This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of “College Diamonds" and has been reprinted with permission.
Southern California’s 21-14 victory over Arizona State in 1998 could have been viewed as a tremendous defensive battle in a league known more for its offensive prowess.
That is, if it had been a football game.
It was a baseball game, and not just any baseball game. It was played on the grandest stage in college baseball – the College World Series. And not only that, two teams bereft of pitching after 13 games in eight tension-filled days scored 35 runs and hit nine home runs to decide the national champion.
As it turned out, it also proved to be a seminal moment in the game of college baseball itself.
“The coaches were feeling the bat was getting way too hot,” said Dave Keilitz, director of the American Baseball Coaches Association from 1994 to 2014. “There were a tremendous number of home runs, and so the ABCA proposed to the NCAA that the bats be studied and looked at and brought more in line similar to the wood bats in terms of performance. Then that year, in 1998 … that was just terrible for the game and that inspired the NCAA to do something.”
Keilitz, along with an engineering professor from Rice, a metal expert from Michigan and a physics professor from Southern Illinois, helped form the “bat panel” to come up with a set of standards by which bat manufacturers had to abide. Called the Bat Performance Factor (BPF) standard, it worked for awhile. But then Keilitz and the coaches noticed the bats started moving back toward a level with dangerous exit speeds while runs and home runs again began to creep back up.
Enter the BBCOR era. Standing for “Batted Ball Coefficient of Resistance,” the BBCOR bat was actually not a metal bat at all but made more from a composite material. And it worked, too, as offensive production starting in 2012 dropped tremendously, so much so that the first two years of its use set records for the fewest home runs hit in Omaha, quite a change from the days of “Gorilla Ball” in the 1990s.
In fact, it altered the game so much that it might have gone too far. In 2010, the last year before BBCOR bats were used, the national average for runs per game was 6.98. Teams also averaged 0.94 home runs per game, and the average ERA was 5.95.
The first year of the BBCOR bat, runs were down by almost 1.5 runs to 5.58 per game and ERA dropped by more than a run to 4.67 while teams averaged just .52 home runs per game. Those trends continued to fall in each category over the next three years to 0.39 home runs and 5.08 runs per game while ERAs dropped to 4.22.
The consensus among coaches was the game had gone too far. So for the 2015 season a new baseball was introduced, one with flatter seams, more like what is used in professional baseball, and the result was an increase in offensive production, one that brought the game more in line to what it should be like.
The home run average shot back up to 0.56 per game and the runs increased to 5.44 while ERAs jumped slightly to 4.57. It wasn’t the bombastic numbers from the 1990s and 2000s, but Keilitz said the coaches praised the results as falling more in line with the true nature of the game.
“It seems to be at the level where coaches are very satisfied,” Dave Keilitz said. “I think we have found the happy medium between too much offense and too little offense with what we have right now with the BBCOR bat and the flat-seamed ball. Overwhelmingly, the coaches support how it is now and we have a good balance between offense and defense.”
But if there’s one constant through all the changes, it’s that the metal – or now the non-wood bat – not only changed the game of college baseball, but actually gave it its own identity.
In with a Thump
It would be almost impossible today to find a college program using anything other than a metal bat, or at least the non-wood BBCOR versions in use for the last four seasons.
That wasn’t always the case when they first came out, however.
Former University of Arizona head coach Jerry Kindall, a 2007 inductee into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame who led the Wildcats to three College World Series titles, remembers the first versions of metal bats weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms despite what they could do to a pitchers ERA.
Kindall was friends with a representative of the Tennessee Thumper bat manufacturer out of Tullahoma, Tennessee. Even though Worth had introduced the first aluminum bat into youth leagues in 1970, the Thumper didn’t debut in college baseball until 1974. It was made from a low-grade aluminum alloy originally developed for the aerospace industry possessing high strength and light weight.
“(The representative) gave us 12 free bats to experiment with knowing they were legalized and if we used them in a game, it would be OK,” Kindall said. “I was skeptical to begin with because, historically, it was hard to convince people about changes in baseball. But because of our friendship I took about a dozen or so for guys to try out in practice.”
Its arrival was, for the most part, met mixed reviews at best.
“The players pretty quickly put a big ‘no’ on them and didn’t want to use them,” Kindall said. “They were very heavy and cumbersome. They had that ‘ping’ sound, that definite ping when you hit a ball. But it was so loud that our catchers, when they had to be behind the plate in practice, they had to have earplugs in, it was that bad. But they didn’t want anything to do with them either and were probably hoping that coach wouldn’t make them use them because they were legal.”
Not all the coaches, however, disliked the bats.
In an Associated Press article from April of 1974, four teams in Texas who won more than 81 percent of their games to that point in the season were asked about the bats. Legendary coaches Cliff Gustafson at Texas, Tom Chandler at Texas A&M, Frank Windegger at TCU and Al Ogletree at UT-Pan American all praised the arrival of the “Era of the Aluminum Bat.”
“Aluminum bats are a great innovation for college baseball just from the standpoint of budgets and convenience,” Gustafson said in the article. “A team can go through a normal season with a maximum of a dozen aluminum bats and at a cost of a little over $200 for a dozen, that’s a lot better than 20 to 30 wooden bats at a total cost of $1,000 to $1,500.”
According to that article, each of the four teams were hitting .300 or better that season, with A&M topping the list at .345. The coaches lauded the bats for taking the sting out of hitting in the cold weather, and Windegger predicted the time that wooden bats would be phased out of amateur baseball within two to three years.
“I think they’re the best thing since aspirin,” Ogletree said. “If they would only invent a ball that would last.”
Kindall, however, maintains the early bats weren’t all that good. How bad were those first aluminum bats? He gave every single one of them away.
After the 1974 season, the Wildcats were invited to play in a tournament in the Netherlands, known as the Harlem Honkbal week. Teams from Cuba, Italy, the United States and a U.S. Air Force team stationed in Europe competed in the tournament.
Even though the national team was winning international tournaments at the time, Cuban baseball then was not as big or as widely known as it is now, so it was, subsequently, not funded as well. In fact, the Cubans asked for any spare equipment teams in the tournament could spare in order for their own teams to play.
Kindall had brought the original Tennessee Thumpers to Holland, and was more than happy to give them to the Cubans at the end of the tournament.
“They were so grateful and willingly took them because they’d never seen a metal bat,” Kindall said.
In later years, Kindall had the opportunity to coach the USA collegiate national teams in the Pan-American games, once as the head coach and another time with 2009 College Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ron Polk. He would be reminded of that first encounter with the Cubans and their willingness to take the metal bats.
And even though Tennessee Thumper didn’t become a major brand name of metal bats the way companies like Easton and Louisville Slugger, just two name a couple, are today, the technology of the metal bat improved by leaps and bounds over time. In fact, Arizona was using metal bats just two years later when it won the College World Series for the first time under Kindall in 1976.
“I don’t want to put the Tennessee people down, but they never got into the hunt for the aluminum bats,” Kindall said. “They tried but the larger companies like Louisville Slugger, Mizuno, Easton, they got right into it and made it a real profitable enterprise for their companies. Pretty soon everyone was using it.”
Advent of Gorilla Ball
Even though the use of metal bats continued to grow throughout the 1980s, it wasn’t until the mid- to late-1990s that there began to be real concern with prolific use of the bat in the college game.
Thanks to technological advances in the bats, they became more durable but, more importantly, turned what would have been sure-fire, routine fly balls into deep shots over the fence. Those technological advancements made them lighter, easier to swing, and, in the late 1990s, introduced the double-walled aluminum bats that were made of two thin aluminum tubes, a smaller one set inside a larger one.
Those thinner walls improved the bats performance, increased the bat’s strength and also enhanced the trampoline effect of metal bats, launching balls farther and at greater exit speeds. There were also the scores.
Suddenly, the traditional bat companies like Easton and Louisville Slugger were joined by a host of other companies – DeMarini, Marucci, Rawlings and even clothing and shoe giant Nike, just to name a few.
In fact, Easton executive Jim Darby is a little surprised, though he understands how strong tradition is, that the pros haven’t even looked at using the current composite bats.
“When you figure that every kid who plays the game, every guy on a big league team today used non-wood bats as a kid,” Darby said. “Why would amateur baseball players want to use wood bats? Half a million kids play baseball in high school in the U.S., and how many of those kids sign pro? Less than 1 percent? Why in God’s name would you use a wood bat to help evaluate talent?
“Thirty years ago they asked Pete Rose if it should be tougher for the pro scouts to judge guys when using aluminum bats. He said, ‘Look, if you can hit, you can hit, it doesn’t matter if it’s with wood, a flyswatter or aluminum bats.”
While those first bats in 1974 weren’t exactly the most technologically advanced tools in the game, the same cannot be said today. Bat manufacturers spend a great deal of money on bat research trying to give amateur players the best possible tool to take to the plate.
“It’s a major part of our revenue stream for the baseball business,” Darby said. “It’s a major component of our business although we are fortunate that other areas have also picked up for us. Ball gloves, catcher’s gear, helmets. But the bats are still the main component of our business. We’re not the No. 1 ball glove seller in the country, so I think for other companies, the gloves mean more to their business. But the bats are a major part of our business.”
Research and Development
It was clear after the 1998 College World Series final that something had to change.
“That heralded the rules makers to do something to the bats to make them act like wood bats,” Kindall said. “Most of us in Division I were all trying our best to score 25 runs and win a game. We saw it getting so out of hand. It was lethal, for one thing, the third baseman and pitcher were now sitting ducks for a line drive that came at them much faster than with wooden bats, dangerously so.”
Still, it wasn’t until the Crisco-Greenwald Batting Cage Study of 1997-98 – which actually wasn’t released until 2000-01 – that there was definitive proof of greater exit speeds off metal bats than wood. A total of 19 players, including six collegiate players, participated in the study using two wood bats and five different metal bats.
The results showed an average exit speed of 98.6 MPH from the wood bats compared to anywhere from 100.6 MPH to 106.5 MPH on the five different metal bats. The solution was bats manufactured under the BPF regulations, which limited the circumference of the barrel to between 2 3/4 inches and 2 5/8 inches and the ounce-to-inches ratio to three or less.
However, it would be another 10 years before the most significant change to metal bats was made with the introduction of the BBCOR standard. The BBCOR standard significantly reduced the exit speed of a batted ball by changing the construction of a bat away from aluminum alloy to a reinforced carbon fiber polymer, or composite, bat.
The changes didn’t come as a surprise, but what was a surprise was how quickly they were implemented. The BBCOR was adapted quickly after the end of the 2010 season and implemented for the 2011 season, giving bat companies only a few months to develop and mass produce bats that were used that season.
As a result, the 2011 College World Series was the lowest-scoring in the event’s history, with South Carolina beating SEC rival Florida 2-1 and 5-2 in the championship series.
Kindall, for one, applauded the change that continues to this day.
“I think it’s about as good as it’s going to get without going back to wood bats,” Kindall said. “I applaud the bat companies for going to great lengths and expense to put the bats within the limits set by the NCAA. I thank the NCAA for their vigilance and after watching the dangers increase, bringing different things into this wonderful game of baseball.
Darby, however, questioned the logic of reducing injuries for the quick implementation of the BBCOR standard. What it did was force bat companies to shift their research and development divisions into overdrive, and the second generation of BBCOR bats were vastly different than the initial product.
“The first bats were just basically duds,” Darby said. “I don’t know if our engineering guys knew what they had created. You’ve got to have some time to develop the product and that didn’t give us that time, didn’t give any of our competitors any time to come up with a product. I understand wanting less performance but you still have to have some performance. The way they did it didn’t give anyone enough time to develop a product that was good for the game.”
Nowadays, however, it’s hard to find a college game where the results of years of research and development aren’t on display. The invention and widespread use of non-wood bats, Darby said, helps give the college game its own identity, separate from the pro game.
And today, thanks to tremendous television exposure and the broadcast of hundreds of games each year on ESPN, Fox Sports and conference networks, companies receive a nice dose of free advertising every time a player steps to the plate.
These days, bats aren’t just silver pieces of metal with a small logo. Today, bats come in all colors with wild lettering a graphics blasting the company’s name. Numerous schools even have exclusive contracts with certain bat companies.
“One of the things that’s happened over the last 30 years is you have the advent of ESPN, and that has changed a lot how people look at sports today,” Darby said. “One of the things that helps college baseball is the fact that it uses non-wood bats and the game is more exciting and getting more viewership. With the advent of the Pac-12 Network, the SEC Network, the Longhorn Network, the Big 10 Network, you have a lot of college baseball on TV that gives companies a platform to have their product seen.
“Then there’s the internet. Kids get a new bat and show it off on Facebook, and that goes out to other kids. The way to promote products has changed over the last 20-30 years for sure.”
Given all those changes, the talk of college baseball, or amateur baseball in general, going to wood bats seems to have died down significantly. Maybe for good.
“There’s always been talk of it forever but I don’t think it will happen now,” Keilitz said. “There are a lot of factors involved. You’ve got the cost factor, then you have the contracts that bat companies have with all the schools. I think that talk has died down now the last couple of years, especially this past year with the flat-seamed ball and the performances that coaches seem satisfied with now.”
At the least, the days of baseball championships being decided by football scores seem a thing of the very distant past.