many skills as younger players come up and shift their focus to making better contact and playing defense.
"It makes you a better hitter," Stier said. "The good hitters are going to be fine. With the younger players, we'll be teaching them to focus more on the sweet spot, which now is six inches compared to 10 or 12 inches before. It will be a cleaner game because the emphasis on defense will be way higher."
A couple of Stier's players like the new bats because it better fits their offensive game.
"They're all right," said Tyler Stegeman, a Cardinals sophomore outfielder. "They're better for my kind of game, which is hitting the ball on the ground and running as fast as I can."
Willmar senior outfielder Aaron Weidemann, who grew up with the old bats, said he needed time to get used to the weight of the new bats but that "after a week I loved them."
"Compared to the old bats, there's a decrease in power completely," Weidemann said. "What I used to hit for fly balls now are ground balls. It's more about physical ability rather than brute strength. I'm not a power guy but now I'm hitting the ball as far as anyone."
The new bats proved to be a considerable expense for teams. Willmar had to replace 28 old bats but that an offseason fundraiser and other donations totaled about $4,000 to help restock the Cardinals' bat rack. The new bats are roughly $300 to $400 apiece.
"Small ball" is now even more an emphasis for coaches and teams, Stier said.
Pitchers are being coached to throw strikes and the Cardinals spend a lot more time practicing bunting, base running and defense, Stier said.
"I talked to college coaches and they're recruiting more guys who can hit line drives, regardless of power," Stier said. "We're relying a lot more on speed on offense and defense. We're only counting on three guys to put balls in the gaps anymore."