<
>

Good and bad with new equipment

5/4/2011

La Puente Bishop Amat right-hander Jordan McCraney settled into his delivery just as he had countless times in his four-year career with the Lancers.

The date was April 12. Bishop Amat's game against Del Rey League rival Pasadena La Salle had just started. McCraney rocked back and grooved a pitch to La Salle's best hitter, Bowdien Derby, who unloaded a crisp, level swing, sending the ball screaming back toward the mound and directly at McCraney's head.

For a split second it seemed as though the game was about to take a tragic turn. But the ball lingered in the air just long enough for McCraney to stick out his glove and knock the ball down.

Crisis averted.

A year ago McCraney might not have been so lucky. It can't be proved whether his ability to react in time was aided by California Interscholastic Federation's tightened standards on non-wood bats, which mandated the use of BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bats and other CIF-approved bats. But the fact those bats carry a reduced exit velocity on batted balls caused by a lessened trampoline effect certainly didn't hurt McCraney's ability to protect himself.

"There's no doubt that because they reduced the exit velocity off the bat that it's allowed for more reaction time," Bishop Amat coach Andy Nieto said. "How much? I think that's still yet to be seen."

In the past, pitchers were vulnerable to rocketed line drives hit off charged aluminum bats at speeds that left players with little to no chance to safely protect themselves. The increased level of danger took center stage in March 2010 when a 16-year-old pitcher in Kentfield, Calif., was put in a coma after getting hit in the head by a ball reportedly travelling 100 mph. The decision to revamp the composite bat standards in California was made with those kinds of plays in mind, and area coaches agree the game is safer because of it.

There is a side effect to the new safety measures, though. Without the supped up bats, power numbers throughout the Southland have dropped -- any coach will tell you as much. Balls that used to be hit out of the park are now just deep flyouts. Doubles hit into the gap have become harmless popups. Batting averages have dwindled, while teams have had to look beyond the long ball for ways to get runs across the plate.

Bishop Amat star third baseman Rio Ruiz said he noticed the difference between the old composite bats and the BBCORs the first time he tested the new bats during a batting practice session last summer. It took Ruiz only a few swings to determine the BBCOR "didn't feel right," and he asked his coach if he could opt for a wood bat even though the BBCOR is more explosive.

Nieto said one of the reasons the bat feels foreign to hitters is its top-heavy weight distribution. To offset the heavier feeling bat, Nieto encouraged his players to use bats that were an ounce lighter.

Ruiz eventually adjusted to the different equipment and said the bats don't seem to bother any of his teammates after more than half of the season. Though he doesn't deny the impact still lingers in the game.

"The power hitters aren't hitting as many home runs with these BBCOR bats," said Ruiz, who was hitting .444 with eight doubles and two home runs through 23 games.

"They're just hitting line-drive doubles and singles, and you know it's still the same result either way. It's aluminum but the difference between these is like bar none. You guys will see it. You've got balls that you think are going to be absolutely crushed and they just die."

Teams across Southern California now are finding it necessary to manufacture runs instead of waiting for the home-run fueled rally.

"[It's] affected many programs' offenses in terms of having to now what we call 'skill it up' meaning that now they've been forced to alter their offense in terms of their ability to score runs and try to manufacture runs," Nieto said.

Bunting is now a valued tool for any hitter, and hit-and-run plays are a necessary weapon.

According to Huntington Beach Edison coach Steve Lambright, the small-ball approach is needed because the same level of production from the lower portion of a lineup is not what it was in the past. With older bats, weaker hitters could still send balls into the gaps with regularity, and a ball not quite squared up could loop over the infield and find a hole in the outfield.

"We have bunted a lot more, moving runners over," Lambright said. "The bottom part of your lineup, you're trying to generate some offense. Where normally those guys have had those old kinds of bats. ... 'OK, just let them sit back and swing and then get a base hit with that old bat.'

"Well now it's like they're not as good as of hitters [with] that bat, which neutralizes their offensive production. And so you find yourself doing a little bit more hit and runs, a little bit more bunting to try to create some offense."

Edison was averaging 5.15 runs per game after 20 games this season, down just a third of a run from last year's average.

Santa Ana Mater Dei, last year's CIF-Southern Section Division I champion, has actually seen increased offensive production despite enduring a relative power outage. The Monarchs had 13 home runs through 22 games, after slugging a whopping 29 in 30 games last year.

That team, though, posted a .308 batting average, while the current Mater Dei squad is hitting at a .351 clip. Some of those differences are a product of new personnel, as the Monarchs lost a number of their top boppers from last year to graduation, including Cory Hahn, who led the team with 10 home runs. But the Monarchs have made a concerted effort to stop swinging for the fences, and it's paying off.

"I think our doubles and home run numbers are down, but actually our batting average is up," Monarchs coach Burt Call said. "We've really concentrated with line drives and gap to gap and not worrying about power numbers."

Call continued: "I think they realized the ball is not traveling. So they're more worried about execution and gap-to-gap. And I think for our team that's paid off quite a bit for our run production."

Other programs, though, are feeling a greater pinch at the plate.

Through 19 games, West Hills Chaminade averages 3.53 runs per game this year compared to 6.56 during the 2010 season. The Eagles began the year using a BBCOR model, but players and coaches were so disenchanted with their results that they decided to make a switch a couple of weeks into the season.

Chaminade coach Frank Mutz said the team got together for a round of batting practice sessions with the sole purpose of comparing the performance of different bats. It was soon clear that balls hit with identical swings would travel significantly farther off of the non-BBCOR bats, and that's all it took for them to ditch the BBCORs for CIF-approved Louisville Slugger TPX Dynasties and DeMarini Vendettas.

The switch quickly paid off for the Eagles, and they started hitting the ball at their accustomed rate.

"We were getting two and three and four hits a game -- five hits a game," Mutz said. "We went from four to five a game, now we're getting 10 to 12 hits a game. And balls that were hitting gaps -- were getting run down -- now they're getting to the fence. They're not going out, but they're at least getting to the fence."

When asked why all teams aren't eschewing the BBCORs for other legal options, Mutz replied that some might not have put forth the time to test out all available bats.

The change hasn't totally solved Chaminade's offensive struggles, however, as Mutz attributed a recent one-run loss to bats that are CIF-approved but still not as potent as ones in the past.

"It cost a game yesterday having to use those other bats," Mutz said. "One of our kids in the bottom of the seventh inning, the ball that he just absolutely crushed and hit the top of the fence. He hit the yellow stripe on the fence. Last year's bat that ball's 30-40 feet out."

While it might seem like a frustrating time to be a hitter in the Southland, there is one benefit related to playing with BBCOR bats. A .400 batting average truly is a sign of an elite hitter. Those who stand out now, really stand out when trying to identify next-level players.

"You can tell who can hit," UCLA coach John Savage said. "The power is really down across the board. If you see a guy with two or three home runs you realize he has some power. Before, that doesn't mean much. The cream of the crop hitters has risen that's for sure."

David Ely is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.