Changes to college bats for wrong reasons

Baseball is finally back. With spring training in session and the college season starting off this weekend, it’s a beautiful time of year.

For fans of college baseball, however, this season will have a distinctly different feel from years past. This weekend’s games will be the first played under the latest round of aluminum bat regulations, which were enacted by the NCAA over the summer. These new regulations have sought to limit the capabilities of the metal bats by reducing the permitted length of the sweet spot and altering the testing policy used to determine the power generated by various bats.

Prior to this season, a usable bat was permitted to have a sweet spot, the part of the bat most effective at driving the ball upon contact, of up to 22 inches. Truthfully, this may have been somewhat excessive, but the new regulations have slashed the permitted sweet spot down to five inches—less than two baseball diameters.

Along with this change, the NCAA has turned to a different testing method, one that examines what happens to the bat upon impact instead of the ball. Previously, the standard was the “Ball Exit Speed Ratio” (BESR), which, as the name suggests, would measure the speed of batted balls immediately after contact. Bats would only be approved for use in college baseball if they fell within a certain BESR threshold.

The new standard is the Batted Ball Coefficient of Resolution (BBCOR), which instead examines the trampoline effect, an aspect of aluminum bats that allows them to provide additional power. The trampoline effect is essentially negligible for wooden bats, which have virtually no elastic properties, and as such the BBCOR seeks to severely limit how well aluminum bats can take advantage of this effect.

It is true that the new changes will be very effective in terms of increasing player and fan safety because the speed of balls hit into the stands will be reduced dramatically. The problem with these regulations is that they were not enacted in the name of safety; this was simply a secondary objective. The main goal was to reduce the amount of offense that exists in the modern college game by forcing aluminum bats to perform more like wooden bats, which naturally are far less powerful.

In many ways, the issue has fallen into a battle between those who favor the more offensive nature of the game and those who prefer low-scoring affairs.

Ever since USC defeated Arizona State 21-14 in the national title game in 1998, there has been an effort to reduce the level of offense in the modern game, and scoring has generally decreased in the years since—with the notable exception of the past two seasons. Even with restrictions, though, offensive numbers in college baseball tend to be much more prolific than those typically seen among MLB teams. In 2010, the median batting average for the ACC was .303 while the median for the pro circuit was .257.

This begs a question: why is this a problem?

While attendance at baseball games at all levels correlates most directly with winning, home runs tend to sell more tickets than pitchers’ duels if all other things are equal. The college game simply takes advantage of this. The ping of an aluminum bat connecting with a ball is one of the iconic sounds of college baseball, and high-scoring offenses are collectively a traditional part of the game.

Additionally, beyond the simple matter of offense versus pitching, one point that deserves more attention is the idea that these changes seek to make the college game as similar as possible to the MLB.

One of the biggest issues with college football and basketball is that each is to some degree a minor league of sorts for its corresponding professional league, diminishing the amateur aspect of each game. The eligibility system involved in college baseball has allowed the sport to avoid serving as a short bridge to the MLB. The result has been a better overall product, as college baseball has developed its own identity with respect to the pro game—and yet just about every year, an increasing majority of MLB draft picks are from the college ranks.

If the NCAA had pushed for the new bat regulations based primarily on the grounds that they would improve safety, the organization would have had a better case overall. Their current effort will likely do little to improve the quality of college baseball but will almost certainly diminish the uniqueness and entertainment value of the game.

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