College baseball games might look and feel the same, but pitchers, hitters and coaches know there's a difference this season.
"It's the sound," Augusta State pitcher Josh Evans said. "The sound is more like a thud instead of the ping that you normally hear. You don't have that ping as much any more."
That ping is the well-known sound of college baseball. Instead of the wood bats used in the professional ranks, college hitters use aluminum bats, and the sweet sound of metal crushing a baseball defines the sport at the amateur level.
That is, until this season. A new NCAA rule regarding bats has taken effect this year with plenty of supporters and opponents. The rule requires a strict new standard on bats, taking away developments from bat manufacturers in recent years that produced composite bats with more punch and more ping.
"I don't really know, but I think the biggest thing was more of a safety issue than anything else," USC Aiken coach Kenny Thomas said. "Guy's are getting bigger and stronger, and the ball is coming off that bat a lot quicker than a wood bat."
A metal bat that acts more like a wood bat is exactly the NCAA's target. A new standard, called the Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR), was announced in the fall of 2008 to replace the old Ball Exit Speed Ratio (BESR) standard. A memo from NCAA baseball rules committee chairman Bob Brontsema the following summer banned composite bats completely and the new BBCOR standard took full effect for the first time at the beginning of this season.
"The committee is proposing an immediate and indefinite moratorium on the use of composite barreled bats," said Brontsema's memo sent to the NCAA's athletic directors, conference commissioners and head baseball coaches. "The committee believes this action is needed in order to protect the integrity of the game and to enhance the safety of the student-athletes."
Peach Belt Conference commissioner David Brunk took the idea a step further last summer when he announced his intentions to convince NCAA Division II conferences to drop aluminum bats and switch to wood. Brunk said the idea has gained momentum, but even the recent switch to a metal bat that acts like wood isn't enough, especially when it comes to cost.
"I'm glad there have been some steps made to play the game like wood, but it's still not the real thing," he said. "I keep saying it. Let's bring baseball back to the way it was meant to be."
Coaches and players had their theories as to how the new mandate would change the game. The general consensus was that hitters who don't hit the ball with the best part of the bat, known as the sweet spot, will have trouble driving anything out of the infield.
"A quarter of an inch has never been so big now," Augusta State coach Chris Cooper said. "If you miss the sweep spot by a quarter of an inch, it's not going to go anywhere."
Augusta State and USC Aiken used their fall seasons to get used to the new regulation. The Pacers managed just four home runs in 16 fall games. Augusta State's Tristan Toorie felt the difference immediately and said more than just the ping is missing.
"The sweet spot is definitely tougher to find," he said. "It'll definitely even out the playing field a little bit. The guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark will still do it, but the little guys who aren't necessarily your stereotypical power hitters probably aren't going to be putting up big numbers."
With larger offensive numbers harder to come by, college hitters might have a hard time understanding their future. Once a baseball player commits to college, he doesn't become eligible for the Major League Baseball First-Year Players Draft until he turns 21. Rising juniors often have to decide whether to sign a pro contract or return for their senior year, and those who did remain in college after last season could have a hard time matching their offensive numbers in their senior campaign.
"The interesting thing is if you're a senior coming back and you got drafted in the 30th round last year and you hit 14 home runs," Cooper said. "Now the bat changes, you better hit 14 with this one."
Those home run balls appear harder to come by in the new college game. USC Aiken had played 10 games entering this weekend, and past seasons have seen the team hit almost 21 percent of its total home runs within the first 10 games. With just eight homers hit through their first 10 games this year, the Pacers are on pace to see their long ball total drop by more than 38 percent.
Augusta State, which has averaged a little more than 19 percent of its home runs within the first 10 games of the season, had just four through 10 games this year, a pace that would produce a 20.5 percent drop in home runs.
The positive pitch
The numbers aren't hitter friendly, but that doesn't mean everyone hates them. Just ask a pitcher.
"Of course, I like (the bats). It's cool for me," USC Aiken senior Jason Cochcroft said. "Little things can matter. But wood bat, aluminum bat, crappy new bat -- you want to make (the hitter) earn everything. With these bats, we'll see who can really hit."
The impact has reached beyond the lack of home runs. Cooper said coaches might be forced to change offensive strategies, opting for a small-ball approach instead of waiting for the big hit. Defensively, both USC Aiken and Augusta State spent extra time in the preseason placing more emphasis on bunt coverage. Base runners have come at a premium and the sacrifice is a newly revived tool.
"We've been working extra hard on our bunts, because we know that we'll have to play a lot of small ball," Cochcroft said. "So offensively, we're going to be working hard. We'll have to change our game a little. You can't rely on the big home run all the time."
Another byproduct has popped up beyond the safer atmosphere and reemergence of the small-ball mentality. While three- and four-hour games with double-digit run totals are still around, they're not as prevalent this season. Augusta State's season opener took just two hours to complete nine innings. USC Aiken, which finished its season opener in two hours and 13 minutes, has passed the three-hour mark only in a nine-inning game once so far.
Armstrong Atlantic State beat Salem International 5-0 in a nine-inning game that took just 1 hour, 49 minutes last weekend. UNC Pembroke needed just an hour and 25 minutes to hand Anderson a 6-1 loss in a seven-inning game Feb. 6.
Preps on deck
While college sluggers struggle with their new bats, high school hitters won't be far behind. The National Federation of State High Schools Association (NFHS) has already started the process of banning composite bats and the college rules will apply to the high school game starting next season.
"There are already some stipulations on composite bats, but it's not as strict as college yet," South Aiken athletic director and baseball coach Bob Polewski said. "Next year we'll be under the college rules."
Bats must be marked with the BBCOR certified logo, and some manufacturers are taking extra steps to make sure the public knows the requirements. Eastbay announced a "Bat Buy Guarantee" in January to help protect its customers from the changing regulations.
"If a customer purchases a bat from Eastbay and the bat loses league approval within three months of purchase, the customer can receive a replacement bat," the company said in a statement.
The statement said the new policy also applies to youth bats after the compositive-barrel bats were banned by Little League, Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken leagues.