Feb. 17, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
At first blush after hearing of NCAA rules changes” regarding the lethality of bats and timing systems created to speed up games, it seems natural to assume that anyone attending Georgia Tech’s season opener today against Kent State (4 p.m.) will notice a different brand of baseball.
There can be no doubt that baseballs will not jump off bats quite as in the past.
Before composite barrels were banned before last season it was not entirely uncommon to see a check-swing home run, or a bomb that would’ve been a routine out were it hit with wood.
Even last season, without composite barrels, lasers were frequent thanks to thin-walled bats whose “trampoline effect” juiced many a ball.
This business about 20 seconds between pitches and 90 seconds between innings doesn’t seem so much as change as a promise to more strictly enforce some of what was already on the books.
First . . . bats. They must be of thicker metal now (there’s more to this from a technological world, but this simplification will do for now), and Tech second baseman Jacob Esch doesn’t seem opposed.
In the interest of transparency, it should be mentioned that his not a power game (he hit three home runs last season), and he stands to get to more balls at second base while on defense. Plus, he’s expected to pitch some this season.
So, yeah, in practices he has seen a difference.
“Oh yeah, especially balls up the middle – to my right,” Esch said of the new bats. “They’re not screaming through the infield. It increases your range because the speed of the game is slower. You have to have serious raw power to hit it out if you miss it.”
There’s a good bit of intrigue behind this, whether you’re a baseball fan or not.
Coach Danny Hall explains: “We had an informal Division I baseball coaches meeting in Indianapolis a couple years ago to talk about a lot of issues, bats not being one of them, and we had a guy from the NCAA stand up and inform us all that the bats were going to change this year. Everybody kind of looked at each other in the room kind of like, `Well, where did this come from?’
“The easiest way I can say it . . . Dennis Pope is chair of the NCAA Division I baseball committee and his reason No. 1 is to protect the integrity of the game. What had happened is one or two of the bat manufacturers either by accident or by design had figured out how to get — particularly a composite bat — to pass the test, and then the more that bat was used the hotter it became.
“After it was used a little bit, it would have never have passed the test. The other thing that was happening people figured out that there’s a machine, a bat roller, and people could literally roll the bat right out of the wrapper and it would be a lot hotter than it was supposed to be immediately. The wall of the bat is thicker; the trampoline effect is lesser. By having a thicker wall, the bat is much more dead.”
Junior Matt Skole plays the power game. He hit 20 home runs as a sophomore, and stands 20 shy of Jason Varitek’s school career record of 57. The distance between him and that record has grown, though.
“If Matt Skole squares a ball up, it’s still going to go out to right,” Hall said. “What I see in BP, and our scrimmages is that balls don’t go out to center and to left, particularly center. [Skole] crushed a ball Sunday, and I asked him if he hit it good and he said yeah. The ball was probably on the warning track. Last year, it probably would have been on top of that shed.
“Two things I think you’re going to see: if a guy squares one up, it’s still going to go out. If a guy doesn’t square one up, it’s not going anywhere. And your infielders are going to be able to make many more plays because the ball doesn’t get through the infield as fast. It is going to change the game.”
With an extra eye toward enforcement of the pace at which games are to be played, it stands to reason that with fewer long balls, more infield outs, and a clock on everything, games are going to be quicker.
Teams will have 90 seconds to change sides between innings. That means the defense has to be ready, and he batter has to be ready. If after those 90 seconds, the pitcher is ready and the batter is not, the umpire can call a strike. If the batter is in the box, and the pitcher is not ready, he can call a ball.
A time limit of 20 seconds between pitches to the same batter is not a new rule, but it is supposed to be enforced more strictly this season. There are limits to a batter’s ability to call timeout once in the box as well.
The third-base umpire is to be the guy with the stopwatch.
Again, Skole figures to be keenly impacted because in addition to playing third base this season, he will catch a good bit in addition to playing some first base and DH. “I feel like the only time it affects me if I’m catching,” he said. “If I make the last out, I’ve got to get back in the dugout, get my gear on and I don’t have time to get water or anything; I’ve got to get back on the field. It gets everybody in and out.”
The Jackets have been practicing all of this stuff. Pitcher Jed Bradley is, as you might imagine, “a big proponent for any de-engineering of metal bats.”
Hall said many players feel like their wood bats have more juice than the new wood bats. Prevailing theory holds that each has advantages. Generally, if you hit a ball square with a wood bat, it’ll jump more than with a metal bat. Balls hit off the handles – jam jobs – may still come off hotter with metal, but the new metal will not erase as many hitter’s mistakes as before. It’ll be different.
“The pitch clock is going to speed the game up,” Hall said. “I think game times will be more in line with what would see in a pro game, two hours, two-and-a-half hours. The 20-second deal is not, I don’t think, going to come into play a lot. The minute, 30, I think is going to be kind of testy some times.”
A bit more intrigue: while there is in theory going to be some leeway with the timing rules when it comes to televised games, Hall has interesting thoughts on the potential agent of change.
“My opinion is that ESPN . . . one of the complaints for them on TV ratings for college baseball is that the games last too long. If you compare us to softball, somebody can sit down and watch an entire NCAA tournament game in two hours,” he said. “You spend two hours watching a college baseball game, and you might be in the fifth inning. Behind the scenes, I think that was a factor as well.”
If you attend any games at Russ Chandler (today at 4, Saturday at 2, Sunday at 1 p.m.), send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.