High school baseball in 2012 has a whole new look and sound.
Gone are the bloated offensive numbers and high-pitched pings that had been the norm since metal bats made their way into the game in the 1970s.
With new "deader" bats now the standard, emphasis has shifted from power to strategy ... from long ball to small ball.
“This is my third year as a head coach here and this is the first year I’ve called a hit-and-run,” South Grand Prairie coach Dennis Pelfrey said. “Typically we run and steal bases and a not worry about sacrifice bunting or hitting-and-running. This year we’ve called more sacrifice bunts than I ever have and more hit-and-runs that I’ve never called before.”
The bats now outlawed from the high school game fell under a standard known as Ball Exit Speed Ratio. For a bat to be eligible for use, it needed the BESR stamp of approval, stating that the exit speed of the ball off the bat, depending on the speed of the pitch, was not too great for fielders to have a chance to react.
Safety issues still arose under the former standard, resulting in the NCAA and eventually the National Federation of State High School Associations to change to a new standard -- Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution. As part of the NFHS adopting the BBCOR standard, the UIL and TAPPS followed suit for the 2012 season.
BBCOR, in laymen’s terms, measures the trampoline effect of the bat as the ball makes contact. The standard governs the amount of energy lost in contact at a measure of 0.5, which is just slightly greater than that of a wooden bat.
Easton, one of the top metal bat manufacturers, offers this explanation on its website:
In the past, when a pitched ball made contact with an alloy or composite bat, the barrel would flex inward ever so slightly and the ball would retain some of its energy resulting in farther hits. Wood bats don’t have as much “give” to them and the ball loses much of its energy upon impact. Like BESR, the BBCOR standard ensures that non-wood bats perform more comparably to wood bats in an attempt to level the playing field.
“There’s definitely not as many cheap home runs and cheap hits,” Rockwall-Heath coach Greg Harvey said . “Those are now caught. It makes you focus on the fundamentals of the game.”
The NCAA was first to implement mandatory use of BBCOR bats in 2011 and offers the best statistical case study of the comparability of BBCOR bats to wood bats.
In 2011, the first season of BBCOR bat use, the batting average of all NCAA Division I schools fell from .305 to .282, the lowest it had been since 1976, the third year metal bats were used in the NCAA. Scoring was down from 6.98 runs per game in 2010 to 5.58, which is a low that hadn’t been seen since 1975. Home runs per game finished at a 0.52 clip, down from 0.94 from 2010 and also the lowest since 1975.
Through around 10 games for most Division I teams this year, the nationwide batting average was .267.
Although the sample size is smaller at the high school level, the downward trend in offense has been apparent.
For example, Rockwall-Heath featured two of the area’s top hitters in Jovan Hernandez and Jake Thompson, who helped the Hawks blast 48 home runs in 41 games in 2011. With Hernandez and Thompson both back for their senior seasons, the Hawks hit 12 home runs through their first 20 games of 2012.
Coaches say they're willing to scratch out runs one at a time rather than risk stranding runners while attempting to put up a crooked number in a big inning. That means more hit-and-run attempts, a willingness to give up outs to move up runners and utilizing squeeze bunts to push across runs.
“Is it going to be a 2-1 game or a 9-7 game?” Harvey said. “If we’re in a game where it doesn’t look like we’re going to score a lot of runs, we’re going to look for a run. Smaller innings are a bigger part of the game now.”
On the converse, the skipper in the opposite dugout must have his team defensively prepared to handle strategic hitting.
Highland Park’s Fred Oliver crafted a Hall of Fame coaching career by implementing the fundamentals of small ball into his strategy even when BESR bats were allowed. His focus in the dawn of the BBCOR era is preparing his players to defend against the bunt with greater consistency.
“I’ve seen a lot more bunting, so you have to be prepared for that with a good bunt defense,” Oliver said “They are just lower scoring games, like 4-3, 2-1 and 1-0. We’ve lost seven games this year by one run, so I think it has affected the game.”
Players around the area have noticed the changes and have been forced to make adjustments, big and small, for the new bats. Those adjustments range from completely changing a swing to not relying on the sound of the bat for judging whether good contact was made.
“It’s going to bring out the best hitters and helping to show what they’re going to do the next years in college,” said Mansfield Timberview center fielder Chuck Taylor, a UT-Arlington recruit and major league prospect.
Current San Jacinto Junior College player Justin Byrd spent his high school years in Dallas under the BESR standard, leading the area in hitting in 2010 with just under a .700 batting average at First Baptist Academy. He said he experienced some growing pains with the new bats in college last year.
“The spring rolled around and threw us for a loop,” Byrd said “Early in the season you still get the guys, and I did it myself, who tried to drive it out of the park and you come up short with these new bats. You can tell a difference in a good 10 to 15 feet. Balls I crushed that were no-doubters with the old bats were getting caught at the warning track.”
While hitters are being thrown for a loop, pitchers have been able to thrive.
Oliver said his pitchers have gained confidence knowing they no longer have to nibble around the corners. They can, instead, go after hitters, aggressively hitting different spots in the strike zone.
“You see guys that get jammed on inside pitches in years past who hit doubles down the line or even balls that leave the yard,” Pelfrey agreed. “Now you’re seeing actions like a ball would break a bat if they were using wooden bats in the big leagues. It’s the same type of actions where the ball doesn’t go anywhere.”
Pitchers with less-than-breathtaking velocity but above-average accuracy have become more valued.
“The guy throwing the ball in the low to mid 80s with control is a special commodity,” Oliver said.
Overall, coaches agreed that the new thud of BBCOR bats takes the game back to the way it was played when they were novices in the study of baseball strategy, which is a refreshing change in a time where young players can be more worried about the chicks who dig the long ball than the basics of the game.
"Our coaches have preached all season how the game has changed more drastically this year than it ever has for high schoolers," McKinney North outfielder Heath Beasley said. "Small ball is back for high school ball."