Switch to BBCOR bats slows exit speed, hinders Oxford slugger Goodson’s chance for homer record
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Apr 20, 2012 | 5936 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
OXFORD — Chasing a state home run record would have been the perfect way for Mathew Goodson to end his high school career.

The Oxford senior burst onto the scene by hitting 12 homers as a freshman, including the game-winner against Vestavia Hills that sent Oxford to the state finals. He hit 22 home runs as a junior, and 27 as a senior would have left him atop the state’s career list.

The chase of history would have sweetened a season that has seen Goodson hit .415 and helped get Oxford back into the state playoffs after a year’s absence, but a funny thing happened on the way to history.

“It’s unfortunate that the bats changed on him his senior year,” Oxford coach Wes Brooks said.

Goodson enters Oxford’s home playoff series with Hewitt-Trussville with six home runs this season, a victim of timing in a nationwide power down of high school baseball.

Following the NCAA’s lead, the National Federation of State High School Associations adopted the BBCOR standard in 2010 and implemented it for this season. This comes a season after college baseball switched to BBCOR bats.

The new bats have brought a new sound to the high school game, a thud instead of a familiar aluminum ping.

Most importantly, bats that meet the Bat-Ball Coeficient of Restitution standard have slowed the ball’s exit speed coming off the bat. The design was to make the game safer by giving infielders and pitchers a split second longer to react to line drives.

Predictably, the new bats have caused a dramatic power down in offensive numbers, and it has affected other area teams and players as much as Oxford and Goodson.

Cleburne County, a team that has produced strong power numbers in 13 years under Coach Vaughn Lee, has just three home runs headed into its weekend playoff series against Childersburg.

White Plains dropped from 39 home runs in 2011 to seven headed into this weekend’s series against Hokes Bluff. Zach Cunningham hit 13 home runs a year ago but has five this season.

Some falloff owes to wary pitchers who pitch away from players like Goodson. In White Plains’ case, Coach Chad Hudson said the loss of seven key players from a year ago played a role, as well.

But there’s no doubt that the new bats, with smaller sweet spots and wood-like performance, have played the biggest role. Hitters have far less margin for error.

“I guess it doesn’t give you the pop fly home runs that you’re used to getting,” Goodson said.

Why the change?

Jacksonville State coach Jim Case sat on the NCAA rules committee that voted in the BBCOR standard and remembers the clamor for the change within the college ranks. It became clear when NCAA lawyers led off a committee meeting.

“The lawyers came in before we ever started and said something is going to have to happen,” Case recalled. “Something is going to have to change because they were very concerned.

“They had done tests, and they realized how the bats where. They said, knowing what we know, we’ve got to do something to change it.”

The NCAA adopted the standard in 2009 and began using the BBCOR bats during the 2011 season.

The high schools adopted the standard nationally in 2010 and starting using the BBCOR bats this season, and there was research to spur the movement toward change.

The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research tracked direct and indirect catastrophic injuries in high school and collegiate athletics for more than 30 years and found that, between 1982 and 2008, 49 high school baseball players suffered direct catastrophic injuries.

The research tracks amateur levels of baseball, which use metal bats. The NCAA began using aluminum bats in 1974.

The BBCOR standard is the latest change to metal bats, all sparked by injury fears. Nearly a decade ago, bats with more than a minus-5 ratio, length to ounces, were outlawed in favor of a minus-3 standard. Five years later came the switch to the BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) standard, most recently replaced by BBCOR.

“The technology is made so that the ball can only exit off the bat at certain miles per hour,” Brooks said.

AHSAA.com contains a link to a list of NCAA- and NFHS-approved BBCOR bats, as provided by the Washington State University Sports Science Lab.

Thanks to follow-up monitoring, the list of approved bats has shrunk by two this season.

The Marucci 33-inch Cat 52 BBCOR was outlawed effective Feb. 17, and the Reebock 33-inch Vector TLS was disallowed effective March 22.

The follow-up monitoring shows how seriously the NCAA and NFHS take the safety-minded changes.

“Some guys had radar guns on the pitcher,” Brooks said. “The pitch, they’d see that it would be 78 miles an hour, and then they’d see, like, 99 miles an hour off the bat. The ball-exit ratio on the BESR certified was 96.

“When they see that happen, they bring that bat in and test it, and two bats have been taken off the market this year because the exit ratio off the bats was higher than normal.”

Impact on the game

High school baseball has yet to complete its first season with the BBCOR standard, but the change clearly impacted the college game in 2011.

NCAA statistics show that batting averages for Division I programs fell to .282, the lowest since 1976. Runs per game (5.58) and home runs per team per game (0.52) hit their lowest levels since 1975, and team earned-run average (4.67) hit its lowest mark since 1980.

“I think what it’s done is it’s made the college game more like traditional baseball was, where the short game is much more a part of what’s going on now than it was,” Case said. “We went through several years there where there was no reason to bunt.

“… Sacrifice bunts, you see six or seven times the number of sacrifice bunts that you saw three or four years ago. Hitting and running, starting runners trying to stay out of double plays, too.”

Case said sub-3-hour games have also become more common.

Similar changes have been felt on the high school level, and high school players and coaches took time to adjust. Brooks said Oxford was hitting .220 as a team through the first 15-20 games because players used to the old bats hit a lot of fly-ball outs to the warning track.

The Yellow Jackets are up to a .315 team batting average, but that’s still down from .380 a year ago.

Coaches have put a greater emphasis on fundamental swings and hitting line drives and hard grounders. During one week of practice this season, Brooks sent his players running to the foul pole if they swung at a pitch above the belt or hit a ball in the air.

“It used to be batting practice was like an all-star game; everybody was hitting home runs,” said Oxford assistant coach Cale Wright, who handles the Yellow Jackets’ pitchers. “If we hit a home run now, the kids yell and get excited.”

Cleburne County coach Vaughn Lee said his players have become better listeners when it comes to hitting fundamentals, and the Tigers have benefited with the best team batting average (.353) of his tenure.

“It used to be I could preach to a kid and preach to a kid on hitting, and if they didn’t buy in, they could still be a good hitter,” he said. “Now, they’ve really got to buy in to good, fundamental hitting, or they get left behind.

“You can get their attention more now, whereas the bat used to make a liar out of the coach.”

The change has also been felt in the field and on the pitching mound.

Brooks said his outfielders struggled early in the year, starting back then having to run forward as balls fell shorter than expected. Then came the occasional ball hit on the smaller sweet spot of the bat, and it flew over their heads.

Pitchers have become braver with hitters.

“From a pitching perspective, you need to find the strike zone more often,” said Oxford’s Jackson Stephens (9-0), who has given up only two earned runs and one home run all season.

“You don’t want to fool around. You have to be a pretty strong man to get it out of here now.”

The braver pitching approach has caused statistical anomalies. Lee said Cleburne County has benefited by 49 hit batsmen and 80 walks this season.

“That’s an odd ratio,” he said. “I guess they’re not afraid to come in on us anymore because they’re not going to get hammered as much.”

Wright said a pitcher’s new enemy has become the excuse-me single.

“When you get down to the bottom of the (batting) order, a lot of guys, we just throw them fast balls and let them get themselves out,” he said. “If anything, they’re just going to hit a little bloop single.”

The next level

Even with declining power numbers, there will always be a future for players like Goodson. The son of a former competitive power lifter, he can squat nearly 600 pounds and bench press 225 more than 20 times.

Power still plays in college baseball, and he’ll be among the better power hitters out there.

“You would love to have a team where you’re three, four, five and six (guys in the batting order) have the ability to hit the ball out of the park at times,” Case said.

Add speed that comes from Goodson’s strength-to-weight ratio — he plays center field, a speed-need position — and it’s no wonder that the University of Alabama gobbled him up.

But the change to BBCOR bats in college baseball adds impetus for players adjusting on the high school level because college coaches are adjusting their philosophies in scouting and recruiting.

“For a while, it got to where you were looking for bigger, stronger, those type of guys,” Case said. “If you went into a battle, especially with an SEC team, you look at those teams during those years, those kids were huge. If you went into a battle with them, with small guys, you were going lose almost every time.

“I think now it opens up for all of us, even those schools, to recruit a guy who can run, who can steal a base, who can drag bunt, who can push bunt. Those things are qualities people want now.”

Those qualities become even more important at the top and bottom of the batting order.

“It’s nice to me to go back to, one and two, it’s their job is to set the table,” Case said. “Seven, eight and nine are more where you’re handling the bat. You’re hitting and running and trying to move guys into scoring position.”

Case said he likes that the bat change made amateur baseball more of a place for smaller, faster guys with a wide array of skills.

“To me, we’re getting back to more of what baseball is about,” he said. “One of the things that I love about baseball is that we can all play it. When you grow up, you don’t have to be 6-5. You don’t have to be 250 pounds to play. A normal person can play this game, and most do when they’re kids.

“So, you relate to it, and it’s getting back to a game that everyone can relate to, and there’s still a place for that guy who is 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds because he can handle the bat, and he can do some things to help you offensively.

“Four, five years ago, you didn’t want to recruit those guys because everyone had a chance to hit it out.”

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.

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