Monday, July 27, 2009

Moratorium placed on composite bats

By Aaron Fitt
Baseball America

Nestled amidst all the back-patting and reports of cheery economic and academic prospects during the "State of Baseball" news conference prior to the College World Series, NCAA officials revealed their concern over hyper-performing bats.

Specifically, bats that used composite barrels tended to demonstrate significantly enhanced "trampoline effect" toward the end of their life cycles and were susceptible to a form of tampering known as "bat rolling" (a process that puts a bat at its maximum hitting potential from the get-go without having to wear it out first).

The NCAA announced that all bats would be tested prior to the CWS, and bats that failed the tests would be discarded. It turns out, 80 percent of the composite bats exceeded the current NCAA acceptable performance level, according to a memo sent by the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee to bat manufacturers in July. That same memo recommended the only remedy to college baseball's composite bat dilemma: an immediate and indefinite moratorium on all bats that use composite barrels. The moratorium will be considered (and likely approved) by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel at an August meeting.

"Because all bat designs must pass this test before mass production, this research indicates that the performance of such bats changed thereafter, mostly likely due to repeated, normal use and/or intentional alteration," the memo said. "Offensive statistics at the Division I level also indicate a significant increase in batting averages and home runs the past two seasons."

Indeed, scoring and home runs per game have all spiked in the past two years, coinciding with the increased use of "hot" bats. Scoring and home runs in Division I baseball reached their highest levels in 2009 since bat standards were altered in 1998, the end of the "Gorilla Ball" era.

Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, a former chair of the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee and the current president of the American Baseball Coaches Association, began lobbying other coaches and administrators to take action midway through the season after noticing greatly enhanced exit speeds off some composite bats. Typically, Corbin said, balls that are squared up by hitters with good bat speed will come off normal metal bats at 95-99 mph. But this spring, Corbin and his staff noticed a number of exit speeds in excess of 110 mph, topping out at 117. Obviously, that kind of bat performance is a threat not only to the integrity of the game, but also to the safety of the players on the field.

"I wouldn't suggest that every hot bat has been tampered with, but I would say that bat rolling is no longer a thing of the past," Corbin said. "I think people are quick to judge that it's rolling because I think the bat itself seems to get better over the course of time until its lifespan runs out. There's no question about that; if anyone denies that, they're being completely naive."

Rules Committee chairman Bob Brontsema, the coach at UC Santa Barbara, said the threat to players' welfare was "the last piece of the puzzle that made the moratorium push through." He added that the Rules Committee tried to come up with a solution that would keep the composite bats in play, acknowledging that the ban places a financial burden on some schools that use the bats, but ultimately there was no practical way to police the bats without banning the composite barrels. But this decision doesn't mean the end of composite bats.

"As the bat standard moves closer to wood bats, the composite bat will be important to have in place," Brontsema said. "We're hoping the bat companies can make the changes to get that bat back in play as soon as possible, so it doesn't get hotter as it gets older."

For more on college baseball, check out Baseball America.

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