Division II is taking a swing at the idea of using wood bats in regular-season baseball.
A few conference commissioners are surveying Division II coaches and other constituents this spring to gauge whether the division as a whole would be receptive to a concept that has been bandied about in the past but not seriously pursued until now.
If those commissioners find favorable results, they could begin asking their colleagues to bring baseball back to its wood-based roots, perhaps as early as the 2012 season.
Such action would not require legislation or governance approval from the Division II Baseball Committee or the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee since no playing rules would have to be altered (playing rules already accommodate wood or metal bats – only metal bats are subject to testing). And if conferences act collectively, competitive-equity concerns would be allayed.
But there’s no indication yet whether the membership is ready to hit that pitch. Thus, the need for a survey.
Division II already has some empirical evidence. The Northeast-10 Conference has been using wood in league games since 2002, and the other two conferences in the Northeast region – the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference and the East Coast Conference – followed a few years later. Members of the three leagues liked it enough to conduct a wood-bat Northeast regional for the first time last year.
“The coaches and players in our league love it,” said CACC Commissioner Dan Mara. “Our whole region has just bought into it so much that I’ve not heard anyone say, ‘Gee, can we go back to using metal bats?’”
But it’s metal – not wood – that is engrained in the college baseball culture. Few people under 40 have ever used a wood bat in competition since the college game migrated to aluminum bats in the 1970s to save money and energize offensive production.
However, technology elevated bat performance so much that the 1998 Division I College World Series final was a football-like 21-14 slugfest. The NCAA Executive Committee subsequently approved wood-like performance standards for metal bats, but that has led to testing challenges and loopholes – even to recent instances of “bat rolling” to make otherwise legal metal bats hotter.
Wood-bat supporters say their approach would permit college baseball a way out of the ever-changing testing and enforcement processes.
Peach Belt Conference Commissioner Dave Brunk, who as commissioner of the Northeast-10 orchestrated that league’s change to wood bats in 2002, said the survey will, among other things, find out who’s spending what on metal bats. He thinks the numbers might surprise people.
Most quality metal bats cost $300 and up, Brunk said. A good wood bat costs between $25 and $50. He said most college players will not go through enough wood bats in game competition to equal the investment in metal. Further, those who are worried about breakage can use composite bats in batting practice, thus extending the life of the wood bats.
Flagler head coach Dave Barnett is certainly among those coaches concerned about cost. He believes wood would be cheaper.
“I bought two bats this year, one for $399 and one for $369,” said the longtime coach of the Peach Belt Conference school. “I gave the guys a catalogue and said, ‘I can buy two bats – pick them.’
“There are cheaper bats, but none less than $300, and no one is buying a $300 bat these days. Players bring their own, and they last only one year (because) they lose their velocity. Kids get new bats every year. So don’t tell me that wood bats are going to be a cost issue.”
Brunk and Mara say another misconception is the concern over financial alliances between bat manufacturers and teams in Division II. While those relationships may be more lucrative in Division I, most arrangements in Division II are “buy three and get one free” types of deals. That means the initial outlay still exceeds what wood would cost, the commissioners say.
When they raised this point at the most recent Division II Conference Commissioners Association meeting in March, their peers suggested that more empirical data would help persuade the doubters. Brunk and Mara said they would be happy to provide it, along with data showing how wood bats reduce game times and, ultimately, missed class time for student-athletes.
Good for DII
Beyond even the practical thinking, the commissioners and others are intrigued about wood bats being good for Division II, which already is known for its outside-the-lines thinking.
Flagler’s Barnett says it’s “disheartening” to try to coach pitching against the aluminum bat, especially at the Division II level. He says the metal bats require pitchers to be “too perfect,” and that the quality of pitchers in the division isn’t high enough to demand perfection.
Pitchers in high school or community college who are throwing the ball between 88 to 92 miles per hour typically are drafted into professional baseball, Barnett said, because scouts look initially for velocity. Those who either don’t sign or are not drafted who have that kind of speed will be scooped up by Division I. That leaves Division II schools being in more of a development mode, Barnett said.
“Maybe we get lucky with a high school pitcher who throws in the mid-80s and then by his junior year becomes a prospect in the sense of speed,” he said. “There aren’t many DII programs that have that kind of pitcher, though.”
That makes wood the right choice for Division II, Barnett said. He and his colleagues in the Peach Belt – especially since Brunk arrived – have talked about changing but are reluctant to do so unless the division acts collectively.
Franklin Pierce coach Jayson King feels the same way about the competitive disadvantage wood-bat teams might have against those wielding metal. He was one of the few who for that very reason did not favor last year’s Northeast regional being played with wood, even though he’s an advocate for wood.
“Shifting from wood to metal, competitively, makes for a totally different game,” King said. “You have to adjust your lineup for guys with more power; you have to tell your pitchers to be more careful; the balls get on top of the defense a lot quicker and you have to position those players differently.
“The wood game, though, prompts more bunts, hit and run – more strategy and situational baseball. The only negative is that an average pitcher on a cold day gains an advantage. But the games are quick, pitchers are rewarded for good pitches, and hitters who get their bat on the ball are still going to hit the ball hard but won’t hit as many home runs.”
If the entire division did use wood bats in the regular season, it would likely prompt the Division II Championships Committee to recommend conducting the championship with wood bats, too, which would negate the concern over a competitive disadvantage.
Barnett actually sees wood bats as a competitive advantage for Division II.
“A lot of coaches might say, ‘Look, these kids are brought up using aluminum in Little League and high school, and now we’re telling them they if they come to our Division II school they have to use a wood bat? The kids will say they want to use aluminum because that’s all they’ve ever used and they don’t think they can hit with a wood bat,’ ” Barnett hypothesized.
“But if you think about it, you can say to that kid, ‘Well, don’t you have aspirations to play professionally?’ Most kids have that dream. And from the perspective of a scouting director, wouldn’t that person want to say that he encouraged you to go to DII because they use wood? They can evaluate you better in the next three years and you’ll be that much further ahead when somebody drafts you after your junior year.”
“Wood is a much better barometer for scouts evaluating batters who are using the same tools they would use at the next level and pitchers who are throwing against batters using the same tools they would be pitching against at the next level,” he said. “It’s a much truer projection.”
But the only projection that matters right now is what the survey produces.
“There wasn’t one commissioner in the room in March who thought wood was a bad idea,” Mara said. “Of course, they weren’t speaking for their coaches, either.”
Even if the survey results do not show much interest, Mara and Brunk say they will not stop trying to convince their peers that wood is the way to go in Division II. There’s also a desire to go that route in some sectors of Division III. Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Commissioner Gary Karner is a longtime advocate of wood bats, as well.
For Mara, the issue is not one of preference but of what’s right for the sport.
“This is not a gimmick,” he said. “We’re not advocating a four-point shot in basketball. We’re trying to get baseball back to the way it is supposed to be played – and Division II can position itself as the only division offering this brand of baseball. This is a situation where technology has not enhanced the sport.”
(Courtesy The NCAA News)