April 3, 2012
I've admitted many times that I'm one of the biggest stat geeks there is when it comes to baseball.
But even someone who likes to crunch the numbers as much as I doesn't have the time to do the research necessary — on a Gwinnett County-wide scale, let alone nationally — to present any sort of scientific study to the subject of today's High School Hardball.
So, today's offering will be based entirely on anecdotal, "I know it when I see it" evidence. Still, I doubt I'll get much argument when asserting that the new metal bats being used in high school baseball have had an impact on the game — at least, locally — as the regular season nears its midpoint.
Again, I don't have any hard numbers to prove that runs scored or home runs or total extra base hits are down since the National Federation of State High School Associations switched from aluminum to composite, "Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution" bats this season.
But based on everything I've seen so far, and backed by similar anecdotal evidence from coaches I've spoken to throughout the county, the new bats — designed to slow down the speed of the ball coming off the bat in the wake of injuries to players, coaches and umpires hit by batted balls — seem to be having the desired effect.
Consider: • Of the five games I've covered so far, only the last one has there been more than five runs scored combined by the two teams. • In 38 innings over those five games, I've seen just 12 extra-base hits — only two home runs — or an average of just over two per game.
Now, some of this can be chalked up to the fact that there's been some really good pitching in Gwinnett County this year, especially in Region 7-AAAAA, which produces an outstanding mound match-up seemingly every night.
But even as stacked as Gwinnett is with big-time arms this season, it only takes seeing one game to know the brand of high school baseball being played this season is different from past years.
"That bats are making a big difference," North Gwinnett coach Frank Vashaw said after his Bulldogs edged Mountain View 2-1 in one of many pitchers' duels last week. "They hit two balls — (Mountain View's Beau) Blair hit one in the fourth or fifth (inning), (Ben Utley) hit one that (North's) Cody (Short) ran down. And their place (last) Monday, (Alex) Kimble absolutely crushed two that would've been out (with the old bats). The bats do make a pretty big difference, no question."
And Vashaw isn't alone in seeing a difference.
"I agree. I think it's a little bit of both (pitching and the bats)," Mill Creek coach Doug Jones said last month. "There's a difference. We see it every day in (batting practice), and … it's not just the longball."
Yet, while the coaches I've talked have been universal in noticing a difference, they've also been pretty much unanimous in not being bothered by it.
Yes, some coaches admit that their players aren't totally comfortable with the lower-impact bats yet.
"I think it's just setting in," Brookwood's Rick Howard said before his Broncos left for the National High School Invitational last week in Cary, N.C. "I don't think we've made the adjustment yet. Balls don't come off the bat like they used to, and I think we're just now starting to realize that. On our club, that's become a harsh reality."
Still, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Aside from improving the safety factor of the game, the end to "Gorilla Ball," as college baseball was once referred to due to the overabundance of home runs and overall runs scored, has come with some refreshing side effects.
Games, for the most part, seem to be played faster (always a plus for us journalists concerned with deadlines)
Pitchers seem to be more encouraged to work the inside corner without having to knock down every other hitter.
Perhaps most refreshing, small-ball fundamentals like bunts and hitting to the right side to move runners over appear to be more prominent in games.
More than a few coaches have mentioned that the new bats have impacted how they manage games.
"We've always tried to play small ball, but (in the past) you'd sometimes wait for that double in the gap," Howard said. "But today, no question, you can't wait for that to happen. You've got to be more aggressive and more creative."
For those who dig the longball (and who doesn't?), don't worry.
As long as the kids continue to get bigger and stronger through offseason weight training, fitness and nutrition programs, home runs aren't going away anytime soon.
Sure, you won't often see too many seasons like last year — when Providence Christian's Christin Stewart set a new Georgia state record with 26 home runs, and six other Gwinnett hitters posted double digits in round trippers.
It's just that the homers — and all hits, for that matter — will have perhaps a bigger impact on a given game.
"The kids will adjust," Jones said. "I think the college game has adjusted a little bit. It's just taking some time."